A rudimentary, stripped-down Moon base and supplies might weigh 200 tons. (The winged “orbiter” part of the space shuttle weighs 90 tons unfueled, and it’s cramped with food, oxygen, water, and power sufficient only for about two weeks.) Placing 200 tons on the Moon might require 400 tons of fuel and vehicle in low-Earth orbit, so that’s 600 tons that need to be launched just for the cargo part of the Moon base. Currently, using the space shuttle it costs about $25 million to place a ton into low-Earth orbit. Thus means the bulk weight alone for a Moon base might cost $15 billion to launch: building the base, staffing it, and getting the staff there and back would be extra. Fifteen billion dollars is roughly equivalent to NASA’s entire annual budget. Using existing expendable rockets might bring down the cargo-launch price, but add the base itself, the astronauts, their transit vehicles, and thousands of support staff on Earth and a ten-year Moon base program would easily exceed $100 billion. Wait, that’s the cost of the space station, which is considerably closer. Okay, maybe $200 billion.
What can a man do on the moon that automated vehicles cannot? Virtually nothing, and of course he requires far more maintenance and protection.
Given all that, where should we go from here?
NASA doesn’t need a grand ambition, it needs a cheap, reliable means of getting back and forth to low-Earth orbit. Here’s a twenty-first century vision for NASA: Cancel the shuttle, mothball the does-nothing space station, and use all the budget money the two would have consumed to develop an affordable means of space flight. Then we can talk about the Moon and Mars.