In case you haven't noticed, NASA's lease on the International Space Station is about to expire, and moving day is just around the corner.
Russia plans to begin disassembling the International Space Station sometime in 2023, or 2024 at the latest. Assuming it follows through on the threat, detaching its modules from ISS and using them to build a new all-Russian station, ISS could be uninhabitable in less than a decade. So where will NASA move next?
Space entrepreneur Orbital ATK (NYSE:OA)has a suggestion: Let's move to the moon.
Space 1999, redux
Since at least as far back as 1975, when Space: 1999 was on the airwaves, America has dreamed of a permanent moon base. Others have predicted a permanent manned presence on the moon for even longer. Robert A. Heinlein, for example, wrote The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress way back in 1966.
Last week, the dream came one step closer to reality when Orbital ATK sent its Space Systems Group President, former NASA astronaut Frank Culbertson, to Congress to recommend setting up "a lunar-orbit habitat [to] extend America's leadership in space to the cislunar domain." (Cislunar refers to the area between Earth orbit and the moon.) According to Culbertson, nearly two decades' "experience gained in long-duration human space flight on the International Space Station," combined with the new Space Launch System being jointly built by Orbital, Boeing (NYSE:BA), Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT), and others, have brought us to a point where it's now possible to envision setting up an "initial outpost" in lunar orbit.
In fact, NASA has already hired Orbital to begin planning a cislunar outpost, utilizing Orbital's Cygnus spacecraft as a "building block" from which to construct a space station. A habitable space station in lunar orbit would make for a useful base station from which to explore the moon itself in the 2020s. At the same time, Boeing has advocated developing a cislunar outpost as a way station for assembling rocket parts needed to build a vessel capable of carrying men from Earth to Mars.
How to do it?
Orbital is developing quite a reputation as an outside-the-box thinker in space exploration. The company has already started building bare-bones "spaceships" to service orbiting satellites -- the space tow-truck service that I wrote about last month. As regards America's next space station, Orbital thinks the first step to setting up a lunar space station would be to pre-position a Cygnus module in lunar orbit in 2020 (or even sooner). Orbital says it can put a Cygnus in lunar orbit within three years of NASA shouting "Go!"
Then, when NASA launches its first manned SLS mission in 2021, the spaceship will have someplace to actually "go" to -- rendezvousing with the Cygnus capsule. Subsequently, Orbital suggests using additional Cygnus modules to expand the nascent space station in multiple missions running from 2022 to 2025.
What does it mean for investors?
While other companies are still focused on how to keep American astronauts in Earth orbit once ISS goes away, Orbital ATK has, once again, stepped out of the box, and started thinking about what comes next. (And also: "What's so great about continuing to do what we've already done? Let's try something new!")
That's the kind of thinking calculated to capture the imagination of the public -- and potentially, a bit of funding from Congress, as well. It's also the kind of thinking that Orbital ATK needs NASA to adopt if Orbital is to exceed the 10% revenue growth rate it showed last quarter, and move closer to the 12% earnings growth rate that most analysts hope to see it achieve over the next five years.
Simply put, there's only so much work to go around lofting a few dozen satellites a year into Earth orbit. Boeing and Lockheed Martin already have a lock on much of this work, and SpaceX is rapidly gobbling up the rest. If Orbital wants to claim a bigger piece of the space-exploration pie, it needs to advocate for -- and win -- new contracts for more-adventurous undertakings.
Establishing a lunar space station, and eventually a moon base on the lunar surface itself, would be one great way to do that.