‘A human colony on Moon is possible in 4 to 8 years, and it would cost $1 million per person to get there’

Aerospace engineer Ajay Kothari makes that bold prediction in an interview with the American Bazaar.

Image credit: NASA

Dr. Ajay Kothari is the founder and president of the Washington, DC, -based Astrox Corporation, which does R&D in aerospace and computer fields. Born in Gujarat, India, he won a National Merit Scholarship from the Government of India in 1966. After completing his BSc in Physics from the University of Mumbai in 1970, Kothari came to the United States to pursue higher education. He earned an MS and subsequently a PhD in aerospace engineering from University of Maryland.

After completing his doctoral degree, Kothari joined the High Energy Laser Group of Textron’s Bell Aerospace, as a Senior Development Engineer. Since then he has worked on several important projects for NASA, the US military and a number of aerospace giants. In 1987, he founded Astrox Corporation.

In a freewheeling interview with The American Bazaar, the Indian American aerospace engineer Kothari talks about the latest developments in the field, and possibilities of establishing human habitats on the Moon. Here are the edited excerpts:

When did you first realize that human habitation is possible on the Moon?

I have been thinking about this for a long time. But it was too expensive to do it with expendable rockets, which did not allow for a large settlement. People at NASA under the George W. Bush administration got the go-ahead to go back to the moon, which they tried to do using the Constellation rocket system. This would not have worked, as it would have required too much money to build actual colonies. The recent synergistic progress in actually building and using reusable rockets by [aerospace manufacturer] SpaceX and [the US Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] DARPA got me pondering if the same could be applied for Lunar trips and how much less costly would that be.

How much time do you think it would take before we make this dream come true?

Dr. Ajay Kothari

I think it can be done in four years. I believe I can do it in four, if given a chance, and with the help of the brilliant people at NASA. This is why the country needs to have a visionary, forceful and compelling Administrator of NASA so such plans can be implemented quickly, without too much hesitations and indecision that keep prolonging things that the humanity and this country need to do soon.

Do you foresee any health related concerns on Moon?

In this plan, I am not necessarily advocating spending a large portion of one’s life [on the Moon] — Perhaps a few years, maybe less. The reduction in gravity — which is one-sixth of that on Earth — would have negative impact on orthopedic issues. Actually the joints may benefit also! Short term stays, for example, for enjoying a visit and being on the Moon for a week or two, would have very little impact. But tourism is not the primary reason to do this, it’s only a tertiary one. The primary reasons are advancement of humanity, national security considerations, and as a stepping stone to larger avenues of future.

As per your calculation, how long — at a time — can a human being live on the Moon? Please elaborate.

I do not know an answer to this but my plan is to stay for a few months, or just a couple of years, at the most. As we actually learn from these stays, we can decide later if we want to change those plans.

How expensive it would be to make the trip?

The costs can be amazingly low, compared to what they are now. Cost for Moon-landing is about $3,000 per pound, which is still a lot cheaper than today’s expendable rocket, which costs $7,000 to $8,000 just to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), and this cost would be to all the way to the Moon.

This changes the paradigm, and can bring the effort to a much higher, more fruitful, and essential level to what humanity can and should do as the next step in our evolution. It would be a revolution, actually!

SpaceX is planning to charge roughly $93 million per Falcon Heavy flight [launch vehicle]. So approximately 54,400 kg (119,931 lbs, close to 60 tons) payload plus 22.5 tons of tanks would cost about $465 million, which is roughly $6,047 per kg to Moon, or $2,740 per pound – less than what expendable rockets cost

This means a 150 kg (331 lbs) per person, including baggage, would cost less than $1 million. In fact, GXS-1 could even be cheaper. [The GXS-1 is a US government initiative to built hypersonic aircrafts that would help make the space trips faster and less expensive. The project has now entered its second phase. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has engaged The Boeing Company to complete the design work for the space plane. Kothari designed the Government Reference XS-1  in Phase 1 of the DARPA program.]

Are we making any headway toward this goal?

SpaceX and DARPA are both working on reusable rocket boosters. SpaceX has already proven a large part of this paradigm. DARPA will also do it in a few years. So the stars are lining up — so to speak!

It should be done as a synergistic effort between the government (NASA) and the commercial space companies. One scenario can be NASA managing the effort and the colonies with commercial companies providing the lift and other facilities.

Why Moon? Why not Mars?

I have a dozen reasons. I call them the “Dozen Whys.” They are:

  1. Detractors have said: Been there, done that. I say: Been there? Yes. Done that? No;
  2. This is doable in near future:  4 to 8 years — which is an administration’s tenure — as opposed to Mars, which may be 10-20 years away;
  3. Building habitats and small colonies (say for 100 to 1,000 Americans) is an exciting, eye-catching and alluring endeavor;
  4. Activities of human beings on the Moon can be broadcast live, a potential revenue stream;
  5. It would be substantially less costly than Mars missions;
  6. Such interest for space exploration in public should be built before asking the taxpayers for more money required for Mars missions;
  7. It is absolutely necessary to learn to live with small G and no atmosphere before venturing out far away to Mars, which is six months’ travel time — a highly risky proposition;
  8. A doctor can make a “Moon-house call” to the Moon, but not so to Mars — it would be too late!
  9. We need to learn to build structures to the tee before venturing out far;
  10. Moon as a roundtrip destination for tourism is much more palatable than Mars — it is only two weeks out of one’s life!
  11. God has been kind to us to give us something to practice on — let us take advantage of that!
  12. We should have plans to go to Mars also — but not as the next step for the country.

American Lunar colonies are possible, tourism is possible, and all would form a needed first step for humanity before venturing out farther — a necessary condition.

Other countries, such as China and Russia are going to go there and will invariably stake a claim there. We need to be there also.

President Kennedy’s statement is most prophetic: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”

It is not easy but is doable and at lower costs.

(This story was updated on May 29, 2017)

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