President Donald Trump has set a grand plan for NASA to send American astronauts back to the moon by 2024. But amid growing doubts over the space agency’s ability to fulfill the mission on time, a group of NASA skeptics in Washington have drafted an alternative plan—to award a $2 billion prize to any private company that can land humans on the moon first.
The plan, first reported by Politico on Monday, comes in two parts: $1 billion will be awarded to the first company that lands a human base on the moon surface, and another $1 billion will be released once the company sets up and runs the base.
Brains behind this open competition plan, led by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, argue that incentivizing the private sector will be a lot cheaper than NASA’s own lunar project, the Artemis program, which ballparks the total cost at a minimum of $50 billion.
“In the past, putting permanent housing on the moon has been estimated to cost between $50 billion and $500 billion. But several private companies have developed moon programs on their own dime,” a summary of the moon competition plan reads. “So we are now in a position to buy transportation and housing from private American companies. At an unbelievable drop in cost.”
Private space companies also have a better chance than NASA to land humans on the moon within Trump’s timeframe.
Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, for example, aims to send its Blue Moon lander vehicle to the moon by 2023. If successful, a crewed mission will follow shortly, Bezos has said. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has an even bigger plan to send a 100-passenger spacecraft called “Starship” to the moon as early as 2022.
Both companies, along with 17 other space and technology companies, were recently commissioned by NASA to contribute devices and expertise to the Artemis program.
“I think people would be shocked how fast they can move,” Gingrich said of space entrepreneurs like Musk and Bezos in an interview with Politico.
Backers of Gingrich’s plan include Air Force Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast, former House Science Committee chair Bob Walker and Howard Bloom, a former publicist of Michael Jackson and Prince, who in 2005 founded the Space Development Steering Committee, an informal organization to bring together advocates for the burgeoning commercial space industry, including Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin.
Musk, a potential winner of the $2 billion sweepstake, was apparently a supporter as well. “This is a great idea,” he tweeted Monday evening in response to Ars Technica’s reporting of the plan.
Politico confirmed that Trump’s advisory body, the National Space Council, had been briefed on the open competition plan. NASA said it hadn’t received such a proposal.