Jim Bell, a professor of astronomy at Cornell University and newly named president of the nonprofit Planetary Society, predicts NASA will return to the lunar surface before other comers get there. "It would be great to see other nations do this, but I think that for the most part the other countries are pretty far behind in terms of technical capabilities," he says. "We have the infrastructure and, frankly, more experience to tap into." But Bell also hopes that cooperation will be on the agenda and stresses that the U.S., having already planted its flag on the moon, should not rush to get back at the expense of other priorities. "I don't think it's productive to try to re-create a conflict or a space race that is really the product of a bygone era," he says. "If we can find a way to do it together, it will cost each of us less and we will gain more."
Bell finds the 2020 deadline for reaching the moon, established as part of President Bush's 2004 Vision for Space Exploration, troublesome. "It was a best guess—it was set out as a goal, initially," he says. "And it seems to be still being treated as a mandate." Vick also bristles at that timeline, fearing that a hastily assembled deep-space transport system would be irredeemably dangerous. "It's time to step back and slow down and do this job right," he says. "It needs to be re-thought out."
Many believe that by the time humans return to the moon, private agencies be part of the cooperative effort. "I think that commercial enterprises...are extremely well-positioned to be not a competitor to government missions but sort of an add-on," says William Pomerantz, senior director of space projects for the X PRIZE Foundation. The foundation offers monetary prizes to privately funded teams that can reach certain targets—including a $20-million purse for the first robot that lands on the moon, traverses 500 meters (1,640 feet) on the surface and sends data back to Earth.
Pomerantz envisions a future in which governments stretch their budgets by contracting out certain preparatory or support activities to more streamlined private operators. "If you think about a future wherein a commercial capacity to go to the moon for tens of millions of dollars rather than billions of dollars exists," he says, "I think that space agencies are going to find it in their best interest to engage those commercial companies." Private support, Pomerantz says, "will allow the government space agencies to do what they do a little bit better, a little bit faster and a little bit cheaper."