I read this morning about NASA's new plan to get us back on the Moon by 2018. They plan to reuse a lot of the tried-and-true Shuttle hardware, the stuff that never failed, like the solid rocket boosters you see attached to the Shuttle's main external tank. They've also got the ambitious, never-before-tried plan to send one rocket up with the crew package and another rocket up with the engines to take the crew from Earth orbit to the Moon. Most intriguing to me is the plan for each lunar mission to leave components behind, eventually constructing a permanent base that could be manned for up to six months at a time.
It won't be cheap - $104 billion over that 12 years. That averages out to $8.7 billion a year. That's over half of NASA's budget, and a little over a third of what we spend each year on "International Affairs" (source: A Citizen's Guide to the Budget from the Gov't Printing Office). It's also about 2.5% of the Defense budget - not counting supplementary spending for the War in Iraq or other emergency funding.
But it's worth it. As I've mentioned before, I don't really believe that the government will be the source of the next major step in space. This plan, however, at least takes a baby step on the way. The two new goals - multi-launch missions and a permanent base - could lend a major assist to later commercial development.
The base, in particular. The toughest part of any effort in a new location is the initial setup. With even a tiny base in place, later crews would have a place to stay while they begin construction of something more ambitious. That not only applies to later government-funded development, but to private enterprise. NASA does not intend to have the Moonbase permanently manned; instead, they will use it as a temporary base at a permanent location. There's no real reason why they couldn't rent it out to commercial interests during other times, giving a private construction crew a base from which to work while they build a commercial facility "next door". Done properly, a NASA base would end up being the "City Hall" for an eventual Luna City.
Some skeptics are upset by the fact that the plan takes over 12 years from today to effectively repeat what we accomplished back in 1969. I understand their doubt. But we've pulled back from our early Apollo success, and not maintained our capabilities. A former marathon runner who hasn't trained in a year does not immediately go back to running 26 miles. He has to slowly work his way back up to it. So do we. The technology has improved, and we can get back to the Moon more safely, with better capabilities on arrival. But we can't do it today, and we definitely can't move on past the Moon until we get our space program back into shape.