Bigelow Aerospace is developing inflatable habitat technologies that could one day house men on the moon. Source: Getty Images
Bigelow Aerospace is developing inflatable habitat technologies that could one day house men on the moon. Source: Getty Images

The idea of moon colony isn't quite so alien anymore.

Bigelow Aerospace LLC, a Las Vegas-based company that makes inflatable space habitats, has reached an agreement with NASA to study the possibility of returning men to the moon. It's part of a larger effort to identify government and private investments to advance human space exploration. Bigelow won't be paid for its work, which is scheduled to be completed this year.

The last man to walk on the moon was Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan in 1972. He told Bloomberg News last year that he thought at the time: "We’re not only going back but, by the end of the century, humans will be well on their way to Mars."

Forty-one years later, NASA faces budget uncertainty and possible cutbacks, as sequestration hits the space program. NASA isn't planning on funding a moon mission, instead focusing on an effort to land humans on an asteroid by 2021.

Even if NASA wanted to return to the moon, should it? Buzz Aldrin, the second astronaut to step onto the lunar surface, suggests focusing on Mars instead. "Landing people on the moon will be terribly consuming of resources we don’t have," he told Bloomberg News last week. "It sounds great -- 'Let’s go back. This time we’re going to stay.' I don’t know why you would want to stay on the moon."

With demand and financing for the future of so uncertain, perhaps it's time for moon-colony advocates to put their energy into a new approach: crowd-funding. Opening up the project to the crowd offers a way to gauge public support and bring in some much-needed revenue. Crowd-funded space projects have already produced results: The space-research and education company Uwingu has raised almost $80,000 through a campaign on the website Indiegogo.com.

Of course, that leaves us a long way from the lunar surface: In 2009, the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimated that development of a moon base that could host a four-person crew would cost $35 billion. Still, SpaceX founder Elon Musk has shown that it's possible to attract startup money for celestial businesses, and crowd-funding, still in its infancy, raised around $2.7 billion last year.

What do you think? Would you support a moon-colony mission?

(Kirsten Salyer is social media editor for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter.)