Op-ed | Getting Serious About the Moon Village

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Recently I had the privilege of attending the 66th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Jerusalem.

I will confess that in the days leading up to the event, I was feeling rather conflicted. Since I had never been to that part of the world before, I was very much looking forward to the trip. On the other hand, the recent episodes of violence and the often-conflicting guidance about personal safety and security caused me to continually reassess the risks and rewards during each phase of my itinerary.

Now that we are back home, safe and sound, I can honestly say that it was a truly amazing experience, and I am very glad that I went. Having an opportunity to participate in an international conference focused on space exploration in a city having thousands of years of history made for some dramatic contrasts between old and new. And the presence of such an incredible diversity of cultures and religions, with people living and working together in a surprisingly compact geographical area, highlighted some of the challenges and opportunities that we are facing in figuring out how to collaborate on our future space activities.

One of the highlights of the conference itself was a plenary session featuring the leaders of almost all of the major space agencies from around the world. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and representatives from Russia, China, the European Space Agency, Japan, India and Israel were seated on the stage and had a chance to share their perspectives and answer questions from the moderators.

I was pleasantly surprised by the spirit of cooperation that all conveyed. One notable exception, which was clearly articulated during the discussion, had to do with the inability of NASA to partner with China on specific space projects, based on constraints in existing law. Other nations, of course, have no such restrictions.

When it came time to talk about plans for the future, I was particularly impressed with the comments made by Johann-Dietrich Woerner, the new director-general of the European Space Agency. Woerner served as chairman of the executive board of DLR, the German Aerospace Center, from March 2007 until June 2015, and took over as ESA chief on July 1.

Woerner’s vision for space exploration involves the establishment of what he calls a “Moon Village” on the far side of the moon. “A Moon Village,” he said, “shouldn’t just mean some houses, a church and a town hall.” Instead, he said, the village “should mean partners from all over the world contributing with robotic and astronaut missions and support communications satellites.”

What appeals to me about that kind of a vision is that it minimizes the requirement for a very prescriptive, top-down management structure with one country specifying the architecture and calling all of the shots. Instead, it would enable countries to participate as much or as little as they chose, based on their capabilities and their interests.

The timing of Woerner’s proposal seems particularly appropriate. We are currently undergoing a dramatic transformation in how space missions are carried out.

Ever since the dawn of the Space Age more than 50 years ago, almost all of the major milestones and historical achievements in space have been accomplished by government space agencies. Even though many companies were actively involved as support contractors, it was the government that was doing most of the planning, direction and execution of missions, whether it involved launching satellites, landing astronauts on the moon or building and operating the International Space Station.

Going forward, that is no longer necessarily going to be the case. In the future, private industry is going to be playing an increasingly important role in space, sometimes as part of a public/private partnership, in other cases by selling products and services to the government, and perhaps on occasion without any government involvement at all.

SpaceX and Orbital ATK are already taking supplies to our astronauts onboard the International Space Station as part of the commercial cargo program. Boeing and SpaceX hope to be transporting crew members to and from the ISS for the commercial crew program as early as 2017. And Bigelow Aerospace plans to start launching and operating commercial space station modules as soon as a commercial crew transportation capability has been successfully demonstrated. Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace expect to begin commercial operations with their suborbital space tourism vehicles within the next couple of years.

Because of the inherent market uncertainty, one might assume that, at least for the near-future, commercial space ventures will primarily be limited to either suborbital space flights or transportation to and from low Earth orbit (LEO). But in reality, when it comes to space exploration and other missions beyond LEO, some of the most ambitious objectives, as well as many of the more innovative concepts, are being worked on by the private sector. For example:

  • The Google Lunar X Prize is offering up to $30 million to the first nongovernmental teams to land a rover on the moon, successfully translate across the lunar terrain, and send high-definition video back to Earth.
  • Moon Express wants to investigate and potentially exploit various kinds of lunar resources.
  • Golden Spike believes it can make a profit by enabling astronauts from many different countries to conduct scientific expeditions on the moon.
  • Bigelow Aerospace is looking at soft landing habitable modules on the lunar surface.
  • Shackleton Energy plans to extract water ice from the poles of the moon and then turn it into rocket fuel.
  • Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries are both developing capabilities for asteroid mining.

In the end, we know that many of these endeavors are not likely to be successful, either because they will encounter unexpected technical difficulties or because they will run out of money. But it is exciting to see the wide variety of activities that are currently being pursued completely outside of the process for traditional government space programs.

Can any of this be of benefit to a Moon Village initiative? I think it can.

The International Space Exploration Coordination Group published a Global Exploration Roadmap in August 2013, and one of its three mission themes is “Humans to the Lunar Surface.” It notes that, “Many agencies consider human missions to the lunar surface as an essential step in preparation for human Mars missions.”

NASA has certainly expressed support for such missions, although, as Bolden has pointed out on several occasions, “the United States has no intention of leading the effort.” In his remarks at the IAC, Woerner acknowledged that NASA’s recent planning has been focused on going to Mars, rather than returning to the moon. However, in his opinion, “Before going to Mars, we should test what we could do on Mars on the moon.” That makes a lot of sense to me.

So the idea of a Moon Village really resonates with me. But I’d like to suggest a modest change to Woerner’s proposal. Instead of assuming that each inhabitant of the village is a representative of a particular nation, or a government space agency, let’s open it up to commercial entities. After all, every self-respecting village needs a marketplace, where goods and services can be bought, sold or traded for.

The possibilities are limitless.

We’ll need someone to build habitats on the lunar surface, whether they are “space hotels” or more permanent lodging.

Others could focus on extracting water from the lunar regolith, which could then be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen and stored at the neighborhood propellant depot.

Companies could offer electrical power by constructing and operating large solar arrays.

I’m not sure whether lunar farmers will decide to grow potatoes, lettuce, tomatoes or some other celestial delicacies, but the village people will certainly need something to eat, and I’m sure that freeze-dried TV dinners can get old after a while.

Astronauts will likely use rovers to travel long distances across the lunar surface, although it is probably too early to know whether it will be via a Yellow Cab or Uber.

Operating a rocket-powered shuttle bus to and from lunar orbit would make an interesting market niche. But there’s no reason to think that every lunar soil sample would need to be transported all the way back to Earth. Instead, why not assume that the geologists and other scientific researchers could perform their investigations right on site, at the local lunar university?

The bottom line is, as we start to contemplate the idea of establishing villages on the moon, or elsewhere in the solar system, let’s not limit our thinking to government space agencies. Private industry has the potential to play an important role, and it need not be exclusively as a government contractor.

George C. Nield is the associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration. This commentary has been adapted from his Oct. 21 remarks to the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee in Washington.