They made it look easy. On Nov. 19, 1969, Pete Conrad, Al Bean and the Apollo 12 mission team grounded their Lunar Module merely 163 meters from the Surveyor 3 robotic spacecraft, which had soft-landed two and a half years earlier. They had planned precisely where they were going; but they made the pinpoint landing totally blind. This amazing feat confirmed that sites on the Moon could be serviced predictably.
Few might have guessed it would be 50 years before Conrad’s proof-of-piloting could be put into commercial practice. Had funding continued past 1972, an “Apollo Applications Program” would have:
– Launched pairs of Saturn 5s, putting two lunar modules down within a stone’s throw of one another: one carrying crew, the other their cottage/laboratory/tool shed.
– Placed a lunar-orbiting station above for communications, safe-haven and science.
– Rolled out a recreational vehicle of sorts, the Mobile Lunar Laboratory.
– Built the surface stay time to at least a full lunar day.
But there was no cohesive plan for permanent, sustainable habitation – let alone commercial operations.
There still isn’t. On the present draft of the timetable, NASA’s Constellation program might put four people at a campsite on the rim of a crater near the Moon’s south pole by, say, late 2019. Eight more astronauts would follow in the next year. Surface time might be seven Earth days for the first few missions, then doubling to two weeks, eventually rising to two months and topping out at about six months. Perhaps 40 people might visit over a five-year period.
Each trip would leave behind building blocks for a lunar base. But even in its most advanced planning, NASA is leaving actual settlement to others. Private firms and international partners are encouraged to join the effort. And the fond hope seems to be that entrepreneurs and nation-states would stay, work and reside.
But the process by which such entities would feel any incentive to do so is not known today. Nor does NASA or the U.S. Department of Commerce have a strategy for finding out. Certainly the international space station has not become an incubator of business, except in the entirely unintended case of space tourism for the mega-rich.
NASA does, however, have a game plan for the real estate. There will be five regions: Spaceport, Power Utility, Habitats, Science/Observation and Resources/Materials.
Now here’s where it could get interesting for settlers: Dedicated portions of the Resource, Power and Spaceport regions might be purposefully structured and administered as specific areas for promising industries. Call it a “Lunar Enterprise Zone.”
On Earth, an enterprise zone is a technique usually used to revitalize a troubled neighborhood. Entrepreneurs investing there get tax breaks and relief from certain regulations. Local government often contributes new power, transportation and security infrastructures. If careful thought is given right now to the common support systems needed for profitable commerce, the Vision for Space Exploration put forward by U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration might actually succeed in seeding space-based civilization. This would both fulfill the business-oriented intentions of its politically conservative progenitor, and support the liberal science and Earth environmental protection agendas likely in future administrations.
So what are the key commercial endeavors that might co-locate for mutual support in a Lunar Enterprise Zone? Which resources and opportunities might interact to motivate industrial ventures? Or, said another way: What should the business community be doing on the Moon while NASA is practicing for Mars?
The short list probably looks like this: oxygen production; energy creation/conversion including solar collection (near term) and helium three fusion (long term); building materials including cement, fiberglass and rock-block; component including manufacturing metals and glasses; transport including endeavors around and off the Moon and tourism; support for strategic security activities; and support for science.
Investors demand a strong, cohesive story. And, taken together, these industries make a convincing pitch: More than 85 percent of the expensive mass of common rocket propellant is oxygen. And, yes, we also breathe it. Biology imbibes and bathes with water. Amazingly, more than 40 percent of lunar soil is oxygen. Cracking that oxygen out of the lunar silicate and metallic rocks to which it is chemically bound involves, essentially, a big stove. Heat energy does the work.
That energy may come direct from the sun. At the Moon’s equator, there’s sunshine for more than 700 hours at a time. At the poles, nearly continuous light may be captured for six months or more; possibly much longer by elevating the collector or switching between collector sites. Sunlight can become industry-friendly electricity through photovoltaic cells or via a variety of generators; stirling-cycle engines look particularly promising.
Second only to oxygen in abundance on the Moon is silicon, the likely semiconductor for photovoltaics. There’s also plenty of aluminum for structures to support those cells. In fact, conductive aluminum can carry the power. Hydrogen, generally used in making solar cells, may be harvestable from deep, shadowed polar craters. But carbon is rare and the halogens needed are, so far, apparently missing from the Moon. These, and much more, can be collected from near-Earth asteroids. Near-Earth asteroids offer the vitamins of lunar settlement.
Further out in time – and at least $5 billion away in investment – prowls the species-saving possibility of helium-three fusion. Helium-three is rare on Earth but solar wind, unfiltered by atmosphere and unencumbered by strong magnetic fields, deposits significant concentrations on the lunar surface. We only know this because, in July 1969, Neil Armstrong spontaneously chose to fill the empty alcoves of his sample box with 17 odd scoops of loose lunar soil.
With cheap local power, mining and processing more of the Moon gets easier. At least 5 percent of the lunar highlands and more than 10 percent of the maria are iron. To locate it, just bring a magnet. Where there’s iron, there’s often chromium and other critical metals; yet no annoying air to contaminate your industrially essential alloys. Now you can promise your customer high-grade steel and much more
That customer is probably another tenant of the Lunar Enterprise Zone. She needs pressure vessels and plumbing for some proprietary project she’s promised her angels. Others want parts for their lunar silicate fiberglass mill. Still others require deep digging tools to quarry lunar bedrock.
Perhaps the most compelling lunar resource is simply low gravity. It’ll be at least five times cheaper to get anything off the Moon, maybe 25 times cheaper in the long run. Need a power system for a Mars mission? Build it on the Moon. Require radiation shielding for your space-based family resort? Launch it from Luna. Lunar Enterprise Zones could jump-start the true humanization of the solar system.
It’s a captivating and cohesive case. With even this sketchy description of the critical path of interlocking industries, farsighted policy planners could begin crafting legislation, structuring incentives, refining international trade and lobbying for appropriate taxation. Those begun, investors might find confidence to seed promising ventures.
If we get this right, settling space could look to history as easy as Pete Conrad’s touchdown. Our exact landing will still be blind, but we’ll know with high confidence where we’re going to end up.
Dave Brody is executive producer and director of media for Imaginova Corp., corporate parent of Space News.