Many reasonable people are asking, “Should we be sending people into space when we are economically hurting?” “What should we do with the international space station?” “What new launch vehicles are needed to replace the shuttle?” These and similar questions need answers — and not by special interest groups.
There is a reasonable commercial and practical case that says the near-term U.S. space objective should be a sustainable, radiation-protected habitat on the Moon, accomplished largely through robotic missions that could, within a decade, create a livable environment for humans to carry out a wide range of viable tasks from a lunar outpost.
Why should we focus on the Moon?
- Communications. It is viable today to establish a cost-effective broadband communications system with astronauts on the Moon — unlike Mars.
- Transportation costs. The cost of transport to the Moon, especially for robotic missions to build a lunar colony, is a fiscally viable proposition. This makes far more sense than spending over $100 billion on the Constellation program to send a few “human crews” to the lunar surface with no permanent return on investment. There are even out-of-the-box suggestions that propose adding shielding and some nuclear thrusters to the international space station (ISS) and sending it to the Moon as a “construction trailer” for the new lunar colony.
- Viable, cost-effective and radiation-hardened habitat. The recent verification of billions of gallons of water on the Moon supports using resources available on the lunar surface to build this permanent colony. In addition, this colony could include a material processing area from which communications, solar power and remote sensing satellites could be fabricated and “lowered” to desired Earth orbits.
- Return on investment. This is the only human off-world activity that might reasonably be expected to realize an economic return within 20 to 30 years. Instead of viewing it as a huge investment in space exploration with limited scientific returns, a lunar-based habitat could be regarded as an infrastructure investment that would provide a long-term economic return. For example, the manufacture of application satellites on the Moon (i.e., for solar power, remote sensing, climate monitoring and telecommunications) could, in time, provide substantial returns, based on a 20- to 25-year business.
- Commercial involvement. This could be a key factor because it could provide a viable business case. The creative and entrepreneurial power of international business enterprise around the world can make going the Moon not only possible, but profitable.
Businesses that are investing in space enterprise think differently, and this can make all the difference. For example, Paul Allen and Burt Rutan recently demonstrated how, for a few tens of millions of dollars, they could create a space plane capable of flying to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere and returning safely (SpaceShipOne).
Today there are a number of innovative companies seeking viable ways to send video-carrying robots to the Moon to win the Google Lunar X-Prize. The designs and ideas generated through this competition traditionally would not be funded by a governmental space agency because they are too unconventional and daring.
Robert Bigelow has launched two Earth-orbiting inflatable habitats with private money, and plans to deploy a private space station larger than the ISS. Most significantly, he has been able to adapt NASA-developed technology to meet his entrepreneurial goals.
There also was a good deal of logic in the 2004 Aldridge commission report that advised, among other things, that NASA should expand opportunities for international cooperation, as well as limit its role to the development of cutting-edge technologies, space sciences and governmental functions not easily or appropriately carried out by industry. This is because:
- Industry is more driven to achieve end results at the lowest cost.
- Industry is not a public jobs program.
- Industry can carry out international cooperative projects with fewer formal constraints and greater flexibility in partnerships and contractual relationships.
- Industry is more entrepreneurial and better able to take innovative approaches, with risk-taking bounded by insurance.
This is not to suggest that internationally cooperative industry should do everything. NASA and other international space agencies need to develop the most advanced technology beyond the means of corporate research and development. There are projects that are properly the role of government and that do not involve a profit motive. Projects that are characteristic of the classic economic issue of “who builds the lighthouse” often arise in the field of space. Space telescopes, space systems to monitor climate change and space weather, and nuclear propulsion systems easily come to mind.
When bank robber Willie Sutton was asked, “Why do you rob banks?” he allegedly replied: “Because that’s where the money is.” In the 21st century, there is growing consensus worldwide that publicly funded space agencies should focus on missions that are most essential to addressing humanity’s needs such as climate change. Activities vital to sustaining the human race or improving life on Earth should have top priority. Going forward, space agencies should establish new priorities, share costs globally and communicate more effectively to the public through television, the Internet and other media channels.
Innovative concepts for space exploration are clearly needed to advance space enterprise in ways that will cut costs, minimize human risks and allow private entrepreneurial talent and private capital to be used most effectively. People such as physicists Freeman Dyson and Gerard O’Neill, astronaut Buzz Aldrin and numerous NASA engineers have outlined very logical systems for sending robotic crews to the Moon via cost-effective rockets to build material processing plants, mass driver launch systems, and even a lunar colony.
Once robots have done the heavy lifting and developed a radiation-hardened living environment, people can populate the lunar colony and activate a number of commercial projects that ultimately would make the investment of capital resources in lunar enterprise profitable. This approach seems safer, more cost-effective and more sensible than the Constellation approach to send astronauts back to the Moon without the proper infrastructure or radiation shielding. Robotic missions likely would delay a human return to the Moon by about three or four years, but just a modest delay would help ensure that the inhabitants of a lunar colony would be able to accomplish many more things on the lunar surface, and more safely.
For those who provide political oversight to space missions in the U.S., it would be particularly worthwhile to revisit critiques of past space programs, such as the post-accident reports of the shuttles Challenger and Columbia. The reports of the Paine and Rogers commissions from 1986, as well as the more recent Gehman, Aldridge and Augustine commission reports, also provide excellent insights.
The Aldridge commission report, in particular, calls attention to a lack of NASA focus on the things that it does best, as well as the danger that NASA has in recent years settled into the role of a jobs program for government and aerospace workers, rather than serving as a window to the future. A critical look to the past by NASA, Congress and the president’s space advisers can help us shape a better pathway to the future in terms of new and inspiring goals, more innovative partnerships with industry, more productive international collaboration, and more productive use of artificially intelligent machines and robotics. New ways to find cooperative relationships with “smart machines” will become crucial.
The 21st century is, in fact, a narrow window — a challenging yet promising passageway through which Homo sapiens is now inching along. All of humanity must past through this brief moment of cosmic time during which we will find our way forward to become a successful and sustainable species. There is another alternative. Today, more than 3 million years after “Ardi” and “Lucy,” we could become a terminal species — a dead branch on the evolutionary tree.
We need to move forward to survive. We must address climate change, limit population expansion, restore the ozone layer that protects us from space weather, make space enterprise sustainable for the future, and establish a successful off-world presence. These are only a few of the goals we must strive toward within this critical century.
A habitable lunar colony should be based on the following principles:
- International: Build widespread multinational cooperation and public-private partnerships.
- Entrepreneurial: Challenge entrepreneurs to define cost-effective and practical programs to achieve economic returns.
- Innovative: Use robotics, artificial intelligence and limited human crews to reduce mission costs and improve safety.
- Commercial: Devise realistic objectives in material processing, satellite fabrication, power transmission to Earth, innovative transport systems and scientific projects, especially those related to climate change.
Joseph N. Pelton is former dean of the International Space University and director emeritus of the Space & Advanced Communications Research Institute at the George Washington University. This article is offered as a template for discussion at the 2010 Symposium of the Japan-U.S. Science, Technology & Space Applications Program Nov. 14-18, which will focus on building sustainable robotic and human settlements beyond low Earth orbit (see http://justsap.org).