WASHINGTON — The idea that rocket propellants could be made from lunar ice is not new. But the U.S. government should now consider doing that at scale in order to stimulate the space economy and enable human life on the moon and Mars,  said United Launch Alliance President and CEO Tory Bruno.

“This is about having a self-sustaining cislunar economy,” Bruno said Oct. 13 on a webinar organized by Beyond Earth Institute, a nonprofit focused on the public policy implications of living and working in space.

“What would be the one thing that the government could do, the one big lever that it could pull to stimulate economic activity in cislunar space? The answer, we believe, is the establishment of a strategic propellant reserve,” said Bruno.

ULA’s economic models show that a government investment of about $20 billion in infrastructure could energize space activity to the tune of $3 trillion by 2050, Bruno said. That activity would include mining, transportation, manufacturing and space tourism. 

The cost of transportation is a problem in developing a space economy so finding ways to produce fuel in space would be critical, he said. 

Propellants could be made from the more than 20 billion metric tons of ice available on the moon, Bruno said. “The great discovery of our time that has gone largely unheralded is the fact that water is nearly everywhere. This is literally millions of years of propellant.” He said water could be easily converted into liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen which are used to propel rockets. 

“All we need is the infrastructure in place to mine the ice to convert it to propellant, and to distribute it to a transportation network that would exist in cislunar space,” Bruno said.

ULA has pitched the idea to the National Space Council’s users advisory council. Bruno said the group agreed to study it further. 

Precious metals in space

In cislunar space — between Earth and the moon, and on asteroids that are within easy reach of the moon — there is “tremendous wealth, an abundance that literally defies human imagination,” said Bruno. 

On these bodies there is more than 1,000 years worth of planet Earth’s annual production of industrial and precious metals such as gold, silver and platinum, he said. “There is tremendous potential for economic wealth and economic activity just in the natural resources, let alone specialty manufacturing and things that we can only make practically in the environment of space.”

Why haven’t these resources been tapped? “Well, like any economic activity that occurs across great distances, it’s all about transportation,” Bruno said. “And transportation is all about the availability of energy.” 

The strategic propellant reserve that ULA is proposing is modeled after the strategic petroleum reserve set up by the U.S. government after the oil crisis of the 1970s. The strategic reserve has enough oil to sustain the U.S. economy for about 90 days. The propellant reserve should have enough to fuel space vehicles in cislunar space for two years, said Bruno, to prevent the risk of interrupting transportation to and from Mars. 

As a provider of launch services, ULA would benefit from the economic development in cislunar space. But Bruno said the company has not yet committed to developing a heavier rocket for deep space exploration. 

ULA has hinted it would consider building a three-stage “Vulcan Heavy”  rocket, a much larger version of the single-core Vulcan Centaur that ULA is developing and expects to debut next year. 

Bruno said he didn’t know whether there would be a demand for a heavier Vulcan. “We’ll develop whatever our customers need us to do,” he said. “A three-core vehicle is something that, if the marketplace asks of us, we know how to do it.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...