Urban planning for the Moon Village

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This article originally appeared in the Dec. 17, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

The first thing to remember about Moon Village is that it’s not a village on the moon. That disclaimer comes up in nearly every presentation about the concept of an open partnership supporting lunar exploration.

“I’m not looking at building some houses, a church, a cinema, all of this. It’s not that,” said Jan Woerner, director general of the European Space Agency, during a news conference at the International Astronautical Congress in Bremen, Germany, in October.

Woerner, who has advocated for the concept since before he took the reins of ESA, said the idea is not about human spaceflight at all, really. “Moon Village is not the colonization of the moon,” he said. “I don’t want to move people away from the Earth to live on the moon.”

So, what is it? “The idea of the Moon Village is a multipartner, open concept,” he said. “The Moon Village is not one project or one program. It says, ‘Let’s do it together.’”

But while Woerner might be the most famous advocate for Moon Village, it’s not an ESA program. Instead, the concept is being organized, loosely, by a nonprofit organization established in 2017 called the Moon Village Association.

“We found that, in order to implement the vision of the Moon Village, you need an organization that can create a permanent platform,” said Giuseppe Reibaldi, president of the association who previously worked for 35 years at ESA. “We have created the association to be a forum to advance the development of the Moon Village.”

Reibaldi was speaking at the beginning of the organization’s second annual meeting, held in early November in Los Angeles. Over the course of two days, split between the University of Southern California and a nearby hotel, attendees talked about lunar exploration concepts and technologies.

“We found that, in order to implement the vision of the Moon Village, you need an organization that can create a permanent platform,” said Giuseppe Reibaldi, president of the Moon Village Association. Credit: IAF via Flickr
“We found that, in order to implement the vision of the Moon Village, you need an organization that can create a permanent platform,” said Giuseppe Reibaldi, president of the Moon Village Association. Credit: IAF via Flickr

The event attracted a number of key government and commercial figures. Scott Pace, executive secretary of the National Space Council, talked about U.S. space policy. Jim Green, NASA’s chief scientist, discussed NASA’s lunar exploration plans. While Woerner didn’t attend, he recorded a brief video message, reminding participants that we’re “not going back to the moon, we’re going forward to the moon.”

Companies both large and small also discussed their capabilities at the conference. Airbus and Lockheed Martin talked about their work on Orion as well as concepts for future lunar spacecraft. Several former teams in the Google Lunar X Prize competition — ispace, Moon Express, PTScientists and Team Indus — described their continued work on lunar landers missions they expect to launch within the next few years.

So how does all of this come together into the Moon Village? That was less clear. Many of those major speakers made little or no reference, let alone endorsement, of the Moon Village in their remarks.

Participants spent part of the two-day meeting in breakout groups, but these looked primarily at topics ranging from technical challenges for lunar exploration to the markets for lunar tourism to even civil rights for any future lunar inhabitants: “traditional Bill of Rights kind of stuff,” one person explained. Less examined were mechanisms for coordination of and cooperation among various lunar activities that would appear to be at the heart of any Moon Village.

There was also a China-sized hole in the organization’s plans: no Chinese officials, either representatives of the country’s lunar exploration program or others from its growing space industry, were present at the meeting. Reibaldi said several were invited but that “visa problems” kept them from attending.

China could be a motivating factor even if it doesn’t join forces in a collaborative effort. “We’ve got the China challenge, which is a good thing,” said Greg Autry, a professor at USC’s Marshall School of Business who served on the NASA transition team for the Trump administration. “Having a challenger, someone who is a peer-level competitor, is fundamentally important to the United States to get things done.”

Other kinds of competition could also boost lunar exploration efforts. In his presentation at the meeting, he offered a “modest proposal” to harness commercial efforts: in parallel to NASA’s existing program of record, involving the Space Launch System, Orion and the lunar Gateway, the federal government could offer a $2 billion prize for the first company to land humans on the moon, and $1 billion to the second company.

Such competition, be it geopolitical or commercial, would appear to be at odds with the Moon Village’s vision of collaborative exploration. That didn’t seem to bother conference participants, though, who welcomed the renewed attention the moon is getting, while deferring for now how to harness those activities constructively.

Perhaps the clearest vision of what the Moon Village is and what it can do came at the end of the meeting, when organizers released a draft document outlining its principles and strategic goals. “The Moon Village is a global community aiming to explore and use the Moon in a sustainable, open and peaceful manner,” that brief document states.

The document includes four principles for the Moon Village, including adhering to international treaties regarding outer space activities, contributing to “broad, common” standards for space systems, and providing information to support scientific cooperation and public engagement. It also includes seven goals, from lowering the cost of accessing the moon to developing “critical services” to support lunar missions, like communications and navigation. All this would be coordinated “without recourse to international framework agreements and/ or regulatory instruments.”

The stakes, the organization believes, are high. How high? “The implementation of the Moon Village will be a major step forward for Humankind and for World Peace,” the document states.

If nothing else, conference attendees were energized about the prospects of more government and commercial missions to the moon, even if the details about how those efforts could be coordinated still need to be worked out. “Let’s not blow this opportunity,” said Autry. “We all need to come together and grab the moon.”

And, perhaps, one day the Moon Village concept will lead to a village of sorts — or more — on the moon. “Jeff Bezos says he wants to do a city on the moon,” Woerner said in Bremen. “Of course, the Americans are always thinking a little bigger than the Europeans.”