The Trump Administration has yet to reveal what it plans for NASA, but a hint was recently published on the Motherboard website thanks to documents it obtained from the transition team under a Freedom of Information Act request. The Trump team asked the space agency about surveying the moon for valuable resources. As it turns out, Earth’s nearest neighbor has a lot of them, including platinum group metals, an isotope called helium 3 that could be used to fuel future fusion power plants, and water that could sustain lunar colonists and be refined into rocket fuel. The moon also has oxides of more typical engineering metals such as iron, aluminum, titanium, and silicon.
The idea of trying to monetize space exploration is an inspired one. Typically, a national space program has been considered an expensive hobby that rich and powerful nations engage in for national prestige, with some science on the side. The Apollo program was an example of this approach and, within the parameters set, succeeded brilliantly. Unfortunately, once NASA beat the Soviets to the moon, the American public became bored with lunar missions. The federal government canceled the last three Apollo missions to the moon and shifted to building a space shuttle as a practical alternative.
What then, is the best approach to encourage a lunar mining industry? One approach that should be rejected right away is for NASA to mine the moon in any way except to develop and test technology. The space agency does a lot of great things, but it is rather bad at being a commercial enterprise. The experiment with using the space shuttle as the basis of a national space line proved that. Starting with the second Bush administration and continuing under President Obama, NASA encouraged the development of commercial spacecraft to take astronauts and cargo to and from space. Lunar mining should be developed in the same manner.
NASA can still be of help indirectly. A lunar base, or, as the European Space Agency prefers to call it, a moon village, would be a great initial market for lunar miners. Habitats can be made of local regolith crushed into powder and 3D printed. Water and oxygen could be mined by private businesses and sold to the lunar base. Some of the water would be used for drinking, bathing, and agriculture, and some can be refined into rocket fuel.
Later on, lunar resources could become the basis of space-based industries. Currently, every satellite, every space station module, every ounce of consumable, every spare part that is used in space has to come from Earth and fit inside of a rocket. With access to lunar resources, all of these things can be built in space directly for use. Moreover, companies seeking to manufacture products using microgravity and hard vacuum as part of their industrial process will have raw materials nearer at hand and easier to get at than from Earth.
NASA can certainly start the process of creating a space-based industry using lunar resources. At some point, perhaps in the near future, people will return to the moon for the first time since 1972’s Apollo 17. The crew of the next moon landing will likely be international, since the opportunities for diplomacy and the necessities of cost sharing will require it. But at least one of the first boots on the ground on the lunar soil should belong to an expert in lunar geology, prospecting, and mining. That person can check on robotic precursors that will have been sent beforehand to scout out the best places to mine for resources. The first lunar mining engineer will also set up and run experiments, not only for mining the moon but for refining raw minerals into useful materials. Such materials could be run through a 3D printer to make the first prototype product ever rendered on the moon.
During Apollo men first set foot on the moon coming “in peace for all mankind.” The first moonwalkers also went to demonstrate the superiority of the United States over the Soviet Union and to do some good science. The next moonwalkers will go to create new wealth, new industries, and all the benefits that go with those things. Thus the next lunar age of exploration will proceed on a more sustainable basis than the first.
Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has just published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the Washington Post, among other venues.