The Value of the Moon: How to Explore, Live, and Prosper in Space Using the Moon's Resources (2016)
Where Do We Go From Here?
Many of us working in or with NASA recognized that the 2004 Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) was a conceptual breakthrough. The goal of using off-planet resources to enable new capabilities in spaceflight was the fulcrum we needed to change our approach and direction to spaceflight. Making this change would open the door to a wide variety of previously unobtainable mission concepts and ideas.
In this book, I have shared my perspective on why and how the VSE was conceived, executed, and eventually terminated—a cautionary tale, if you will, but I hope an instructive one. Lessons drawn from this history can keep us from repeating similar mistakes and help us create a better American space program, one that moves humanity into the solar system by creating new opportunities and expanding, rather than consuming, wealth.
Because NASA’s response to the VSE was to focus on the first human mission to Mars, they devised an Apollo-style architecture, reverting to the only successful operational template for planetary exploration with which the agency was familiar. This decision effectively derailed the incremental and sustainable approach for the extension of human reach into space, intended by the VSE. An Apollo-style mission to Mars remains a bridge too far fiscally, technically, and politically. The interpretation of a human Mars mission as the central goal for the agency ignored the considered work of the VSE architects and those of us who had worked with NASA in the immediate years following its announcement. Certainly I was not interested in participating in a new “Mission to Mars” paper study that was doomed to failure from the beginning. Many of us had already experienced this during the years of the Space Exploration Initiative (1989–92), an earlier attempt to re-create the Apollo zeitgeist.
The excitement that many of us felt at the beginning of the VSE came from the belief that those lessons about what did not work had been well learned and that a long-overdue change in the template of spaceflight was upon us. We soon became disabused of such a notion. Although many in the space community understood both the possibilities and the pitfalls of the new effort, the dominant culture in both the agency and industry was wedded (and remains wedded) to the old template. As NASA reverted to their comfort zone, both the impression and the reality that this was about “repeating” our previous experience with the Moon—to regain the glory of Apollo—was cemented in many minds. This mindless calculus branded the lunar segment of the VSE with a “been there, done that” label, leading to the inevitable characterization that the Moon was both old hat and an unaffordable distraction.
Given that NASA was handed a new and challenging mission to go to the Moon on two previous occasions, the SEI in 1989 and the VSE in 2004—and both times they dropped the ball on implementing it—one might imagine that a new entity is needed to conduct human spaceflight for the federal government. This concept has not gone unvoiced by the community; no less an authority than Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, Apollo 17 astronaut and the first (and for now, the last) scientist to explore the Moon, has proposed that NASA be abolished and that a new agency be established to implement a long-range, strategic plan for human spaceflight.1 Schmitt would reassign some NASA activities (aeronautics research, astronomy) to other agencies and retain within the new entity only the field centers critical to human spaceflight. The new space agency would take over existing infrastructure for these functions and maintain a minimal headquarters presence in Washington to preside over policy decisions.
I sympathize with Schmitt’s frustration at the obtuseness and intransigence of the existing agency, but I think that his reformulation idea, while having much to commend it, is unlikely to be realized under normal circumstances. Too many entrenched interests, political as well as local, would be affected negatively by such a major reconstitution. However, some institutional crisis of confidence, a series of disasters or evidence of massive incompetence could produce the political momentum for radical change. This has happened in NASA’s past—the Apollo 1 fire in 1967 resulted in a wholesale housecleaning of at least the upper management of the Apollo program, and the Challenger accident in 1986 likewise caused much soul-searching. The series of blunders in the early 1990s involving the faulty mirror of the Hubble Space Telescope and failure of two Mars missions led to calls for an agency shakeup. Each time, NASA was able to shrug off any significant institutional impacts, but in the midst of some future disaster, their bureaucratic luck may finally run out. However, the national mood seems primed lately to demand accountability in our government institutions and elected officials. Such a policy environment may yet result in a major reconfiguration of the civil space agency.
Flights to supply the International Space Station (ISS) using non-NASA “commercial” spacecraft are portrayed as a new goal and direction for space, even though the development of these new vehicles has been and will continue to be largely billed to the American taxpayer, as will be true of their operational costs. These days, transporting our astronauts to the ISS, the space station that we primarily designed, built, and paid for, requires that we pay the going rate to fly aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft or stay home. We find ourselves in the untenable situation of having a dysfunctional space program with no strategic direction. Our nation’s dire financial situation is rapidly approaching crisis proportions. It is highly likely that future space budgets will be flat at best, but more probably, lower than current levels of funding.
Our current program direction, the promise of a human Mars mission—as yet unachievable, but perhaps doable 25 to 30 years down the road—remains the principal roadblock to implementing a workable program based on the use of off-planet resources. It doesn’t have to be. It is highly likely that we will achieve our first human mission to Mars only through the use of propellant produced on the Moon.2 The Moon has much more to offer, both as a testing ground for advanced planetary surface systems and as a natural laboratory to learn the skills required for a new generation of planetary explorers. A realistic architecture for Mars incorporates and utilizes the valuable resources of the Moon.
Those who believe that we should proceed directly to Mars and bypass the Moon might consider the following. Martian gravity is twice as strong as the Moon’s. With aerobraking, delta-v to the surface of Mars is roughly 1000 m/s, and ascent to orbit from the surface is about 5000 m/s. This means that you must bring an ascent or descent module with you to Mars; if you were to go to Mars with the intent to settle there, it would perforce be a one-way trip. On the Moon, we require roughly 2000 m/s up or down. This can be accommodated with a single-stage vehicle, meaning that we can reuse this spacecraft to enable continual travel between lunar orbit and the surface. Reusability enables an affordable solution to the problem of establishing an off-planet presence; travel back and forth to the surface coupled with an incremental buildup of the outpost on the Moon makes the creation of a permanent presence there possible in a manner that is not possible on Mars, where discarded, once-used pieces result in an expensive, unsustainable transportation architecture.
The current spaceflight template established 60 years ago is to custom-design and build spacecraft, then launch them on expendable vehicles: design, build, fly, use, and discard. Born of necessity, this operational model ensures that spacecraft are complex, expensive, and serve a limited lifetime. It demands that we launch everything we need from Earth—from the bottom of the deepest gravity well in the inner solar system—requiring significant energy (read “cost”) to reach an intended destination. Until we change our national approach to the problem of spaceflight, we will remain mass- and power-limited, and therefore capability-limited in space. These necessary, expensive, and difficult goals are achievable under constrained budgets by taking small, affordable incremental steps that build on each other and work together to create a greater capability over time.
Nearly all of our modern space assets reside in the zone between Earth and Moon (cislunar space) and the difficulty of reaching low Earth orbit (LEO) limits our activities there. These cislunar satellites constitute the backbone of modern technical civilization and conduct critical societal functions such as communications, positioning, remote sensing, weather monitoring, and national strategic surveillance. The size and capability of such assets are limited by the size of the largest rocket that can launch a given payload and by their preordained operational lifetime. Our experience working with the space shuttle and ISS programs has demonstrated that people and machines working together, over time, can assemble and maintain space systems that can be made as large and operated for as long as desired. The problem is moving people and robots to these various points in cislunar space.
To become a spacefaring species, we must develop and possess freedom of movement and action, throughout cislunar space. Robotic missions show that the Moon’s poles contain significant amounts of water ice, the most useable resource for humans in space. As a consumable, H2O (water and oxygen) supports life. Used as shielding, water can protect people from cosmic radiation. Water is also a medium of energy storage; it can be dissociated into its component hydrogen and oxygen using electricity generated by sunlight and during local night or eclipse, these gases can be combined back into water to generate electricity. Finally, liquid hydrogen and oxygen are the most powerful chemical rocket propellant known, which opens the possibility for the Moon to become our first “offshore” coaling station in the sea of cislunar space.
Because the Moon is close, the time delay for a round-trip radio signal is less than three seconds. This gift of proximity makes it possible for machines, under the control of operators on Earth, to begin the initial work of establishing a demonstration resource processing facility on the Moon. Transit times to the Moon are as short as three days, and launch opportunities are always available. Some peaks and crater rims near the ice-rich lunar poles experience nearly constant sunlight, permitting the near-constant generation of electrical power with solar arrays. The individual pieces of equipment necessary to begin the harvesting of lunar ice are small and can be launched on small and medium-lift rockets. We can begin to install and operate a lunar polar resource extraction facility now, without waiting for the advent of new, heavy lift launch systems. A scaled, incremental approach to building a facility on the Moon can fit under nearly any budgetary envelope and offers numerous, intermediate milestones to document accomplishment and to map steady progress. Finally, the use of multiple, small steps to develop the Moon facilitates the participation of both international and commercial partners in creating a permanent space transportation system.
Making the Moon and cislunar space our next strategic goal in space solves many problems. It creates a near-term (decadal, not multidecadal) objective against which progress can be demonstrated and measured, inviting myriad ideas and participation. It can be built in incremental steps, tailored to be affordable under a wide variety of restrictive budget regimes. It creates a lasting infrastructure that allows people and machines access to all of the locations in cislunar space—the location of scientific, economic, and strategic assets. We will finally have laid the groundwork necessary to navigate past self-imposed roadblocks, thereby opening the solar system to exploration through the creation of a space transportation network that allows routine departure from, and return to, low Earth orbit.
Because we are dependent on space assets—the technology that controls, assists, and enhances so much of our daily lives—the current aimless direction of our civil space program not only endangers the agency’s future but also jeopardizes critical national interests. Creating routine access to cislunar space will allow us to graduate from the “flags and footprints” model of human space travel to the creation, use, and control of a true, long-term spacefaring capability. We can do this in a manner that is scalable and thus affordable. It is the right direction for our civil space program in the new millennium.
Developing cislunar space and the Moon is a challenging but achievable goal. Although we are uncertain where this journey ultimately will take us, history records that humanity always gains knowledge and prospers when we expand our horizons. Using the Moon’s resources to explore space and to live and prosper there will increase our chances for long-term survival and improve our quality of life. This great challenge holds the promise of breakthrough technologies and new discoveries that will ensure better futures for us all.