This is a very interesting piece. I don’t agree that water ice is that plentiful or with the implication of doing most of the work with human astronauts. But the spirit of the piece is very exciting. It would be even more economical if we send armies of robots to set up the basics for these settlements and ventures. The moon is close enough for limiting teleoperation and robot pseudo-autonomy to be workable. In this way we could build all the infrastructure out to support human workers on the moon without paying huge human support costs upfront. It would also enable exploring many more ideas for viability sooner that attempting to do them all with human astronauts.
Only 12 people have walked on the moon, and we haven’t been back since 1972. But a new NASA-commission study has found that we can now afford to set up a permanent base on the moon, by mining for lunar resources and partnering with private companies.
Returning humans to the moon could cost 90 percent less than expected, bringing estimated costs down from $100 billion to $10 billion. That’s something that NASA could afford on its current deep space human spaceflight budget.
“A factor of ten reduction in cost changes everything,” said Mark Hopkins, executive committee chair of the National Space Society, in a press release.
A Factor of 10 Reduction in Costs
The study, released today, was conducted by the National Space Society and the Space Frontier Foundation—two non-profit organizations that advocate building human settlements beyond Earth—and it was reviewed by an independent team of former NASA executives, astronauts, and space policy experts.
To dramatically reduce costs, NASA would have to take advantage of private and international partnerships—perhaps one of which would be the European Space Agency, whose director recently announced that he wants to build a town on the moon. The new estimates also assume that Boeing and SpaceX, NASA’s commercial crew partners, will be involved and competing for contracts. SpaceX famously spent just $443 million developing its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon crew capsule, where NASA would have spent $4 billion. The authors of the new report are hoping that 89 percent discount will extend beyond low Earth orbit as well.
Similar to SpaceX’s goals of creating a reusable rocket, the plan also relies on the development of reusable spacecraft and lunar landers to reduce costs.
Plus, mining fuel from the lunar surface could make going back to the moon economically viable. Data from the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) suggest that water ice may be plentiful on the moon, especially near the poles. That’s important because water can be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen; hydrogen is a rocket propellant, and oxygen helps out in the combustion process. (Leftover oxygen would also, conveniently, provide breathing air for astronauts.)
How To Build A Lunar Mining Town
Here’s the specific proposal, as laid out in the report:
- Robots determine how much hydrogen is in the lunar crust, and where it’s located. (Note: this step is crucial. If hydrogen is not plentiful and easy to mine from the lunar crust, then the plan to return to the moon is not viable.) One such robot has been proposed by NASA scientists. TheResource Prospector would deploy a rover that can search for hydrogen, drill into the lunar regolith, and heat samples to see what’s inside. If the mission gets funded, it’ll be the first mining expedition on another world.
- Develop reusable spacecraft to get humans to and from the moon
- Land humans at the equator, probably using SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, which is still in development but estimated to cost $1700 per kilogram
- Develop technologies to mine the lunar ice
- Develop reusable lunar lander to carry equipment back and forth from lunar orbit to lunar surface
- Send humans to the lunar poles
- Select a site for mining
- Use lunar lander to deliver Bigelow Aerospace inflatable space habitats to lunar surface for human occupation. The habitat modules could be located in a lava tube for protection against radiation.
- Deliver a crew of four astronauts to live on the surface and assist in repair of the largely autonomous mining equipment.
- Begin mining for hydrogen
- Lunar lander delivers 200 metric tons of propellant per year to a depot at Lagrange point L2–a stationary spot in lunar orbit on the far side of the Moon
The plan calls for mining and transport technologies that do not currently exist, but they’re within the realm of possibility. “There are no show-stoppers,” said Hoyt Davidson from Near Earth LLC during yesterday’s press conference. “There are certainly more things that need to be studied, and issues that need to be addressed.”