(This is the English version of the article “Il Villaggio Lunare parlerà “europeo”? [Will the Moon Village speak “European”?] by Fausto Mescolini, first published in Italian on Il Tredicesimo Cavaliere, a blog that has already been featured a few times on The Earthian Hivemind. Enjoy!)
Since 2010 Nasa has made it clear that the Moon is not on the agency’s critical path for its long-term goal of sending humans to the surface of Mars. It is willing though to support other countries that might be interested in going to the Moon and plan to operate in cislunar space around the Moon. NASA administrator Charles Bolden reiterated this point recently: “It will be critical for industry, most importantly for our international partners to finally step up and take the lead on lunar landing plans. Unfortunately, nobody’s stepped up yet.”
While no one may have stepped up yet, in the view of NASA, there is no shortage of proposals elsewhere for human lunar missions. Chinese officials have talked for years about having such missions as a long-term goal, although exactly how, and when, they would carry them out is uncertain. Vladimir Solntsev, the president of Russia’s RSC Energia, said a human mission was in the works for 2029, but how Russia’s cash-strapped space program would pay for it is also unclear.
Then there is the European concept of a “Moon village.” Or, more accurately, the concept of an international lunar base espoused by the European Space Agency’s new director-general Johann-Dietrich Worner:“To go to the Moon, it should not be a closed shop, but it should be an international joint effort where the different countries of the globe should bring in their special ideas, their special competence. Let’s give it a name: ‘Moon village.’”
“A village – he said – is a place where some people are coming together, some nations are coming together.” Moreover, he suggested the base should be established on the lunar far side, a site valued by some radio astronomers because it is out of direct radio contact with the Earth. “Why not go even a step further and not just land on the Moon, but to have a permanent international Moon station on the far side of the Moon”, he said. “That base would offer opportunities for astronomy and planetary science, as well as ‘resource management’ to learn how to make use of resources there. If that is a good step for further exploration of the solar system, wherever it goes, then it would be fine.”
Unfortunately, these plans have not yet translated into policy, given the lack of official ESA backing for the proposal, let alone support from other space agencies. However, others are paying attention, for example, George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation: “What appeals to me about that kind of a vision is that it minimises the requirement for a very prescriptive, top-down management structure, with one country specifying the architecture and calling all the shots. Instead, it would enable countries to participate as much or as little as they chose.”
Nield, though, raised one issue about the Moon village concept: “Instead of assuming that each inhabitant of the village is the representative of a particular nation or government space agency, let’s open it up to commercial entities”, he said.
There would, he argued, be a number of roles that companies could play in an international lunar base, from providing goods and services to building habitats and other infrastructure: “Private industry has the potential to play an important role, and it need not be exclusively as a government contractor”.
Fundamental for opening this frontier will be the capacity to live off the local resources, like the pioneers of the West used to do. Activities in space will remain limited to exploration, instead of evolving to a permanent settlement, until the resources of the Moon, asteroids, comets, and other celestial bodies start to be mined and used. The in-situ resource utilisation (ISRU) creates the basis for a space economy where products and services are traded for resources, increasingly sophisticated products can be produced from mined resources, and life can be sustained indefinitely.
When the space economy will become self-sustaining, profits from operations on the Moon and in cislunar space will become sufficient to sustain continued operation. Further development will no longer be dependent on government subsidies from Earth. This is not to say that government investment in space would cease. Most likely commercial successes will drive increased government investment. As government investment results in improved infrastructure and better technologies, and thus costs and risks drop, more opportunities will appear for more participants. Government investment will continue to be required for planetary science and other space-related research, to train and develop people and to develop and maintain infrastructure.
With the purpose of starting the journey towards this new economy, the preparation to the International Lunar Decade, ILD will begin in 2017. The Decade will lay the foundations for the international cooperation aimed at the self-sustaining space economy and to the opening of the new frontier. At that point, the further commercial investment will produce a notable economic growth, just like it happens on Earth. Similarly, though, the investments will make initially big losses, discouraging the wannabe space entrepreneurs but the super rich ones, who are capable of resisting the losses while waiting for long-term profits.
Important for the success of ILD will be the development of investment funds and financing mechanisms that enable space entrepreneurs who are not super wealthy to develop high potential ideas that require a long time to positive cash flow. Private-public partnerships are highly promising: there are compelling reasons to consider the development of a space investment fund linked to government guarantees that can leverage private-public partnership approaches when available.
It is extremely important to understand the gains that will come with the breakthrough to a self-sustaining space economy. At that point, more common financing mechanisms and sources of capital will start to play a role. The cost of capital will decrease and the returns to capital will come faster. All players involved in the game of space, whether entrepreneur or space scientist, will benefit from a strategic approach to achieve a breakthrough to a self-sustaining space economy. In the long term, self-sustaining space economies such as colonies on Mars could operate largely independently of inputs from Earth. Self-sustaining space economies are a necessary element of planetary defence strategies to assure species survival beyond Earth.
What it will be possible by 2030
An International Lunar Decade that results in the achievement of a self-sustaining lunar economy can achieve a great number of things in just ten years:
Lower costs: the cost of delivering payloads to the surface of the Moon will be less than current costs of launching payloads to low Earth orbit (LEO). Progress in lowering the cost of launch to LEO can be expected to continue to be augmented by further reductions in costs due to ISRU, alternative propulsion methods, and continued technological advances, as well as efficiencies gained through systemic effects and higher launch rates.
Reliable electrical power: a lunar power and communications and utility will provide electrical power, broadband communications, and navigation services to anywhere on the lunar surface and in lunar orbit.
ISRU: lunar ice, lunar regolith and other resources will be mined to provide fuel, materials for construction on the Moon and in space, radiation shielding, and other uses for spacecraft heading to Mars or other deep space missions.
Platforms and fuel depots: these will be under development in LEO and at Earth-Moon Lagrange points and provide habitats and facilities for research, assembly, manufacturing, and staging operations that enable continued reductions in costs, lower risks, and expansion of opportunities building on capabilities achieved on the ISS.
Asteroid mining: the potential for asteroid mining will be significantly expanded as a result of the infrastructure and industrial development underway on the Moon and in cislunar space.
Moon Village: the vision of ESA Director-General Jan Wörner will have evolved through an initial purely robotic phase to a polar human base with access to the lunar far side that can accommodate 10 people effectively, with work underway to facilities for 50 or more permanent occupants.
Human Mars mission: the prospects for human missions to Mars will be significantly enhanced through the substantial reduction in costs and expanded capabilities made possible by infrastructure and “proving grounds” in cislunar space and on the lunar surface, particularly as a result of the beginning of lunar industrial activities.
ISS and successors: these outposts will continue to serve a vital role as research platforms for medical studies, space manufacturing, assembly platforms, and hotels for the emerging space tourism industry.
Synthesis by FAUSTO MESCOLINI based on:
“Building a moon village” http://www.thespacereview.com/article/2857/1
“NASA’s Journey to Mars and ESA’s Moon Village enable each other” http://www.thespacereview.com/article/2904/1
[Photo credits: NASA; Anna Nesterova/Alliance for Space Development; ESA; Creative Commons]