Moon Mines: Visionary or Senseless?

Editorial by Al Globus, December 2011

Do lunar mines make sense? The answer depends on what you want to do in space. If what you want is something close to what we have now: a booming commercial communication satellite business and government programs for science and exploration, then no. Lunar mines built entirely with tax dollars are expensive and unnecessary. On the other hand, if you see further than a few years ahead, if you see civilization, humanity, and Life itself expanding into space, if you see large scale industrialization, commercialization and settlement of space, then lunar mines are of enormous importance. The interesting thing is, the second vision will probably cost the taxpayer a lot less and deliver much greater value to the people of Earth.

First, let us consider what lunar mines can supply a growing civilization in space:

1) Shielding mass. Our atmosphere protects us from the intense radiation in space. For those who seek to spend long periods in space, particularly beyond Earth’s protective magnetic field, radiation shielding is a must. To mimic the atmosphere, roughly 10 tons/square-meter is necessary. The Moon is ideally situated to supply these bulk materials.

2) Rocket propellant. Today’s rockets are propelled by chemical reactions. The highest performance propellant is hydrogen and oxygen, which combine to produce water and the energy and thrust necessary to travel in space. Most of the weight, roughly 90%, of this propellant is oxygen. The Moon has very large quantities of oxygen tied up in surface materials.

3) Water. A great deal of money is spent today bringing water to the International Space Station (ISS). The same oxygen that supplies most of the mass for rocket propellant can be used to make water. There are also large quantities of water in the craters at the lunar poles where the Sun never shines.

4) Metals. Lunar materials returned by the Apollo astronauts contain large quantities of titanium, aluminum, iron and other metals. These metals can supply materials for large space structures, including habitats.

5) Silicon. Silicon and metals from the Moon could be used to build the space segment of Space Solar Power (SSP) systems. These satellites would gather energy in space and transmit it wirelessly to the ground. If successfully developed, SSP could supply massive quantities of clean energy to Earth for literally billions of years. A recent paper published in the NSS Space Settlement Journal [A Contemporary Analysis of the O’Neill – Glaser Model for Space-based Solar Power and Habitat Construction. Peter A. Curreri and Michael K. Detweiler. December 2011.] suggests that using lunar materials for the SSP satellites requires more up-front capital than ground launch but begins generating profits much sooner.

6) He-3. Over billions of years the solar wind has implanted He-3, an isotope that is particularly well suited to fusion power, into lunar surface materials. This could be mined, brought to Earth, and used in future fusion power plants.

Thus, a vigorous lunar mining system could be part of a system to deliver energy to Earth, build large structures in space, and even provide radiation protection, water and oxygen to those who want to spend significant time in orbit. Developing lunar mines will be an enormous effort and would cost huge amounts of taxpayer money if it were done the same way Apollo, the Space Shuttle, and the ISS were developed. Fortunately, there is another way.

In the 1960s the U.S. government provided modest subsidies to start up the communication satellite business. Today, communication satellites are a $250 billion/year global business producing yearly tax revenue far greater than the subsidies.

The U.S. government is currently providing subsidies to help develop private, commercial launch vehicles. The cargo versions are almost complete. Two launchers, one of which has flown, were developed at a small fraction of the usual cost for government launcher programs. The human launch versions are being developed by the commercial crew program, which was budgeted for $6 billion and scheduled to develop two or three vehicles that could deliver astronauts to the ISS by 2015. [The budget for the first year was cut from $850 million to $406 million. This is expected to delay the first flight by a year or two.] By contrast, the all-government Space Launch System (SLS) is not scheduled to fly astronauts until 2021 and is estimated cost $40 billion to develop. Although the SLS is much larger, variants of the commercial vehicles may approach or even exceed SLS performance sooner and at much less cost. [The first SLS version is expected to place up to 70 tons into Low Earth Orbit (LEO); a later version may lift up to 130 tons. The Falcon Heavy, due to launch in late 2012, is expected to place up to 50 tons in LEO. SpaceX has also proposed a larger version of the Falcon that could lift 150 tons to LEO; it is projected to take five years to develop at a total cost of $2.5 billion.]

Thus, the evidence suggests that reorienting our space program to support commercialization and industrialization of space, as opposed to 100% government missions, may produce far greater results at much less cost. Lunar mining could be a major component of such space industrialization. There is already at least one commercial company that intends to mine the Moon. Perhaps we should support it.

This entry was posted in Space, Space Business, Space Policy, Space Settlement, Space Solar Power, Space Transportation. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Moon Mines: Visionary or Senseless?

  1. Anne Deupree says:

    I don’t need Newt, I have my old copy of “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.”

  2. James says:

    While being a life long supporter of a space program I hesitate to endorse mining the moon, or at least, the near side. Since humans became human the moon’s face has invoked awe, and even worship. As we protect natural wonders on Earth so should we on the moon. Extensive altering of the moon’s face by mining, roads (yes someday we will build roads there), structures, etc., should not be allowed. The moon’s face is humanities common heritage and must be preserved.

    Other than that, the US won’t do it, our space program is dead. It’s death spiral began with the last moon landing. It’s been a long lingering death but I think Obama finally pulled the plug. Oh it’ll remain as a zombie, an undead bureaucratic nightmare tasked with building large useless rockets with no mission but to service every congressman’s district with unproductive jobs program. Nothing ever dies in government it’s just retasked for graft and corruption so don’t confuse NASA’s continued existence with an actual space program.

    Oh btw, don’t believe government will leave private, commercial space projects alone. Evidence: Nasa has already attempted to hijack directorship of all such programs. They appear to have been beaten back for the moment. It won’t last. The Fed’s will come back. It’s not IF it’s WHEN.

  3. Ken says:

    This article covers two topics: (1) is it more economical to build mines on moon v. send up from earth and (2) private v. govt development of launch systems.

    (1) Over the long haul, I would agree that lunar mines would pay. But who will do the initial investing, and why?
    (2) Why would NASA permit successful competitors to appear?
    Every organization’s first purpose is to survive, and in govt that means maintaining a monopoly.

  4. George B says:

    I believe the moon could be very useful for a couple of things:

    1. It makes a better place for long-term occupation because it has gravity. People work better with at least some gravity. So any sort of manufacturing operation that must be done in vacuum might be better done on the moon than in orbit because things stay put where you place them. A lunar “clean room” could be one heck of a semiconductor plant.

    2. An acclimation point to get astronauts experiencing long periods of zero G acclimated to gravity before a return to Earth.

    3. Launch facility and by extension vehicle manufacturing facility. It is much easier to place a satellite into Earth orbit from the moon. You have no atmospheric stresses at launch (no fairings needed, for example), moon’s gravity is much less requiring much less fuel to launch a given payload, and once launched it can be configured to “fall” into the correct orbit of Earth with some fuel probably needed for braking but not for accelerating into that orbit. Vehicles going into interplanetary space can also get an extra boost toward their destination by launching them when they are getting a velocity assist toward their direction of travel from the moon’s orbit around earth.

    4. If you are going to have a manufacturing/living/launch facility, you will want to mine as much as possible locally and not have to send it from Earth.

  5. GD2 says:

    I’d love to invest in lunar mining not so much for me but for my grandchildren. The Shackleton group that this article eludes to is run more as a charity than a listed company. When a real mining company rises to the challenge it will find itself with so many investors that shares will quickly over bought. Sovereign funds like Chinese or Russian will likely beat everyone to the draw shutting out the little guys. We look to the future for tether tech to improve for Earth to space elevator. No need to look to the future for lunar tether to space as we have everything that is needed to deal with that task or should I say the Chinese or Russians have. The asteroids also have everything that the Moon has minus the gravity well.

  6. Paul says:

    Re: Helium-3
    He-3 is a cleaner fuel for fusion, but it’s actually harder than D/T fusion, requiring higher temperatures or pinch-pressures. By the time we’re capable of He-3 fusion, we’ll have had D/T fusion for decades.

    The problem with D/T fusion is that neutron emissions will gradually create radioactive waste from the reactor walls. This will only become an issue during decommissioning. So we’ll only seriously consider developing He-3 fusion when we’re decommissioning a bunch of 30 year old D/T fusion plants and the waste becomes a political burden. And even then, lunar He-3 mining won’t be on the table because He-3 is a waste product from D/T fusion. So you’ll have all the remaining D/T plants producing fuel for the first few generations of He-3 reactors.

    Moreso, the technology that allows He-3 fusion, such as higher containment pressures, will also make D/T fusion more compact, opening up more uses (such as transport) even as He-3 takes over the bulk power markets.

    Talking about He-3 as viable future lunar mining product makes you (and any space advocate) sound silly. It’s so far into the future we don’t know what circumstances will affect it. Will we have space elevators (making it cheaper to dump D/T reactor-wall waste on the moon than to mine He-3 from the moon) or will nanotech solar-paint and super-batteries make fusion irrelevant on Earth anyway? We can’t begin to guess.

    Water. Then oxygen. Then bulk shielding. Then iron for simple bulk structures. Then platinum group metals for industry. And if we ever get to that stage, industry on the moon should be able to justify itself without further advocacy from us.

    James,
    Re: Defacing the moon.
    You have a slight scale problem. Have a look at the shots of Earth taken by Apollo astronauts circling the moon. Look for the roads and mines. The cities and dams and so on. Can’t find any? Human activity vanishes at a that distance, except at night.

    The moon will be even harder to visibly deface. You know how people walk around open cut mines and call it a “moonscape”… the moon is the slag spat out by a collision early in Earth’s history, the moon’s surface has been bombarded by asteroids for billions of years, and is blackened by unfiltered sunlight and radiation (the moon’s albedo (reflectivity) is 5%, roughly the same as coal dust.) Even up close, you will only able to spot mines on the moon because they’ll be the clean looking areas.

    The only thing that will ever noticeably mark the face of the moon will be the faint lights of bases/cities during the new moon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>