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Sep 13, 2011

Economics and Survival: An In-space 2-for-1 Bargain

Posted by in categories: economics, existential risks, habitats, space, sustainability

There is growing recognition that the Moon is the logical next step for sustainably opening space to human settlement. It is now confirmed that both lunar poles contain appreciable quantities of ice containing water and also carbon and nitrogen containing compounds. Since the Moon is always only a 3-day trip away, it easily beats low-gravity asteroids as the most economic place to mine water ice. Similarly, since the Moon has only a 3-second roundtrip communications delay, teleoperated robots could mine and process the lunar ice at a fraction of what human miners would cost. That ice, brought back to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) could establish a new space economy including on-orbit refueling, boosting large communications satellites to GEO, sending tourists around or even to the Moon, and facilitating NASAs Beyond Earth Orbit activities. So the Moon is a great place to develop economic in-space resources.

But, what does all of this do with survival?

Amongst those people who understand extinction risks to humanity, it is generally recognized that an off-Earth, self-sufficient colony would go a very long ways to ensuring the survival of humanity as a species. An orbiting colony would not be a good choice because, if the Earth’s biosphere were contaminated with an ecophage, the Earth itself would not anymore be a source of supplies, and Earth orbit contains no resources except for sunlight. Mars, an asteroid, or a distant moon could be a location for an off-Earth colony, but all of these would be considerably more expensive to establish than on the Moon. For those of us who think it prudent that we should purchase “insurance” against the extinction of humanity sooner rather than later, the least expensive location makes the most sense. So the Moon is a great place to establish a colony for the purpose of survival.

Interesting, so the Moon is the best place for both economics and survival. Perhaps the two could be combined into a single program. But, in the Age of Austerity, it is unlikely that our governments are going to fund a large new space program. So how can this be done economically?

Three of some of the most encouraging developments in space are:
- the lower launch prices that SpaceX is offering including their large Falcon Heavy,
- the success of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Service (COTS), and
- the incredibly cheap development of small lunar landers thanks to the X-Prizes.

This suggests that there is an inexpensive path to two COTS-like programs:
1) a Commercial Cis-lunar Tranportation Service and
2) a Commercial Lunar Ice Development Service

More details could be given regarding the technical details of how these programs would work but are beyond the scope of this article. Rather, let’s look at how close a lunar ice development venture get a manned base towards full self-sufficiency.

Lunar ice would give drinkable water, breathable oxygen, and the carbon and nitrogen volatiles which would be needed for growing plants. Lunar soil would provide other needed nutrients. So lunar ice mining would already be providing life support supplies greater than what a small colony would need thereby allowing for lengthy stays in an underground shelter. Solar concentrators would provide enough heat to melt regolith allowing for the production of metals, glass, fiberglass, ceramics and such.

But the Moon is a harsh environment requiring high-tech tools just to survive. But one box delivered to the surface of the Moon could provide a hundred years worth of computer chips, or cameras, or air-proof space suit liners thereby buying the colony many years to eventually develop their own technology. So, in a relatively short period of time a self-sufficient lunar colony could be established. Then provide it with deliveries of frozen embryos, seeds, eggs, DNA, and microfiche information and you have the makings for the reboot of a new civilization and biosphere eventually on Mars.

The point of this article is that on off-Earth, self-sufficient colony is not that far away and could be a relatively modest additional step for an economically viable lunar ice operation.

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Comments — comments are now closed.

  • Stuart Eves on September 14, 2011 12:55 am

    A couple of recent developments are also heading in a positive direction relative to this proposal.
    Intelsat are now actively looking at the idea of refuelling their GEO satellites to extend their lifetimes, so the principle of, and technology for, in-orbit refuelling should be well established within the timeframe that a supply service of water from the Moon could be established.

    And my own company SSTL is looking again at using a water-based thruster system for our LEO missions. The specific impulse of water is clearly not as exciting as hydrazine, but the cost and complexity of a “kettle” is far less than traditional propulsion systems, and if the propellant fluid could be supplied from the Moon, this might make it economic for GEO satellites to use water too.

    Regards,

    Stuart

  • Ray Wright on September 14, 2011 5:51 am

    Fully agree with all the above, but I would go on to say that I think that it will not be enough to rely on the modest reduction in launh costs offered by, say, Falcon-9H. The key to lunar colonisation is launch cost. If cost ~$100M to put 10t into LEO, roughly speaking, how much more will it cost to take hundreds of tonnes in terms of humans, supplies and equipment to the moon? Perhaps the LF could work on a programme to design a really low-cost reusable launch vehicle, as a replacement for the Atlas-5, say, with low-technology and low-development-cost aims. To do what we know needs to be done, the launch costs need to be less than 1% of what they are now. I have an idea. See http://spacefleet.co.uk.

  • JohnHunt on September 14, 2011 8:58 am

    @Stuart — Wow, kettle propulsion. Who would have ever guessed?!!

    Yes, I think that water is clearly the first economically viable space resource (after sunlight on solar panels). I’m glad to hear of the develops that you shared.

    Ray > The key to lunar colonisation is launch cost.

    Sort of yes, sort of no. The beauty of beyond LEO is that reusability becomes relatively easy. A single Falcon Heavy launch could put up an Orbital Transfer Vehicle (OTV) which could make numerous trips between LEO and the lunar surface before breaking down. So the cost of that one launch (actually 53t to LEO for $100M) could be spread over dozens of OTV trips. We might actually be on the verge of an era of relatively inexpensive in-space operations.

    > how much more will it cost to take hundreds of tonnes in terms of humans, supplies and equipment to the moon?

    A few billion to be sure. But this could fit within the range of normal NASA Human SpaceFlight (HSF) budgets. Also, if we use ISRU by producing our own bulky metal parts, fewer Falcon Heavy launches would be needed which is the equivalent of lowering launch costs. I look forward to reviewing your idea. I believe there are solutions. Thanks for the input.

  • Donald Maclean on September 16, 2011 7:52 am

    Thank you John for your informative article. You help me understand the need for off-earth self-sufficient colonies. Not knowing about the moon project, I thought that Mars was the goal and I imagined it would take about 200 years to establish a viable colony, which would be too late to save civilization from the existential threats that will come this century, and yes, as a non-scientist, I do understand the risks. I wish you the best in the important work that you do.

  • Scott Brown on September 16, 2011 3:26 pm

    All intelligence points to the Chinese establishing a colony on the Moon in the next two or outside three years.
    It might well be a one-way trip with re-supply the goal.
    They will be generating 24/7 live TV for the world to see and share in the experience.
    I assume from past experience that we here in the USA will still be arguing.

  • JohnHunt on September 20, 2011 2:53 pm

    Scott Brown > All intelligence points to the Chinese establishing a colony on the Moon in the next two or outside three years.

    Well, I would be very suprised if it was in three years or less. They are just now preparing for a Mir-sized LEO station. I haven’t heard anything about a Chinese lunar lander. But if they are able to pull it of…more power to them.

    Scott Brown > I assume from past experience that we here in the USA will still be arguing.

    …or it could be a Sputnik 2.0 moment!