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.