The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

lunar base illustration
The ultimate sucess of national space exploration policy may lie in convincing the public and politicians that the Moon and other destinations in the solar system have economic benefits. (credit: NASA)

Planting a flag is only the beginning

“To think of these stars that you see overhead at night, these vast worlds which we can never reach. I would annex the planets if I could; I often think of that. It makes me sad to see them so clear and yet so far.” — Cecil Rhodes, politician, diamond magnate, and empire-builder

Quite understandably, space exploration advocates have been intently focused for the past few years on the Vision for Space Exploration, which calls for NASA to return astronauts to the Moon, establish an outpost there and then dispatch an expedition to Mars. While the schedule is a bit vague, the general idea seems to be that all this should be accomplished by about 2035.

The Vision is ambitious and, for all its technical faults, has been a much-needed shot in the arm for NASA and the space advocacy community. But a seemingly obvious question has not been asked very often. If all the goals of the Vision are met, what comes next?

A seemingly obvious question has not been asked very often. If all the goals of the Vision are met, what comes next?

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, America achieved the dream of landing a man on the Moon, only to immediately abandon the place and retreat back to Earth orbit. Centuries from now, this will be seen as one of the great mistakes of history. To avoid the errors of the past, we must ensure that the upcoming missions to the Moon and Mars are not mere symbolic acts of flag-planting. We must also ensure that they are not branded as purely scientific enterprises, which would only open the door to the non sequitur of the “robots vs. humans” debate.

Instead, we must begin to frame the discussion in terms of the eventual economic development of the Moon and Mars. The initial exploration of these worlds must be seen as merely a precursor to their eventual colonization. If the dream of spreading humanity across the vastness of the solar system is ever to be realized, the economic development of the Moon and Mars will be just as critical as the initial explorations, if not more so.

But it won’t be easy. If the economic development of the Moon and Mars is ever to be achieved, we will need to regain the pioneering spirit and limitless ambition that prevailed in centuries past, but which has been disturbingly absent in our modern, risk-averse age. The sweeping and grand vision of such men as Sir Walter Raleigh, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Ferdinand de Lesseps, and other such giants of the past needs to be recovered for the 21st century.

The Moon, much easier to get to than Mars, will obviously be the first target for economic development. The Moon has an immediate advantage in that it possesses a critical resource that does not exist naturally on Earth: helium-3. This rare isotope is a necessary fuel for the most powerful nuclear fusion process, that of fusing helium-3 with deuterium. Practical fusion reactors, of course, do not currently exist. But by 2035, we may expect that ITER and other fusion research projects will have finally demonstrated the commercial feasibility of nuclear fusion power and begun to develop much of the technology that will be needed for the practical implementation of nuclear fusion power.

In does prove correct, helium-3 will arguably become the most valuable commodity in the history of mankind. It could serve the same purpose for the Moon that gold served for California, Alaska, and Western Australia. To win the race for this precious resource, the major energy corporations will take great risks, potentially leading to massive private investment in space transportation between the Earth and the Moon. This, in turn, will lead to the development of new launch technologies and the creation of economies of scale, bringing launch costs down dramatically. This will be good news not only for the economic development of the Moon, but also for space exploration and colonization in general.

If all goes well, it would not be surprising to see large-scale mining colonies on the Moon within the next half century, producing the fuel which powers human civilization with scarcely any environmental impact. It’s a dream worth fighting for.

Mars, on the other hand, will be more difficult to develop economically than the Moon. Although it is much more hospitable to human life than the Moon, transit time is vastly greater and it lacks a critical resource that cannot be found on Earth. But if launch costs have come down sufficiently and the psychological barrier of low-Earth orbit has been decisively broken by successes on the Moon, the land of Mars itself could serve as a resource. As I outlined in a previous essay (“The International Agency for the Development of Mars”, The Space Review, December 11, 2006), an internationally-recognized legal framework for the ownership of Martian land could be created. The sale of the land could then finance the further exploration and eventual settlement of the Red Planet.

Abstract and idealistic notions of scientific discovery and the human thirst for adventure might be good enough for space enthusiasts, but they are not good enough for the public at large, nor for the powers that be. They want to know what’s in it for them.

History affords many examples of colonies that were planted in seemingly-unpromising regions. The Pilgrims and Puritans went to Massachusetts, and the Quakers to Pennsylvania, not because they were looking for gold or spices or any other valuable commodity, but simply because they wanted to escape from the social conditions in Europe. Australia, of course, was initially settled for the simple reason that England was running out of room in its prisons. Economic development was not the main purpose of these colonizing projects, but the colonists obviously needed to make a living once they got to where they were going. Perhaps the same will be true for Mars.

But there is another possibility entirely, for many places of seemingly limited immediate value have been occupied for their strategic position. Cape Town, South Africa, exists only because it was a useful place for the Dutch to resupply their ships during the journey from Europe to the East Indies. Similarly, Mars would serve as an ideal base from which to conduct mining operations in the Asteroid Belt.

Of course, the dream of mining resources in the Asteroid Belt can only become reality if a cost-effective mean of getting them safely to Earth’s surface in large quantities can be achieved, perhaps through the construction of a space elevator. Can we hope that, by 2035, carbon nanotube technology has advanced to the point where a space elevator is a realistic possibility, rather than a science-fiction plot device?

Perhaps. If so, the road to the riches of the Asteroid Belt may well run through Mars. Just as Cape Town thrived on European hunger for the spices of the East, so Mars might thrive on the world’s desire for the iron, nickel, cobalt, and other metals in the Asteroid Belt, which can be extracted without damage to the Earth’s environment.

To sum up, it is not enough to simply get back to the Moon and then get to Mars. We need to know what we’re going to do with these places after we get there. And these ideas and concepts need to form the core of the message the space advocacy community presents to the public and, more specifically, to policymakers. Abstract and idealistic notions of scientific discovery and the human thirst for adventure might be good enough for space enthusiasts, but they are not good enough for the public at large, nor for the powers that be. They want to know what’s in it for them. If you ask me, access to effectively unlimited amounts of pollution-free energy and precious raw materials, achieved through the economic development of the Moon and Mars, is a pretty good answer.