The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

lunar base
The EU is well-positioned to take the lead on a “Moon Village” concept, which could have significant benefits for Europe. (credit: Anna Nesterova/Alliance for Space Development)

A major role for the EU in lunar development

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The economy of the European Union (a GDP of $18.5 trillion) exceeds that of the United States, at $17.3 trillion. If Switzerland, Norway, and other associated countries are included, the economy of Europe exceeds that of the US by about $3 trillion. Yet, the EU invests much less in civilian space exploration and space development than the US. The EU has never aspired to lead a large-scale space initiative that could capture the attention of people around the globe.

The EU has never aspired to lead a large-scale space initiative that could capture the attention of people around the globe.

Nevertheless, the EU is a global leader in many realms of science and technology that would be key to the EU providing leadership to a major global space effort. ESA and its member states have a stellar record of successes in space exploration, such as Mars Express and the Rosetta comet mission. The EU has the scientific, technical, and financial capacity to lead a collaborative global project at the scale of the International Space Station (or larger).

Lunar development ultimately will be a much larger program than the ISS. However, lunar development will present increasing opportunities for private investment, lessening the level of required public investment while generating wealth for the entrepreneurs and investors that participate.

There are compelling reasons why the EU should take the lead in this effort:

  • A large-scale project such as lunar development would serve to unify Europe, with roles for both European science and industry, and inspiring young people from all member states.
  • The international cooperation integral to such a project involving many nations would focus attention on shared goals away from divisive issues and lead to greater stability. Continuation of balanced and effective cooperation with the US, Canada, and other countries in the Americas will be important. Partnership with Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and other states in the Eurasian region could open significant opportunities to research and industry from the region that otherwise could remain untapped, contributing to growth and stability throughout Europe and Central Asia. By engaging China, India, Korea, Japan, and others with important roles, the magnitude and impact of the overall opportunity would be expanded and progress would be accelerated.
  • Such a large international undertaking would help build capacities to address global concerns such as climate change, food security, job creation, and planetary defense.
  • No other nation or combination of nations has the capacity to lead lunar development. NASA has indicated that it intends at the moment to focus on the Journey to Mars, a multi-decadal international initiative to establish permanent operations on Mars and in Mars orbit. NASA administrator Charles Bolden has stated that the agency will support international partners and American industry operating on both the Moon and in cislunar space, but that NASA cannot lead lunar development and concurrently lead the Journey to Mars. Other nations can be major contributors and beneficiaries, but none are presently positioned to provide necessary leadership to either lunar/cislunar development or to the Journey to Mars.

How the EU and ESA can provide leadership for lunar development

In the 2020s, lunar and cislunar development can emerge within the EU as a flagship initiative similar in scope to the Digital Single Market. With the significantly increased launch rates and the emergence of spaceplane technologies, we can expect spaceports to emerge in Europe from which spacecraft will launch and land. Heavy launches are likely to continue to proceed from existing spaceports. With high-bandwidth communciations from the Moon, teleoperation centers for lunar mining, construction, and research facilities could be placed anywhere in Europe.

Internationally, lunar development, cislunar development, NASA’s Journey to Mars, space-based solar power, asteroid mining, and planetary defense can be linked by a collaborative framework to exploit shared infrastructure, foster enabling technologies and boost synergies where they exist. The International Lunar Decade (ILD) is conceived as a legally non-binding framework for international collaboration in lunar and cislunar development. A broad range of public and private space initiatives will be getting underway in the coming years, with the 2020–2030 period marked by multiple strategically-directed activities. EU/ESA leadership can be exercised by:

  • Providing forums such as the International Space Exploration Forum (ISEF), the COSPAR Panel for Exploration, the International Space Exploration Coordinating Group (ISECG), the International Lunar/Mars Exploration Working Groups (ILEWG & IMEWG), and others. These forums would serve for setting strategic direction and coordination of international collaboration in research, technology development, the building of infrastructure, and for international space policy formulation. An important element of space policy is the harmonization of effective national policies among participating states to enable and advance space development by firms, research organizations, government agencies, and NGOs based in various countries. Not all EU member states are members of UN COPUOS or even have an articulated national space policy. There need to be a particular emphasis on the development of policies by all participating states that encourage commercial business beyond Earth orbit, such as recent space resources initiatives in the US and Luxembourg.
  • Providing administrative capacity through instruments such as the EU’s Horizon 2020 research funding program to help advance the development of key enabling technologies, as well as technology commercialization pursuant to lunar and cislunar development.
  • Funding core projects such as the development of the lunar power, communications, and navigation utility. The “Lunar Utility” is a core function that would enable multiple other activities. A sufficiently capable lunar utility for preliminary years of exploratory activity has been estimated to cost $300 million, potentially yielding several billion dollars in returns. This would constitute an ideal public-private partnership, since power, communications, and navigation services could be sold to users to generate revenue. The earlier the lunar utility is deployed, the broader will be the range of missions that would become feasible. This is a very important project that deserves priority attention, particularly from the private sector.

Goals for collaboration

The key goal of the ILD is to demonstrate the capacity for a self-sustaining space economy beyond Earth orbit by 2030. A self-sustaining economy is one where invested capital can generate positive returns and create wealth. To date, space activities beyond Earth orbit have largely been driven by government investments, with no markets for goods and services and no direct net financial return on aggregate investments. Government contractors have profited from services provided to governments, such as building rockets for NASA, or providing launch services to the ISS. However, to date aggregate government investments have not generated direct net financial returns. Spinoffs and indirect returns are often lauded, with multiplier impacts attributed to NASA spending ranging to seven or more. But economic impacts have been indirect.

Space is now being promoted by many organizations as a viable investment opportunity. However, until a self-sustaining space economy is achieved, space investments resulting in positive cash flow within three to eight years will not be possible.

There is no possibility of calculating the net present value of government spending on space. While space activists speak about trillion-dollar opportunities in space, aside from government contracts there is no business model for investments in space. A self-sustaining space economy will enable business models with positive returns on investment, which in turn will help justify many ventures and large-scale private investments in space. From that point forward, increased investment will have the potential for increased returns, and space activities will become increasingly driven by economic returns (rather than politically motivated goals).

Space is now being promoted by many organizations as a viable investment opportunity. However, until a self-sustaining space economy is achieved, space investments resulting in positive cash flow within three to eight years will not be possible. This will limit space ventures to a realm for billionaires and the people that they employ, or large government contractors and the smaller firms with whom they subcontract. An exception is the Google Lunar X PRIZE, which is currently opening space exploration to entrepreneurs with modest means suggesting that similar prizes could play an important role in addressing the challenges that arise with the opening of the space frontier.

The ILD is predicated on the idea that there are necessary preconditions for the emergence of a self-sustaining space economy. These preconditions include sufficient infrastructure, key enabling technologies, international agreements governing collaboration in scientific and commercial activities, appropriate national policies consistent with international agreements, and sustained financing, initially from governments. Fulfilling the necessary conditions for the emergence of a self-sustaining space economy should therefore be a principal goal in developing a global space strategy.

Given that the possibility of a self-sustaining space economy is confirmed, then financial innovations can be created that recognize the nature of space investments, which tend to be long term until positive cash flow is generated. Financing instruments have been developed for residential real estate with 30-year terms. Power utilities, mining, and other investments are long term as well. A convincing scenario of a self-sustaining space economy will establish bounds to risk and quantifiable estimates of potential returns that will enable the creation of long-term investment instruments for space development. When suitable investment instruments are developed, and accepted by investors, then investment will flow into the various segments of space development recognizing the long-term potential for profitability and the likely levels of risks.

Results by 2030

What could be achieved through strategically directed international collaboration within the ILD framework by 2030? Here’s a potential list:

  • Reduce the cost of launch to LEO by more than a factor of 10, due to a combination of innovations and significantly increased frequencies of launch.
  • Develop an Earth-Moon transportation system that could enable reductions in the costs of delivering payloads to the lunar surface, comparable to the cost of reaching LEO in 2015. This includes the use of effective cargo transfer strategies from GTO to lunar orbit using solar electric propulsion.
  • Facilitate international agreements for mining rights on the Moon, and related policies to govern commercial activities on the Moon and in cislunar space. Also, develop corresponding national legislation that facilitates the participation of private enterprise, NGOs, research organizations, universities, and other participants in collaborative space activities on the Moon and in cislunar space.
  • Enable space development funds providing long-term financing for space ventures.
  • Develop a lunar power-communications-navigation utility that would enable operations through the lunar night and dramatically enhance productivity (see “The lunar electrical power utility”, The Space Review, November 9, 2015).
  • Launch ISRU operations, including but not limited to water and oxygen, sold to fuel spacecraft, provide life support and radiation shielding, and address other resource needs.
  • Stimulate emerging markets for lunar and asteroid derived materials, including fuel and radiation shielding for Mars and other deep space missions.
  • Enable construction of facilities from lunar materials using 3-D printing.
  • Establish a farside lunar outpost, staffed with 10–12 rotating personnel with a habitat expansion potential to 50 or more people.
  • Construct a lunar research park, initially robotic, with a growing number of private firms from the EU, US, and elsewhere operating as tenants benefiting from the services provided by the lunar utility.
  • Establish a space exploration outpost at Earth-Moon L1 and other points.
  • Increase the perceived value of space investments by orders of magnitude, based on anticipation of credible large future returns.

Government investment creates new markets

While significant government investments are likely to be required well beyond 2030 to foster industrial developments on the Moon and in cislunar space, the demonstration of the potential for a self-sustaining space economy can justify long-term space development financing mechanisms. Given long-term financing mechanisms providing stable investment rules, private investment will significantly expand. An analog exists in the housing market and the creation of 30-year mortgages backed by government guarantees with associated tax policies that allow for deduction of mortgage interest from taxes.

The perception that a self-sustaining space economy is possible will stimulate creation of long-term financing instruments that will enable ISRU, power generation, and other activities launched by government investments that create new markets where private industry can build wealth. Advocates of asteroid mining speak of trillion-dollar opportunities in space. Space-based solar power could service a significant share of global power demand, which in turn could generate trillions of dollars in revenue.

A major role for the EU

Emerging from many discussions currently underway is a vision for a substantial role that Europe and the EU can play in developing major projects like the proposed Moon Village, which would position the EU as a central player in the development of infrastructure in cislunar space and on the Moon, in turn leading to permanently crewed facilities on the lunar surface and the startup of mining and industrial operations. The range of technologies that would come into play would significantly surpass all other space development efforts to date. Much of the new technology developed for space will also have potential for technology transfer to multiple terrestrial applications. Commercialization of these new technologies could have a transformational impact on the economy of Europe.

To benefit from leadership, the EU will have to lead through the formation of a global consortium and the development of a strategic action plan that can guide collaborative efforts to achieve the strategic goals to enable the vision described above.

Many space advocates look to the US, and specifically to NASA as the most capable space agency, to take the lead in lunar exploration and development. However, there are multiple difficulties with such a scenario.

The Moon Village will need to welcome participation from both international partners and private business. Each international partner would provide their own financing and possibly support from companies headquartered in their territories. However, the Moon Village will require an “anchor tenant” responsible for building the core capabilities in cislunar space and on the lunar surface that would make participation in Moon Village attractive to both international partners and private industry. Building the core capabilities will require significant new investments—in the billions of dollars per year—from the EU or ESA over the decadal span of the ILD. Aggregate investment from other partners would depend on the value they anticipate receiving through participation. We anticipate with significant investment by partners could result in a combined ILD investment of more than $100 billion over the course of the decade.

This scenario of EU leadership for lunar development assumes continued NASA focus on the Journey to Mars, with significant concentration by NASA on developing cislunar capabilities in fuel depots, spacecraft assembly and staging facilities, energy facilities, and similar operations during the “Proving Ground” phase of project. NASA would continue to provide support to international partners, as well as to private industry operating on the Moon and in cislunar space, but not exercise a US leadership role for lunar development. Concurrently, NASA would be a customer for fuel and other products from the Moon, contributing to the creation of markets for initial space production and the development of fuel depots in LEO, EM-1, and other optimal distribution points. NASA would also benefit from knowledge and experience gained on the Moon and operate as one of the tenants of Moon Village, without shouldering the significant expenses incurred by ESA as the coordinator. Concurrently, American industry, with NASA support, could pursue lunar mining, space-based solar power, space manufacturing, space agriculture, space tourism, and other opportunities while benefiting from the infrastructure provided by the Moon Village and related facilities in cislunar space.

EU leadership for lunar development has many advantages

Many space advocates look to the US, and specifically to NASA as the most capable space agency, to take the lead in lunar exploration and development. However, there are multiple difficulties with such a scenario. Domestically, Congress may be reluctant to support a major space initiative where the US assumes overall responsibility and risks and has to provide the bulk of financing. Current US law also essentially prohibits NASA from collaborating with China, with no signs of that changing for the foreseeable future. China has a declared interest in lunar exploration and development, which require decisions on how to accommodate China. If lunar development was a NASA-led undertaking, yet NASA could not collaborate with China, this would eliminate a major source of potential financial support and create barriers to effective operation on the Moon.

NASA leadership could potentially have an inhibitory impact on the development of space capabilities by ESA and other global partners. The EU and ESA have the potential to take on greater challenges than before. NASA, by stepping back, can enable ESA and other international partners to assume major responsibilities for space development, nearer to the Earth and within reach of their capabilities. NASA can then focus on goals that are further out, both in time and space, and more difficult to achieve, thereby creating additional opportunities for ESA and other partners. This would also allow NASA to achieve its goals within the budget that Congress is likely to appropriate in the coming years. However, ESA and the EU, by assuming leadership and coordination responsibility for lunar development and related cislunar activities, would contribute more financing than if they played a secondary role. Aggregate global investment in space development would be increased and overall progress in space would be speeded up and deepened.

In view of potential for space development, increased spending on space represents a very attractive direction for the EU to increase the intensity of its research effort. Several “EU13” member states had developed significant capabilities in space R&D during the Soviet era that have been underutilized in the post-Soviet era. Space R&D may offer a promising direction to accelerate R&D intensity in Eastern European countries sometimes characterized as modest R&D performers. Clearly, the EU has the scientific, industrial, and financial capacity to undertake a large-scale, globally significant space initiative.

The EU and ESA can readily collaborate with China and other UN member states, with the capacity to enter into long-term partnerships in space R&D and space development. The EU is already uniquely configured to manage large-scale international research and development projects involving public and private actors through its Horizon 2020 research funding program. Administrative processes are already in place, with provisions for co-funding research with other countries, including the US, China, Russia, India, South Korea, and Brazil, among others.

If lunar development was a NASA-led undertaking, yet NASA could not collaborate with China, this would eliminate a major source of potential financial support and create barriers to effective operation on the Moon.

Horizon 2020 research and development programs can accommodate complex, multi-partner projects, with industrial and academic partners from multiple countries working to achieve well-defined strategic objectives that can include excellent science as well as commercial development. High-value projects crucial for achieving ILD strategic objectives and milestones can be defined as calls for collaborative research, with agreements reached with participating non-EU associated countries based on existing, proven programs. Project submission, project proposal review, and grant and administration processes have been demonstrated through both Horizon 2020 and predecessor Framework programs with thousands of projects.

No other country or group of countries has achieved what the EU Commission has accomplished to facilitate and coordinate collaborative research and development. The EU has created many other instruments for international collaboration that could potentially be adapted to advance ILD objectives. One example is the EU Partnership with the African Union that could be used to advance capacity for space technology and knowledge utilization in Africa to address climate change and other societal challenges.

Project development process

As with comparable large-scale initiatives, a panel of high-level experts could develop a roadmap, drawing on previous work by various organizations. Having both the Journey to Mars and Moon Village underway concurrently will create some challenges, with multiple shared elements in cislunar space as well as on the Moon. In some cases, the Journey to Mars will create markets for lunar products. In other cases, the same enabling technologies may be required. Adding even more complexity, both Journey to Mars and Moon Village will have purely scientific objectives as well as meeting the needs for commercial development.

The principal strategic goal of the ILD is to achieve a breakthrough to a self-sustaining space economy, where space investments become rationally economically motivated rather than politically determined or chosen for emotional reasons. This means that policy elements necessary for commercial activities to be underway on the Moon and in cislunar space need to be addressed concurrently with R&D activities and space mission planning. This ILD roadmap could then be subdivided into key ILD milestones, including:

  • Development of key enabling technologies for ISRU, energy, navigation, and other applications.
  • Development of infrastructure facilities shared by all Moon Village partners.
  • Development of policies to govern international collaboration and commercial activities including both international agreements as well as harmonization of applicable national laws and policies among participating parties.
  • Development of technology transfer and commercialization packages to facilitate both lunar and cislunar development and to the advancement of NASA’s Journey to Mars, particularly during the Proving Ground phase.

Benefits to NASA and to the US

Thus far the US has led the world in space science and technology investments. If the rest of the world invested more in space, launch rates would increase, operational costs would decrease, and space technologies would advance more rapidly. Of particular importance is the development of infrastructure in space that would enable a greater range of activities that require more people working in space, thereby driving the further development of habitat designs and broadening the market to more competitors.

The EU is probably the only economy with a near-term capacity to increase civilian space investment to levels comparable to the US.

Those that have already invested heavily in space ventures, such as Musk, Bezos, Bigelow, Branson, Allen, and others will be presented with major opportunities made possible by space infrastructure and stable, business-friendly policies to exploit and expand upon their investments. Favorable polices, infrastructure, and technological advances that lower the cost of many activities in space will enable many more people to be directly involved in space through entrepreneurship and careers. This will drive increased public support for space activities, benefiting NASA in its pursuit of space science and deep space exploration.

The EU is the largest economy in the world and is as technologically advanced as the US. The EU, however, has not pursued Apollo-scale civilian space programs, and never had reasons to pursue intercontinental missile technology, so its major launch capabilities lag the US. The EU is probably the only economy with a near-term capacity to increase civilian space investment to levels comparable to the US. The primary benefits of lunar development to the US would be that NASA’s Journey to Mars initiative would experience reduced costs and risks, thanks to technology innovation achieved by international partners and private industry on the Moon and in cislunar space. NASA will be in a position to purchase fuel and other products sourced from lunar ISRU and distributed through storage depots positioned in LEO or in other Earth orbits, while developing markets for such products that would contribute to the emergence of a self-sustaining space economy.

Benefits to the EU and ESA

Moon Village and its associated infrastructure in cislunar space represents an Apollo-scale space initiative that can capture the imagination of the world and of all EU member states. All member states could have significant roles to play in this undertaking, helping to build a unity of purpose for the EU as a whole while generating substantial economic benefits. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, along with other new EU member states from Eastern Europe, played significant roles in the Soviet space program. Significant space science and space technology capabilities exist in these countries that has not been fully utilized. A most notable example is Ukraine, which has an Association status with the EU. Ukraine is a major player in rocket technology and could make a substantial contribution to advance the development of the EU space launch industry. An EU-led, large-scale project like Moon Village could make a major contribution to the economic development of Ukraine, enabling that country to attain a stable long-term development trajectory.

The space infrastructure and capabilities envisioned with Moon Village would not only build enabling technologies and capacity for reaching further into the solar system, but also provide the foundations for addressing climate change and planetary defense on Earth.

The EU as customer and ESA as implementing space agency, together with international and commercial partners, can play a major role in advancing global progress into space, as well as utilization of space technologies and space resources to meet the future goals and needs of humankind.

The EU Horizon 2020 program includes multiple initiatives to facilitate technology commercialization and to accelerate entrepreneurial development. Such program elements could foster a space renaissance with the launch of hundreds, if not thousands, of new firms specializing in diverse industrial aspects of housing, feeding, and entertaining thousands of people working in space and on the Moon.

The EU has a strong banking and financial services industry, with extensive experience in mining and similar fields that require major investments. Innovations in financial services and banking will be key to opening up the space frontier, and European banks can be leaders in this development.

Estimates of required investments in space

At present, US investment in space (at about $40 billion a year for military and NASA programs) dwarfs all other national space budgets. The current NASA budget is about $19.2 billion.

ESA and major EU member state governmental investments in space include:

ESA $5,500 million
France $2,170 million
Germany $2,000 million
Italy $1,800 million
UK $440 million
EU Commission $2,700 million

If the EU in partnership with ESA would assume leadership on the Moon Village initiative, the total European space budget could rise to perhaps $20 billion a year. However, during the course of the International Lunar Decade (2020–2030), private investment would come increasingly into play and the public share would decrease. Some private investments would be obtained through private-public partnerships, analogous to NASA’s Commercial Crew or Commercial Cargo programs. Lunar mining, lunar utility, and lunar construction operations could all be commercial businesses, as could the operations of fuel depots and assembly/ staging facilities, and habitats in cislunar space.

The multiplier impact on European industrial development would be substantial. ISRU technologies could have multiple applications in terrestrial materials processing and manufacturing. Space agriculture could drive innovations in agriculture and sustainable development that ultimately would enable more effective adaptation to climate change on Earth. The positive impact on the global public of a transformational undertaking in space cannot be calculated, but it may be the greatest benefit of the ILD. This would have a particularly large, positive impact on the EU, serving to help knit the European Union more closely together and contributing to the strengthening of a future-oriented European identity.

The space infrastructure and capabilities envisioned with Moon Village would not only build enabling technologies and capacity for reaching further into the solar system, but also provide the foundations for addressing climate change and planetary defense on Earth. Space-based solar power can potentially become a vital source of power for disaster relief, with orbiting powersats able to beam power down to any point on Earth. As the technology is perfected, space-based solar power has the potential to become competitive with any terrestrial power source, providing carbon free power without polluting the Earth.

Much of the technological capacity that would be required to deflect even relatively large asteroids (if there is sufficient warning) will be developed to meet requirements for Moon Village, the Journey to Mars, and related infrastructure development in cislunar space. Estimates of investments required to upgrade the US, Russian, Chinese and other nuclear arsenals over the next 30 years exceed a trillion dollars. If such funding were dedicated to space development, humankind could establish industries in space and on the Moon, make the Journey to Mars, provide carbon free power to meet human needs while fighting climate change, and prepare for planetary defense. Wars can be avoided through dialogue. Killer asteroids don’t engage in dialogue (have you ever asked one?) It is time to rethink our priorities!

Work defining the International Lunar Decade is proceeding. ILD Working Group member David Dunlop presented the ILD vision to UN COPUOS during the Scientific & Technical Subcommittee session on February 22. We are targeting COPUOS endorsement of ILD in 2017 or 2018 with the UNISPACE+50 Conference. See

Our next steps include presentations at several upcoming major conferences: EGU in Vienna in April, ISDC in Puerto Rico in May, COSPAR in Istanbul in July, and the IAC in Guadalajara, Mexico in September.