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lunar base
European leadership on the “Moon Village” concept could provide benefits for Europe, as well as aid NASA’s Mars exploration plans. (credit: Anna Nesterova/Alliance for Space Development)

The US should challenge the EU to lead lunar development

An open letter to President Barack Obama

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Dear Mr. President,

In your 2010 space policy speech you stated:

“I understand that some believe we should attempt a return to the surface of the Moon first, as previously planned. But I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We’ve been there before. Buzz has been there. There’s a lot more of space to explore, and a lot more to learn when we do. So I believe it’s more important to ramp up our capabilities to reach—and operate at—a series of increasingly demanding targets, while advancing our technological capabilities with each step forward.”

In keeping with your space policy of reaching and operating at increasingly demanding targets, NASA has placed its focus on its Journey to Mars, a plan to explore Mars and its moons Phobos and Deimos. The ultimate goal includes permanent human operations on Mars sometime after 2030.

ESA’s Moon Village would advance strategic American space policy goals and contribute to NASA’s proposed Journey to Mars.

Critics in Congress have questioned NASA’s technical capabilities to achieve success to reach Mars within anticipated NASA budgets. They suggest less ambitious goals largely focused on returning to the Moon. Several research studies point to the Moon as a stepping-stone to Mars, offering the potential for significant cost savings through use of lunar water for fuel and radiation shielding for the long trip to Mars. Additionally, infrastructure in cislunar space, such as fuel depots and spacecraft assembly facilities, can significantly reduce the costs and risks of reaching Mars.

Several space agencies are planning lunar exploration missions. Thus far, only the European Space Agency (ESA) has proposed an integrated program of lunar exploration and development involving multiple international partners and private industry that could potentially address some of NASA’s needs for lunar water and other materials for its Mars program.

ESA’s Director General Johann-Dietrich Wörner has proposed “Moon Village”, a permanent base on the far side of the Moon. Moon Village is like the “anchor tenant” in a broader development of the Moon and in lunar orbit that can provide others with electrical power, broadband communications, and other services. Wörner sees Moon Village as a next step after the US-led International Space Station (ISS), comparable in scope to ISS, but expanding international collaboration to both the lunar surface and lunar orbit. The Moon Village envisions international collaboration in lunar exploration and R&D. One goal is to conduct science that is not possible on Earth, such as radio astronomy from the lunar farside, which is of particular value because it is shielded from the tumult of radio signals from Earth.

Another goal, which is also linked to NASA’s requirements for the Journey to Mars, is in situ resource utilization (ISRU). Ice has been discovered in the pits of craters in the polar regions that are in permanent darkness. Potentially, this ice can be converted into fuel for spacecraft, radiation shielding, or for use in life support systems. If the ice can be mined and processed cost effectively, it would represent a substantial cost savings. Other ISRU opportunities include the processing of lunar regolith into oxygen and other constituent elements. The regolith also includes silicon, which could potentially be purified and made into solar cells. Other lunar materials could be processed for 3-D printing of structural materials for facilities on the Moon or, potentially, spacecraft components.

Every kilogram from lunar material that can replace a kilogram lifted from Earth has a value equal to the cost of getting it to orbit or to the Moon. At present, the cost of getting a kilogram to the lunar surface is about $1 million. As markets emerge for products developed from lunar resources, the cost of getting to the Moon will decrease, but the cost of extracting useful materials from the Moon will decrease further as production increases.

ESA’s Moon Village would advance strategic American space policy goals. Knowledge gained through operating on the Moon and in cislunar space, as well as the fuel and other products made from lunar materials, will contribute to NASA’s proposed Journey to Mars.

If ESA decides to lead lunar development, then prospects for success of NASA’s long-term strategy would improve.

Budget-minded experts have attacked both visionary plans as unattainable with anticipated budget resources for NASA and ESA. In the US, groups are working to redirect NASA to focus on lunar development following the 2016 election. EU institutions are presently under attack from anti-EU nationalist forces due to perceived threats from migrants and terrorists. EU political and budgetary support for new large-scale space projects is uncertain.

NASA administrator Charles Bolden stated last year:

“We’re going to spend a 10-year period of time between 2020 to 2030 in cislunar space,” Bolden said, “trying to establish an infrastructure in lunar orbit from which we can help entrepreneurs, international partners and the like who want to get down to the surface of the Moon.”

NASA “can’t lead it,” Bolden added. “But I hope you’ll let me have at least one astronaut on the mission that goes down to the surface of the Moon … because there is invaluable experience to be gained from doing that.”

If ESA decides to lead lunar development, then prospects for success of NASA’s long-term strategy would improve. Fuel, water for life support, radiation shielding, and other products critically needed for deep space missions such as Journey to Mars can be produced from lunar resources. The capacity for mining and industrial production on the Moon will require significant collaboration among international partners and private industry, both on the Moon and in cislunar space. With an economy larger than the US, the EU is well-equipped to foster such collaboration.

The infrastructure and technical capabilities required to support Moon Village and Journey to Mars provide foundations to address planetary defense concerns like asteroid impacts and major solar events. They can also play a major role in addressing climate change. Lunar development requires the capacity to provide energy and broadband communications to any point on the Moon. The ability to beam power to any point on the surface from space can also meet needs on Earth, starting with power for recovery from major disasters such as Fukushima. Ultimately, space-based solar power could provide carbon-free electrical power to combat climate change.

The EU would significantly benefit from undertaking the challenge of leading lunar development. Such a major undertaking would help integrate Europe at a time of increasing internal divisive pressures. Tim Peake is an ESA astronaut from Britain presently living on the ISS, and has a huge following. ISS and the potential for more astronauts from EU member states would be widely supported.

EU leadership would also provide ways to simultaneously engage Russia and Ukraine, benefiting both while contributing to long-term regional stability in Europe. The EU has the capacity to collaborate with China in space which is likely to become increasingly important where present US domestic politics hinders direct collaboration with China in space. The EU’s Horizon 2020 program for research funding is set up to enable collaboration in defined fields between EU member states and the US and other countries. The post-2020 successor to Horizon 2020 could be readily adapted to include funding of a lunar initiative.

The EU can afford to invest more in space. In fact, the EU must invest more in space, if it is to be a player in the emerging space economy.

US leadership of the International Space Station (ISS) created heavy budgetary demands. For the EU to lead lunar development, it will need to provide critical infrastructure and core (anchor tenant) facilities that enable NASA, Russia, China, India, Japan, Korea, and other partners to set up shop in the Moon Village or in operations in cislunar space. Some concepts for Moon Village anticipate largely robotic operations on the Moon with a crewed facility at the Earth-Moon L1 Lagrange point. This could probably be done for less than $10 billion. A more expansive Moon Village, with 10 or more astronauts and various ISRU pilot operations on the Moon and cislunar infrastructure, could potentially require $100 billion or more by 2030. If ESA and EU public and private sources make up roughly half the budget, and NASA and other space agencies along with US industrial partners the other half, then NASA’s contributions could be managed within expected NASA budgets. But, much more could be accomplished than if NASA bore the increased expenses that would come with leading the effort.

The EU, ESA, and member states combined spend significantly less than NASA on civilian space, yet the economy of the EU and closely associated nations exceeds that of the US by about $3 trillion. The EU can afford to invest more in space. In fact, the EU must invest more in space, if it is to be a player in the emerging space economy.

If the US and the EU partnered to bring about a self-sustaining space economy, inviting all other nations to join, there would be a substantial boost to global economic growth and jobs. The pillars of the partnership could be NASA’s Journey to Mars, ESA’s Moon Village, and cislunar infrastructure for planetary defense and climate change mitigation.

ESA needs a firm commitment from the EU to move forward with a plan with significantly increased expenditures for space that exceed ESA member states’ customary allocations. What would help to secure such a commitment from the EU would be:

  1. A commitment by NASA to participate in ESA’s Moon Village.
  2. A top-level meeting with EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and other EU leaders signaling US support for a US-EU partnership for international collaboration in space.

Respectfully yours,

Vidvuds Beldavs
Founding member, International Lunar Decade Working Group