Are lunar fuel depots needed for Mars missions?
by Chris Carberry and Rick Zucker
|It is questionable whether the enormous expenditure of time and resources that would be required to build up the required infrastructure on the Moon to utilize those resources would actually have any clear benefit to human Mars exploration.|
Reports from recent NASA missions have indicated that there is probably some quantity of water ice in the lunar polar regions, in craters that are permanently in shadow from the Sun. Unfortunately, it is unknown how much ice is there, or what form it is in, or how difficult it will be to extract it. Because of the conditions inherent in those particular regions, prospecting there would not be a task that we would assign to astronauts to perform—and robots may have a hard time operating due to the extreme cold and other hazards. We would certainly have to send many robotic explorers, of a technical complexity not yet attained. Significant experimentation would be required with various techniques that would almost certainly take years, and that would just serve to establish whether or not these regions are a realistic option for fuel generation in the first place.
Even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that such a process is feasible and could move forward, the costs of the experimental phase and then actually building a functioning production facility and operations are unknown. It would be safe to assume, however, that it would not be an inexpensive proposition. There is also the issue of storing hydrogen and oxygen, probably in liquid form; storing such supercool liquids for extended periods is known as a major technical challenge yet to be addressed.
Then, we would need to get this fuel off the lunar surface to make it accessible to Mars-bound (or other) missions, which would require yet another complex architecture on the surface of the Moon. Launching this hypothetical fuel into space from the Moon would be adding yet another gravity well to overcome. In total, this process would certainly be far more complex and expensive than sending humans to Mars using current mission architecture concepts. Indeed, current NASA Mars mission architectures rely to a great extent on solar electric propulsion, which does not use hydrogen or oxygen as a propellant.
It is also difficult to see a business case or a sufficient return on investment for such fuel depots on the Moon in the near term, aside from the issue of going on to Mars. At least in the foreseeable future, any customer of such depots would be limited to government entities, and even that is far from certain. This would essentially be a case of the “cart being put before the horse.” It would be risky in the extreme to spend all this money up front on infrastructure, essentially betting the house, with such a questionable likelihood of an actual payoff. We can see humans on Mars within the next couple of decades, but we won’t if we wait for a scenario to develop that will, even under the best of circumstances, delay sending humans to Mars.
|While there are still developmental and many technological challenges to overcome, the main obstacle to moving on to Mars isn’t the lack of fuel depots on the Moon, or even sufficient funding, but instead is our seeming lack of ability to maintain a consistent long-term space policy.|
The fact that the near-term value of lunar fuel depots is questionable does not mean that lunar missions in general should not be encouraged. Limited near-term lunar missions, based on international and US exploration objectives, can have value, but should be done with the goal of moving on to Mars on a clear and aggressive schedule. If private/commercial entities and/or other interests want to build a lunar base and fuel depots, then that should happen independently and on self-sufficient terms. That scenario would be a great accomplishment in its own right and would also likely be based on need. It should not, however, attempt to justify itself, and the required massive technology development project that it would entail, in the guise of enabling human Mars missions.
In the end, we all hope that humanity can build a robust space economy that includes fuel depots on the Moon and other ambitious capabilities, but we can’t allow ourselves to be sidetracked. We can’t employ an “if we build it, they will come” mentality.
NASA, the private sector, and others have developed viable concepts for sending humans to Mars, ones that are both affordable and sustainable. While there are still developmental and many technological challenges to overcome, the main obstacle to moving on to Mars isn’t the lack of fuel depots on the Moon, or even sufficient funding, but instead is our seeming lack of ability to maintain a consistent long-term space policy. We need to accelerate forward on the path to Mars.