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Russian Moon base illustration
This illustration, as published in a Russian newspaper, was intended to illustrate Russian concepts for a lunar base and helium-3 mining facility; the artwork was actually copied. (source: Komsomolskaya Pravda)

Moonscam: Russians try to sell the Moon for foreign cash

With NASA’s return to the Moon plans struggling with severe budget constraints, advocates of expanded human spaceflight both inside the agency and outside it have been encouraged by a blitz of publicity from Russia concerning their own plans to build a Moon base in the next ten to fifteen years. The vision of the 1960’s “Moon Race” and the astronomical funding levels it engendered is bound to cheer up today’s spaceflight advocates.

At a seminar on space research at Moscow’s Bauman State Technological University on January 25, a leading Russian space official proclaimed that a moon base could solve the world’s energy crisis by mining the isotope helium-3, potentially a valuable fuel for nuclear fusion power plants. “We are planning to build a permanent base on the moon by 2015 and by 2020 we can begin the industrial-scale delivery… of the rare isotope helium-3,” Nikolay Sevastianov announced.

Sevastianov and other experts are first and foremost spaceship salesmen, not spaceship buyers. What they are announcing is their willingness to carry out the described mission, if somebody else steps up and pays for it.

Sevastianov, the recently-appointed head of the Energia Rocket and Space Corporation (the firm that builds and operates all of Russia’s human space vehicles), claimed that one ton of helium-3 could produce as much energy as 14 million tons of oil. “Ten tons of helium-3 would be enough to meet the yearly energy needs of Russia,” he added. “There are practically no reserves of helium on the Earth. On the Moon, there are between 1 million and 500 million tons, according to various estimates,” he said, enough for the entire planet’s energy needs for a thousand years.

“We are optimistic about a complex for transportation which can be created by 2015, and a complex for extracting helium-3 on the Moon can be built by 2020,” Sevastianov told “Russia TV” reporter Aleksandr Rogatkin in a program aired January 29.

But exultation may be premature. The first thing an observer must notice about this chorus of bold Moon talk is its source. Sevastianov and other experts are first and foremost spaceship salesmen, not spaceship buyers. What they are announcing is their willingness to carry out the described mission, if somebody else steps up and pays for it.

An Associated Press story prudently pointed out that “Sevastianov’s statement appeared to be part of Energia’s publicity campaign aimed at attracting government funding for the development of a next-generation spacecraft.” The story continued with commendable caution: “Not everyone is sold on the promise of helium-3: A workable fusion reactor is still decades away, and researchers say that the technology for using helium-3 is more difficult than the technology for other potential fusion fuels that would be more abundant on Earth. Even if the technique for helium-3-based fusion were perfected, mining the material on the moon and bringing it to Earth may not make economic sense, skeptics say.”

At the Bauman seminar, held annually in honor of Soviet space program founder Sergey Korolyov (1906–1966), one of Korolyov’s surviving colleagues urged support for the proposals.

“Our state must develop a state program for lunar exploration,” Boris Chertok told a television reporter. “We must start thinking as early as today what energy will be used for producing electricity for our distant descendants. We must not use up everything and leave them unable to survive.” Adding in a reference to the ongoing record cold snap in Russia, Chertok continued: “The poor chaps should not freeze.”

Franchising Russian spacecraft

Seeking private funding for major new space projects is actually a standard Russian practice. In the past two years, many innovative space vehicles have been touted in Russia. Their common feature is a lack of substantial Russian federal funding. Instead, space agency and industry officials have been instructed to talk up the virtues of this new hardware and find foreign partners willing to foot most of the bill.

The concept of mining helium-3 from lunar dirt is not original with Russia, and has been discussed at length in the Western space literature. This is underscored by an embarrassing slip-up: not even the artwork released in Russia to show “a typical Moon base” is original. It too has been ripped off from Western sources, often apparently in violation of international copyright laws.

One Moon base concept shown on the Komsomolskaya Pravda website on January 27 (http://www.kp.ru/upimg/photo/57527.jpg) was carefully labeled in Russian, showing the helium-3 refinery and the storage and transshipment equipment. But within three hours space observer Rusty Barton had posted on an Internet space policy newsgroup the URL of the original artwork by Roger Arno (http://www.challenger.org/pacct/Images/LunarBase-fs.jpg), with the notice: “copyright 1996-97, California Institute of Technology. All rights reserved. Further reproduction is prohibited.”

Russia can and does produce original spacecraft, but in recent years mostly on other people’s money.

Russia can and does produce original spacecraft, but in recent years mostly on other people’s money. The Russian space industry has been offering space services to foreign customers since the fall of the Soviet Union, and in good years brought in $500 to $800 million for launches, manufacturing, and testing and operating vehicles. For money, it has built segments of the International Space Station, while paying for other components out of the federal budget.

The Europeans have paid Russian firms to build a new launch pad in Kourou, French Guiana, for the Soyuz rocket, and to build and test an inflatable heat shield for returning material (and ultimately crewmembers) from the space station. And the two biggest “jewels in the space crown” of Russia’s future space program, the Kliper human spacecraft and the Angara family of booster rockets, rely almost exclusively on foreign financial support.

This is not at all inherently a bad thing, since Russia has shown that it can deliver on its spacecraft contracts, both for routine space transportation and for innovative development. Where foreign partners want to play their own leading roles in projects independent of, and complementary or competitive to, US projects, it could be a win-win-win situation all around.

Additional voices

Space geologist Erik Galimov, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, added that immediate steps must be taken to explore potential mining sites. “We should start geological survey, make maps of blocs exposed to the Sun, and design experimental installations if we want to start the production of helium-3 on the Moon in 15–20 years,” he said.

“There is nothing difficult from the engineer’s point of view in the production of helium-3,” he continued. “It is only a matter of investments.”

He calculates that an area of 10–15 square kilometers with the depth of three meters will be enough for producing one ton of helium-3. Engineers will have to remove and purify three meters of sand, enrich helium-3, and liquidify it for the delivery to the Earth.

“It is much easier to develop resources on the Moon than to produce oil on the Earth,” Galimov continued. “The Moon should become part of the Earth economy, as helium-3 is the only alternative to modern energy sources, which will ensure the normal environmental future of the planet,” he said.

Where foreign partners want to play their own leading roles in projects independent of, and complementary or competitive to, US projects, it could be a win-win-win situation all around.

Raising the stakes, a spokesman for another vastly underemployed Russian spacecraft builder fanned anxieties that a Chinese-Russian alliance would stake out lunar resources first—unless, presumably, European and American money (or for that matter, even Moscow’s own money) showed up first. At the same space conference, Alexander Lukyanchikov from the Lavochkin Research and Production Center told TASS January 27 that before mining the Moon, unmanned spacecraft (coincidentally, the kind his company used to build for the Soviet government during the glory days of the “Space Race”) would be needed first.

“Before building a manned base, we should study the Moon with the help of unmanned apparatuses and build a research compound, which will become a future industrial base,” he said.

He did admit that such projects had been sparse for several decades: “Although Russia had not been working on a lunar program for the past 30 years, the center carried on research of planetary rovers,” he continued. “That research will make the core of the lunar research compound, which will have scientific and applied tasks,” such as the helium-3 refinery.

The Lavochkin Bureau, he modestly suggested, was ready to manufacture “a number of light and heavy lunar rovers, telecom and astrophysical compounds, a runway, large-size antennas and other facilities,” whatever a still-unidentified customer is willing to pay for. And remote-sensing satellites in lunar orbit, he added.

The project would not require large investments, he went on, because the launches of all vehicles with the exception of heavy lunar rovers can be done onboard existing Rockot or Zenit rockets that could be purchased from yet another team of starving rocket scientists.

Sergey Buslayev, another official at the Lavochkin company, showed pictures of old Lunokhod Moon rovers to a television reporter. “It is a kind of a geologist who will automatically move on the surface and find places which are richer in helium.” The Russian TV correspondent ended his program with the best estimate of actual costs for such a project: “The most modest calculations say 20 billion to 30 billion dollars will be required,” he casually pointed out—with no indication of who might be willing to pay for it.


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