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Moon Express lander
A lunar lander prototype under development by one of the Google Lunar X Prize teams using 3-D manufactured parts and COTS software and camera technology not available only a few years ago. (credit: Moon Express/D. Webber)

Two small steps for humankind

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It has been gratifying to read recently of some initiatives to place eventual space settlement on the list of key purposes for NASA and the US space program in general, including legislation proposed by Congressman Dana Rohrabacher to maker space settlement a national goal. Whether or not the language is enacted this time around, it has nevertheless become respectable to even talk about “the s-word” on Capitol Hill, which is in itself a major step forward. It will get there eventually, we may now be reasonably sure.

It simply will not work to cost it all out, add it up, and present Congress and the President with the bill. If we are honest, we know that this approach will not work this time around.

Of course, it would be tempting at this point to propose a complete program to achieve that end, with all the technical steps in between, and indeed various groups have already done this. We all know the kind of activities involved, and there are many estimates about how long it would take and how much it would cost.

The problem, of course, is how to fund it. It simply will not work to cost it all out, add it up, and present Congress and the President with the bill. If we are honest, we know that this approach will not work this time around. It has been tried multiple times since the end of Apollo, and I believe that route has been demonstrated not to be successful. Instead of a full bill, I believe we therefore need instead to present something to Congress that is clear and simple and manageable within a single Presidential term, and which costs no more than current NASA budgets, yet which is clearly designed to fit in with the long term aim of space settlement.

This is not disingenuous. I am not suggesting we attempt a Trojan Horse strategy where we do not let Congress know the ultimate costs. It is simply a recognition of the fact that we really don’t know how much it will eventually cost for the whole shebang. Nor do we know how long it will take, except that it will clearly take longer than one Presidential term—maybe more than ten of them. So, let’s figure out how to get started, and fund just that part out of ongoing NASA budgets, and then keep on headed in the right direction. Subsequent administrations can continue to develop, and fund, the technologies and infrastructure needed.

The independent variable is the timescale. So long as each administration agrees to support, and fund, the next couple of steps, then we will achieve our goal. The details of the steps will change as time, and technology, progresses. So it would be counterproductive in any case to try to define the whole approach from the beginning. The Google Lunar X Prize is an example of some lunar exploration initiatives that would not have been possible even a decade ago; the spacecraft for that competition rely on software, manufacturing, and camera technology that has only become available in the public domain in the last few years. We can be sure that similar breakthroughs will take place at least once every administration, and the ongoing approach can therefore be adaptable to incorporating innovation as it becomes available.

So what do we need to get started? What will provide us with key products and processes that will be essential for eventual space settlement on planetary surfaces, and yet will be easily fundable within a single Presidential term? And how can we involve commercial as well as government entities, as well as provide the public with a source of expanding interest in our space capabilities? The precise list is something we can kick around for the next year or so, but I think when it is agreed it will include the following two small steps for mankind:

  • A succession of demonstrations, which need to be fully documented, recorded, and authenticated, of in situ resource utilization (ISRU) technology
  • A similar series of demonstrations of robotic 3-D manufacturing in space

For ISRU, much of the work can initially be conducted cheaply on the Earth. We could follow the literary adventures of Mark Watney in Andy Weir’s The Martian and conduct tests on Earth of what he was doing on Mars. I would like to see demonstrations of equipment that, when dumped in the Mojave Desert, could generate oxygen from the desert dirt. Then hydrogen. Then make water. Then demonstrate that a rocket engine may be fueled and operated in this way. All of this could and should be done on Earth before trying it on a planetary body, like the Moon. Later, demonstrations could be entertained of trying to manufacture building bricks from regolith, for example.

Surely both of these initiatives (at least) could be achieved in a single Presidential term, and without requiring much, if any, additional NASA funding.

For 3-D manufacturing, we can again focus efforts in the near term. Some simple 3-D additive manufacturing has already been conducted in space, by the firm Made in Space. This work needs to be further supported and extended. The key will be scaling up. I would be delighted to see how the approach can be used to produce significant parts of spacecraft structures in orbit. Again, we can do much of the work on Earth, and then extend the demonstrations into space using the ISS. The key to pushing back the frontiers of humans in space will be assembly in orbit of interplanetary spacecraft which, through not having to endure launch loads and operating largely outside of Earth’s gravity well, may be much cheaper and lighter than equivalent craft built on Earth. Bulk printer supplies (plastics and metals) can be delivered to the in-orbit 3-D manufacturing plant via cargo craft.

Surely both of these initiatives (at least) could be achieved in a single Presidential term, and without requiring much, if any, additional NASA funding. Think of how different the future would appear if those relatively simple tasks were achieved and fully demonstrated to Congress and the public. The subsequent steps would be easier to authorize with this new firm foundation. And what of the commercial side of things? There are potential commercial uses for ISRU both in space and on the Earth, which need to be encouraged. And 3-D manufacturing already has a growing interest by existing commercial aerospace firms. Funding for these developments, therefore, can and should be shared between the US government and some of these commercial entities. Who knows, if we pursue this course of action, might we even solve the Earth’s water problems as a side effect of planning for space settlement?