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Blue Moon lander
As companies like Blue Origin make plans for a return to the Moon, it opens up new opportunities for public-private partnerships that could be harnessed through an international framework. (credit: Blue Origin)

Why the International Lunar Decade still makes sense


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In his recent commentary “For the United States, a second race to the moon is a second-rate goal,” Louis Friedman strongly rejects US leadership in human lunar missions that depend on commercial involvement. He states:

…the House Science Committee is pushing a policy more directed to Mars and away from commercial participation. That is sensible if you believe that the purpose of human spaceflight is exploration and that its rationale is geopolitical. That has been true for all of the Space Age, and I believe it will remain so.

Dependence on the political process to fund space exploration into the future is high risk. The NASA approach using public-private partnerships is a step towards a future where commercial business can fund an increasing share of development costs and sustain operations in outer space.

An approach led and funded by the government, as now recommended by Friedman, is not sustainable and is subject to major shifts with each new president or shift in domestic politics or geopolitics. The pathway to sustainable operations in space is thru the use of space resources, the emergence of an economy based on space resources, and space settlement. No business case has been offered for use of outer space resources on Earth, but demand for space resources can be created in Earth orbit and beyond. The prospect of using lunar resources for construction of massive solar arrays in Earth orbit attracted considerable attention in the 1980s. But lunar industrial development progress would need to be highly developed for lunar materials to be competitive due to forecast declining launch costs from Earth. Space settlement is the ultimate driver of demand for lunar and asteroid materials.

President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) was a geopolitical initiative that did not survive in the face of the rising costs of the occupation of Iraq and the continuing war in Afghanistan that amplified other economic forces and led to the global economic crisis of 2008–2009. Earlier, the costs of the Vietnam War compelled Nixon to stop the Apollo Program. While there is no certainty that wars will happen, dependence on the political process to fund space exploration into the future is high risk. The NASA approach using public-private partnerships is a step towards a future where commercial business can fund an increasing share of development costs and sustain operations in outer space including space exploration.

ILD inspired by IGY

In 2006, when the VSE was still a US national priority Louis Friedman proposed an International Lunar Decade (ILD) as a step towards Mars and beyond at the International Conference on Exploration and Utilization of the Moon (ICEUM) that was organized by ILEWG and COSPAR at Beijing, where the ILD vision was first endorsed. Then the idea of the ILD drew the support of the Secure World Foundation to promote ILD to global organizations and space agencies.

The ILD was inspired by the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957–1958 that marked the dawn of the Space Age with satellites launched by the USSR and the US. Tens of thousands of scientists from 66 countries were involved in numerous projects to begin to understand our Earth as a whole. Our present capacity to understand climate change and frameworks for international cooperation to address global threats and opportunities are part of the rich legacy of IGY.

What made IGY and global cooperation in science possible was the thaw that emerged in geopolitical moment following Stalin’s death. The US proposed the IGY to the International Council of Scientific Unions in 1952.

What made IGY effective is that it enabled local and national action within a global and comprehensive framework that was small and easy to administer. The US then recognized that brilliant science by one country was not enough despite the awesome research capacity the US had built to support the war effort.

A budget-constrained NASA that does not drive commercial space development is likely to follow history, confirming Friedman’s assertion that geopolitics drives human spaceflight. In the absence of a comprehensive private-public program directed towards lunar exploration and development, investor returns from private investment required to justify increasing investments are likely to be disappointing.

Without consumers in space, there will be little consumption of space resources and an under developed space economy.

International cooperation comparable in scope to the IGY, directed at the Moon and sustained over a decade, could lead to the development of policies, infrastructures, and technologies that, in turn, could enable emergence of a space-resources economy and space settlement. Such an approach could make possible large-scale space operations—orbital manufacturing, power generation, and tourism—that would be supported by agricultural and industrial operations on both the Moon and in cislunar space. This approach could ultimately lead to a self-sustaining space economy whose continued operation would no longer be dependent on government subsidies.

Comments on Friedman’s essay offer space tourism as a pathway towards a self-sustaining space economy. Other commentators argue that the lack of infrastructure on the Moon and in cislunar space negates tourism as the key driver towards the space economy. To build infrastructure there needs to be the capacity to process and use in situ resources. Space agriculture using lunar soils must be developed. This in turn requires energy systems that can provide heat, light, and electricity. This cannot be developed piecemeal. Consumption generates demand. Without consumers in space, there will be little consumption of space resources and an under developed space economy.

Big Push model

The problem of lunar development is similar to development of poor countries that lack infrastructure. The economist Paul Rosenstein-Rodan proposed the Big Push Model in 1943 to address this problem:

There is a minimum level of resources that must be devoted to a development program if it is to have any chance for success. Launching a country into self-sustaining growth is a little like getting an airplane off the ground. There is a critical ground speed which must be passed before the craft can become airborne. Proceeding bit by bit will not add up in its effects to the sum total of the single bits. A minimum quantum of investment is a necessary-though not sufficient-condition of success…

A financing approach for a lunar Big Push was proposed here recently (see “Modern monetary theory and lunar development”, The Space Review, October 14, 2019). The increased government investment that is necessary for a Lunar Big Push to work can be achieved without excessive inflation. If government spending leads to increasing commercial opportunities that lead to self-sustaining operations in space, then government spending does not lead to growth in national debt or rising inflation. MMT assumes that use of underutilized resources is not inflationary. The capacity of sovereign governments to create and spend money is limited by the threat of inflation that devalues the money issued by the government. If there is full employment or if key resources become scarce, then rising government spending would become inflationary. Automation will lead to reduced employment in the absence of innovations that create new markets and drive down costs. The Lunar Big Push drives innovation and the creation of new markets using the resources of outer space, that can be considered as infinite relative to existing human needs.

A Big Push for lunar development would lead to very rapid reduction in costs of activities on the Moon. Key would be use of in situ resources and local power generation. This could rapidly decline to levels less than the levelized cost of power on ISS, which John Mankins estimated at $50–100 per kilowatt-hour, although other estimates are in the range of $600 per kilowatt-hour. Costs on the Moon would initially be much higher until the energy systems problem is addressed at sufficient scale to drive down costs. Mankins, in his 2017 NSS Journal of Space Settlement article “New Developments in Space Solar Power,” estimates that levelized cost of power delivered from geostationary orbit (GEO) to Earth could drop below five cents per kilowatt-hour, if costs to launch to LEO drop below $1,600 per kilogram. Lunar materials costs are dependent on costs of energy for processing plus transportation costs. Operating at scale (see “The lunar electrical power utility”, The Space Review, November 9, 2015), it should be possible to reduce levelized cost of power on the Moon below the cost targeted for space-based solar power for Earth, because launch costs from the Moon should be a fraction of launch costs from Earth goven the moon’s lower gravity and lack of atmosphere. Additionally, power satellites in lunar halo orbits could transmit power to the lunar surface using lasers, which require much smaller transmission and receiving antennas than planned for beaming power from GEO to Earth, with microwave beams with much longer wavelengths. Nuclear is another attractive option for lunar power generation.

In the long term, emphasis on a lunar return can be expected to reduce the need for government investment as commercial operations on the Moon and in cislunar space become independently viable.

Operating at scale to drive down costs and increase market potential, a wide range of materials could become attractive. A particularly interesting material is basalt fiber, which has a wide range of uses in LEO manufacturing, as outlined by Michael Turner. Extending operating at scale on the Moon, Al Globus’s “Space Settlement an Easier Way” concept could be assembled using lunar basalt fiber and other lunar materials. Such a space settlement could be in the size range of settlements envisioned by Gerard K. O’Neill in the 1970s. Globus avoids the massive radiation shielding required by O’Neill cylinders in free space by placing the space settlement (space resort complex) in Earth orbit shielded from radiation by the Van Allen belts. As costs of processing lunar and asteroid materials continue to drop, free space settlements could be protected by sufficient radiation shielding in the habitable zone around the Sun.

Given global agreement to pursue a Lunar Big Push, there would be easing of tensions that otherwise would drive increased spending on advanced weapons systems by the US, Russia, China, and other states. Highly trained scientific and technical personnel would become more available and their skills could be applied to developing the multitude of technologies required for self-sustaining operations in space. Additionally, lunar development would draw on emerging specializations such as ecological engineering that would also be important to help address problems arising due to climate change. In the long term, emphasis on a lunar return can be expected to reduce the need for government investment as commercial operations on the Moon and in cislunar space become independently viable.

Renewed call for the International Lunar Decade

In November 2014, the Hawaii Office of Aerospace Development, under Jim Crisafulli’s leadership, organized the conference “The Next Giant Leap: Leveraging Lunar Assets for Sustainable Pathways to Space.” The participants in this conference promoted the idea of an International Lunar Decade and issued an International Lunar Decade Declaration. An International Lunar Decade Working Group (ILDWG) was inaugurated to help promote the idea of an ILD at a series of major conferences. In 2018, the ILD was presented by the late David Dunlop (a founding member of ILDWG from the National Space Society) at the COSPAR ICEUM13 lunar sessions at Pasadena and was endorsed as part of the ICEUM13 Pasadena lunar declaration. Dunlop presented ILD at many other conferences and seminars including the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG) in 2015.

At the outset, most of us had no direct knowledge of Louis Friedman’s earlier efforts in 2006 and 2007 to advance the ILD concept (see “The International Lunar Decade”, The Space Review, January 13, 2014.) Reviewing the history of that ILD effort, important results and influence of the effort can be discerned. The missions identified in the ICEUM conference in Beijing (when ILD was proposed) are examples of international cooperation in lunar exploration furthered by the International Lunar Exploration Working Group (ILEWG): starting with SMART1 (launched in 2003), Kaguya, Chang’e-1 (in 2007) , Chandrayaan-1 (2008), LRO/LCROSS (2009), Chang’e-2 (2010), GRAIL (2011), LADEE (2013), and Chandrayaan-2 orbiter (2019).

Friedman and his colleagues advocated for a “framework for mission cooperation with a space agencies forum or coordinating group”. The space agencies formed the International Space Exploration and Coordination Group (ISECG) and published “The Global Exploration Strategy: The Framework for Coordination.” COSPAR later published “Toward a Global Space Exploration Program: A Stepping Stone Approach.”

In 2007, Louis Friedman and Wesley T. Huntress, Jr. addressed the Science and Technology Subcommittee of UN COPUOS advocating for UN approval of ILD as a global initiative like IGY. COPUOS members found the idea interesting, but COPUOS rules require that to be acted on any proposal must be advanced by a member state. In 2016, David Dunlop made his first presentation to UN COPUOS. Subsequently, in 2017 he presented the ILD as a framework of frameworks linking all organizations actively involved in lunar development. In the presentation to COPUOS in 2018, the focus was on ILD as a framework for cislunar development. These presentations, as well as discussions with the delegations from member states as well as UN Office of Outer Space Affairs and UN Development Program and other UN agency staffs, raised awareness about the potential of ILD, but thus far no member state of COPUOS has proposed the ILD for UN approval.

UN Space Agenda 2030

In 2019, the ILD idea was directly linked to UN Sustainable Development Goals (see “The International Lunar Decade: A strategy for sustainable development”, The Space Review, August 5, 2019) with a recommendation to UN COPUOS to include ILD as an element within the UN Space Agenda 2030, whose themes are “space as a driver for peace” and “space as the driver for sustainable development”. COPUOS plans to reach final agreement on its recommendation for the Space Agenda 2030 at its June 2020 session. The next step would be consideration by the UN General Assembly’s 2020 session.

The ILD 2021–2030 is an attractive proposition because it is global and cooperative: promoting public-private partnerships and multinational alliances that could help reduce the costs, enhance the benefits, and accelerate timetables for future lunar missions, as well as create new markets for lunar enterprise.

UN approval of global initiatives such as the ILD would involve designation of an organization (which does not have to be a UN body) to serve as the secretariat. In the 2015 UN Year of Light the secretariat was provided by the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP). Funding for the Year of Light secretariat was provided by organizational and commercial donors. Initiatives were self-proposed by numerous organizations around the world, with national level coordination provided by self-selected national contact points. ILD could follow a similar structure, thereby minimizing startup costs. The significant funding that would be required for the many initiatives that emerge would be covered by participating states (either individually or collaboratively). Large investments could be enabled by establishing specialized funds that would be managed by their own governing boards and advisory committees.

The ILD 2021–2030 is an innovative proposal to help advance lunar exploration and development. It is an attractive proposition because it is global and cooperative: promoting public-private partnerships and multinational alliances that could help reduce the costs, enhance the benefits, and accelerate timetables for future lunar missions, as well as create new markets for lunar enterprise. Inflationary pressures could be controlled no matter how much governments choose to invest. No country would bear an overly large financial or political burden to demonstrate the feasibility of sustainable industrial development of the Moon. Space settlement for millions of people in the decades that follow would become feasible, rapidly expanding the range of available measures to manage climate change and planetary defense and other global threats to humankind on Earth.


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