Thursday, November 26th, 2009
While the LEAG meeting in Houston last week featured lots of exciting new results from LCROSS and LRO, it also provided an opportunity for discussion about the future of lunar exploration, human spaceflight, and NASA. The main theme of the meeting was sustainability: If and when humans return to the moon, how do they do so in a sustainable way?
One point that everyone (as far as I could tell) agreed on is that the Apollo model is not sustainable. By “the Apollo model” I mean what the lunar scientists like to call “sorties.” You build an enormous rocket, you take everything you need with you, you leave all of your junk there and you never use it again.
An alternative approach would be incremental or cumulative. You would probably start with several robotic precursor missions that would establish where your key resources are, and perform technology demos. Can we extract oxygen from lunar rocks? Can we extract water from lunar soils? Can we control lunar dust so that it doesn’t get into everything and cause all of our machines to break down? Can we safeguard astronauts from radiation?
If we find satisfactory answers to these questions, then we can build a base on the moon, although another possibility would be a base at the L1 point (or Lagrange point) where Earth’s gravity and the moon’s gravity cancel each other out. The things that you need to bring from Earth are brought a little bit at a time, somewhat like the way that we built the International Space Station. You don’t just go there, use your stuff once, and leave it. You need to re-use as much as you can. And finally, if there is anything that you can produce onsite, you do it. That primarily means (at this stage of the discussion) water, atmosphere, food, and propellant.
What I’ve just said may seem obvious, but it was surprisingly non-obvious for a very long time. Those of us who lived through the Apollo era were very surprised when the trips to the moon stopped. A lot has been written about the possible reasons: the public’s apathy, the Cold War politics that went into the moon race, the Vietnam War that sapped the American budget, etc. But maybe it had to happen. The whole approach was unsustainable.
Even now, many people still want to reproduce the Apollo model as we prepare for missions to Mars. This was the chief criticism that I heard of the Augustine Commission report. The “Flexible Path” option, many people felt, was just “Apollo on steroids,” traveling to more places with one-shot missions instead of building up the infrastructure for a sustainable presence in space.
I suppose I should name some names here. Paul Spudis is an especially passionate advocate of the idea that we must think about sustainability when we return to space. I wish I could just copy his whole presentation here, but that would not be very original. He said, “The goal is not to excite the public. The public must see the value in lunar exploration, which is different from making it exciting.” He took issue with the Augustine Commission’s conclusion that the ultimate destination (their words) is Mars. “The goal of returning to the moon is to become a spacefaring species,” he said. I think this is a great mission statement. Mars is not the ultimate goal; the ultimate is to be able to go wherever we want. Spudis would build up that capability on the moon.
Also, Igor Mitrofanov gave a perspective from the Russian space agency: “We will support missions to the moon if we will go there forever. Then we will participate as a nation.” He compared the moon to a new continent: “The first explorers looked for a place for a settlement, a bay, a harbor,” he said. Obviously he is arguing for a base approach rather than a sortie approach.
Many participants in the meeting said that sustainability would have to mean economic viability. Paul Spudis, as usual, formulated the question nicely, by listing three stages of lunar exploration: Arrive, Survive, Thrive. So far we have shown that we can Arrive. The next step is Survival — showing that we can stay for a long time on the moon — but ultimately the point of the whole exercise is to Thrive.
Both Spudis and Bob Wegeng, of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, drew analogies with the development of railroads in the 19th century. I went to lunch with Wegeng, who exposited at length about the railroads and told me some things that I did not know before. In school (in the U.S., at least), we all hear about the golden spike that completed the first transcontinental railroad in 1869. It’s part of our national mythology, just as much as the moon landing 100 years later. But that railroad went bankrupt several times, in spite of all of its government support!
The first economically successful transcontinental railroad, according to Wegeng, was the Great Northern Railway, built by James Jerome Hill. Wikipedia says it was ”the first transcontinental built without public money and … one of the few transcontinental railroads not to go bankrupt.” Hill built up the Great Northern’s customer base by selling homesteads to farmers along the railroad route and even building industrial plants that would be served by his railroad.
If we want to learn from this example, it suggests that we will Thrive on the moon when a mega-corporation comes along, led by one person with vision, which does not just focus on the transportation technology but constructs a whole econosphere on the moon.
Who could that mega-corporation be? Not the current aerospace companies; they are too much like the government-backed railroads that failed. What about Google? I don’t know. It seems a little bit outside of their skill set, but they do have the vision. All things considered, the vision is probably more important than the skills or the capital, which can always be acquired on the way.
Anyway, getting back to the LEAG meeting, the one presentation that really looked at the moon from an economic point of view was by Brad Blair, a mining engineer who also works with the Canadian Space Agency. His paper was actually out of date — he presented an economic analysis of investing in the moon that he published back in 2002 or 2003. He analyzed five different scenarios, and in the last, ridiculously optimistic scenario he showed a possible return on investment in the range of $3 to $4 billion. I think the importance of his study lies not so much in the specific numbers or conclusions but in the methodology. I think his work needs to be updated for the decade of the 2010s. The discussion of lunar exploration has been completely dominated so far by scientists and engineers, but at some point some economists need to get involved.
Finally, in the discussion of sustainability, there were some interesting points made about public opinion. Spudis calls it the “50-50-50 problem”: public support for NASA has hovered around 50 percent for and 50 percent against for 50 years. And that includes the supposed heyday of NASA when we were racing to beat the Russians to the moon. Even back then, there were a lot of people who didn’t see the point, and argued that the money would be better spent solving problems on Earth. Public support for NASA has never been significantly more than 60 percent or less than 40 percent.
Spudis’ point was that if our justification for exploring space is “inspiring the public,” then we will never succeed. We need to go beyond inspiration to providing economic value.
At the same time, someone (I’m not sure who) pointed out from the audience that 50 percent support is not really a bad thing. Politicians are glad to have 50 percent, because it means they can be re-elected. Popular support for a lot of our public institutions runs a good deal lower than 50 percent. So instead of asking what NASA is doing wrong, perhaps we should advertise the fact that they are doing something right. Message to politicians: If you invest money in NASA, about half of the population will support you, as they have now for half a century.
The big unknown, at this moment, is whether any politicians are listening … especially the ones that matter, who live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.