Slaying Sacred Space Cows

I spend a fair amount of time discussing space development with people, in presentations,  blogs, and in personal conversations.  Most people who know me know that one of my prime foci is off planet industrialization, principally beginning with orbital space and then the Moon.  One of the most baffling and tragic responses that I get in this realm is the complete dismissal of the entire concept.  The back and forth in someone else’s blog thread is never satisfying because you cannot develop more than a short stream of thought and when the other person/persons are simply dismissive, no real progress is made.  Thus in this missive I am going to go into some of my basic thoughts regarding lunar industrialization and see if we can get beyond these, in my opinion, misunderstandings regarding how hard it is.


As is my way in developing these ideas lets begin with how things are done here on the Earth and then see how they might develop on the Moon.  I always look at history as a guide.  I grew up near Birmingham Alabama, then called “The Pittsburg of the South”.  Some of my earliest memories are of riding in a car by the big steel mills in Ensley, Fairfield, and downtown (Sloss furnaces) Alabama.

These places always fascinated me as you could see the hot steel ingots being stamped, rolled, and worked from the car.  At Sloss you could see the hot steel being poured from the ladles into molds.  Many of my friends that I grew up with now work at steel mills like Fairfield, ACIPCO, O’Neal Steel, and others.  While I have not worked at any of these myself, I know a pretty good bit about them and have used their products in hardware that we have built, such as our 22,500 lb steel solar/wind trailers.  Figure 1 is a picture of the frame of our solar/wind trailer under construction:

Figure 1: The GSW-7000 Solar/Wind Trailer Frame Under Construction, Centreville Maryland, 2011

The trailer under construction in the picture above is made from standard A-36 steel.  The frame parts are made from tube, “c” channel, flat plate, and square tubes.  All of these parts are welded together using very simple frames, c clamps, and other devices to hold the pieces together while they are welded.  This principle is pretty much how most heavy equipment is built, with the larger production lines being more automated.  The pieces here came from a steel distributor and were cut into the right lengths/sizes using laser and or plasma cutters.

This background is provided in order to convey to the reader a small sense of my history with steel as well as a bit of information on how vehicles are put together in a low production environment.  There is nothing magic about how this is done, just simple steel products welded together by competent people who do this as a living.  I love metals and have spent a lot of my life around heavy equipment and its uses, especially in the coal mining industry.  Thus I can at least speak with some knowledge of the subject here on the Earth.  The interesting part is how to translate this to how we would do such things on the Moon.

Basic Things Needed for Lunar Industrialization

There are four basic things needed for basic lunar industrialization.

  • Raw Materials
  • Energy
  • Manufacturing Infrastructure
  • Workforce

Availability of Lunar Metals

It is well known from the literature (one example) on the Apollo samples (the greatest part of their legacy) that there is meteoric metals and nano phase iron in proportions up to 1%.  Apollo 16 samples, being from a highlands site has the greatest proportion of meteoric materials, which is to be expected as the highlands have the oldest regolith.  Thus if we were to do the most minimal processing of highlands regolith from a site at the North pole (my favored location for many reasons), then we can expect to obtain quite a bit of metal. Beneficiation, or concentrating, of this metal could be accomplished on the Moon with nothing more than an electromagnet and a dump truck rover.   There is absolutely no reason whatsoever that a robotic rover with a magnet could not pick up a minimum of 100 kilograms per hour of this meteoric metal.  This can be done without any of the exotic chemical or other methods of separating metals from their oxides on the Moon.

Melting and Forming the Metal

There are different ways of melting metal but they all require energy.  For the Moon there are two easy ways to do it.  The first way is to simply use the sun and all you need to do it is a fresnel lens.  Here is a video of a guy who does just that, with a very simple and lightweight system:

Here is a second and much faster method using a parabolic mirror:

If you notice the video closely you will see that they only used a small fraction of the available light on the parabolic mirror to melt the steel.  At the lunar north pole where up to 100% of the time it is sunlit (Northern hemisphere summer) there is plenty of sun to support a continuous operating foundry.

The second means, using indirect sunlight in the form of electrical power, is achieved by using an induction furnace.  The next video shows that:

So what we have here are two different methods of melting metals that would be directly applicable to melting metals on the Moon, even with a lot of rock contamination, which since rock is lighter, floats to the top and is scooped off as slag.

The next video shows metal pouring and forming.  The sand mold method of metal casting is as old as the Hittite empire, long before Rome.  The video here is from a British television program called “Metal Monkeys”.

Remember at the beginning of this article where in figure one the trailer is made from welded pieces of steel?  It is quite simple using the sand mold process to make the basic parts that go into the trailer frame construction.  On the Moon it would be done using sintering of the regolith using microwaves after forming the desired part:  Figure 2 shows my concept of the induction furnace and mold that would be used to build structures on the Moon:

Figure 2: This shows a vacuum induction furnace on the surface of the Moon that would be used to melt and pour metal.

Uses of Metal On the Moon

There is no end of the uses of metal on the Moon.  For simple parts and objects the manufacturing infrastructure is minimal.  All that was used in the construction of our trailers in figure 1 was saw horses to hold the frame, C clamps to hold the pieces together while they are tacked together, and then a bridge crane to lift the assembly and turn it over during the production process.  Obviously you need a welder as well, but on the Moon welding is very easy and you could use a laser welder, which requires a lot of power but little in the way of consumables or good old concentrated sunlight again.

Figure 3 shows an Eagle Engineering design of the LOTRAN rover on the Moon:

Figure 3: LOTRAN Rover, made from aluminum tubes as can be seen in the drawing

Figure four below shows a lunar habitat with structure holding up the weight of the regolith radiation shielding:

Figure 5: From Eagle Engineering, Lunar Habitat and Support Structure for Regolith Shielding

In figure 3 and 4 there are many of the structural pieces that, rather than being brought up from the Earth, could be derived from local ISRU derived metals.  Even the habitats themselves could be made mostly from locally derived metals.  There is a class of steel called “Maraging Steel” that is a high nickel alloy that is very close to what you would have available from meteoric and nano phase iron derived from the regolith.

Slaying Sacred Space Cows With a Gestalt Tempered Blade

One of the sacred cows that drives the demand for a heavy lift vehicle is that ISRU is not ready for prime time, that it is too hard, and that it is something that will happen in 20, 50, or 100 years, pick your time.  A friend of mine who was on the Augustine II commission told me that Norm Augustine simply would not allow any discussion of ISRU as an enabling technology for transforming the Constellation program.  He said that he simply did not believe it was possible.  In another blog forum recently when I brought up the possibility of making rover parts from ISRU derive metal, the person I was interacting with simply refused to carry on the conversation as for me to even mention that was to shift the discussion into the non-credible.

After reading this somewhat long post I hope that the reader will get the idea that obtaining, melting, and forming metal is no big deal.  As someone who grew up with and continues to work with steel I find it astonishing when otherwise intelligent people simply dismiss the possibility with a wave of the hand.  There is absolutely nothing precluding a metals centric ISRU implementation on the Moon that would have an immediate upstream effect on the entire architecture for lunar/Mars exploration.

In all of the discussions about heavy lift, I have never been able to find anyone who can list more than a few payloads that require a heavy lifter.  These are things such as a habitats, pressurized rovers, power systems, and humans.  With a robust implementation of ISRU coupled with the landing of modest equipment with existing vehicles, the need for heavy lift is completely eliminated.

That is a sacred cow worth slaying…

99 thoughts on “Slaying Sacred Space Cows

    1. The idea is not to sell, but to get people to understand. When more people understand, then more will think about the possibilities, rather than the barriers.

  1. I often hear people say that ISRU (in-situ resource utilization) and CCLS (closed cycle life support) would not help current HSF missions, and they are right.. except they have got it entirely backwards. They have just pointed out the major floor with current HSF missions.
    HSF is not about humans flying through space. That would be just a silly spectacle, a multibillion dollar version of shooting clowns from cannons. HSF is about “Establishing a permanent presence beyond earth orbit”, “Bringing the solar system into earth’s economic sphere”, “not to go, but to stay” and if you are brave enough to say it, “Space settlement”. These statements come from some pretty informed people (except arguably the first which comes from a senate document to authorize funding for HSF.)
    So. The goal of HSF is to eventually exploit the resources of the solar system and to have people living and working there. The goal of HSF is in fact in-situ resource utilization and cheap, self sufficient support of human life beyond earth — the goal itself!
    Whenever it is pointed out that current HSF missions would not benefit from these technologies, and this is used as a reason not to fund them but instead spend billions on launch architectures, we really have to wonder if we are choosing the right missions.

    1. The “planned” trips to Mars (Deimos or Phobos) or an asteroid using the “required” HLV fit exactly into your “clowns from a cannon” category. All those $$B would be much better spent taking smaller steps with solid results. Changing minds and directions at NASA is a far, far greater challenge than actually doing what is described by Mr Wingo. Best of Luck to him and all who agree with his top drawer article. I’ve bookmarked it for constant future referral.

  2. The problem with ISRU is simply this : it has never been done, not even a tiniest demo. Get one small cheap demo mission, or even a piggyback experiment flown on an existing mission and the entire equation changes.
    It does not even matter where or what kind of demo it is, but anything grandiose is not going to fly – unless one finds a really really generous budget/investor.

    1. Kert

      ISRU is done every single day here on the Earth, sometimes in the most demanding environments. What is so special about the vacuum of space and the thermal variations that puts lunar ISRU into another dimension?

      Personally here I am not talking about anything grandiose. A magnet, an impression in the regolith and a small dish is all that is needed to show basic proof of principle.

  3. I have a slight disagreement with your plan. You are completely ignoring the role of robots. The only mention you make of robots is picking up meteoritic metals.

    On Earth, robots might not be that common for small-scale, cheap manufacturing outfits. After all, robots are a tad expensive. On the moon there is no such thing as a cheap manufacturing outfit. On the moon, if you can replace a human with a robot that costs $10 million, it is cost-effective to do so, by a large margin. Modern robots are advanced enough and autonomous enough to do almost all tasks involved, from pouring metal to welding and shaping. If a certain task is too difficult, it would always be possible to simply have a remote-controlled robot. The short 1 light-second delay from here to the moon means this is not much of a problem.

    In fact, it seems that robots could do virtually all the tasks required on a moon base. At present, a human presence would only be needed to occasionally fix the robots if they break down. This would not be necessary in the early phase of the mission. The ideal scenario seems to be to send robots to build an inital habitation then send humans to live in it and take care of maintenance. (This maintenance role, too, could probably be eliminated in the future).

    This is not science fiction; robots have been almost exclusively doing all the exploration of the solar system for the past 40 years and have been doing complicated tasks, often autonomously. I have a lot of experience with robots and I’m pretty confident in the idea of a robotic base. Some people might not have much experience with robots and thus might focus on a human workforce, but that’s why we need lots of people with different backgrounds working on the design of the base, complementing each other and giving each other feedback.

    1. Aceto

      I know that it may seem that I am ignoring robots but I’m not. It was just not that important to discuss when laying out the overall gestalt of the idea. Robots are extremely valuable but it is also extremely unlikely that they can do everything. Anything mechanical breaks down, and especially in the early days, until we figure out how to deal with the abrasive qualities of the regolith, they are going to break down a lot.

      Robots are force multipliers that make everything better in the off planet industrialization scheme, just like they do here on the Earth.

      1. It seems like we are not disagreeing. Robots could set up an early base and then humans would only be needed to take care of maintenance and so on.

  4. ISRU reminds me of the infamous aerospike engine ‘nozzle’ configuration, that nobody is going to use simply because nobody ever used it…
    I agree with you: weneed to get to orbit as cheaply as possible, assemble enough infrastructure to set up a “Moon expressway” and then start experimenting. The problem isn’t payload, it’s cost.
    And, by the way… Von Braun designed a version of all this in the ’50s…

    1. Robert

      Yes he did. The Horizon report is a very interesting read, and it has been declassified.

      There is a lot of “we can’t do it because we have never done it” mindset in aerospace systems development. It is the death of the art if we allow that to continue.

      1. Dennis,

        The “we can’t do it because we have never done it” mindset is a direct result of the “we can’t afford ANY risk” mindset that pervades NASA and other government funded HSF efforts. They are willing to go to any lengths (read “costs”) to avoid even the smallest risks. Exceptional risk adverseness leads to stagnation, just like we are witnessing today. I truely believe that the only way wer are going to see innovation and risk taking in teh space industry again is when space is being exploited commercially and not explored governmentally.


        1. Paul, I think that we need to be careful to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. We have evidence today of a path which is making progress but which is government funded – namely the COTS, CRS, and CCDev programs. So government funding with payment for milestones and a fairly hands-off approach seems to be opening the way for lower costs and potentially commercial sustainable services.

            1. Prizes work, certainly. But I would be concern about a very large up-front cost to contestants without guaranteed payments for milestones on the way. That sort of risk could keep some competitors from joining the competition. Also, there is the risk that, once the prize has been won, the winner no longer has an incentive to continue. This is why I like the guaranteed purchases of service / product of the CRS. Finally, if it appears that one competitor is far in the lead to get the prize, it could disincentivize competitors from developing that capability since they don’t have a realsitic chance of winning. Although a second place prize could help with that.

        2. Adding to what I just said below, yes extreme risk aversion can unduly retard or even arrest progress. This is why I would like to see a “Lunar COTS” program starting with landing cargo but with private crew following as the first humans to return to the Moon. As human-tended commercial operations are established, NASA can pay for its astronauts to use the base for scientific activities and to gain the operational experience for them to go beyond the Earth-Moon system. But even if NASA employees must be the first to return to the Moon, this too can be done just like it will be done shortly when the commercial companies deliver NASA astronauts to the ISS.

    2. Aerospike nozzles have flown on small scale engines on multiple occasions. Exactly how things should get tested – starting small.

            1. In the Apollo-Shutttle days the big rocket companies tested very large annular aerospikes. Largest was 250klbf if I recall from Rocketdyne. This is extremely mature technology that is ready for full scale prime time use. We don’t need to be small on this one 🙂

          1. With ‘linear’ I was referring to an engine configuration like the one used here:
            Reading about that test project I’ve read that even with tests already performed on aerospike nozzles, there was no intention to start developing a system that uses them because such a system never has never been flown. That SR-71 was the first ‘big’, reusable and piloted one. But nothing followed… maybe we need another Musk or Bigelow to license for it from NASA.

  5. I’ve thought about this problem quite a bit, not with a lunar base in mind but rather an early orbital facility to process ore from the Moon and asteroids with an eye toward building orbital habitats. The devil is almost always in the details, and I think this concept is no exception.

    It’s great to say that we’re going to take a flask and a mirror to the Moon to build our first lunar base, but that plan omits a lot of necessities. We’d like to know how strong our metal is so that we can design things intelligently. We’d like to form basic engineering shapes, like I-beams and tubing. We’d like to be sure that astronauts don’t get killed by an errant burn or a flashing cut in their suits. Sparks and flashing are routine in any casting operation.

    I also deal with construction equipment every day here on Earth, and one of the basic facts of life with even the lightest tools (picks, shovels), much less heavy tools (front end loaders, crushers) is that there’s always a guy working on them. Maybe he’s putting on a new handle, maybe he’s forked the 900-pound battery out and he’s tracking down a short, but either way constant maintenance is something that I don’t see taken into account when guys who don’t get exposed to this kind of thing for a living talk about using it.

    In other words, Augustine was absolutely right. ISRU would make Constellation far more complicated, not less so.

    1. Dave (Is this the Dave Klinger from the old SEDS days?)

      I agree with the premise that we need to do a lot of testing on the strength of materials. I have purchased several meteorites for just that purpose and over the next year or so will do some melting and forming into standard ASTM shapes and do the strength of materials testing that you talk about. However, even before that is done, we know a lot of about the strength of materials of meteorites and we know a lot about the properties of pure iron as well. The idea is to simply build over strength in the early days.

      I do get exposed to this and I understand that maintenance is required. This is why I don’t advocate totally automated systems as they do break, and in creative ways that another robot is simply not going to be able to fix. Humans and robots are going to be required for anything beyond simple tasks. Since the Moon is only 1/25 seconds away, telepresence is also going to be a big deal and a force multiplier as well.

      1. Hey, I’m a metallurgist, and although I commend your thinking about all this stuff I really have to let you know about the importance of some of those details (hopefully not to discourage you, but so you can get thinking on some of the obstacles).

        First important concept: even though two metals may have identical alloy compositions their processing history is *absolutely crucial* to determine what their mechanical properties are going to be. And unfortunately casting is a process that will almost always result in a weak, brittle component. I don’t have the time to go in much detail here, but mostly things like weld porosity, differential cooling rates between different parts of your component, and differentiation of alloying elements all play a part. For this reason virtually ALL structural iron-based components are cast and then wrought. Forging is the way we eliminate most of the defects caused by casting and make our material strong and safe enough to use. Cast iron is generally only used as-is when components need to have intricate shapes that cannot be easily machined, ie engine blocks. But you NEVER use cast iron where strength is important and ESPECIALLY where you expect to have impact loading since the casting defects will make your material brittle as glass. Basically, it’s not enough to simply be able to cast the stuff you need, you’re going to need to be able to process it further through forging as well.

        I’ll also quickly note that you mentioned above that you’d like to measure the strength of meteoric iron but that information is completely irrelevant. Unless you plan on simply shaping that metal (into a knife or spearpoint, as some Inuit do) the material properties of the meteor are going to be totally different because you’re going to completely reprocess it.

        Second important concept: alloying chemistry is incredibly important for your material properties as well. Impurities in your alloy can completely wreck havoc with your components and by impurities I don’t just mean oxides. Having too much of a particular metal (like Nickel) in your iron-alloy can mean you form very nasty compounds. I’m talking about big, sharp, brittle intermetallics (sort of like metal ceramics) just begging to start a crack and snap your component in half. It also goes without saying that if you want the best properties from your alloy you need to be able to control its composition very well. In high-strength, low-density applications like rover struts you might need a good performance alloy. The bottom line is that, at the very least, some form of rudimentary composition control is going to be needed.

        So, basically, there’s two additional steps that need to be accounted for before full-on ISRU can happen, and arguably they’re going to be more difficult than simply gathering metals and melting them. One is some form of forging process to get your material into its final shape with acceptable strength and toughness. The other is some form of controlling the composition of your alloy so that you have consistency and are not turning out material riddled with defects every once in a while. And in all fairness these might be some of the reasons NASA engineers have thought ISRU to be too complicated.

        1. Santiago, I’m a geologist and while in school studying geophysics I asked the Prof if the fact that changes happen to lava transitioning from hydrostatic pressure to atmospheric pressure, would they not be different when a similar lava emerges on the Moon to, essentially, zero pressure. He said no! I continue to disagree with him; he never to my knowledge tried the experiment though he did extensive pressure bomb testing for his own studies.
          My point and question for you is, would casting on the Moon bring different results due to the zero pressure, a totally different temperature gradient, and total lack of chemical reactions with no atmospheric gases present? It seem to me that many things happen in the moments after the first molten metal meets the die, and much of it has to do with the conditions into which it arrives from the ladle.
          One more item to add to the test lab package sent in a Dragon Lunar Lander prior to making more trips.

          1. Arnold, your original question has been studied somewhat indirectly. You might want to check out the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Earth & Space Conferences. I haven’t been to one since I got off the steering committee in 2005, but I expect that they still cover most of the same topics.

            One of my favorite sessions was a lunar basing & IRSU session in 1990 (I think). We were in the main ballroom, the lights were down, and the room was filled with guys near or post retirement who all knew each other from thirty years in the field. All the papers but one were lunar concrete papers, and several people were soundly asleep. Every paper presented a bootstrap method of casting small pieces of lunar base, one little bit at a time. It was a tremendously difficult process, but it was very cool to think bout.

            Cassandra Coombs was giving the last paper. She was a geologist interested in lunar basing, and although her husband and children were in Albuquerque the only graduate position she’d been able to find was out at the University of Hawaii, studying lava tubes. So she studied lava tubes for a few years in Hawaii, measuring their diameters, calculating the ratio of gas pressure and gravity to diameter and length, etc. She then made a comprehensive list of every rille on the Moon with a ranking of its candidacy as a possible lunar base. It turns out that lava tubes grow a lot larger on the Moon, up to a hundred meters in diameter. Virtually every size is available, and they may come shielded and tailor-made for lunar basing. Nobody’s been inside one, so that’s a next step.

            So here was this young woman up at the podium very humbly sort of blowing away a lot of the papers that had already been presented. I looked around and all these old guys that had been sleeping were sitting up straight with looks of raw fascination on their faces, and I started laughing. I made it a point to invite Cassandra back to our conference every year. She was unable to find money to go further in studying lunar rilles for basing, at least the last time I spoke to her, and she’d moved to Charleston to teach geology. Her papers on the topic were seminal, and they get brought up any time somebody talks about using lava tubes for lunar basing. Also check out Carolyn van der Bogert’s work on the topic.

            1. This is exactly the issue and it goes to “taking the analogy too far”. While our Earthbound experiences are the jumping off point, we need to then look at what is different about the environment that we are going into and take a look at our assumptions and even first principles and see what applies and what does not.

              Dave, one note, the Japanese found a lava tube opening on the near side. I forget exactly where but we confirmed it from our lunar orbiter images and the LROC camera on LRO has further examined the site.

              Here is a NatGeo article on the subject.


              1. Thanks, Dennis. Yep, that’s Carolyn van der Bogert’s group, and I dearly wish that Google X-Prize was aimed squarely at that opening.

          2. Hey Arnold, the pressure difference will actually not affect things very much, but there actually *will* be a beneficial effect to casting on the moon: no oxygen. On earth the surfaces of liquid metals oxidise and then as they slush around through the mould oxide scales can end up deep inside your material, where they obviously act as defects and can start cracks. Some very high-performance components in things like jet engines are actually cast in vacuum chambers here on earth in order to minimize this problem.

            However some of the fundamental reasons of why casting gives poor mechanical properties will remain, even in vacuum. Basically, as the metal in a casting cools and solidifies it in general loses volume (since generally solids are denser than their liquids). This very often means that pores form in the middle of components (especially thicker ones) and there’s very little you can do to combat this (unless by drastically limiting the size of each individual thing you’re casting). Another problem is that some parts of the casting will cool very slowly. Metals have a grain structure (with a grain basically meaning an individual metal crystal, similar to how it is in rocks) and good mechanical properties (especially strength) depend on having a very small grain size structure. However the parts of the material that cool slowly will have very large grains, and even worse they will be aligned in the direction of the heat flow, which can lead to all sorts of bad things, like anisotropy.

            Forging essentially squeezes shut all or most of the casting pores in the material, and the forging process induces re-crystallization so you get a homogeneous grain size distribution, as well as smaller grains overall.

            1. Santiago, I appreciate the feedback and knowledge behind it. One thought about large crystals of metal; the best jet engine turbine blades are machined from single titanium crystals. But, we can’t work out all of the details until we have boots, or tracks, on the ground. If we must forge on with forging, I guess we must. [ sorry ’bout that. 🙂 ]
              Another funny analogy; When the high tech (for their time) Spanish reached the New World in their “advanced” sailing ships, they were greeted by the long time, descendents of people who got here in canoes!
              PS: I have developed a remote sensing instrument that produces fluorescence spectra from measurements made in full Sunlight. The original idea behind it was used to study unexplained flashes of light from the Moon.

      2. On the other hand, you have the Mars Opportunity rover still going strong after, what… eight years now? Obviously we aren’t going to send an off-the-shelf Bobcat or Caterpillar to the moon, we’re going to design a machine specifically for the purpose, built to withstand the hazards.

        On the OTHER other hand, we’ve hardly spent more than a few days in a row actually operating on the lunar surface, and regolith is notoriously sticky and abrasive. We’ve still got some learning to do before a large-scale mission. The next step would be to build a miniature version of Dennis’s design (shoot for 100kg or less for the whole package) and deliver it with a whatever lander is available from MoonExpress or Masten, etc.. Altogether it should be no more than a ton or two, and could probably ride along as secondary payload on a F9 launch.

        Once on the moon, you prove-out all the processes (magnetic separation, smelting, sintering, etc.) and gather as much data as possible on unknowns such as strength of materials, wear & tear, etc.. By the time you’ve finished all that, there will probably be a range of landers available, such as the upcoming Dragon capsule with propulsive landing capability. And once you’ve got all that data from the first mission (hopefully) some fat checkbooks will open to fund a more ambitious mission.

        Regardless of how you regard this approach, you have to admit that at some point in the next few decades we’re going to have people living and working on the moon. It’s about time we got serious about figuring out how that’s going to work.

        1. Taiwanjohn

          Absolutely. NASA Ames actually has an ISRU experiment called RESORCES. Unfortunately it has nothing to do with metals.

          A lander with a 500 kg payload would easily be able to do some interesting experiments with metals, melting, and forming. One of the most interesting things to me is that a lot of the problems that metallurgists talk about (embrittlement) may be solved by the use of the near infinite vacuum of the Moon. A lot of the problems with embrittlement comes from impurities in the melt from oxygen and other atmospheric gasses. This obviously would not be a problem on the Moon.

          I have some ideas on a partnership with a speciality steel company to start working these issues.

          All good ideas and good feedback, but the bottom line is that we have to decide that this is what we are going to do and do it. If the government will not lead or follow at least they can get the hell out of the way.

          1. Here’s the final program from the ASCE 2012 Earth & Space conference. It doesn’t have quite the focus that it did when we organized it as the Space & Robotics conference, but there are some good papers in there. You might note that the government plays a big part in lunar research. There are some Caterpillar papers in here as well.

            Click to access EarthSpace_FinalProgram_Low_resFINAL.pdf

              1. I’m guessing that you might mean Dr. El-Genk? That’s actually the STAIF conference, sponsored by El-Genk’s Institute for Space Nuclear Power Studies at UNM. That conference ended when Dr. El-Genk retired, although some other folks here have talked about a replacement (not sure how that’s doing). Our conference was the Space & Robotics series on engineering, construction and operations in space, which was held a couple of months later and sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers. As a conference with a civil engineering bent, it had a uniquely hands-on flavor that I’ve never seen in another space conference. It was very interdisciplinary, but with civil engineers talking about off-planet civil engineering topics. I miss it, but none of our committee wants to take up organizing it any more. We essentially gave it up to the ASCE, and they turned it into Earth & Space, sort of an advanced topics civil engineering conference.

                I haven’t seen Dr. El-Genk in quite a while, although I spoke to his wife last year for a few minutes. She indicated he was doing well.

        2. OK, call me crazy and all but if we’re already going to spend $54 million on a Falcon 9 launch, I say, “Why not spend $125 million on a Falcon Heavy, use ion propulsion and hence send about 8 times the payload to the lunar surface”? With that amount of mass, I wouldn’t do experiments only but send operational-sized equipment. If something doesn’t turn out quite right, you still have some functioning components (e.g. the lander, solar panels, oven, distiller, electrolyzer) plus the equipment could be designed to be easily disassembled so, at a minimum, you have things like batteries, cameras, communication equipment, etc that you don’t have to ship on the next mission.

          A prospecting mission will probably be completed by others first with essential information likely reported in the news. The operational equipment can do on-the-spot prospecting. And launcing an operational mission will shorten the time until return on investment.

          1. We are limited by the landers. Spending a billion dollars developing a big lander will soon use up the Moon mission budget. The Earth rated Morpheus lander has a ~500 kg payload, a space/Moon rated version can probably be developed in the next presidential term. If it works Xeus may be able to land 5 tonnes but that is further into the future.

            1. NASA didn’t spend a billion dollars to get SpaceX to develop the Falcon 9. If this were developed under a “Lunar COTS” program I am imagining that the orbital transfer and landing vehicle (OTLV) would cost about $400 million to have developed using the SAA funding approach.

              Again, I think it worthwhile to take advantage of the Falcon Heavy after it becomes available. We can spend money all along the way with ever increasingly capable landers and hardware sized for each lander. But it we could jump to a full-sized lander (like we did during the Apollo program) then we could save development costs and time.

              As I mentioned elsewhere in these comments, we can afford to take additional risks because, depending upon the scenario, you would still have quite a bit of usable equipment even if you didn’t have 100% success on the first mission.

              …but I make no claims to being an aerospace engineer so I am open to being corrected.

  6. Hi Dennis. Yep, it’s me, Dave Klingler, from the SEDS National Board. I hope you’re doing well.

    One company I work for uses and sells a lot of heavy equipment, and almost every machine has a toolbox on it with tools that are in constant use to keep the machine running. I’ve gotten roped into repairing a lot of it as the computer guy, believe it or not, which means that in really busy periods I’m close enough to be the backup mechanic. When I’m reading someone’s ISRU paper I often wonder how many days that the bulldozer that invariably appears will stay running. Note that those are manned bulldozers to which I’m referring, not ROVs. I’m not sure a new dozer would run a month on the Moon. My experience says two weeks before some trivial problem takes it out and it becomes a long-duration materials exposure experiment, at least without a shirtsleeve machine shop and another bulldozer to tow it back there. ISRU paper bulldozers could best be characterized as “magical”.

    Hmmm. No trips to NAPA for spares, and factory repair parts will definitely be slow. The problems I’ve fixed would be very difficult to forecast, and repairing them often involves several trips to parts places. If I had three bulldozers on the Moon, I’d expect to have one running, one partially running, and one waiting for parts to come from Earth. If one bulldozer was mission-critical, I’d take three. And if three bulldozers were mission-critical, I’d take six. I’d take three of every single tool I required, with three of every spare.

    My point is that ISRU becomes a new mission that dwarfs the actual Moon landing. It’s definitely a laudable goal, especially if you want to get your mass driver built. But as soon as it gets more than cursory examination, a whole bunch of disciplines end up getting dragged in. It’s not easy; it’s not even medium difficult. It’s hard and complicated and mass-intensive, and it pretty much requires a base to build the base to build the base.

    ISRU is my favorite part of space colonization, for me, the only part that really gets my juices flowing. I don’t mean to be discouraging, and I love to see discussions of metallurgy, refinement, casting and tool creation in space. But it deserves to be a sacred cow.

    1. Dave

      I actually agree with you and this has been my big beef against those that claim that we don’t need humans on the Moon. This is why I advocate experimentation. What you may not understand is that with all of the money that has been spent there has been extremely little in the way of actual experiments on equipment durability and no one is even going to the big guys who do this to get their MTBF’s and other data.

      Another factor that actually drives us toward the ISRU metals for in situ built systems is that the design of traditional bulldozers and other equipment for durability on the Moon is likely to be starkly different than what we do on the Earth. Been thinking about that as well and have a couple of patent ideas that I won’t go into until I get further along.

      The bottom line is that it is beyond time to quit talking about this stuff and to start doing the necessary precursor work that is needed to enable off planet industrialization.

      As far as dwarfing the moon landing, that is a bit of hyperbole, and for every problem that exists out there, there are solutions.

      1. For equipment durability the main guy is Leonhard Bernhold. He’s been studying human and RO construction equipment with the purpose of using it for lunar construction for over twenty years. He gets a lot of grant money from Caterpillar because they leverage off his research for terrestrial RO equipment. There may be other people, but Leonhard has a passion for it.

        For Earth applications, though, you’ll find people studying equipment durability at every major construction equipment firm, and almost all of what they find applies. They’re accustomed to looking at the effects of fine soil on machinery. I’m not at all pessimistic that the new crop of ROVs that have been appearing over the last few years from companies like Caterpillar won’t work in modified form on the Moon, especially since Leonhard has a hand in a lot of it.

        As far as people on the Moon, though, I’m now dismissive of the idea. *laugh*

        I’ve become an O’Neill nut. I think people should live in giant cans, at 1g, with trees and streams and sunlight. Almost all the problems we’d have to solve for living on the Moon or Mars are easier to solve for Giant Cans In Space, and the environment’s much more like home, with the exception of the fact that you could look straight up and spy on your neighbors sunbathing.

        1. Dave

          I build heavy equipment ( and know what you are talking about. Thanks for the name, will have to include him in some future work we are doing. The biggest problem on the Moon for heavy equipment as far as I can tell today, is cold welding. That is going to be huge. I have some ideas there but keeping them to myself right now.

    2. What about a dextrous telerobot allowing a mechanic to have telepresence on the Moon. YouTube: “Justin Teleoperated” to see what I’m talking about. Could the equipment be designed with easily detachable parts so that a telerobotic mechanic could switch out parts? I’m looking for solutions here.

      Secondly, what about a microwave emitter to steam out volatiles from the regolith rather than an excavator which might create a greater dust problem?

    1. Mike

      Look up the “Maranging Steel” from the link provided in the article. That is a nickel steel with no carbon…

      I read an article once about the types of alloys that could be made from lunar metals. At this time I am focusing on nickel/irons as that is the easiest. To me it would not matter if I have to go 5x over strength as having the metal there far outweighs other issues.

      Personally, as the owner of several Ni/Fe meteorites, I am not as worried about the properties as some are. I can’t wait to get one of my big ones melted and poured into a mold for testing.

      1. All of these things will be resources….

        An interesting statement was made to me by a mining engineer that I know.. He said that he likes the Moon more than an asteroid because of the diversity of resources. Asteroids are much more homogeneous in their makeup.

        A great way of looking at it.

  7. unfortunately, you don’t slay anything. are you planning on taking the machines to make those angled steel rails? those aren’t cast, they’re *extruded*, which means lots of hardware that you can’t make on the Moon. most other steel components used in structures are also extruded: tubes, I-beams, you name it, all made by extrusion. casting is good for making bulk items, but it doesn’t weld well. most castings also aren’t just popped out of a mold and put to use. they have, in most cases, to at least be cleaned and, especially if they’re going to be part of a moving surface, polished. which is more machinery you’ll need to deliver. worse, if you need some truly complex part, you won’t be able to cast it with enough accuracy to do the job. hubs and other parts used in wheel assemblies need to be machines with tools to get them to their final, desired shape. how do I know all this? unlike you, I actually worked with steel, I didn’t need to rely on a second/third hand description of how things get done.

    1. I agree. No one is talking about complex parts at this time. Flat plate, bar, C channels and tube are easily done with primitive methods.

      Alex, you might want to tone down the superiority complex, I have engineered and built over 220,000 lbs of steel parts since January of last year. I also maintain the systems so have an understanding of the lifecycle.

      There are many ways to skin these cats, and the vacuum of space does interesting things to help you in playing with metals.

      1. Generally complex parts are small parts. A Falcon Heavy lunar payload delivery can deliver he heck of a lot of step motors, joints, computer chips, cameras, radio equipment, or airproof liners, etc.

        1. After ISRU gets up and going the entire complexion of payloads change. This is one of the reasons that I push early and robust ISRU. The payloads will change from completely integrated systems to parts and subsystems. We obviously are not going to build computers from scratch on the Moon anytime soon. Same thing with complex motors, valves, cameras, and radios as you observe. My first patent is on a way to carry these payloads to space without having to qualify them for the full launch loads.

          Thus these payloads, which have a lot of value on the Moon but are very inexpensive on the Earth, will be the perfect payload manifest for a reusable launch vehicle. The RLV will deliver these payloads to the station or any other orbital facility/location, where they will then be transferred to a cislunar cycler. The cycler will deliver the payloads to low lunar orbit or to EML-1 (or EML-2), whence a lunar RLV will then take these payloads from those locations to the lunar surface.

          When this gets into place, the cost of carrying payloads to and from the Earth-Moon locations, will drop by an order of magnitude, to the cost of fuel + the amortized cost of the vehicles + operational costs.

          This will be an amazing day, and the day that I am working toward. Looks like this is going to be the subject of my next article…..

          1. A couple of questions. Why have an OTV and a lander. Can we have a vehicle that serves both purposes. I know that a heat shield is useless on the Moon and legs are useless in cis-lunar space. But a common vehicle means that you launch less mass initially in exchange for less payload. Perhaps a valuable initial compromise.

            Second, I imagine either EML1 or 2 as a valuable fuel depot location for launches beyond the Earth-Moon system. But is there any advantage over LLO than L1 for a depot?

            1. You have an OTV and a lander for the same reason you have different vehicles on the Earth, they are optimize for their application. A lunar RLV can be a completely different beast than a cislunar transportation vehicle. This also, at least in the early days, drive you to going to lunar orbit rather than EML-1 or 2. A lunar RLV can be a very simple system as it is only supposed to operate for an hour or two each way. The cislunar transporter has to operate for days and days, providing food, water, and habitation for x number of people.

  8. This post was made a while ago, so I don’t know if I will get a reply (the post popped up on reddit), but what about the cooling of the steel manufactured? Water would be an expensive resource to use, and there is no air (obviously) to cool the steel.

    Possibly a silly question, and there easily could be some fact that I missed that makes this a non-issue, but I feel like it would cause some problems.

    1. Cooling can be be dune by radiating the heat into space, particularly if the metal is in shadow.

      It may also be possible to recycle the heat to warm up the next piece of ore.

  9. Even so, Carbon is a damn handy thing to have for other purposes. I am wondering how much is available from the impactor sites of carbonite asteroids? Would it be worthwhile to slam a few into the moon?

    1. Absolutely. In the polar regions carbon is known to be in the grams per ton range and maybe if some of the ices are hydrocarbons, which the LCROSS mission indicates from their impact, then there will be lots of carbon in the polar regions.

  10. Dennis, Why do you use an electromagnet rather than a permanent magnet?

    I think that this discussion of metal ISRU is important and fine but somewhat premature. I believe that we can establish an economically viable cis-lunar infrastructure based upon lunar volatiles alone and with occasional launches of orbital transfer and landing vehicles (OTLVs) from Earth. Even the initially manning of a lunar base could use inflatables and not need ISRU metals. But, IMO, the earlier that we can master ISRU metallurgy and machining the better. What we need first are just the bulky (perhaps large cross-section) parts of teleoperated robots. I’m hoping that minimal processing will none-the-less yield sturdy parts.

    I see humans landing on the Moon using the same cargo OTLVs. Those will operated reusably and so we’ll get a decent amount of flight experience with just a few launches. So I don’t think that it will be too many launches before we can safely deliver humans to the lunar surface.

    Also, I have just completed an initial write-up of a proposal for a one-launch, cis-lunar, infrastructure which I will send you shortly for constructive criticism.

    1. Guys

      The further we push this into the future, the further in the future it will be before we do it. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever for this not to be done now.

      I remind you of a conversation that I had with Robert Truax when I met him in the early 1980’s. Bob was talking about the Sea Dragon:

      I took the Sea Dragon design to all of the aerospace companies. Every single one of them said that there was no way that they could build this big of a beast. Being a Navy man, I then went to Newport News shipyards and talked to the people there. I showed them the design, the sizing, and the materials. They said that it looked interesting and that they had a dry dock available that was about the right size to build the vehicle. They said it would take them about six months to get everything ready for the construction after contract award. As soon as you give us the contract, we will get started.

      Bob ruefully shook his head that this point, thinking about the lost opportunity.

      The point is that what one discipline of engineers thinks is impossible, another does as a matter of their daily business. What I am going to do, is to work with a specialty steel and metals company, one that I have already contacted and who says that this would be a fun project, and move this ball forward. My funds are extremely limited right now but as I get the resources, I will do this.

      I repeat, there is no insurmountable obstacle to making this happen and the amount of investment to realize the potential is a small fraction of what we are pissing away on a heavy lift vehicle.

      1. Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that lunar metallurgy be delayed because it is too difficult. Magnetic separation and solar melting is fairly straight forward. It’s just that I would rather the first payload deliver the equipment to extract water so that we can produce the fuel for get back to LEO. After we secure our own fuel and hence transportation system then we can ship the metallurgy and machining equipment.

        As for doing the R&D on lunar metallurgy, that can start now. No use in waiting.

        1. Extracting water after a single landing may be viable on Mars but it is very difficult on the Moon. Lunar ice is at the bottom of craters where there is no sun light. Electrical power would have to be brought in.

          Electrical cables or batteries in trucks can take the power from solar panel at the top of the craters. Unfortunately building a road for the trucks will take at least a year – that is not a first demo mission.

          The equipment could be nuclear powered but that will cause a lot of controversy, something the project can do without.

          To maintain public support the first ISRU lander has to produce useful output and work in sunlight.

          1. Lunar ice is at the bottom of craters where there is no sun light. Electrical power would have to be brought in.

            Actually, for the most part, this is incorrect. Of course there is more water in the permanently shadowed regions but there is a lot of water per cubic meter of regolith in the polar regions. The floor of Peary near the north pole is a big example.

            Our team has taken the LOLA data, overlaid the LROC NAC images and the ASU north polar illumination map. The closest small crater with known water (from Spudis Mini-Rf data) is only 8.5 km from the rim of Whipple, which is in near permanent sunlight. The maximum slope angle to get to the shadowed craters is only 22.5 degrees, a very modest slope. We have more data but that is for our own efforts.

            So, in short your premise is incorrect on this, based on data that we already have from LRO.

            1. If the water is not in permanent darkness it will have boiled off. So it is either covered by something or the hydroxide is not water. Converting rust into water is possible but difficult.

              1. Andrew, your supposition is incorrect. We know now that some of the elevated water measurements from Apollo at over 100 parts per million in several samples. Near the poles the thermal environment is far better for the retention of water molecules. Go to Paul Spudis’s site and read up on this.


                He has some other peer reviewed papers on the subject.

              2. 100 parts per million in several samples is 100g of water per cubic metre. That is a very dry desert. To be cost effective we need areas that are much wetter than that.

              3. Andrew (reply to the following)

                100 parts per million in several samples is 100g of water per cubic metre. That is a very dry desert. To be cost effective we need areas that are much wetter than that.

                Andrew, the 100 ppm is at the equator. In the polar, non shadowed regions the amount is 100-1,000 x that. it is 10,000-100,000 x that in the shadowed regions.

            2. Are there places where there is sunlight glancing at a very shallow angle but where there is also ice? If so, then one could set up thin-film solar cells perpendicular to the incident light and harvest water from the immediate area.

          2. Andrew, I recognize the power transmission problem. There are several potential solutions. I am not sure which is the best. You mention electrical cables but didn’t mention superconducting wires.

            Regarding roads, it depends upon the distance needing to be traveled and how often the path needs to be traveled. I would look for solutions that would need to travel as short a distance (between ice and sunlight) as possible and to do so just once by establishing power transmission after that trip. I really see no need for constructing a scintered (or whatever) road.

            RTGs have been used numerous times in space although I wonder if it has only been done by government entities.

            You made no mention of beamed power transmission, mirrors, or fuel cells. One could also possibly minimize the number of times a trip up an down the edge of a crater would need to be done by throwing or shooting concentrated product out of the crater to where it could be picked up. I suppose one could also consider hopping from the sun-lit rim to the icy crater floor but I feel that that would introduce too much risk of accident.

            1. Superconducting wires are just a different type of cable. Reusable fuel cell fuel is just a battery that uses gas instead of a liquid.

              Power beaming may be possible but will require a significant amount of infrastructure to set up, so not suitable for the first ISRU process.

              RTGs produce a few hundred watts or less. It will take a very, very long time to fill a fuel tank will hydrogen with that tiny amount of power.

            2. There are plenty of very small craters in the floor of Peary that the radar data from Mini-Rf shows have significant water.

              By the way I am 100% for going for the water but metals and water are like peas and carrots, they go together.

    2. Doug

      You use an electromagnet for the same reason that you do on the Earth. When you turn it off, the metal falls away from the magnet. As someone who grew up around iron rich soil, I can tell you that getting metal to come off of a permanent magnet is a major pain in the rear. One of the fun things I did as a kid was to take a magnet out of a speaker and use it to prospect for iron around where I lived. (yes I was a geek even then). There is a LOT of iron in Alabama and if you drop a good magnet in the dirt in many places there the soil and tiny rocks literally jump onto the magnet.

    1. Descenders should be reusable as ascenders. If something breaks, it will probably be during flight and so list for good. But if an OTV/lander was disabled but still at hand then it would probably best be fixed or salvaged for parts like is done with aircraft without melting the metal and forming a completely new part.

  11. Hi,

    I was digging around some ISRU literature and bumped into the information that 0.5% of regolith is metallic iron and does not need any reduction and can be collected with a magnet. I jumped out of my seat and started jumping and yelling and screaming… If I was in my bathtub I would have run around screaming eureka like Archimedes allegedly did ;-).

    Then I started wondering, why isn’t Iron extraction one of the top priorities for industrializing moon. I shrugged it off saying that there must have been some insurmountable hurdle. Then I googled to check out what the obstacles were. And I landed up on your post :-). I was shocked to discover that Iron did not receive enough attention because of apathy 😦 and not due to some physics or chemistry reasons.

    I am glad that some one who may possibly do something about this is creating the fuss and not some “me too” geek. Unfortunately all I can do to help is try to spread the word among people who are opposed to even spending money on space forget about choosing the best path forward. All the best. Hope we will be mining tonnes and tonnes of this stuff soon.

    I have a (possibly silly) suggestion. During your first visit, at least a fraction of the stuff you cast could have artistic value. In addition you could cast advertisements like the Google logo or the IBM logo or the firefox logo and so on. You could even raise a kickstarter to cast user sponsored art or logos like the reddit mascot. This would give the media something to speak about. The whackier the stuff you cast, the more the visibility you will get. The kickstarter sponsors get to keep the casts that were casted during the trials here on earth. You could even make your casts on the moon using a tiny cnc machine and make multiple instances of that molded object. All this may look trivial. But if executed well could even pay for the whole payload.

    Also promise them that anyone who goes to the moon some day can pick up his cast lying undisturbed on the moon and fly it back home if he/she wants ;-). If a guy can pull off a silly prank like the milliondollarhome( page, an awesome proposal like this should definitely receive a good response. Just a suggestion. Can’t wait to see man become a multi planetary species.


    1. Sudarshan, consider the implications if that metal were cast to produce the bulky parts of telerobots such as their chassis, wheels, scoops, arms, etc. This means that we would only then need to ship the smaller, high-tech parts. So, the second payload could deliver enough parts for perhaps a dozen or more telerobots. The teleoperated robotic workforce could therefore expand quickly bringing financial viability closer. Lunar ice for propellant isn’t the only resource which we can bootstrap with; we could also do that with the iron in the regolith.

      1. Wow, I am just drooling at those thoughts :). Why can’t a guy like yuri milner or gates just throw some money at the problem… we will be masters of space in no time. For the price of Instagram we can have about 10 tonnes of stuff on the moon. Imagine a ton of stepper motors 😉 on the moon.

  12. Dennis, I just got done listening to an old The Space Show program interviewing Paul Spudis. In it he indicated that lunar regolith is magnetic because iron is deposited on the various particles of the lunar regolith (e.g. glass, etc) in a “vapor phase”. If this is the case, then running a magnetic rake wouldn’t necessarily separate out ferrous from non-ferrous material since the ferrous material is deposited on the non-ferrous material. Any thoughts on this?

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