Changing the Conversation about the Economic Development of the Moon

Changing the Conversation 

It is time to throw down the gauntlet as they say, regarding the Moon. It is my firm conviction that the industrialization of the Moon is the necessary and logical first goal of the second American space age.  The industrial capability of the Moon and its near space environs can now be developed. The industrialization of the Moon paves the way for reusable human interplanetary spacecraft, large communications and remote sensing platforms in geosynchronous orbit, and the settlement of Mars.  By introducing reusability of the in space segment of all of the elements we transform the first human landing on Mars from a heroic flags and footprints publicity stunt into the first wave of human economic development and colonization of the solar system.  By enabling the development of large platforms in GEO orbit we further leverage the existing $300 billion per year existing economic value of this space real estate.  In short, we transform our current primitive level of space technological development away from the throw away space junk creating model to one wherein we can finally develop the potential of the space economy.

Adapting New Technological Advances to Lunar Industrialization and Mars Settlement

It is my position that we have the technological wherewithal to utilize the most recent and unheralded dramatic advances in robotics, computer controlled manufacturing, and 3D printing technologies.  These developments have pushed us pass the critical mass necessary to create a flourishing lunar manufacturing outpost. An example of this is a three D printer that can print metal.

Many of the superalloys used in advanced military systems have a heavy vacuum as one of the processing steps.  Most if not all of the base elements needed are plentiful on the Moon.

With the abundant titanium, aluminum and other elements on the Moon coupled to e-beam and other additive 3D printing technologies…..

……it is easily possible with the technology we have in hand that to build large, super strong structures on the Moon, launch them into orbit with a reusable lunar RLV and assemble them into a Mars cycler that can be used multiple times as a ferry to move people to Mars, and then return to Earth orbit (probably Earth Moon Libration point 1), where the next set of people and or cargo can be sent.

In this fashion Mars would be transformed into a viable destination for human settlement.

Another dramatic advance that has occurred to make this far more feasible is the revolution in embedded electronics, driven by the hobby, military, and professional robotics world. Arduino, Lynxmotion, Servocity are names and websites that you have probably never heard of are part of a an evolving ecosystem of small and large companies like Analog devices, Maxim, and Intel. These companies are at the base of the food chain for the robotics and remote systems world and their products have helped to dramatically lower the hardware cost of entry for robotics, coupled with an explosion in the software world. Software now exists for autonomous remote locomotion of a wide range of robotics and industrial equipment. This software and hardware has not made it into the NASA world as of yet but in more commercially driven entities remote operation of a plethora of robotic equipment is already a reality.

Greg Baiden, and Penguin Systems are part of that revolution higher in the food chain, making heavy industrial equipment that can be monitored and controlled remotely:

Another conviction; even with all of the advances in automation, humans are 100% required on the Moon. Murphy lives and no matter how many ways that you look at hardware failure and work out methods to to preclude it, failure always finds a way to outsmart you. With enough infrastructure in place humans can also use their creativity to work out new things and way ways of doing things in that environment. Taking humans in the early days of the lunar manufacturing outpost development may be expensive but humans are much more easily reprogrammable than a machine and human problem solving skills will be necessary. We must get away from this idea of robots vs humans, both are necessary on the Earth and they will be off of the Earth, at least for the foreseeable future.

This mobile robot platform would be capable of autonomous as well as tele operated action.

A Different Kind of Exploration Architecture

With the goal of developing a lunar manufacturing outpost (what kind of name could you come up with for the outpost) a different kind of launch and transportation architecture to the Moon becomes more cost effective than a heavy lift vehicle. The only real purpose of a heavy lift launch vehicle is to lift large ground integrated systems into orbit. These systems have to withstand the launch, vibration, and thermal environment in their flight from the Earth to orbit. If we are able to manufacture the large heavy structural and other parts on the Moon, we can change what we lift from the Earth from these large systems to parts. Computers, transceivers, embedded systems, motors, and all the things that can be more easily made on the Earth. Since these are not fully integrated systems, they could be packed just like we pack things for shipping on the Earth in a vibration environment and send them up. If a launch vehicle failed the value of the aggregate of the parts is far less than what the entire system would have cost. This is just the beginning of the savings.

Today we already have crucial elements of a 21st century cis-lunar (Earth Moon system) transportation network.  We have the International Space Station (ISS) that is the aggregation point for payloads and humans in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).  We have near term commercial human spaceflight vehicles from SpaceX (Dragon), Orbital Sciences (Cygnus), the Japanese (HTV), the European (ATV), and the Russian Progress, Soyuz, and Proton vehicles.  The next steps would be a human and or robotic cycler to the Moon, along with a simple system for landing human and robotic payloads along with direct flights of supplies using existing EELV’s, Falcon 9’s, Japanese, European, and Russian launchers.  There are only a very few payloads that ever require a heavy lifter and if we shift the emphasis to lunar manufacturing, then the need for heavy lift basically goes away.


The inevitable push back is that this is not possible, it would cost hundreds of billions of dollars and decades, and whatever new reason can be thought up. However, I ask the reader to put this thought aside for a second and consider the value of having a lunar manufacturing outpost that would build these systems. This would completely revolutionize our society. No longer is Mars that far off target,it is within our grasp. Resource depletion? The World Wildlife Federation Periodically puts out a press release stating that we need the equivalent of two more Earth’s to supply the 9 billion inhabitants of the Earth in 2050. Since this is obviously impossible we have to change our entire civilization to somehow move backward to the 19th century. The startling fact is that it is now possible to put the thousands of worlds of the asteroid belt and those near the earth into service to serve the resource needs of the Earth.

This was foreseen as far back as 1965 by Neil Ruzic in his book “The Case for Going to the Moon”.  An image of his vision of a lunar manufacturing operation is shown below:

Lunar Manufacturing Using the Advantages of Vacuum and Precision Temperature Control in Cryostat Processors

The bowl shaped devices above are cryostats.  These were patented by Mr. Ruzic during the writing of this book and are standard items in Earth bound vacuum manufacturing today as they allow for precise temperature control of processes like the forming of superalloys for aerospace.  Ruzic took this much farther in his book, showing how entire factories built in cryostats could be used on the Moon to leverage the advantages of the Moon’s environments.  He did not see the Moon as a place where things can’t get done, but as a place that enables things that otherwise we could never get done.  That is how the mindset must change.  Thinking about what can be done with the Moon is a lot more practical than complaining about the difficulties.

How do We Do this Thing?

This type of development is not all NASA’s job. NASA can work to build technologies to support this type of development and can help drive the destinations for science purposes. The government did not build the intercontinental railroad but it did enable their development. The Pacific railway act of 1862 can a model for our future in space. People will say that in the middle of a recession we cannot fund or do something like this or that we have other priorities. When the pacific railway act was signed the blood of Americans had been shed in civil war not fifty miles from the capital not long before. Hundreds of thousands of Americans would die in that war in the next three years and yet the government found the money for the pacific railway act because it was important to the future of our nation. Space is just as important to our future now.


Simple, two paths, one is by using the model of the Pacific Railway Act, which is similar in structure to the COTS missions to ISS today. Or by a Prize. The prize path is more desirable as it results in the most innovation and competition. The prizes have to be substantial.


Ten billion dollars for two humans to live on the Moon for six months.


Fifteen billion dollars additional for the first lunar surface to lunar orbit RLV that does the trip twice in one week.  This would be required to use propellant derived from the Moon itself.

That money can come out of the High Speed Railroad fund and would be a far better use of the funds, and one that looks forward and not backward.

By using the prize approach the broader economy will be stimulated but only for achievement.  The prize has to be high enough to enable the entrants a profit, but not enough to be the same size of outlay if the government was going to do it.   There is absolutely nothing in the world precluding congress and the white house from doing this and the value of doing this far outweighs the cost to the treasury.

Why This and Not That?

Basically all of NASA’s architectures since about 1990 have been the equivalent of an Antarctic research station on the Moon and or Mars.  These destinations are for everyone and if instead of focusing on the science mission we must focus on the development of these locations for the benefit of all mankind.

Is not this goal worth solving the ISRU problem?  That is all stands between us and lunar manufacturing.  A scientific outpost was a worthy goal 20 years ago.  However, today we must look beyond that to the economic possibilities of the Moon and how it can be leveraged to solve the 21st century problems of sustaining and expanding the reach of our civilization here on the Earth for the 9 billion people who will be living here within a single generation.  The future is not Mad Max, the future can be the starship Enterprise.  Which way it goes is up to us.

The beginnings of a lunar manufacturing outpost

19 thoughts on “Changing the Conversation about the Economic Development of the Moon

  1. Dennis, I’m totally with you on the broad goal of lunar ISRU and manufacturing, but I think you\’re being just a tad optimistic when you say, ”There is absolutely nothing in the world precluding congress and the white house from doing this.” In principle you\’re right, but in practice… well, I’m more inclined to put my hope in private sector efforts.

    Happily, the private sector is humming along nicely (at least in space), and in the next few years we\’re going to see launch costs plummet as various new vehicles come online. Thus, I think your proposed ”X-prize” purse amounts are bigger than they need to be. If I were at the X-prize foundation contemplating new prizes along the lines you describe, I would certainly want to wait a bit until this new landscape becomes clearer before offering them. (Eg: Once SpaceX gets its human-rated Dragon flying, along with their ”Grasshopper” RLV, it\’s a whole new ball-game getting people to Luna.)

    In the meantime, I think the best route would be to get busy designing the actual hardware necessary to PROVE that lunar ISRU can be done, because once that new landscape emerges, you’ll want to be at the front of the line with hardware ready to fly. Only after you’ve proved the technology and can show the VCs how they’re going to make tons of money, that’s when the checkbooks will open.

    BTW, did you catch the MoonAndBack interview with Michael Laine the other day? He’s switched his focus from an Earth-based space elevator to a lunar one, and he claims that this can be done with existing materials and technology… straight from L1 to the lunar surface. (I have no idea what this would cost, but it’s an intriguing idea.)

    Anyway, great post. Keep ’em coming!


    1. tai

      Oh I agree with you in the end, but it is our responsibility as citizens to place this before our elected officials. If they are too stupid to act, then we will.

      I agree with you on designing, building and TESTING ISRU stuff. That is one of my foci for the rest of the year.

  2. Just wanted to say thanks for including ServoCity in being a “part of a an evolving ecosystem of small and large companies…These companies are at the base of the food chain for the robotics and remote systems world and their products have helped to dramatically lower the hardware cost of entry for robotics…” We appreciate the mention!

    1. I love the products at Servo city and your company as well as many others in this space bring a lot of new technology and enthusiasm to the underreported robotic revolution that we are in today.

      I am also a subscriber to Servo Mag.

  3. “Fifteen billion dollars additional for the first lunar surface to lunar orbit RLV that does the trip twice in one week. This would be required to use propellant derived from the Moon itself.”

    At the moment this is likely to be too complex an end result for a prize. Smaller, seperate prizes for a reusable lander and ISRU propellant will be needed. Particularly if one lander is won by a rocket firm and the propellant by a chemistry firm. Then the joint prize can be won.

    1. If the truth be known, just about any lunar lander will be lox/hydrogen and most of them will be single stage to orbit systems, so it will be interesting to see how it plays out….

      1. I understand that the LCROSS results indicate that the #1 volatile in the icy regolith is carbon monoxide at 5.7%. Might methane be a better fuel due to its relative ease of storage and transfer in orbit?

          1. Wow! I had no idea. That’s wonderful.

            About the RL-10s, I understand that they are quite expensive. Do you know of a much less expensive alternative?

  4. Several questions stemming from your article.

    Do you have any doubts about whether lunar resources can be developed for a profit in the short-run (e.g. within the first $20 billion spent), especially given the anticipated reduction in launch-from-Earth costs?

    Telerobots can do intricate surgeries today.  Surface equipment could be designed for easy disassembly.  Robots can have magnified vision with greater resolution than humans.  Do humans need to be physically present or can everything be done telerobotically at less cost and risk?

    Is lunar development so expensive that it needs government funding or is there a bootstrapping way whereby a corporation could achieve profitability at less than say $5 – $10 billion?

      1. Looking forward to your later response. In the meanwhile, I make a distinction between all telerobots and “dexterous telerobots”. A Predator UAV can’t fix another Predator UAV. But a Robonaut might be able to remove the arm if another Robonaut and replace it with a new arm if they were to be designed to do so.

  5. Seems that possible technologies for solving the “unsolvable” problems with living on Moon, Mars, and in space are aborning at a rapid pace.
    Two overlooked areas that I think are necessary, somewhat early on, to the success of leaving our nest is livability for children so that many may want to stay and a scattering of the race in order to open as many, now unforeseeable, opportunities as possible.
    I think that concentrating the workforce to a few sites and without “family”, no matter how profitable jn the short term, will lead to “ghost towns”.
    I see if at all possible the early, human presence, exploitation of as many sites as possible:
    LEO, GEO, L1, L2(halo), Luna and orbit, NEOs, Martian moons, Mars…….
    This could only be facilitated by private investment with a government encouragement and oversight to ensure the necessary freedom for individuals to have free time and resources for self serving creative thought and action.
    As I read the various blogs promoting some technology or idea for the future in space I see comparisons with supposedly competing ideas and the bloggers reasons that their preferred tech is better. What I see are so many solutions to the different problems and opportunities that present themselves concerning the space enterprise that there are plenty that will work!
    I think that it’s necessary to support, as much as possible, all the ideas. The unworkable will fail of their own accord as in any free market.
    I don’t think that it’s possible to change the paradigms or voting patterns of those who see the Earth as the only home humanity will ever know. The best that can happen will be to inspire the children of those people. The number of people who have “vision” in this regard are probably at the lowest percentage of the population for at least the last 60 years, and I seriously doubt if the number can be more than doubled through efforts to change viewpoints. That’ll still be a small segment of society, in the West at least.
    A troubling trend in the West is the accumulation of the available wealth by smaller and smaller segments of the population. A possible glint of the cliche-ish silver lining in this is that quite a large part of that wealth is accumulating in the hands of people who are highly entrepreneurial and imaginative as demonstrated and reported on regularly, and as evident by the news, many are willing to risk that in space ventures.
    Lets support this proactively and often if we’re to see the private investment necessary for a diverse space enterprise, instead of the wealth being targeted by advocates of a socially green society for equal apportionment under a limits to growth philosophy and eventual economic collapse.
    Just my “off the cuff” thoughts, inspired by your blog.

  6. Currently the Mighty Eagle robotic lunar lander uses hydrogen peroxide as propellant. It may be possible to convert water into H2O2 on the Moon.

    Although the finial lander may use a different propellant.

  7. I blog often and I truly appreciate your content. Your article has truly peaked my interest.
    I’m going to book mark your site and keep checking for new information about once per week.
    I subscribed to your RSS feed as well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s