A few weeks ago I received an advance copy of Paul Spudis’s book (Full title) “The Value of the Moon” How to Explore, Live, and Prosper in Space Using the Moon’s Resources”. Just in case anyone does not already know, I am a strong proponent of this thesis. Also, as a disclaimer, I provided three graphics for the book. Paul and I are very long time fellow travelers in the arena of the exploration and development of the Moon, since at least the 1980’s. So there is much in this book that is very familiar to me, as are the arguments that Paul makes.
I will endeavor to be fair in my assessment and provide my own perspective to his work.
Note: Paul’s book is available here [link] on Amazon.com. It is well worth the read.
The book is written for the general reader of at least moderate intelligence. There are no equations and the strict technical content is limited. Paul weaves policy, science, and technology into a tapestry that supports the overall premise that the Moon is our first true off planet destination. It is well written and avoids the majority of the bitterness that sometimes creeps into the writings of those who have been lived the history that Paul and many of the others that are part of our community have been frustrated by.
As I write this I look over at my library of books about the Moon. I have almost everything ever printed in this realm. In the pantheon this book falls mostly into the advocacy for the development of the resources of the Moon to support the human economic development of the solar system. His science background is impeccable as he is now one of the few very senior lunar scientists in the field who have been at it for at least three decades. We both can remember when we were the new kids on the block and we know that we follow in the footsteps of great scientists who dreamed the dreams that we still have, but who have retired from the field of battle.
There is both an empathy for those who the sands of time are engulfing and the weight of responsibility to carry on the vision that we have been handed. Paul accomplishes this well in the book. You see many of their ideas that are still prevalent in this work and it is both an homage to them, yet these ideas also place limitations on the book.
Policy and Process of the Vision for Space Exploration
A central pivot in the book is the Bush II administration’s Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), that was announced on January 14th 2004. This speech (linked here), was (no matter what you may think of the Bush administration), a visionary speech, one that broke new ground. NASA and its space exploration was no longer to just be the province of science or national competition, but a place to live and work. The Moon was to be our first stepping off point into the solar system, with the use of its resources to fuel spaceships and to perhaps even build them there. This was followed in 2006 by an equally visionary speech by the head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) [link] at the Goddard Symposium that Paul quotes from on page 78.
Paul was higher up the food chain than I in the development of the VSE but we saw many of the same things happen that derailed the VSE from its lunar goals to a goal for Mars that was unattainable. NASA went from a vision of using lunar propellants and materials of the Moon, to a touch and go mentality. Touch and go means to basically give lip service to going to the Moon by a couple of sorties or a temporary outpost. Amazingly the entire concept of utilizing the resources of the Moon to support a Mars architecture was deemed “too risky” and thus written out of the VSE script.
This mentality was supported at the highest levels of the agency, from both the science mission directorate and the administrator’s office after the departure from the agency of the Bush family friend Sean O’Keefe. This led to the absolutely inevitable cost overruns, schedule slips, and after a new administration, a new presidential commission. This commission came to exactly the expected solution, the NASA plan was three billion dollars per year short of the resources that were needed to execute on a Mars centric mission architecture.
Just as inevitably after the new president got into office, not only did NASA not get the extra $3 billion per year, NASA’s budget was cut by $2 billion per year due to the economic crisis of 2008 and changing government priorities. Paul gives a good overview of the entire process from brilliant beginnings to the agony of defeat and the cancellation of the Constellation architecture.
Reasons the Moon Is Important
Paul goes into great detail beginning in chapter six regarding why the Moon is important. He has a great and succinct quote on the importance;
Whatever long-term space goal we adopt, the Moon will play a key role in enabling us to achieve those objectives. The value of the Moon lies in three principal attributes: It’s close, its interesting, and its useful. [page 111]
There is a beautiful, but limited black and white barely readable graphic on page 113 representing Paul’s favored architecture. Here is a beautiful color version of that graphic.
I know it was done for cost savings reasons but this beautiful graphic is unreadable in the book. While I might quibble with his architecture implementation, these criticisms of the ins space segment are of minor import in context of the overall very solid discussion in this section of the book. However, it is also here where there begins to be a divergence between the thinking that Paul has and my own recent thoughts and work in this area.
The Future is Here
I like to write in my books. I write notes, and have a notes page in the front of books that interest me that I acquire for my library. On page 120 I have such a note that says “too conservative”. This is the passage:
For initial ISRU [In Situ Resource Utilization] efforts, we would only undertake the simplest processes, such as bulldozing regolith to make blast berms around landing pads and to cover habitats for radiation shielding, along with heating polar regolith to extract water ice. These are minimal, low-risk activities that provide useful products and pieces of outpost infrastructure. The techniques needed to begin ISRU are no more complex than everyday eighteenth-century industrial processes.
In my opinion this is both much more difficult than it appears at first blush, and more risky than some of the amazing advances that have come our way even in the last ten years since the serious phase of VSE mission planning. We both 100% agree that landing at the lunar poles is the best thing to do. We both agree that site buildup at a single location is the best path forward. Where we begin to diverge is that is is my opinion that the amazing advances in robotics hardware/software, additive manufacturing, and commercial space systems are making the build up sequence that Paul has here obsolete. If you read through his presentation, and if you have been around a long time, the ISRU techniques mentioned and the products are not that different from what Mike Duke from NASA JSC wrote about 30 years ago in NASA SP-589, the seminal work on ISRU. Times have changed.
In order to mine water in hundred ton lots, you need a lot of infrastructure. You need front end loaders, dump trucks, and a plethora of other surface vehicles, whether robotic or human operated. You need lots of electrical power to provide the energy to these vehicles, and you need a customer for the water. At this time this is still the classic chicken and egg problem, as there are no customers at this time for that water. Paul is still focused on a government centric approach to the problem, even though we have gone through almost 50 years and two engineering generations of frustration regarding that.
With our advances in the robotics, additive manufacturing, and software a different approach and a different set of products are now possible. I would posit that these plans for massive water harvesting and the longer term ideas of massive solar farms on the surface to beam energy to the earth, or even mining Helium-3 for future fusion reactors are to be set aside and removed from our thought toolbox, at least for a while.
We know that the Moon has been impacted by metallic asteroids. Paul has been properly skeptical of finding large quantities of these, at least initially. However, we know from the Apollo 16 samples, that highlands terrain, which the polar regions are, have up to 1% meteoric material in the regolith. We also know from Paul’s prior work that just about any regolith in the highlands region not in the cold traps has elevated hydrogen levels, up to hundreds of grams per ton. The first thing we need to land, for which Paul uses one of my graphics, is a power lander, carrying large solar arrays. A Falcon heavy from SpaceX could easily place a power lander with a 100 kW power system in a single landing. An additional landing with a communications base, an additive manufacturing system assembled by robots brought along could begin to use the metal that is highly likely to be in the regolith. The body of large regolith moving equipment, including blades, vehicle body, and other heavy parts would be additively manufactured. These parts would then be integrated with hardware brought from the Earth.
A follow on lander could bring the the important parts, such as motors, systems controllers, electrical wiring, and the power system for the heavy equipment. If you look at the mass of the 1970’s NASA Lunar Rover (210 kg), you will see that 70% of that number was structural. Of course the alloys made from random regolith is going to be of uncertain provenance but that is dealt with by overbuilding by large margins. You would also design the landers to be disassembled and their parts used by the ground equipment. Today you can buy from Eos in Germany [link] additive manufacturing systems that could use the metals from meteorites unmodified after sieving for the right size. Using 0.5% mass as a number, which seems likely at the lunar poles, 5 kg of metals exist for every ton of regolith processed and over half a kg of water. Initially the water would not be used to instead the focus would be on building up industrial capacity. For what purpose?
Building an Industry on the Moon
Pauls book is great, and visionary, but it is still the same vision that we have had for 30 years. Advances in technology are bringing us today to the point where it is absolutely feasible to begin the industrialization of the Moon for the purpose of building the interplanetary spaceships necessary for the plans of Elon Musk (or Jeff Bezos or anyone else) to go to Mars. The biggest problem that NASA has in going to Mars is to provide sufficient volume for crew health and sufficient radiation shielding to protect their lives. I contend that today we have the technology, and we are currently working on this, the logistical system to enable the building of interplanetary vehicles whose pieces would be built on the Moon and assembled in lunar orbit.
Things that were impossible 27 years ago with the Space Exploration Initiative, and considered too risky ten years ago with the VSE, are now not only possible, but absolutely doable by adapting technology already in production for terrestrial use. Note that this will be primarily privately driven, not government, something that Paul is unwilling to consider in his book. Interplanetary vehicles would be a product. These vehicles would also have utility in cislunar space and could be configured in a variety of ways, as water tankers, transit vehicles for Mars or to service geosynchronous orbital assets.
A New Innovation for a Philosophy of Government Space
If we can pull of the above, something that Paul wrote about toward the end of the book becomes an exceptionally important motivation for government space. On page 182 he writes regarding resource and operational rights on the Moon:
This issue [resource and operational rights] leads us to conclude that a strong federal presence in space is necessary to ensure that our rights are established and that our values are protected and promoted. In the hypothetical context mentioned of Bigelow and China [earlier in the chapter], mentioned before, a single American company facing a determined nation-state is not likely to prevail in a manner favorable to the interests of free-market capitalism. Legal recourse on Earth would be limited–more likely nonexistent. It is also unlikely that the United States would go to war over the infringement of some corporate plot of land on the Moon, at least during the early stages of commercial space. However, when the federal government establishes a presence, it serves notice to the world that we have national interest there. Their presence makes any infringement on the property an access rights of American corporations less like to occur in the first place–and more easily resolved if such a situation arose, creating a much more favorable climate for private investment in space activities.
It is an interesting concept, though it does place the federal government in the position of following corporate interests to the Moon rather than leading. As the government is currently ego committed to going to Mars, that should not be a problem.
Paul ends with the obvious questions regarding if not us who? Of course that who is China, and since they have officially announced a human landing in the 2030’s I nor Paul have any doubt that they will achieve it. We were monumentally stupid as a nation to spend the money on Apollo and then walk away from it. We were just as monumentally stupid to walk away from the Shuttle program and not have anything in place to replace it. If we continue to be monumentally stupid, we will abdicate the leadership that we have gained an will continue a slide into second nation status. Paul feels that this leadership must be provided by the government. I am not at all sure of this as by far more progress has happened in commercial space in the last ten years. Yes much of it has been paid for by the government, but at a cost of a small fraction of the existing military industrial complex.
That is our final divergence. In my opinion the best path forward is a continuation and expansion of the public-private partnerships that is transforming the space industry. Paul is still hoping that a lower cost government program will work. Perhaps the two will meet in the middle….