A Lunar Industrial Facility (LIF). Yes, a Lunar Industrial Facility. Science fiction you might say. Impossible you retort. Too expensive even if it could be done might be your rejoinder. We don’t have the technology, could be another rhetorical dismissal. These are all responses those who do not live and breath this every day may have, but these are reactionary responses that do not reflect where we are in the closing years of the second decade of the twenty first century. In this missive, which is a companion to a space policy paper released Monday August 1, 2017, is written to show that indeed a lunar industrial facility is possible, we do have the technology, and no it will not be too expensive. Furthermore, it enables something that though it would seem to be science fiction, isn’t, which is a shipyard in lunar orbit for the construction of humanities first truly interplanetary space vehicles, as well as providing the materials for very large Earth orbiting space platforms for science and commerce.
Why do we need interplanetary vehicles? We have over 9.1 billion reasons, for that is the number of humans who will be on the Earth in 2050, only 33 years from now. The greatest fear is that with only a single planet’s resources, we cannot provide for this number in any reasonable manner. This underpins most of the rhetoric today regarding resource conservation and how to confront other global problems. This is a self defeating philosophy. Rather than rationing poverty, it should be our common goal to help create a world where all of our fellow planetary citizens can live in a society that continues to progress, materially as well as morally. Our science knows beyond any shadow of a doubt now that resources many orders of magnitude greater than what are available from the Earth, exist in the solar system around us. Our technology has advanced to the point that the question is no longer if we can access these riches, but how to do it cost effectively and in a manner that is sustainable and beneficial to our Earthly environment.
Interplanetary space vehicles, with rotation for gravity and water and other shielding materials for radiation are needed as many studies continue to reveal the various debilitating factors of long exposure to zero gravity conditions. Some would say that if things have advanced so much why do we need humans at all in space. However, no matter how advanced we are, things still break in unpredictable ways, and humans still have far more flexibility in the face of new and unforeseen circumstances. We still have human in factories here on the Earth and that will probably always be the case.
In applications, Interplanetary space vehicles will be the least expensive and most sustainable method for colonizing Mars. These vehicles will be designed in a manner to enable asteroid mining. Today there is much talk, and even companies pursuing this venture, but without the means to operate systems millions of miles from the Earth or Mars for periods of years at a time, this remains beyond our reach. These vehicles will be designed for decades of use in free space, just as ships on the Earth have been for thousands of years. The Interplanetary space vehicles do not pack their human cargo like sardines in a can, they are open vehicles with space to breath and to operate in a manner efficient for both robots and humans. Still the best modern imagining of a ship of this type is from the movie “The Martian”. That vehicle is shown here.
It obviously won’t look exactly like this, but the concept is sound. It is highly recommended to watch “The Martian” to imagine what this might feel like living and working and traveling in it.
There is the Elon Musk argument about “backing up” humanity. There is merit in that argument as we have gone through many major planetary disasters, from catastrophic sea level rise just 12,000 years ago, to the ice ages, to super volcanos, plagues, and yes asteroid impacts from space. These also cannot be reliability predicted and any one of them could wipe out our civilization. Interplanetary Space Vehicles can do the job that otherwise cannot be done in protecting crew and cargo in space on long trips.
Exploration? Imagine these vehicles for NASA’s exploration program. Not only is Mars in reach, but so is the asteroid belt, Jupiter, and with nuclear power down the road, beyond there to the outer solar system. Mars becomes far more than flags and footprints, it becomes a second outpost of humanity, and a way station for resources from the asteroid belts and beyond. We live in the 21st century now, time to act like it.
Not all the answers are here in this one post, but the direction can be laid out. NASA and its predecessor, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency as far back as the “Horizon Report” of 1958, authored by the Von Braun led German rocket team, postulated extensive operations on the Moon. Visionary writers such as Neil Ruzic, Ben Bova, and others have written on extensive lunar bases. NASA has gone through three entire programs to develop lunar bases for science and even utilization to no avail. Rather than spend electrons on reviewing this history, this missive will jump right to today’s story, because it is a fundamentally different story than any of these stories before. Modern technology on the Earth has made fundamental and incredible advances since the year 2000, and even since 2010 that change the lunar equation in ways not seriously considered before.
Thus we will begin from here, 2017 and the resources, technologies, and assets that we have today, and plot a path toward a lunar industrial site and orbital shipyard. This will start in a specific to general format, beginning with things that can be done right now, at low cost, to move us in the direction desired, ending with more general statements about how to continue to move forward. This is obviously not the only pathway that is suggested here, but it is one that can work. ……
In the engineering world the goal is first, then the pathway toward solving it. The goal is this….
How do we enable the construction of true interplanetary vehicles in a cost effective manner using the combined resources of the Earth and the Moon.
A legitimate complaint from some in the engineering would is that we could build these vehicles on the earth and assemble them in the same manner that we did the International Space Station. This is a valid argument but it fails the “cost effective” metric as we spent $100 billion dollars among all the international partners and 25 years (from 1984-2009) designing and building it. This is obviously not acceptable. To those who retort that it would be cheaper now, which is marginally true but… NASA’s last Design Reference Mission to Mars (DRM 5.0) would cost on the order of $20 billion dollars per operational mission, not including the minimum of $100 billion in development costs (we have spent over $20 billion on Orion/SLS and not even to flight yet). Here is an example (the latest full DRM dates from 2009) of one with a nuclear stage, something that is not even funded yet.
Recently NASA’s head of Human Exploration, William Gerstenmaier said that the current “program of record” was not viable financially for NASA. This is a good admission and gives a pathway toward building something that is viable. There are other variants of the DRM to Mars than the one above, but none are any less expensive.
With the new administration all indications point to a pivot back to the Moon. With the reinvigorated National Space Council it seems that we may have a situation where the burden of future exploration and economic development outside of low Earth orbit is coordinated across multiple government agencies. However, that is not enough. There simply is not enough money, in the growing competition for scarce federal dollars, for a government only space program anymore. Indeed this should not be this way as a command driven top down government space program is what got us the Apollo program and then its rapid death as government priorities changed. Thus, the private sector must be a vital part of the effort and indeed, in contrast to previous incarnations of NASA driven plans, the private sector, in cooperation with NASA and the rest of the government is both willing and now increasingly able to do things in a cost effective manner. Otherwise we get more NASA DRM’s and be no more able to finance them than the previous 50 years of post Apollo plans. For more on this subject, read the companion space policy paper.
None of this means that NASA is to be denigrated, or that NASA does not play a vital role going forward. Indeed NASA and the government can help to facilitate and participate in these activities and we all will be better for it. Thus, lets look at what can be done, and then go from there. Very soon we will have a new NASA administrator and direction from the National Space Council. By far the information that has been released so far by Vice President Pence and others is that the Moon will be the focus. This will be the fourth go around in my life since Apollo that we have tried to do this without success. Lets hope it works out better this time.
What We Can Do Now
There is a tremendous amount of work that can be done now, and within existing budgets, and without any large reprioritization of resources. There are many things that have been ignored for decades as research that NASA can lead in and help to facilitate.
Research and Analysis of Apollo Lunar Materials
The Apollo lunar materials returned by the six crews has been and is an incredible resource for science. It is my understanding that a considerable amount of this Apollo material has not been scientifically examined in detail, and that most of what was examined was decades ago. NASA has a great website for the curation of the Apollo materials at NASA Johnson Space Center. That site is linked here.
The first recommendation is a dramatically expanded Research and Analysis (R&A) program related to these materials. Some of the materials have not been touched since the initial classification activities a generation ago. Modern methods applied to the Apollo samples would greatly increase our understanding of this material, and help to improve the ground truth record of orbital remote sensing. There are excellent researchers in this area and this work could commence almost immediately upon a decision to go forward.
The research should also include things that were generally ignored in the original scientific studies such as research toward the resource utility of the materials. Specifically, meteoric materials such as nickel-iron impact products was effectively ignored as they were considered meteoric in nature and thus not interesting in regards to lunar composition research. This effort would feed forward into work for In-situ resource utilization of lunar resources.
In Situ Resource Utilization Studies and Proofs of Principle
At the present time, NASA’s In Situ Resource Utilization (or ISRU as it is commonly known) goes on at a very low level. There are great people working on the issue at NASA JSC, NASA KSC, and other centers but the level of effort is dramatically insufficient to make material progress toward a Lunar Industrial Facility. A greatly expanded ISRU research program would do wonders to answer questions, reduce risk, and to rebut the naysayers regarding this entire field of endeavor. I was appalled during the Bush 43 presidency, when after the president himself emphasized ISRU, including constructing hardware on the Moon, that NASA basically ignored this discipline as too risky, eventually eliminating even the mention of it in the Vision for Space Exploration plans.
Specific to increased funding and emphasis on ISRU should be the incorporation of the Apollo materials into ISRU studies. It has been shown that existing lunar simulants are largely inadequate to properly mimic actual lunar materials for ISRU development. Dr. Lawrence Taylor of the University of Tennessee proved the value of this in his research on microwaving lunar regolith material. Here is a link to a great paper on the subject. Following is the abstract.
Thus it is recommended that at 50-75kg of lunar materials brought back by the Apollo crew be utilized for ISRU studies that may be destructive to the materials. We need to figure out how to get the iron, aluminum, magnesium, silicon, and other metals out of the lunar regolith. There is some decent work going on right now but most of it at this time is going back and replicating what was done in the 1980’s just to recover the knowledge base. Most of that work was encapsulated in NASA Report NASA SP-509, Space Resources. Volume 3, “Materials”, is linked here. The “Overview” is here. The “Scenarios” is here. This book, done in 1992 as a compendium of what we knew, understood, and hoped for during the Space Exploration Initiative era was a brilliant exposition and is one of the key books in my library and Mike Duke, one of the authors is one of my heroes at NASA. However…..
What NASA did in the past is a necessary, yet insufficient guide to the future. NASA never really put a lot of effort into getting metals in their previous incarnations of ISRU development. For the most part it was obtaining oxygen in various ways from lunar materials. Even today NASA is shying away from metals production, and many think that metals are a bridge too far, focusing rather on what is perceived to be easier, water from the permanently dark areas. This is inadequate to the future. Thus…
We need an effort to bring in the best of materials science and engineering into obtaining metals and then figuring out ways of making things with them in a vacuum. This brings us to the next recommendation.
Vacuum Additive Manufacturing
Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing as it is more commonly called, is a true game changer for the Lunar Industrial Facility. No development in the last 20 years carries more promise for lunar development. There are two leading types of 3D printing systems for metals today. The first is Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) and the other is Electron Beam or e-beam additive manufacturing. Both could be used in space but the one that is most easily adapted is e-beam as it is already done in a vacuum, specifically on Earth a vacuum chamber. e-beam additive manufacturing is already being used in the aerospace world for advanced parts of high quality. Following is from one of their brochures..
This company, recently purchased by General Electric, is the world leader in e-beam manufacturing. The 10^-12 torr atmosphere on the Moon is far better than their current 10^-5 mbar system. Here is their brochure. Today their machines are limited by their build area, which is in turn limited by the amount of high quality vacuum that they can generate. On the Moon these limitations vanish, and thus the build area can be increased cost effectively.
A companion to e-beam additive manufacturing is e-beam welding. This system has been used for decades now, and is the preferred method when high quality metal parts are needed. Below is an example of how their process works.
Here is a link to their website. This technology is absolutely compatible with e-beam additive manufacturing. The two together open almost unlimited possibilities for ISRU derived metals. The next figure, from Arcam, shows what the metal powders look like that they use in their products.
The next figure shows the composition of some of the metals that are used in these types of machines.
ALL of the metals in the figure above are available in massive quantities on the Moon. The key is how to get to the metals. Oxygen is the by product of all of the ISRU to metals processes that can be used. The key is to reorient our thought processes in this direction. There is hope for this at NASA in the younger generation. However, if this is to be successful, we must go outside of NASA for the appropriate expertise in these areas. The problem you have is if you give it to NASA alone, without the input of the outside subject matter experts, is that it will always get lost in the aerospace way of doing business. The contracts will be given to aerospace companies, who for the most part don’t have that much to gain (they think) from doing things in any new way. This has to change.
So I hope that here that some indication is given to you the reader that the possibilities are there. None of these technologies existed when I was in college doing the Space Exploration Initiative work. Zero of these technologies were funded or considered during the Vision for Space Exploration and even now the interest is extremely limited. This as well has to change. Obviously Research and Development funding will help. NASA just got almost $800 million dollars in technology money in next year’s federal budget. Some of that must be allocated to these types of efforts.
Systems Engineering and Surface Systems Design
The incorporation of ISRU, additive manufacturing, and a focus on industrial activity will decisively shift the Lunar Industrial Facility from all previous efforts outside of science fiction for lunar development. Moving hundreds of tons of regolith, mining lunar materials, and acquiring water from the permanently dark areas of the Moon will all be ubiquitous activities on the Moon. It would be prohibitively expensive to ship the hardware from the Earth to the Moon to accomplish these tasks. If you do a break down of something like a bulldozer or front end loader, 95% of the weight is just bare metal. Why not obtain most of that metal from the Moon? Now we will have to ship up maybe the first ones in order to productively move forward, but that is something we could use the SLS and its ten metric ton to the surface of the Moon delivery capability. The point is that we need to think differently about how the build out of the Lunar Industrial Facility will take place. Central to that thought process is to focus on rapidly building up power and production capabilities for metal and water. How that occurs is beyond today’s missive but it is the direction we want to go.
There are other things to do such as designing communications, surface operations, and site selection. While we are on that subject, a paper that I wrote last year should be seriously considered. In that paper I picked the North polar site at the rim of Whipple as it has the best of everything that we want for a lunar industrial site. We have wasted far too much time in the past arguing about the best site. Wherever it is, it must be the lunar south or north pole to access the water. Here is a link to my paper where the site selection is discussed.
We need to rapidly implement a series of orbital and surface missions to help us move toward a Lunar Industrial Facility.
There have been a tremendous number of orbital remote sensing missions since the end of the Apollo era, starting in the modern era with the 1993 Ballistic Missile Defense Organization’s Clementine, then NASA’s Lunar Prospector (of which I played an early small part in), and others from Europe, India, Japan, and China, as well as our current Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. China has placed a lander on the surface as well. There is really not much more remote sensing that can be done before we put wheels on the ground but there is one mission that would be very valuable.
Imaging Radar Mapper
The imaging Radar Mapper would be a very high power (megawatt class) radar imaging system for the Moon. It would operate on multiple frequencies giving scientists access to high resolutions at shallow depths, and good resolution down many kilometers into the Moon’s crust. The Imaging Radar Mapper would help to further quantify the extent of the water resources in the polar regions. It would be able to thoroughly map voids inside of the Moon from lava tubes. We have already verified their existence from the NASA LROC high resolution imaging camera as well as from other missions. Some of these lava tubes are estimated to be kilometers in diameter.
If this is the case, then we have ready made locations for future outposts after the polar regions are developed. This imaging system would also allow us to find postulated large metallic objects from asteroid impacts, both on the surface and buried beneath it. Just one large metallic impacted object found on the Moon would decisively shift the scales in the hunt for in situ high value concentrated minerals and metals. There have been some tantalizing indications from the radar currently on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that should be followed up. This radar could also be used in bistttic mode with Earth based receivers, similarly to how the Clementine radar was used during that mission.
Wheels on the Ground
It is beyond shocking that NASA has not put boots or wheels on the ground since the last year of Richard Nixon’s first term in office. The Vision for Space Exploration in 2005 was supposed to change that, but the money for the RLEP program was swallowed in the maw of FTE’s at NASA centers. I just heard the other day that the latest attempt, which is a decent mission, Resource Prospector, is being delayed again. The fundamental problem is that we still only have the Apollo samples for our ground truth for orbital remote sensing. We desperately need wheels on the ground in the polar regions. The next figure is from the Apollo 16 samples and indicates what the highlands regions are probably like.
There are several extremely interesting metals in the above assemblage for resources. Lots of aluminum, iron, magnesium and silicon. Good amounts of titanium and the trace elements are interesting as well. The high ppm (parts per million) abundance of nickel (from meteorites), chromium, Zirconium, and Yttrium. All of these metals are pretty cool and industrially useful. However, we really have no more than a general idea regarding what the abundances are in the polar regions. Additionally, as Dr. Paul Spudis has noted, our orbital remote sensing data indicates elevated volatiles in the polar regions that are not permanently dark. This is shown in the next figure and Dr. Spudis’s article on the subject is linked here.
The type of wheels are important as well. Today most people think of planetary rovers like the Mars Curiosity or Opportunity. Those designs are optimized for a very power limited situation, with small wheels and minimal mobility in order to conserve resources and operate where telepresence is not an option. None of these are the case with the Moon. In the 1970’s the Russian Lunokhod rovers drove tens of kilometers on the Moon in very short periods of time. They were also operated by humans on the Earth via radio communications. The roughly 2.5 second delay was easily handled by operators. The Chinese rover was designed much like our Mars rovers and its limited mobility hindered operations and scientific return.
A very cool company in the 1970’s and 80’s, spun out of the NASA JSC Preliminary Design Branch was called “Eagle Engineering”. To this day they have done some of the best work in the world. NASA’s SP-509 has a human version of their rover in the scenarios (referenced above) volume. We reproduced that version in CAD several years ago. Here it is.
One of the problems is that you can’t put enough solar array on a rover to give it the power it needs for extensive operations. That is why Tesla does not put solar panels on their cars. It just does not work. Thus what would be ideal is to have a lander with a lot of power, that could recharge the rovers. There are ways of doing this, even with fairly small systems. Having a lot of battery or fuel cell capability on a rover and then be able to recharge it at a lander power station is the optimum architecture. However, as the perfect is the enemy of the good, we need to get something on the ground fast, which may drive us to something less capable for the first mission.
What we want to do (assuming a North Polar location landing), is to map out the terrain in detail from ground level and also have scientific instruments on board to analyze the regolith for its resource potential. This would be via X-ray florescence or other tech, and also be able to analyze the regolith for water content in the immediate area of landing. The lander itself would also be a data relay back to the Earth and a beacon for future missions. While we have pretty darn good data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s LOLA laser experiment, ground truth for looking at the maximum sunlit area and communications pathway back to the Earth is exceptionally desirable.
Landing Site for the Lunar Industrial Facility
Location, Location, Location
You really don’t need more than the above in order to do your advanced planning for the Lunar Industrial Facility. I have mentioned the lunar north polar site here multiple times. Having been involved in several NASA architecture studies, an inordinate amount of time has been wasted in debates over landing sites. It simplifies so many things in working forward toward an architecture and thus saves time, money, and effort. The next figure shows some of our work, based on the LOLA ten meter polar laser altimeter data for the area around Whipple and Peary craters. This has a 3X Vertical exaggeration.
Peary Crater is over 100 km in diameter and lies below Whipple crater, who’s northern rim (2n site) is one of the northern near permanently lit areas. The next figure shows, from NASA’s Lunar Mapping and Modeling Portal (now called Moon Trek), regarding the altitude profile of the area of maximum sunlight.
This is where the Lunar Industrial Facility would be sited. This is a great place to start, and is only about 16 km from the first of the easily reachable (the bottom of Whipple to the right is closer but a very steep incline to the bottom!) permanently shadowed areas. This driving route is shown in the next figure.
The distance for route two and the elevation change is shown in the next figure.
The bottom of Peary crater is actually quite smooth in terms of elevation as is shown in the following figure.
The biggest reason everyone has wanted to go to the south pole is the desire of the scientific community to explore the South Pole Aiken Basin. It is a worth goal of science but it does not further the idea of industrialization as the vertical relief is much more there, meaning that mobility will be far more restricted than in the north. This is shown in the following figure.
This is terrible terrain for driving. For much more detailed information about site selection see my paper.
Lunar Surface Operations
Before you can really begin with lunar surface operations you have to state what your goals, or in aerospace speak, what are your level zero requirements. What do you want to do? In the companion space policy paper, we state a goal, a simple goal for the Lunar Industrial Facility.
- Production of 1000 metric tons of water per year
- Production of 100 metric tons of high quality aerospace grade aluminum per year, in plate, ingot, or other forms suitable for its further processing at an orbital shipyard for construction of the Interplanetary Space Vehicle
In terms of development, here is a figure from a 2006 NASA contract that Skycorp executed (NNL06AE27P) for equipment build up at a more NASA focused lunar site. However, the history and the general applicability of a lot of the equipment applies to the lunar industrial site. Part of our focus was to leverage the NASA work into a commercial industrial site. That entire 114 page contract report is linked here. (Note: a lot of the links that are provided here are good background information). The next figure here is from the report and gives a development vs profitability very high level graphic for implementation.
In general terms the graphic above charts the capital investment and complexity vs economic profitability. As you the reader can see, my thoughts on this have not really changed much, just exactly what equipment is invested in for the development of the system.
Equipment on the Surface
There have been a tremendous number of studies, papers, classes, PhD’s regarding lunar surface activities. However, just about all of them are of the old paradigm type, not focusing specifically on lunar industrialization. However, NASA SP-509 is probably the best introductory text for many who are seriously interested in the subject. Here is a graphic from that work showing lunar materials development.
For our purposes the chart above needs to be updated as other processes exist now such as vapor phase pyrolysis and plasma pyrolysis. Additionally, additive manufacturing adds another row of more finished products below. Funding has been limited for us to further fill this out. Also, as this post is getting quite long, it will be wrapped up with some more graphics to show in general what we are talking about for the lunar surface.
First is our specifications for the Skycorp Power Lander, which would provide 100 kilowatts in a single lander.
I have revised the power upward to a megawatt delivered to the lunar grid. Using our specifications for the power lander, this means about 15 total units and allow a bit of redundancy. That is 1.5 megawatts of instantaneous power and a megawatt delivered to the grid.
Next is a four wheeled mobile gantry crane.
The gantry crane shown above can be built from existing technology derived from the original space station Freedom truss node balls and struts and assembled on the lunar surface. Gantry cranes are exceptionally useful on the surface and we expect that multiple ones can be built. The one above can easily be delivered in a single heavy cargo lander mission. Next is a combination of the LOTRAN rover and a NASA Langley developed Jib crane from work we did with them several years ago.
The LOTRAN rover can be operated either by human crews or via telepresence. Another feature of the LOTRAN is that you can modularly add payloads. Next is an example of a microwave sintering system loaded on one.
This leverages on the work of Dr. Larry Taylor and would be used for sintering roads and landing pads. Another is a vacuum induction furnace. This system would be used for making aluminum plate and other forged or poured metal forms.
An induction furnace, companion to the e-beam additive manufacturing and welding system, are the big pieces of hardware needed to enable the Orbital shipyard. The next figure shows a few graphics of what the initial Lunar Industrial Facility might look like.
Here is the base for another angle with three sintered landing pads with berms.
Next shows the Lunar Industrial Facility under construction.
Next is the Lunar Induction furnace in operation during Lunar Industrial Facility construction.
Wrap up Part 1
There is nothing magical in anything discussed in this missive. There is no technology that is not in hand, we just have to implement it in the differing environment of the Moon. There is also more that is not shown as this is still a work in progress. I did not discuss the logistics system for getting to the Moon as that is under development by people like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. NASA’s SLS can play a vital role here as well to deliver heavy payloads that the others can’t.
There is nothing magical here in ideas. The vast majority of this hails from older NASA studies and work that millions has been spent on to plan without coming to fruition in the last 40 years. I pick what looks most useful in putting together the Lunar Industrial Facility and then move onward from there. I have had a lot of help and support from many people over the years, and without that this work would have been impossible.
This is where I make my pitch for support.
All of this work we have either done on our own or in collaboration with NASA and DARPA. If you like it, I ask you to help us continue it by your financial contributions. This way we are independent and can help put out the best work that can then be leveraged by all. We do claim all visual rights to the graphic images shown here but we are more than happy to provide licenses for other folks to use them in their work.
What I would like to do is a book, a follow on to my first book “Moonrush” from 2004. This would also allow us to do a documentary. That is in the planning phase as well.
Our current crowd funding site is here. Not only do you get to help, but there are a lot of cool lunar prizes to be had!
Thanks you for your valuable time in reading this.
Dennis Ray Wingo
CEO, Skycorp Incorporated