Chicken, Egg, Chicken, On the Moon


This past week (July 15-17, 2019), the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) hosted a conference on the In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU).  The definition of the Latin term “in situ” means “in the original place”.  Thus when we go to the Moon, Mars, and beyond, ISRU is all about using the resources that are there for productive purposes.  It is important to stop and consider the definition and think about what it means.  In recent years the definition has expanded ISRU a to include obtaining resources “in the original place” and then shipping them to the Earth, using them in space, or using them (propellant) to go other places.

We who are professionals in this sector are universally of the opinion that without ISRU humanity will never be more than tourists in space.  The Earth is just one planet in a vast solar system with many planets, dozens of moons, and millions of asteroids, all silent and dead since their creation, It is our intention to change that, to bring life there, to expand the scope of human civilization to include these planets, moons, and asteroids.  Some, like Mars, will be places to create a new civilization.  Some like Jupiter and Saturn, may forever be objects of awe.  The rest await our arrival and transformation.

Mindset is Everything

We have to start somewhere, and that location is the Moon.  As NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has said, the Moon is where we learn to do these things that we can carry with us elsewhere.  With the Moon only three days away, it is close enough for frequent access, teleoperation by crews located on the Earth, and a place to test, build, and learn what it means to use the resources of the Moon, in order more confidently and with more experience, to extend our reach further into our solar system.  Without this learning process, it is a certainty that settling Mars is going to be far more expensive and far less likely to be successful. A very simple historical example should suffice to illustrate this need.

In the 19th century British and Norwegian explorers penetrated the vast icy domain of the Arctic and Antarctic for commerce and glory.  The British were often long on hubris but short on actual experience in these frigid regions while the Norwegians, living much farther north to start with, were much better prepared for an environment, though forbidding, was more familiar to them.  One only has to compare the Franklin and the Nansen expeditions into the Arctic to see which method brought success.

Figure 1a and 1b shows the routes of the two expeditions.

Figure 1: Franklin Expedition Route (Graphic from Wikipedia)
Figure 2: Nansen Expedition Route (Graphic from Wikipedia)

History shows that the Franklin expedition was lost with all crew, while on the Nansen expedition, not one life was lost, even when Nansen and a companion set off across the ice alone with dog sleds in an attempt to reach the North pole.  One of my prized possessions is Nansen’s book “Farthest North” that detailed the extensive preparation and more importantly the mindset of their team.  The reason for their success can be seen in this excerpt from the Wikipedia page on the Nansen expedition.

The traditional approach to Arctic exploration had relied on large-scale forces, with a presumption that European techniques could be successfully transplanted into the hostile polar climate. Over the years this strategy had brought little success, and had led to heavy losses of men and ships. By contrast, Nansen’s method of using small, trained crews, and harnessing Inuit and Sami expertise in his methods of travel, had ensured that his expedition was completed without a single casualty or major mishap.

The Nansen expedition understood the requirement to live off the land rather than to try and use the methods of exploration that had been successful in more temperate regions.  The Norwegian method was vindicated again with the successful  trek to the south pole by Amundsen and the failure of the British expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott.  These successes and failures illustrate the virtue of preparation as well as having the right mindset regarding solving the problem.

The Problem of Returning to the Moon

The first issue that we have is that at this time, NASA has no surface systems architecture for the Artemis effort.  I was directly told by a senior NASA official that there was no money asked for in the FY-2020 budget for surface operations.  During the Bush era Vision for Space Exploration there was a formal Lunar Architecture Team (LAT) effort (as well as a plethora of them during the Space Exploration Initiative era).  My company was part of that effort and was contracted by NASA Langley to develop commercial extensions as well as outline surface mechanical systems to the follow on Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS).  Figure 3 shows the ESAS baseline (Green/Red/Blue/Orange) along with proposed commercial extensions (lime/yellow) colors.

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Figure 3:  Contract (NNL06AE27P) Commercial Extensions to NASA LAT Concept

Table 1 following is the general level one requirements for mechanical systems on the lunar surface.

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Table 1: General Requirements for lunar Surface Mechanical Systems

Lastly, the general footprint of the South Polar Outpost was laid out by the NASA LAT as is shown here in figure 4.

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Figure 4: ESAS Lunar South Pole Base Location and Overall Operational Outline

It is sad to say that there is not even this level of surface architecture definition for the Artemis program coming from NASA HEOMD.  All of the effort is going into the Gateway.  However, the Vice President of the United States at the 50th anniversary of the landing of Apollo 11 specifically stated that we were “going to mine water ice on the Moon”  As a level 0 requirement that is a pretty good start, and a great lead into the issues discussed at the conference.

The ISRU conference is right on the money in regards to the mindset of living off the land (and water ice mining was a major focus), trying to find markets, and developing the technologies for doing the work.  However, the problem that we face is truly the chicken and the egg in that while the technologists are developing interesting and innovative processes, methods, and products, the experienced ones in the mining industry, such as Dr. Greg Baiden noted, where are the customers?  Also, the technologies being developed now are woefully inadequate to production level prospecting for, acquisition of, and processing of product for the market.  Additionally, even though NASA is now using the words water on the Moon, there is nothing in the systems architecture that would support any company or investor in investing the necessary funds to develop resources that are at this point still uncertain in grade and extent.


The biggest circular issue in the development of lunar resources goes like this:

  1. We don’t have customers today who will pay for water or any other lunar product.

2. In order to obtain these materials, we need infrastructure to support the water/metals/etc miners.

3. We can’t fund and build infrastructure until we have customers….

Return to (1) and repeat.

This is from the mining world.  This simply stops the conversation with the mining and materials industry.  Without infrastructure it is not possible to develop industrial quantities of anything, water, metals, etc.  Part of the problem, as was discussed at the ISRU conference is that the confidence level on the resources is still low compared to where mining interests (even if there was a customer today) need to see it.

Now NASA has stated that they want the putative Gateway based lunar lander to be reusable.  However, in their recently released draft Broad Agency Announcement the first lander is not to be reusable, which means that there is a high likelihood that it won’t be reusable for many missions, thus reducing the interest in fuel on the surface.  Though United Launch Alliance (ULA) has provided a great set of ideas for a lunar business case (a key chart shown in figure 5 below), however, it does not address the basic problem of infrastructure implementation.

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Figure 5: Lunar Water Mining Business Case (2017 ULA Presentation)

The $3m dollars per metric ton of water in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), sounds great, but the number of tons mined (1,575 metric tons or 4.32 metric tons per day), requires an enormous infrastructure.  That is the equivalent per year of 1,575 cubic meters of water storage per year.  That means that you need to move 4,315 kilograms of water from the Permanently Shadowed Region (PSR) or other area per day.

Even if the grade of water ice was 10%, as has been postulated in some of the best north and south pole regions, the water fraction is ~144 kg of water per m3 of regolith.  The ability to non mechanically (through heating), is highly dependent on whether or not the water is in the form of a frost or a deeper more dispersed resource.  A paper from 2010 (Teodoro, et, al, 2010) indicates a more sparse resource in his comparison between Clementine and Kaguya data.  His table 1 is replicated here.

Crater Location KAGUYA Clementine
Area (km2) depi ± 1σm(s−1) WEH ± Error (wt%) Area (km2) depi ± 1σm(s−1) WEH ± Error (wt%)
Hermite 86.0°N, 89.9°W 225 7.7 ± 1.9 3.7−0.8+2.3 375 15.9 ± 0.8 0.5−0.1+0.1
Nansen F 84.5°N, 62.2°E 250 17.7 ± 1.3 0.3−0.1+0.2 175 16.2 ± 1.6 0.5−0.2+0.3
Peary B 89.2°N, 128.0°E 100 8.5 ± 2.0 3.2−1.1+1.9 50 18.0 ± 0.8 0.2−0.1+0.1
Unamed 87.0°N, 19.44°E 250 8.7 ± 1.5 3.1−0.8+1.2
Unamed 85.7°N, 52.7°E 75 13.7 ± 1.2 1.0−0.4+0.5 125 12.1 ± 1.3 1.4−0.4+0.5
Unamed 86.2°N, 37.9°E 150 10.8 ± 1.3 1.9−0.5+0.6 250 10.5 ± 1.3 2.0−0.5+0.7
Cabeus 84.9°S, 35.5°W 275 13.7 ± 1.4 1.0−0.3+0.3 375 14.8 ± 1.1 0.7−0.2+0.3
Cabeus A 82.4°S, 53.0°W 50 11.5 ± 1.1 1.6−0.3+0.5 25 16.7 ± 1.1 0.4−0.2+0.2
Faustini 87.2°S, 89.0°E 725 17.4 ± 0.6 0.3−0.1+0.1 700 17.2 ± 0.7 0.3−0.1+0.1
Haworth 87.4°S, 5.0°W 1050 18.1 ± 0.5 0.2−0.1+0.1 1300 18.0 ± 0.4 0.2−0.1+0.1
Shackleton 89.7°S, 110.0°E 200 15.3 ± 1.1 0.6−0.1+0.2 200 16.7 ± 0.5 0.4−0.1+0.2
Shoemaker 87.6°S, 38.0°E 1150 17.8 ± 0.4 0.2−0.1+0.1 1175 17.8 ± 0.4 0.2−0.1+0.1

Table 1: Polar Ice Fractions from Teodoro et, al 2010

This shows the highest concentrations in Hermite in the North polar region at 3.7%.  However, if we take the optimistic approach at 10% density and ~144 kg/m3, to get ~4.32 metric tons per day the ice miner would have to thermally process 30 cubic meters per day.  Not too bad actually but if the fractions are near what is reported above, even in Cabeus (1.6%) that is only about 32 kg/m3 (assuming 2,000 kg/m3 density) and thus 135 m3 of regolith processed.  Since these craters are usually thousands of meters deep, that processed water has to be lifted out of them and to the tank farm (assumed to be in the permanently lit areas.  The ices have to be melted as well which can be done with solar energy, but you still have to have the infrastructure to do that.

Here is a rendering of what I consider the beginnings of a minimal infrastructure on the Moon.

Figure 6: The Beginnings of Lunar Infrastructure

This shows sintered landing pads (requiring equipment to make) as several studies and work by Dr. Phil Metzger has been shown to be an absolute requirement if we don’t want to really damage adjacent hardware and throw lunar materials over very long distances.  Figure 7 shows a vacuum induction furnace (it can be either electrically or operated by solar energy, and storage tanks for the water.

Figure 7: Vacuum Induction Furnace for both Water and Metals

In the background is a gantry crane for offloading supplies, storage sheds for equipment to be serviced, and much other equipment not shown here.  Figure 8 is the NASA Surface Exploration Vehicle, that my team worked with at NASA and recharged with our power tower to get an idea of what such infrastructure might look like.

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Figure 8: Surface Exploration Vehicle Preparing for Recharge from Prototype Power Tower.

Just to recharge this rover, used for human surface EVA’s, required 16 kilowatts of power.  In 2015 in a peer reviewed paper on lunar outpost site selection criteria, it was proposed to use 10, 100 kilowatt lunar power towers like the ones shown in figure 7 (background) and shown more closely here in figure 9.

Figure 9: 100 Kilowatt Power Towers on the Lunar Surface

The power towers are absolutely essential to any industrial scale activity, and ten of them, with a 1 megawatt nameplate power, only provides 670 kilowatts over the course of a lunar month with shadowing.  Another aspect is the required fully reusable surface to orbit and back vehicles required to move the water, especially 1,575 tons of it per year.  This also requires orbital infrastructure in lunar orbit for a fully reusable transit system to take the water to where it is needed.  There is also the need to crack the water into H2 and O2, then cool them down to cryogenic temperatures. Something of the order of what is needed is shown in figure 10.

Figure 10:  SEP Based Lunar Propellant Farm

Who is going to pay for that infrastructure?

Lunar Surface Architecture

At this time NASA has no lunar surface architecture for the Artemis program.  The current idea is that in 2024 the first landing, and one per year after that until around 2028, is to be an Apollo 14 sortie class mission.  The stay time on the surface is only 6.5 days and five surface EVA’s.  This is almost embarrassing and does nothing really to meet the goal of the Vice President and the administration “to mine water ice on the Moon”.  There is virtually no budget for surface operations in the FY 2020 budget either and thus there is nothing really planned for anything until FY 2021.  Rather than belabor this dark point, a couple of suggestions are more appropriate for how to fund this infrastructure.

First, it is unlikely that this is going to come from the NASA budget, unless the administration revises considerably the NASA budget.  There are ways to fix this within the budget but that is beyond the scope of this post.  Even with an optimum budget and optimum plan, it will be difficult to do more than flags and footprints on the surface before 2028 without a plan very soon.  A suggestion for improvement of the plan is in a previous blog, linked here.  More discussions regarding going beyond just water ice (as that is required in order to make the economics of a surface outpost work), is linked in a previous blog here.

There has to be money allocated in the federal budget for infrastructure.  We spent hundreds of billions of dollars per year supporting infrastructure development by the federal government, farm subsidies, and the like.  In our history the federal government funded the Panama Canal, the National Railroad, and early canals in the eastern United States.  Such a broader federal program now, to put the infrastructure in place to help open the solar system to exploration, economic development, and settlement is surely on the same scale of importance as these earlier infrastructure developments.

No Bucks, no Buck Rogers

This funding can be done in concert with NASA, but NASA would be a partial beneficiary of the infrastructure, not the entire purpose of it. We do wish to enable the mining of lunar water that Vice President Pence talked about.  We do wish to enable global access for science as well as economic and resource development.  Unless something changes politically, this cannot happen.  Maybe a development akin to the Import/Export bank or other institutions.  It is not the purpose of this post to solve the problems, but just to illustrate the scope of them.  I hope that this will stimulate a bit of discussion on the subject.

One thing that is for sure, NASA is not thinking in this direction.  All indications are that a minimalist architecture, even less ambitious than the 2005 Vision for Space Exploration is in the planning stages internally.  The Mars Mafia is strong, and everything possible is being done to minimize the lunar footprint.  This is a structural reason to go beyond NASA’s budget for funding (and control of the expenditure if need be) to enable commerce and the industrial development of our nearest neighbor for the good of all mankind.


Here is a great video from a NASA JPL Team that shows some of the logistical considerations that they came up with regarding effort to mine water on the Moon.  From the NASA SSERVI conference July 2019.


8 thoughts on “Chicken, Egg, Chicken, On the Moon

  1. Thank you very much for this excellent summary of the issues that need to be resolved to use lunar resources! Inexplicably, NASA canceled the RESOLVE lunar rover that would have quantified the water and other volatiles near the south pole, a key data point that you point out. Though I used to work for NASA, it seems unlikely that they will do more than flags and footprints missions to the Moon. SpaceX and Blue Origin seem more likely to succeed at lunar ISRU since it’s their own money and they are much more efficient at using it than NASA. I wish NASA success, but they have too many competing priorities and political issues that slow them down.

    1. The last chapter in this saga has not been written. I estimate $5-10 billion to implement sufficient infrastructure to be able to do things like this. In truth I would prefer the government do it and then allow any company and or mining interest to access this infrastructure.

  2. Thanks for your article. The funding of the supply-chain for extracting Lunar South Pole water ice and ultimately distributing and delivering it all the way out to Low Earth Orbit will have to be private; NASA and ESA can make a start but private companies will need to show the way and build the financial instruments for such an enterprise. It’s happening, bit slowly!

  3. US military buys water shipped from Earth to Earth/Moon L-1
    Will buy up to 500 tons of water.
    will pay $4000 per kg, $4 million per ton
    500 tons totals: 2 billion dollar

    Offer expires 5 years after the offer is given

    If any water delivered,
    US Military offers to pay $4 million per ton
    for a party to split up to 90 tons of the water to
    make 80 tons of LOX and 10 tons of LH2
    Cost: 360 million dollars

    NASA sends crew to sites of above water estimate, gets ground truth,
    and returns lunar samples.

    Then NASA starts crewed Mars exploration.
    Purpose of Mars exploration to determine if and where there
    sites on Mars which could viable for human settlements.

    I would say a viable site for human settlements on Mars is
    region [less than 1000 square km] which has a billion or
    more tons of water would cost less than $10 per kg.
    Or cost/price of 1 billion tons of liquid drinkable water
    delivered is less than 10 billion dollars.
    So Mars settler could buy land with say 1 million tons
    of water and this would cost less the $10 per kg to be able to
    use that water right.

    Or some party make a lake on Mars, and settlers could buy
    lake real estate. And I think living within the lake [underwater
    and having about 1/3 pressure as being underwater on Earth] could
    be good idea.
    Or I think one of highest costs of living on Mars would related
    to price of water, and $10,000 per ton is expensive, but it might
    be cheaper enough to make Mars settlements viable. And one could
    hope that perhaps in future it got even cheaper.

    Now, regarding:
    “1. We don’t have customers today who will pay for water or any other lunar product.
    2. In order to obtain these materials, we need infrastructure to support the water/metals/etc miners.

    3. We can’t fund and build infrastructure until we have customers….

    Return to (1) and repeat.”

    I think there ways to solve this. Or businesses have always created markets.
    And the NASA Mars exploration wouldn’t by itself create enough market for
    this. But eventually, Mars settlements certainly would.

  4. India’s Chandrayaan 2 rover plan to land near southpole next month, this will be the first on site examination of that area. I wonder what data it will gather and what India will share, and how the data will change estimates of water ice.

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