Why the Moon Matters
On July 20, 1969, the free world won the space race when an American flag was planted on the Moon. Twelve Americans walked on the Moon during the Apollo program, resulting in a treasure trove of knowledge not only about the Moon, but about the universe. Even better, by demonstrating the United States’ political, economic, and technological prowess, it played a part winning the Cold War. In 1983, Ronald Reagan introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative to defend the free world from nuclear ballistic missiles. While many called it destabilizing, and even suggested it was impossible to achieve, the Soviet Union took it very seriously, made every effort to eliminate it, and spent whatever it took to compete. They eventually went bankrupt. SDI, while not fully implemented, was a geopolitical success built on the technical credibility provided by Apollo. As Ronald Reagan predicted, “We win. They lose.”
Through SDI, the Brilliant Pebbles program was born as a space based system to track and destroy ICBMs. Years later, in 1994, a Brilliant Pebbles satellite was repurposed to orbit and map the Moon. That mission, called Clementine, tested military sensors and made history when it provided evidence of lunar water ice. Later experiments by NASA and other space agencies indicated billions of tons of water ice at each lunar pole.
This single discovery should have immediately transformed America’s space program. Water ice not only represents a critical in situ resource for life support, but it can be cracked into its components, hydrogen and oxygen, to create the same chemical propellant that powers rockets.
All of this is available on a world that has no atmosphere and a gravity well that is 1/6th that of Earth. In other words, standard aerodynamic limitations do not apply, permitting the placement of the propellant into orbit either around the Moon or around the Earth.
From the discovery of water ice on the Moon until this day, the American objective should have been a permanent outpost of rovers and machines, with occasional manned missions for science and maintenance, in order to utilize the materials and energy of the Moon to drive down the costs and increase the capabilities of American operations in cis-lunar and interplanetary space.
Water ice on the Moon could be used to refuel satellites in orbit or perform on-orbit maintenance. Government and commercial satellite operators could save hundreds of millions of dollars by servicing their satellites with resources from the Moon rather than disposing of, and replacing, their expensive investments. Eventually, the customers of Direct TV, Dish Network, internet broadband from space, satellite radio, weather data, and others could see their bills reduced and their service capacities greatly increased.
While most satellites are not currently powered by liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, next generation satellite architectures could utilize lunar propellant if low-cost in-orbit servicing were available. Commercial operators will follow if the United States leads with its own constellations. Such leadership would require a whole-of-government approach with the interagency support of the newly reconstituted National Space Council. The objective is a self-sustaining, cis-lunar economy, whereby government and commercial operators save money and maximize the utilization of space through the use of lunar resources.
This is also the first step for manned missions deeper into our solar system. A permanent human presence on other celestial bodies requires in situ resource utilization. The Moon, with its three-day emergency journey back to Earth, represents the best place to learn, train, and develop the necessary technologies and techniques for in situ resource utilization and an eventual long term human presence on Mars. Fortunately, the Space Launch System and Orion will start testing in 2018. This system, with a commercial lander, could quickly place machines and robots on the Moon to begin the cis-lunar economy. With the right presidential guidance, humans could return in short order as well; this time, to stay.
There are other economic benefits to a permanent presence on the Moon. Utilization of lunar oxides for in situ additive manufacturing (3-D printing) could sustain and develop lunar operations. If economical, we should pioneer the extraction of highly valuable platinum group metals and the ability to transport them back to Earth. The development of practical solar power satellites that beam energy directly to all areas of the Earth is made possible through the use of the resources of the Moon. Research on this concept is already being done in Japan, as well as at the Naval Research Lab here in the United States. The United States government should lead the way in retiring risk for these endeavors with the intent to empower commercial companies to sustain the cis-lunar economy. This could fundamentally alter the economic balance of power on Earth.
As the cis-lunar economy develops, competition for locations and resources on the Moon is inevitable. The Chinese currently have landers and rovers on the Moon. The United States does not. Very soon, the Chinese will be the first of humanity to explore the far side of the Moon and place robots at the poles. As my friend Congressman Bill Posey says, “They are not going there to collect rocks.” China has its own manned space station. The United States’ commitment to the International Space Station ends in 2024. China has a domestic capability to launch its Taikonauts into orbit. The United States relies on Russia. American adversaries are testing antisatellite weapons and proliferating satellite jamming, spoofing, and dazzling technologies. It is time for the United States to re-posture and assert true space leadership.
It must be stated that constitutionally, the U.S. government is required to provide for the common defense. This includes defending American military AND commercial assets in orbit, many of which have the dual role of providing commercial and military capabilities. The same applies for assets on and around the Moon. The U.S. government must establish a legal framework and be prepared to defend private and corporate rights and obligations, all keeping within the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. The United States must have cis-lunar situational awareness, a cis-lunar presence, and eventually must be able to defend freedom of action in space. Cis-lunar development will proceed with American values and the rule of law if the United States leads.
Space utilization has transformed the human condition, including how we communicate, navigate, produce food and energy, conduct banking, predict weather and perform disaster relief. While many of these gains are a result of private investment and commercial markets, they are only possible because the United States government took the lead and retired risk for these capabilities. Today, we are experiencing a space renaissance. The first launch of the Space Launch System is less than two years away. In 2021, we will use the Orion capsule to send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit for the first time since the 1970s. Commercial launch vehicles are maturing and commercial deep space habitats are currently in development. A renewed focus on utilizing the Moon can help further these advances and achievements. The choices we make now can forever make America the preeminent spacefaring nation.