It may have gone unnoticed by most of us, there is a new space race for the moon quietly taking place. The Moon is our nearest neighbour, it is rich in valuable resources, a wealth of undiscovered science, and a military asset unlike any other. The moon race 2.0 will be an economic turning point that will undoubtedly shape our future. Win or lose, this new race will be more exciting than the original.
My name is Matt Warren and I am your host of the Moon to Stay Podcast. In this, the inaugural episode, I will go over the 10,000 ft view of the race back to the moon, and convey some of the excitement about why the moon is so important to our future. Because of the breadth of things I want to cover, this first episode is broken up into 2 parts
My goal for this podcast, in general, is to teach more people about the moon, why it is so exciting, why it is more important than Mars as a destination and to build some awareness of something that is currently completely unknown by almost everyone. In future episodes we will explore how we will be getting back to the moon, what we might discover there, who is in the race for the moon and when all this is going to be taking place. I hope that you will share this podcast with friends and family, help spread the word that there is a moon race even happening.
Getting back to this episode, I’m going to dig into Why is the moon is such an important destination?
The last 50 years have proven the value of earth orbit for commercial satellites business. Space is now a multi-billion dollar enterprise. Without satellites, the global communications system would grind to a halt, GPS wouldn’t exist and with it, smartphone navigation, military targeting – hundreds of billions worth of value. Much of the value we get from earth orbiting satellites was unimaginable in the early days of space exploration, and it is the same with the moon. Much of what the moon will contribute to humanity is not easy to imagine, however we will try.
Let’s review some basic, known attributes that the moon has which make it appealing as a destination.
The moon is, of course, our closest neighbor, this provides a number of very important benefits to our ability to get there and do work. Being close obviously means that it would take less time to get there – just a couple of days travel. A settlement on the moon could leverage this by not needing to be fully self-sufficient in the way that Mars will have to be. For example food, water, and fuel could be provided by earth until the capability to produce it locally was established. Being close, means that we don’t have 7-9 months of exposure to deep space radiation that is necessary to send humans to mars. Spaceships headed to the moon, can be much lighter, need less shielding, need fewer amenities, need to pack less food to eat, and air to breath etc. A spaceship headed to Mars would need to be big – room to have a gym to fight muscle loss, and socialize for mental health, storage for food, water, and air to support each person for the better part of a year. Crew would need space to move about, watch movies, or otherwise keep themselves occupied for a long duration mission. On the other hand Apollo astronauts on a 2 day trip needed little more than a seat – the Apollo command module offered very little space – no bathroom or TVs. A smaller and dramatically less complex spaceship. Less engineering to design and build, less weight to launch, fewer things to break makes the moon a safer place for us to go.
Another benefit of being close is that if a component breaks we can send a replacement to the moon within days potentially. This has knock on effects – less redundancy needed ultimately is lower cost than Mars, which would need to be almost completely self-sufficient from the get go. Astronauts need enough backups and replacement parts to hold them over until the next rocket full of supplies arrives. On Mars that could be 5 years without a critical replacement. On the moon things could, in theory, be just a week away. By being close, the moon is convenient, lower cost and lower risk. Fewer backups and replacements means less pre-launched supplies. Indeed, Apollo missions didn’t need to send supplies ahead of the astronauts.
Lunar orbit is within the range of multiple different rocket companies around the world. This provides additional market competition for lower prices and redundancy here on Earth to accommodate the risk that a company like SpaceX has to ground their rockets for several months to investigate an accident. With the moon other companies could pick up the slack and continue the lunar mission. This likely won’t be an option for Mars for some time. The first company to gain the ability to do a manned Mars mission could be a decade ahead of subsequent countries or companies to do the same. The space station can get regular deliveries of food, supplies and new experiments by unmanned and routine launches. Several rocket companies have the capability and contracts to perform these missions. Lunar destinations could get the same treatment within a decade.
Being low travel time for us to get a rocket back and forth to the moon also means that radio signals get there quickly as well. The 1.5 light seconds to the moon is short enough to have real-time communications which greatly simplifies some logistics. Experts on earth can easily hop on the phone to walk astronauts through a complex process – this could be critical in the case of an emergency that requires back and forth problem solving – such as what happened on Apollo 13. In addition, the short time delay would still allow for remote control operation of robots on the moon. Similar to how the Canadarm robotic arm on the international space station is operated by a team of operators out of Montreal on a day-to-day basis, we could have a team of operators continuously controlling robot moon rovers. Real-time remote control is dramatically simpler than the semi-autonomous and meticulous planning that is required to operate the Mars rovers. Simpler and cheaper robots means we could launch more of them for the same money, launch them sooner. The Curiosity rover cost $2.5 Billion. Lunar robots would be an order of magnitude cheaper.
Because the moon follows in Earth’s orbit around the sun, a launch window to the moon is always open, and we are not at the whim of celestial alignment to get there, or to get back. As often as there is a rocket ready to go we can move goods and people to and from the moon. From an economic point of view this is absolutely important – consider how unlikely it would be that we would trade with a country that had an open border once every 2 years, and shipping to and from takes 9 months. Perpetual access to the moon means that we need less planning, we can be more nimble and responsive. Frequent launches means that we get more practice and experience with the technology of launching and landing. It’s hard to imagine that Mars will ever be economically integrated with earth without an order of magnitude improvement in rockets. With Mars launches every 22 months, every launch window would likely be executed with a new generation of technology to try, and many team members churning on or off the team over the intervening 2 years. The moon could be much more operational and refined in the processes – again resulting in lower risk.
Being close enough to earth for 2 day shipping will make things a heck of a lot more palatable for people and business to thrive. The ability to send people for trips of less than a week, or to send produced products off the moon back to earth or low earth orbit in a schedule that works with the normal quarterly business cycles make moon investments much shorter for a return on investment and more palatable for shareholders and investors to risk capital on.
The only things close to earth that provide raw materials that could be used for construction, fabrication, manufacturing, fuels, oxygen etc are either on the moon, or near earth asteroids. Asteroids hold great promise but have their own complexities. Each asteroid target would be a complex mission with unique parameters – rocket launch would be at different intercepts and veolocies, perhaps using different capture techniques, the robotics may need to be custom for different asteroids as well. And the lack of gravity will make some aspects of handling materials difficult – for example: it is impossible to pour liquids, difficult to operate a drill. The moon is made of much the same chemicals that earth is (it was broken off of earth in early history) so it’s reasonable to assume that we will find some of the same elements there. Also, with gravity on the moon it is possible to pour molten metals using normal crucibles similar to the techniques that would be used on earth. There is nothing in the empty parts of space that we can use to build space station structures with, or harvest water from. Mars is too far away to be worth shipping things found there back to earth. The moon is a permanent location as well – it is not going anywhere and so building a refinery on the moon would be a reasonable investment to make. A mobile refinery on a small asteroid may run out of material to refine in a short time and need to be relocated. The moon has a mass of 7.342×1022 kg and a surface area similar to the continent of africa. Enough to keep any infrastructure investment busy for thousands of years. The moon has lots of stuff there we can use that is less technically challenge to get at as Asteroid mining, and much much more convenient than Mars.
An additional complexity with mining asteroids is that an asteroid mining company would likely have to develop the full stack of technology themselves – prospecting, robot development, habitat, and crew facilities refining processes and finding a market for the final product and transporting it there. On the moon, as part of an existing community there a mining company would have access to regular supply rockets, convenient locations to store products and tools, easier ways to find markets for the goods produced, and more capability to focus on small segments of the process – just digging, just smelting etc. Businesses on earth have the luxury of relying on shared resources – roads, cars, phone networks, internet access etc. The more we can do to create these shared resources – and the moon is an ideal destination to setup a regular supply route and communication network the less each company needs to shoulder themselves with any space investment.
That’s it for part one of the first episode of the moon to stay podcast, I’m your host, Matt warren, as always you can contact me on twitter @matt_warren and grab the show notes from the website mattwarren.co. If you enjoyed this podcast I would invite you to take a minute to give it a rating and review in whatever app you’re listening to it on. It’s early days for me doing anything like this, and I’d appreciate your constructive feedback and support. Ratings help get this podcast to get found by more people, which will help me to continually improve.
Until next time Keep looking up