The Moon Race 2.0

The moon race in the 60’s drove tremendous interest in space exploration. Could the same thing work again? Airbus and Blue Origin seem to think the answer is yes and have kicked off “The Moon Race”

The Moon Race is an effort to reignite people’s interest in space again. It will drive the development of several key technologies which haven’t gotten the attention we need for a sustainable moon settlement.. Airbus and a collection of international partners have created a series of goals and prizes focused on developing some of the missing pieces.

Airbus has partnered with Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin, the Mexican space agency, the European Space Agency and Vinci the international construction company to form a new non-profit organization called “The Moon Race” They are giving a new slant to the prize incentive concept that was rebooted by the X Prize foundation a decade ago.

I’m super excited to see that the moon race has started up again and there is this new focus on things beyond just doing basic science. this time around there are goals for building something permanent on the moon. In order to make a long term lunar base permanent it needs to be sustainable economically and achieving sustainability requires the development of some new technologies.

The moon race is focused on 4 key technological tasks related to Manufacturing, Energy, Resources, and Biology. These are the pillars of technology that will be needed to develop a sustainable moon settlement. Our experience in low earth orbit, and scientific missions to Mars or deep space has been mostly to observe things. There is a fundamental advancement of technologies required to transition from observational missions to constructive ones – taking materials we find in space and turning them into new products.

Teams with proposals for each prize will have the opportunity to win monetary awards as they develop prototypes and develop their solutions. Outstanding teams could get the opportunity to launch their projects to the moon in 2024 and beyond. What the exact prizes will be is still unannounced, but applications to make a proposal will open in early 2019.

As I mentioned there are 4 categories of projects being considered. Teams selected will be guided through the development process to hit necessary milestones required for eventually being launched to the moon. This Moon Race is still in its early stages but seems to be organized as a hybrid between an prize like the XPrize organization that inspired a dozen or so companies to land on the moon, and a tech accelerator to help mentor and develop the ideas from applicants through the program.

The manufacturing goal is to build the first “artifact” with lunar resources. Presumably this would be a stepping stone towards the building of habitat structures or infrastructure with local lunar regolith.  I can imagine that someone will want to build a 2001 Space Odyssey inspired monolith on the moon, but I’m sure anyone interested in building roads, burms, landing pads or commemorative plaques as part of this initial manufacturing capability will surely be interesting to see. 3D printing is a popular suggestion for how we may build things on the moon and there are various proposed options for how to make that feasible. One potential is to use regolith as an aggregate in lunar concrete, another would be to laser sinter, or to refine and build something with a metal sourced from the moon. Since the cost of launching buildings and construction materials would be cost prohibitive, solving manufacturing challenges is critical to a viable moon settlement.

Energy, is of course also critical. One of the big challenges to being on the moon is that the lunar day is 28.5 earth days long.  As a result solar power would need to be stored for the duration a lunar night that lasts 14 earth days. Some people have proposed batteries, others would consider nuclear or beamed microwaves or mirrors to be optimal solutions.In order to sustain a base for a long time we need reliable and consistent energy. Energy would be used to grow plants, refine resources and power life support systems and communications equipment. Without a reliable way to get abundant energy, the moon would be destined to remain a small outpost or huddled at the poles.  In Earth orbit most satellites get quite a lot of light and so solar panels work great without the need for large batteries. Only on the highest peaks near the lunar north and south pole are there places that are permanently bathed in light. Otherwise finding a way to get sustainable energy on the moon for the duration of a lunar night will be the only way we will be able to explore and develop lunar resources. Teams going after the Moon Race prize for Energy will be encouraged to find solutions to this difficult problem in new and innovative ways.

Water is perhaps the most precious resource on the moon, especially in the near term. Water is required for humans, plants and animals to live so will be a critical component of life support and growing food. In addition water can be easily broken down into hydrogen and oxygen, oxygen is critical to life support and hydrogen + oxygen makes pretty good rocket fuel. When we find ways to mine water ice out of the moon it will dramatically reduce the amount we have to launch to support human habitation, and also rocket fuel, oxygen and water will perhaps be the very first viable product exported from the moon. Lunar water could be transported back to earth orbit and sold to space stations like ISS at a lower cost than launching it up from earth. Rocket fuel sold from the moon could reduce launch weight and therefore result in lower cost access to deep space. It is only within the last 10 years have we discovered that there is water on the moon, and that it is relatively abundant there. The challenge of finding where there are pockets of ice crystals, and engineering the machines to dig it up and extract water is an important goal of the moon race, and their prize for making the first bottle of moon water.

The final goal in the moon race is to build the first sustainable lunar greenhouse. Food is a big cost for the space station inhabitants and launching up rockets filled with food is a large part of the budget to maintain the people in space. Growing food on the moon, in addition to the water, energy and manufacturing will be the final piece to make a lunar outpost self sufficient on the most demanding resources. Greenhouse technology has advanced quite a bit here on earth over the last few decades with aquaponics, aeroponics and advanced LED lighting systems, but we have yet to grow anything in a lunar gravity and so it is not exactly clear what will happen with the known crops – will corn grow 20ft high for instance? Innovative teams may take a page from science fiction and focus on less complex solutions to getting food such as vats of yeast cultures, others may look at how to automate farming of typical food crops. No doubt that there are many unsolved technical hurdles for being able to accomodate a sustainable greenhouse in an environment as hostile as the moon, and where there may not be a full-time farmer to manage and cultivate the plants.

With these 4 pillars of technology handled we would be well on our way to a sustainable moon base, and would have dramatically reduced the cost of sustaining people there.  Energy, food, water and oxygen are consumables needed to support humans and go a long way to reducing the amount of “stuff” we would need to send to the moon in order to sustain a settlement. Manufacturing in space, likewise takes what would be the biggest and heaviest pieces of hardware needed to build and uses locally sourced material – again greatly reducing the launch costs. The only significant other pieces would be durable goods like computers, experiments, equipment, clothing, and more exotic food products.

Making this moon base economically sustainable would require exports like water, fuel, and refined minerals to balance out with the goods required from earth. With manufacturing capabilities, energy, water and food covered, this balance will be much easier to achieve. Economic sustainability is a key aspect to achieve, since no company or government will want to perpetually fund a money losing endeavour.

Once we have a sustainable moon base, it opens up a lot of options. It would give us time to do much more science, and a platform for investing in industry there. But it all starts with solving the fundamentals that the Moon Race is trying to incentivize.

I’m following the development of this challenge closely, since it has the backing of companies actually capable of making these developments real. It will be very interesting to see what teams come up with over the next year and I look forward to seeing some of these companies launch successful projects to the moon in the 2020s. If you’re interested in it yourself, head on over to themoonrace.org and read up on the details.