Bootstrapping Industry

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Aspects of Argument

There have been arguments made that building industry on Luna from the small amount of stuff that can be launched with today’s launch systems and today’s budgets would take too long to generate any return on investment. This would be a reasonable argument if there were some alternative that was a credible way of opening up the industrial use of raw materials in space for profit in some faster way.

Some say that there must be a better transportation system before building an industrial base on Luna. [1] Donald Goldsmith claims a bare minimum of a million tons is needed for a lunar colony. This is what people come up with by insisting ditches be dug by astronauts in space suits using a typical garden shovel variant that was especially designed to make it light in weight. This type of argument does not hold against a lunar colony in which remotely operated equipment is used to set up an electrical distribution system, establish temperature controlled pressure vessels as shelters, extract oxygen, and set up the foundational infrastructure for resource recycling before any humans arrive. (See First Base, and try to imagine whether or not such a base will require a million tons of stuff.) Using remotely operated equipment to augment its own ability before getting to direct profit making activities is something like primitive people first making tools out of sticks and stones before making metal working equipment. This sort of thing could stretch out quite a few years, but what is the alternative for a space program? The space station generates various technical information, but has no plan to ever make a financial return. Things that never happen rarely happen before things that take a long time to happen. Waiting for better launch technology has already gotten us the space shuttle which does not seem to be cheaper than former systems. There have been too many schemes for cheaper transportation that did not pay out. Don’t sit on your hands and wait for any more. Develop the scram jets at a modest rate of expenditure, but don’t wait for them before starting a remotely controlled industrial base on Luna. Bet on both horses. Bet on a space program that plans to make a profit after fifty years. It is better than one that plans to never make a profit. Bet on scram jets that cannot provide cheap transportation without a large market in transportation to orbit, and bet on a program that will provide the large market at the same time.

Waiting for remotely operated equipment to go through capacity doubling times with each generation having a smaller percentage of stuff shipped from Earth may seem tedious to some. It does have the theoretical potential of setting up launch facilities on Luna that would require only maintenance, electricity, and locally produced rockets weighing 1% of the cargo that is launched to orbit. (See the first mass driver.) There is an exponential factor in the expansion of lunar industry but there are limits imposed by the ability to control things remotely from Earth and the limited ability to supply the things that at any particular time still can not be made on Luna. There is a limit to the amount that start up can be hurried by increased transportation of stuff. It takes time to learn how to do things in the lunar way. Once the big brother to Lunarpedia for engineers is up to usable size, things on Luna should start hopping.

First Luna can supply solar cells, station keeping motors, station keeping fuel, and antenna dishes to earth satellites. With projected all electric launch costs of less than a dollar per pound, an industrial moon should be able to supply oxygen to a fuel depot in low Earth orbit for less than the ten thousand dollars a pound cost from Earth. The oxygen would be repackaged at L2 in spacecraft with heat shields for aerobraking into low Earth orbit. The empty tankers would return by VASIMR thrust. Later Luna can supply the stuff for solar power satellites. Later yet Luna can supply the stuff for true orbiting space ports. [2] [3] Then people will be able to emigrate from Earth as fast as space habitats can be built from lunar materials. It may take a hundred years or more, but it will not get done if we limit ourselves to the things that can be accomplished in a permanently manned space station.

How Did this Happen?

In his book, Voyage to the Milky Way, Donald Goldsmith gives evidence of treating space exploration and settlement concepts with knowledge and fairness to competing concepts. Why does he completely neglect the idea of bootstrapping industry on Luna with remotely operated devices? Why does he write on page 134 that for the foreseeable future stuff can be sent to and from celestial objects only by rocket power? Bootstrapping industry on Luna with remotely operated devices and exporting product with mass drivers are two essential concepts for a profitable lunar colony. Does Donald Goldsmith have a peculiar dislike for lunar colonies so that he is trying to sabotage them with bad publicity? Did he get all of his lunar colony information from Robert Zubrin? Perhaps the truth is that even among professionals in the field and lunar colony enthusiasts there is too little appreciation of the lack of any alternative to having a high proportion of the establishment of lunar industry done by remotely controlled devices built in part from lunar materials by other remotely controlled devices. One would think that the thrill of seeing a bold astronaut riding on top of an enormous rocket would have palled a little by now. There are a great many film clips to this sort of thing in archives now.

Hold out for luxury flights to Luna with the acceleration as smooth as silk (even if it might get up to four g’s) or don’t go. Wait until there is enough industry built up on Luna to make it worth while for people to go to Luna in person or you will get in the way and be a burden to the remotely operated colony. So, you cannot live long enough to wait for this? That is no excuse to eat your great grandchildren’s lunch.

The Simple Essentials

On Earth the recycling system for air, water and food is given to us. Our best efforts at agriculture amount to mere tinkering with the system to bend its production into channels more directly beneficial to people. There is none of that on Luna. Recycling air, water and food will require massive amounts of industry compared to farming on Earth. That means highly automated industry. If someone on Luna goes through an orchard picking apples or milks a goat by hand, it will amount to recreational activity. The bulk of Lunar agriculture will need to be much more efficient in human labor than that.

The start of this high ratio of machine to human labor is the remote controlled equipment that builds the initial infrastructure. The builders stay at ease on friendly, comfortable Earth and order machines about with a three second response time. It is not that people would prefer to do things this way. It is the only way to build up the infrastructure on Luna to the point that local resources can meet the great majority of workers’ needs. Then workers on Luna will stay indoors to avoid radiation hazards. There will be indoor shielded pressurized factories and repair shops. There will be Lunar remote control consoles for those functions that are difficult to handle with a three second response time. There will still be lunar workers who stay on Earth for quite some time. Electric acceleration of stuff to orbit around Luna that will allow lunar products to be price competitive will also allow cheaper launch of people and stuff from Earth. Some form of electric acceleration will be incorporated into Earth orbiting space ports built from lunar materials. Rocket power will hold on to its transportation niche, but electric acceleration will open up transportation to and from all solar system bodies of any human interest. These technical possibilities await the human will to turn them into reality. Bootstrapping industry and electromagnetic launch to orbit are not currently producing fruit in developing outer space, but if anyone wants to claim expert knowledge of space transportation systems, space colonies, and their likely futures; he had better be familiar with these concepts.

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  1. Donald Goldsmith, Voyage to the Milky Way: the Future of Space Exploration. ©1999 by TV Books, L.L.C. pages 69&70
  2. Donald Kingsbury and Roger Arnold, “THE SPACEPORT” article in Analog SF, New York, November & December 1979.
  3. I do not know why, but using the following link by clicking on it does not work. I typed the adddress directly into my adress window and that brought me the web page.