New moon base concepts

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This article is part of the Controversial Question Series. Its purpose is not to come to final answers or even to reach a consensus. It is simply to explore the breadth of opinion in the space development community. You can help Lunarpedia by participating in the exploration (or roasting) of this question or proposal.

Controversial Question:

Should a new moonbase as suggested by NASA astrobiologist Chris McKay be built or should another or no concept be built?

New moon base concepts

Published in magazines

Popular Science magazine recently published a couple of articles on a potential moon base for which the cost to maintain 10 people on the moon is said to have been reduced from $100 billion to only $10 billion.[1] NASA astrobiologist Chris McKay said that the reductions of cost were due to the planned use of recently developed technology such as self driving vehicles and waste-recycling toilets. To McKay the main advantage of colonizing the moon is the testing of technology and methods which would be similar to what would be used for a colony on Mars. McKay said that to him the moon per se is about as attractive as a spherical chunk of concrete.

Various papers concerning the moon colony were made public on the 10th of March 2016. McKay was the editor of that portion of New Space in which they were published. One team estimates that food for 10 on the moon could be provided for a year for $350 million. The waste-recycling toilet, Blue Diversion Toilet, is being developed for use on Earth by a company financed through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and might have application as an example of the type of toilet to be used on the moon. The possible extraction of water from lunar ice at the poles and the use of such water to produce rocket fuel by electrolysis is not a new idea. However, a group gave a figure of $40 billion worth of propellant per year that they expected they might be able to extract from the moon.


The above base concept certainly includes preliminary robotic probes that would assess, among other things, how much difficulty accessing hydrogen on the moon would entail and how much water ice seemed to be readily available. The estimate of producing $40 billion worth of rocket propellant per year seems premature in coming before the robotic probe data is available. However, if ice is plentifully and easily available, it might still be unwise to use this resource to enable colonization of Mars. Hydrogen on the moon is rare. Once the easily accessed deposits are used up they will be gone. Hydrogen could be used to further industry on the moon in the role of supplying hydrogen/oxygen fuel cells for electricity during the lunar night. Hydrogen is essential for a Lunar Rocket-sled to Orbit (LRSTO) which would recycle the hydrogen and the LRSTO both, launching cargo and passengers to cis-lunar space. Hydrogen is used to reduce ilmenite and it is a necessary part of sulfuric and nitric acids that are to be used industrially on the moon. It might be better to use scarce lunar hydrogen in industry on the moon to benefit the whole population of Earth rather than to enable an elitist colony on Mars like the one Elon Musk envisions establishing while charging colonists $200,000 each for transportation. Elon Musk does not advertise plans to use lunar hydrogen in his transportation system to Mars, so the whole idea of exporting lunar hydrogen for rocket transportation may be unnecessary. Wait a few years and develop an eddy-current-braking to orbit (ECBTO) system to put people and cargo into cis-lunar space and the number of colonists sent to space habitats could be in the billions. This requires lunar industry to supply the materials for building the ECBTO systems in low Earth orbit and lunar orbit. Lunar materials could also help Earth with space-based solar power as well as enabling the building of massive space habitats. The question is should public money enable the quick rides for astronauts or some rich people to Mars or should public money enable a millennium of prosperity by moving human trade and industry into orbit on a wave of cheaply provided lunar materials? It would require industry on the moon. It would require time, money, and hydrogen. The new moon base concepts from McKay seem to describe exporting hydrogen from the moon as a way to make money. I would rather it be described in different words. I suggest there be laws restricting the export of hydrogen from the moon so it could be called a crime. Oxygen as an export from the moon is much more sustainable. Almost every thing one sees on the moon is an oxide. So, about 44% by weight of the moon's surface is oxygen. People only need to separate the oxygen by processes like the FFC Cambridge process or ilmenite reduction to get plenty of oxygen. Oxygen would be recycled only to save the cost of making more. Hydrogen should be recycled severely because when it is gone, hydrogen will need to be imported to keep lunar industry running.

The philosophy behind McKay's new moon base concepts above seems to be that the moon is worth nothing more than a tool to rocket some astronauts to Mars and a test to see if we have learned to survive in a deadly-in-seconds atmosphere. Chris McKay speaks of terraforming Mars as if it were something easy. Just manufacture some perfluorocarbons out of the Martian atmosphere and elements found in the dirt. Then frozen CO2 would be released enhancing the warming effect and you would need to scatter some seeds.[2] How many tons of perfluorocarbons would be needed? How large a nuclear electric generating capacity? How many centuries before this Martian industry can be built? NASA does not say. NASA does not estimate the cost of gardening the planet of Mars. The closest they have come to giving a cost was estimating $450 billion for a program including crewed missions to the moon and Mars for exploration only. The idea, I suppose, is that once we have spent $450 billion and any cost over-runs getting people to Mars, we will be obligated to keep financing a Mars development or we will have lost our investment. In only a few millennia we could have a breathable atmosphere on Mars.[3] I do not suggest that McKay has tried to omit important information, but the particular point I am interested in is not always included in news reports about terraforming. In The future of space colonization[4] it is clear that the short 100 years for producing a warmer thicker but still unbreathable atmosphere on Mars is counted by starting after the industrial infrastructure to produce greenhouse gasses is built and the desired quantity of gasses is manufactured. If it would take fifty years to establish the industrial infrastructure and then fifty years using that infrastructure to manufacture sufficient perfluorocarbons, then it would take 200 years to get the thick carbon dioxide atmosphere that would allow liquid water on Mars but not allow people to breath without having their own contained atmosphere. As a clue to the cost of establishing the industrial infrastructure, I would suggest that the figure be enumerated in trillions. In the case of the moon, it is not unreasonable to guess that in thirty to fifty years a remotely controlled industry could have produced a hundred mile long rocket-sled track to routinely ship cargo to orbit while recycling the great majority of the hydrogen burnt as fuel. Lunar exports of oxygen, silicon, aluminum, calcium, iron, magnesium, titanium, sodium, glass, solar cells, bare and insulated wire, and sifted regolith could make industry in orbit possible. Beside these plentifully available items there are things like helium-3 and rare earth elements which are less abundant on the moon but could be exported for high prices making their recovery and use for special purposes economically practical. People only need to commit to establishing reasonably large scale industry in orbit to create the market for lunar exports that would make the cost of export low per ton. Low-cost transportation to orbit is dependent upon a large market. When shipping lunar products to lunar orbit becomes a routine part of business, its costs should be comparable to air freight, because the aircraft are reused for years and a LRSTO for launching things to orbit should be reused for years. Jet fuel is made out of petroleum pumped out of the ground. Rocket fuel could be made by recycling the LRSTO exhaust. So rocket fuel would be somewhat more expensive on the moon than jet fuel on Earth. Air freight might cost $1.50-$4.50 per kilogram.[5] I will estimate a cost of $20.00 per kilogram, $20,000 per metric ton, to put cargo into orbit around the moon in the case in which LRSTO is developed and there is a large market for cargo. The support for a Mars mission that a developed moon base could provide will not be available if instead of developing the moon with remotely controlled industry NASA rapes the moon removing as much hydrogen as possible to burn it as rocket fuel without the recycling possible in a rocket-sled launch. In testimony before the congress of the United States, on the 7th of September in 2000, NASA stated that costs of recurring launch ranging from $100 to $200 per kilogram would enable production of an economically operated SBSP (space based solar power) system.[6] Since the $20.00 per kilogram cost of launching from the moon could be made available, an SBSP system should be possible with materials available on the moon instead of the ultra light materials being considered for SBSP built from Earth launched materials. Building with lunar materials requires a time lag for the building of lunar industry, but no new scientific theories are needed. There must be considerable development of technology based on the science we already know.

Let it be clear that the advantage in launching cargo from the moon results from the physical properties of the moon. It takes 22 times more energy per pound to reach orbital velocity from the surface of the Earth than from the surface of the moon. Launching to orbit from Earth requires reaching an altitude above most of the atmosphere before acceleration to near orbital velocity. On the moon orbital velocity can be achieved at zero altitude as long as there are no physical obstacles in the path. Launches from Earth usually require an aerodynamic fairing to protect the cargo. Launches from the moon do not. These advantages will always remain in the moon's favor no matter what advances in launch technology are made in the future and these advantages are not had on Mars. What is preventing the practical use of these advantages is the lack of industrial infrastructure on the moon and a lack of a market for using launch facilities on the moon.

Quite apart from any harm done to lunar development by sending people to the moon before they can be economically accommodated, Chris McKay seems false to his goal of establishing a human presence on Mars. Any simulation of a Mars mission that can be done on the moon can, at this stage of lunar development, be done more cheaply on Earth. The idea of astronauts romping around the moon is not obviously connected to the mission of colonizing Mars. Astronauts are generally a savvy bunch. I doubt they will see the Popular Science moon mission concept as an integral part of a Mars mission. The U. S. general public should be polled on the question of whether they want a trillion dollars spent sending people to Mars or not, because if it is done without first industrializing the moon and cis-lunar space, that is about what it will cost. Half-trillion dollar Mars programs have been soundly rejected by lawmakers. With $8 billion per year for human space flight,[7] NASA can play with the ISS and pretend to be working on going to Mars, but no crewed vessel will ever arrive at the destination. As evidence that NASA is not serious about colonizing Mars I mention the well known Robonaut made humanoid to be able to handle tools made for people. Requiring a robot to work through the limitations of human form is likely to make it ineffective at industrial tasks. So far NASA has been successful in keeping its humanoid robots too ineffective to compete with humans in developing space. NASA is developing another humanoid robot called Valkyrie to work on Mars.[8][9] Robots made for industrial tasks by private industry are not humanoid in form. Robots made to move ore like a truck at a mine look like a truck with cameras attached. Robots made to paint products on the production line do not have five fingers to hold a paint sprayer. Their arms end in paint sprayers. The best that a humanoid robot could do for industrial tasks on Mars is to do the task with more expense than standard robots because of the unnecessary humanoid form. A robotic front-end loader on Mars should look like a front-end loader on Earth with some changes. There would be no crew cab. Remote controls would link the operator to the machine. That is cheaper than building a separate life support system in the crew cab for a front-end loader and every other construction or mining machine used on Mars. Developing a humanoid robot for industrial tasks is a waste of money which concerns NASA very little. NASA wants to handle more money and is indifferent to accomplishing anything or not. Worse than just wasting money, if a NASA sponsored humanoid robot were to be the only agent suited to a certain job on Mars and it needed to be replaced, industry on Mars might be insufficiently developed to do the complex task of replacement and be reduced to begging Earth to send a replacement. Does NASA get its ideas for projects from Hollywood screenwriters and politicians? That would explain the seemingly perverse attitude that since there is commercial potential for developing Earth's moon such a project is disqualified for NASA while the lack of commercial potential in developing Mars puts Mars development projects right in NASA's line.

With a strategy of industrializing the moon first and using that industry to colonize Mars in an economically possible way, it is likely to take fifty or sixty years before lunar industry is up to making the massive sort of vessel that could hold a crew of a thousand and a recycling life support system in a fully radiation shielded centrifuge. It is an inconveniently long time to continue a program before a desired result, but there are desirable goals along the way that the program would achieve. First there would be the development of ground truth in making worthwhile measurement of resources on the lunar surface and the development of robots that could last long enough in a lunar environment to make exploitation possible. Second there would be development of a non-rocket launching system or a fuel-recycling rocket sled launching system (an LRSTO) to put cargo into space from the moon, making space-based industry possible for building of space-based telescopes and other salable space-based commodities. Third the cargo launching system would be upgraded for launching people at which time life support facilities would also be built so people could work indoors on the moon at the sophisticated tasks that people can do more economically in person than by remote control if supported by the proper infrastructure. Fourth lunar materials will be used to build a space-based solar power system that will free humanity from excessive fossil fuel use. Fifth space habitats will be built from lunar materials and one or more of them used as a colony ship to send to Mars. So it will be a long wait for a Mars colony, but the space program will be generating enough money to pay for it by the time that it is built.

The main points in a nutshell

Ambient conditions on the surface of the moon and Mars are hostile to human life, causing death in seconds to the unprotected human being. The situation is the sort that calls for remotely controlled machines to operate in these conditions just as remotely controlled machines on Earth search the ocean bottom for wrecks and bury pipelines and communications cables on the ocean bottom. NASA has sent remotely controlled machines to explore Mars' surface but colonization with concurrent effort to terraform Mars would require an enormous effort at industrialization and the efficiency of remotely controlled machines that could only be achieved by people being on Mars, on Phobos, on Deimos or in orbit around Mars to control the machines without extremely long communications delays. A theoretical alternative would be having a yet-to-be-developed artificial intelligence on Mars that could efficiently control industrial machines with only occasional communications with controlling humans on Earth, perhaps once per day.

An obvious use of the moon is to get experience in the remote control of machines which would be in important ways similar to the machines that would be used in colonizing Mars. Earning money on the moon would make this economically possible and lunar industry would be a market for exports from Mars; hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon, argon, and chlorine. Colonizing Mars directly from Earth with all vehicles and equipment produced on Earth's surface is unrealistically expensive with a cost much more than that of crewed Mars exploration programs that have been rejected by the lawmakers in the U.S.A. Placing a base on the moon that only assists with a never-to-be-realized Mars effort with fuel produced from lunar resources will use up funds while doing not enough to bring Mars colonization costs into acceptable limits. The financial loss could bring all colonization efforts, lunar and Martian, to an end for some significant time.

See the discussion

Why would NASA, as represented by its employee, Chris McKay, avoid economically sound ideas of lunar development and promote a program which would do considerable harm to the prospects for industrial development on the moon? Not being privy to the unpublished policy discussions at NASA, I can repeat unofficial excuses I have read, and then get to some real difficulties. Objections, as presented by a peculiarly inept and accommodating opponent to lunar industrialization, are offered in the discussion page for this article.