Next Steps in Using Near-Earth Space and Luna
First written: August 3, 2005
This is the fist in a set of conceptual essays to design a permanent, self-supporting, productive Lunar base.
As I thought it through, I have been realizing that the whole zone from low-earth orbit (LEO) out past the moon is crucial to future human deep-space exploration.
Most of the description here is of a substantially-developed base, and so the obvious first problem is getting from here to there. This problem can be broken into four parts:
1. Cost, mainly in the form of political acceptability. This is an issue which NASA deals with constantly, so I have little to contribute except in the specific proposals and promise of this base.
2. Environmental impact. Mainly this is the atmospheric damage caused by rocket launches. Part of this is atmospheric disruption, part of it is the chemicals used as propellants. LOX and kerosene are better than the solid propellant used on the shuttle boosters, but we need to carefully study how to minimize atmospheric harm from rocket launches.
3. Scaling-up, or ‘bootstrapping.’ This is the main challenge for a permanent Lunar base. To become self-supporting I think it will require very substantial facilities for mining, refining, manufacturing, and return-to-earth systems. As quickly as possible, ‘bulky’ items should be produced on Luna.
Scaling-up should be the driving principle in designing the interim stages to get us to a permanent Lunar base. Systems should be designed for multiple use and re-use, and maximum-value items should be pursued first, to subsidize the development of ‘beach-head infrastructure’ in the early stages, where the greatest uncertainties exist. Examples:
a. chemicals, medicines, and crystals which can only be grown in microgravity.
b. permanent storage of highly-radioactive nuclear waste.
4. Surprises and unknowns. This should also be regarded as an opportunity; as we face unknowns we learn. The challenge then is how much a taxpaying public is willing to underwrite the financial risks of fundamental research. This will depend upon political persuasion. It could, in time, become a major rationale for the U.S. government itself. Since the FDR administration, we have rationalized massive government investment through the ‘war-mobilization’ model. If, instead, we used government resources in an ‘exploration-mobilization’ model, we would continue to develop both technology and economic growth which will justify the effort and very likely maintain U.S. military supremacy without the belligerence.