Colonizing Luna: Economies of Risk

Eight years ago I wrote a series of short essays about different elements of a permanent base on Luna. I have just re-posted those essays, back-dated to when I wrote them. Reading them, I am struck by how much has changed in 8 years: the U.S. has retired the Shuttle program, so for the moment we no longer have the capacity for human spaceflight; however a series of private companies are in the process of re-developing that capability at much lower cost. SpaceX actually achieved this capability last year with its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule. The system is not yet approved by NASA for human spaceflight, but that seems to be primarily a question of risk-evaluation.

Which brings me to the theme of today’s essay: our need to re-think risk in relation to human expansion into space. During the 1960s, the U.S. and Soviet human spaceflight programs were primarily about political prestige. That meant that both governments put a high priority on preventing mission failure. A risk-assessment professor at UC Berkeley once described NASA’s risk-calculus for the Shuttle program as designed for a 100:1 chance of failure. Over 135 missions, two were lost; so outcomes were consistent with design-expectations.

For a pragmatic development of space, that is too cautious. 400 years ago, European countries faced an analogous problem: How to use sea-routes to get around Africa (0r South America) to reach the spice islands of Java and the Moluccas? The routes were known; the Portugese had been doing this since 1511. By 1600, the Dutch, Brits, Danes, and French had a pretty good idea of how risky it was: they estimated somewhere between a 30% and 50% risk of loss of ships. Outcomes matched those expectations for the first decades of the 1600s, until European maritime technology improved.

I am not arguing that we should shift from a 1% risk to a 50% risk in the design of human spaceflight systems, but maybe a relaxation from 1% to 5% or 10%. For readers unfamiliar with risk-analysis, this might sound callous. For 100 years Americans have fought to make workplaces safe, and I strongly support this. Today, for example, NPR has been broadcasting an investigative series on the deaths of workers in grain-silos. There are two crucial differences between this failure of regular workplace safety and the risk-considerations for practical human spaceflight: 1) I do not think anyone’s life should be put at risk knocking down grain from the inside of silos when other, far safer methods can easily be implemented. 2) I absolutely oppose putting workers’ lives at risk without informing them of the risk.

So: would I be willing to suit up for a spaceflight on a vehicle with a 1 in 10 chance that I would be killed? When my kids are old enough, yes. In 2010 the Journal of Cosmology received hundreds of unsolicited emails from Americans volunteering for a one-way mission to Mars. Chance of fatality? 100%. Motivations? Multiple; on the individualist end of the spectrum is near-certainty of lasting fame. On the grand-vison end of the spectrum, I think many of us are motivated by new learning, by new possibilities.

For my part, I am an urban planner for a reason: I like to think more about lasting infrastructure and making things feasible. I think a capsule-based first trip to Mars is an important stunt, but I want to see humans work out all the steps to persistent, deep-space exploration. In the long run, the Moon is our primary first step out of the Earth’s gravity-well. I would also prefer that we mine rare metals on the Moon for our electronics components, rather than pay Congolese warlords for the coltan that they strip off the land of victimized farmers. Lunar development must also be very sensitive to terrestrial politics and questions of social justice; I will write more on this issue in subsequent posts.

A practical sequence of steps to industrialize the Moon will be a very different path from the nationalist theatricality of a first human trip to Mars. Lunar development will require simpler, cost-effective technology. In the first phases, the creative focus will be to design “bootstrap packages” that can set the foundation for increasingly large-scale industrialization. We have some sense of the mid-range goal: to refine metals, silica, water, oxygen, and fuel on the surface of the Moon, to be used for further space-based activities and for high-value products on Earth. This mid-state level of production will involve a lot of heavy equipment on the Moon. As much as possible, the heavy equipment should be built on the Moon. But the seed for this process needs to be a minimum set of equipment built on Earth; the initial equipment needs to be able to “bootstrap” the process of Lunar industrialization, like the way a BIOS chip starts the boot-up process of a computer operating system.

To me, the development of a bootstrapping process of Lunar industrialization is a fascinating design problem, but it is very different from a first-trip-to-Mars problem. Most of the development process will be done with remotes–what we now call drones, rather than semi-autonomous robots. Luna is only 1.26 light-seconds from Earth, so simple remote operations can be controlled from Earth with the 2.5 second round-trip signal delay. But that misses a crucial point. I do think we should make better photovoltaic cells, electronics, and medical products in space, but I don’t think we should abandon the process of learning how to live and explore out there. Even if Lunar industrialization is funded largely by mobile-phone manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies, we should also use this project as a test-site for space-suits, field-repair training, and long-term life-support systems–including human social interaction in offworld environments. And that will involve risk, and probable fatalities.

Institutionally, we need to look back again at the rationale for corporations. Once upon a time–actually only 150 years ago–governments allowed the creation of corporations only when their profitable activity also served a beneficial public purpose (in fact this stipulation is still codified in most state regulations, and I think that Goldman-Sachs should have been seized and liquidated by New York State in early 2009 based on their deliberate financial malfeasance. But that is another blog-post). Corporations can be designed with public oversight and accountability, such as public utility commissions. The great advantage of a corporate institutional structure is how it can endure through risk and loss; that is why the Brits and Dutch set up East India Companies in the early 1600s. As we re-think the sort of corporation that might govern and support the development of a permanent human infrastructure in space, we can re-visit the role that corporations should play in our terrestrial political economies as well.


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