With the approaching end of NASA’s space shuttle program, news media reports have expressed a lot of concern — if not downright angst — about our future in space.
Private industry is being encouraged to take over transportation to low-Earth orbit (LEO) — where the International Space Station is.
Now, the chairman of a Texas energy company says it is time for private industry to take bold steps deeper into the solar system to permanently make us a space-faring species.
The first step is to strip mine the moon for invaluable resources. This might send some space environmentalists into conniptions, as it did in 2009 when NASA crashed the a rocket booster into the moon to prospect for water. But the moon is a logical place to extract resources.
“Discovering rich concentrations of hydrogen on the moon would open up a universe of possibilities — literally,” wrote William Stone, an aerospace engineer who is chairman of Shackleton Energy Co. in Del Valle, Texas, in the June 2009 IEEE Spectrum magazine.
“For the first time, access to space would be truly economical. At last, people would be able to begin new ventures, including space tourism, space-debris cleanup, satellite refueling, and interplanetary voyages.”
Rocket fuels and consumables now cost an average of $20,000 per pound to lift off Earth; we are prisoners at the bottom of this very deep gravitational well. Stone and other experts have realized that resources could instead be carried off the moon much more cheaply. Transporting material from the moon requires just 1/14th to 1/20th of the fuel needed to loft material up from Earth’s surface.
Assuming there are significant reserves of ice at the perpetually dark lunar poles, Stone envisions investing $20 billion over a decade to establish a network of “refueling service stations” in LEO and on the moon to process and provide fuel and other consumables to space-bound missions.
The consequences, says Stone, is that we could build entirely new classes of space vehicles. They would be designed operate only at and beyond LEO. The large expense of NASA’s space shuttle was in designing a super-vehicle that withstood the effects of high-speed atmospheric drag, pressure, and intense vibration on payloads, and thermal heating to back and forth into space. This was not accomplished without catastrophic failures and loss of crew.
But a vehicle that is designed to operate only in space can be much simpler. This vision is reminiscent of the space transportation infrastructure envisioned in the 1968 sci-fi classic “2001 A Space Odyssey,” where lunar shuttles ferry passengers between Earth orbit and lunar bases.
Stone’s plan is to establish a lunar fuel-processing plant that would melt the ice and purify the water. Human-tended robotic machinery that would be built to withstand the perpetual darkness inside ice-rich craters at temperatures of minus 270 degrees Fahrenheit. The water would be electrolyze into hydrogen and oxygen. One byproduct would be hydrogen peroxide for rocket fuel.
The most radical part of Stone’s plan is to save $1 billion by sending the first human team with only enough fuel to land and establish the base using lightweight inflatable structures. The success and survival of the team would depend on their skill at manufacturing fuel in situ for the trip home! Nations would never undertake such risky business, but the idea is embedded in the pioneering American settlement of the western frontier.
To save more fuel, the water-laden lunar mining cargo ships would return to Earth and use the drag of Earth’s atmosphere to aerobrake to settle down into low Earth-orbit.
“It is time for the private sector to take the lead in creating new markets and expanding humanity’s presence in space. Governments cannot and will not do it by themselves anytime soon,” writes Stone.
Images courtesy NASA