The Moon might have been nudged aside by U.S. policymakers in favor of a near-Earth asteroid as the next destination for human explorers, but it remains a focus for internationally sponsored missions and entrepreneurs drawn to a deeper scientific understanding of the celestial neighborhood—as well as to the potential for profits from resources mined from the lunar surface.
Still, money from investors to nurture the latter, and the political will to enable the former, remain significant near-term obstacles, according to experts who gathered here for the annual meeting of the-chartered Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG).
The group examined the current best options for reestablishing a human presence on the Earth's closest neighbor. In spite of President Barack Obama's decision to cancel his predecessor's lunar-oriented Constellation program,still is an organizational force behind the recent Global Exploration Roadmap. The road map represents an evolving 25-year strategy to reach Mars with either an asteroid or the Moon serving as a stepping-stone. A dozen space agencies participated in the blueprint unveiled in September under the banner of the International Space Exploration Group.
NASA's latest planning in support of the road map includes a lunar encampment suitable for small crews rotating through for stays of 7-28 days. The NASA-led, 15-nation International Space Station framework serves as a model for the road map's governance. But in a key departure from Constellation, the global road map would assign “critical path” hardware—surface rovers, for instance—to international participants, according to John Connolly, the destination lead for NASA's Human Architecture Team.
“When we are not doing something, we are planning something,” Connolly assured the advisory panel in a presentation that summarized NASA's on-again, off-again interest in the Moon dating back to the Apollo era.
At the commercial extreme, Shackleton Energy envisions a full-time mining operation at the Moon's south pole for the extraction of water ice from permanently shaded craters. The water drawn from preserved comet impacts would be processed into propellants positioned in spacecraft depots in low Earth orbit or the L-1 Earth-Moon Lagrange point to refuel aging communications satellites, says Jim Keravala, Shackleton's chief operating officer. The water also could go to fuel spacecraft moving through cis-lunar space on other missions.
Shackleton, which envisions the refueling depots as the revenue-generating equivalent of telecommunications satellites, recently initiated an Internet campaign soliciting crowd-sourced donations as the precursor to a traditional fund-raising effort planned for next year.
“The point is to create value that people will pay for,” Ken Murphy, president of the Moon Society and a Dallas investment portfolio manager, told the gathering.
“The financial industry is really in a bind right now,” he says. “There is lots of cash in the system to prop up the economy. But the banks are not lending to companies that can't show they have customers.”
The Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems (Pisces) at the University of Hawaii at Hilo envisions a third approach: a multiuser research park supporting a blend of public/private activities on the Moon, poised to grow in response to commercial as well as scientific interest. The proposed International Lunar Research Park would offer common utilities to government and commercial tenants.
The university is establishing a precursor, a prototype facility at the Hilo campus to support analog missions to a range of deep-space destinations. Hawaii's volcanic terrain would support the testing of robotics as well as life support, mobility and communications systems under a Space Act Agreement with NASA, says Pisces Deputy Director John Hamilton.
And if the Moon is too far and too expensive, Hamilton offers another suggestion: his island state. Hawaii is strategically positioned among the globe's spacefaring nations for the next best thing, a dress rehearsal, he declares.