Friday, February 16, 2007

Others Won’t Pass Up This Opportunity

Don Beattie’s article in this week’s The Space Review comments unfavorably on my earlier effort to articulate a single, clear and understandable mission for America’s return to the Moon as part of the new Vision for Space Exploration. Beattie takes issue with my argument that the Moon is both the right destination and that the mission is to learn how to live and work productively on another world, with emphasis on understanding the role of using space resources.

Beattie says “We can ‘…do everything else that we want to do in space’ without detouring to the Moon.” Beattie contends that the Moon is passé – been there, done that – and it’s time to focus our energies on robotic exploration of Mars, where he perceives the “real science” is—a view shared by others in the planetary exploration community. His value judgment, that there’s nothing of interest on the Moon, a pronouncement gainsaid not merely by me, but by the entire planetary science community, who made aspects of lunar science fundamental in the latest NRC decadal study.

Beattie claims that the idea of using space resources is foolish; concept studies have shown that current techniques don’t pay for themselves and that, “There are no lunar resources that, when processed, would have any economic value if utilized on the Moon or returned to Earth.” Well, concept studies can show anything you want them to show, especially in areas for which we have literally no practical experience, like space resource utilization. Beattie condescendingly advises ISRU advocates to “reopen their chemistry and physics textbooks and spend some time with real-world mining and drilling operations.” In fact, many ISRU workers have extensive mining and engineering backgrounds; studies on lunar resource utilization have been done by such dilettantes as Don Burt, mineralogist and mining geologist from Arizona State University and institutions such as the Bechtel Corporation and Colorado School of Mines. Beattie’s second misjudgment comes from an uninformed assessment of the current marketplace (markets for unimagined products are always non-existent) and a misunderstanding of how resource utilization fits into the Vision.

The goal of resource extraction in lunar return is not to “create economic value,” but rather to process resources on the Moon to discover their potential and determine if they do have economic and exploratory value. If humanity is to have a role in future space exploration, we must learn to cut the cord of Earth-based logistics. Unlike Beattie’s experts, I have no idea if lunar and other space resources can be used to create new capabilities or not but myself and many space-faring nations are eager to find out. The Moon offers us the ability to experiment with a variety of techniques and products along with a space platform where we can evaluate the difficulty of their production and their utility when made available. This is a challenging goal, one where federal engineering R&D can experiment with processes and techniques yet too difficult and too uncertain for the private sector. We go to the Moon to find out if living there is possible—our nation and the world will benefit (as other countries realize), as it strengthens our technological and scientific hand. And if we succeed, we will move into the Solar System.

Beattie dismisses the attraction of the lunar poles. Beyond the potential for water ice and the realization that many countries are preparing scientific expeditions to the Moon, there is the obvious advantage of near-permanent sunlight available at several spots near the poles. This sunlight and the benign thermal environment at the poles allows humans to stay on the Moon throughout the 14-day nighttime without resorting to nuclear reactors for surface power, an alternate solution that greatly increases cost and bureaucratic red tape. It’s the sunlight that makes the poles attractive—water, if present, is icing on the cake.

From his response to my article A Moon Full of Opportunity, it is clear Beattie doesn’t want a permanent human presence on the Moon or for that matter, anywhere else in space. His vision for space exploration appears to be a science-driven program whereby robots send us postcards from space. As I said in my TSR article, people differ on where NASA funding should go. I think that a program designed to learn how to use off-Earth resources to create new industry in space opens up new opportunities for wealth creation, inspiration, human commerce… and science. It is a very different vision from those who think we should have a small, government-controlled program, offering limited access to space to a small subsection of the populace to conduct an extremely narrow range of activities.

Should the Vision for Space Exploration open up space for all constituents, with an eye toward engaging the private sector, or leave it as a government-funded, private playground for academia? Readers can decide for themselves which vision is broader, richer and ultimately, self-sustaining.