A Point Worth Repeating

Over on Jeff’s SpacePolitics site, there is a discussion going on right now about a recent poll on the relevance of space. While much of the discussion was interesting as usual, I particularly liked the point made by a fellow 20-something by the name of James:

Those who support the current lunar program often forget the opportunity costs. There are better ways to spend the same money on developing space. I’m 24 – with the current Constellation program plan, I’ll be in my mid 30s by the time we get back to the moon. If we operate the system for a decade or two after that, as is likely, all I can expect in my career is to see 4 people land on the moon twice a year. That is not exciting – nor is it worth the money. Maybe by the time I retire we’ll be looking at another “next generation system”.

What’s the point of any of this for someone my age?

Two of the replies to his question more or less missed what I saw as the key point, and instead mostly fixated on the question at the end–taking it as a sign of greed, self-centeredness, shortsightedness, etc. Personally, I don’t think for a second that James was being whiny or impatient or ADD (as our generation is often accused of). I think he’s asking a very valid and timely question.

While I know it’s somewhat vain to quote oneself, I think the point I made there bears repeating:

If our current approach to space development was actually putting in place the technology and infrastructure needed to make our civilization a spacefaring one, I’d be a lot more willing to support it. Wise investments in the future are a good thing, but NASA’s current approach is not a wise investment in the future. It’s aging hipsters trying to relive the glory days of their youth at my generation’s expense.

Patience is only a virtue when you’re headed in the right direction and doing the right thing. If Constellation was truly (as Marburger put it) making future operations cheaper, safer, and more capable, then I’d be all for patiently seeing it out.

While Constellation might possibly put some people on the moon, it won’t actually put us any closer to routine, affordable, and sustainable exploration and development. I have no problem with a long hard road, just so long as its the right one.

As I discussed in my previous post on John Marburger’s speech, I discussed this important point. It’s not good enough for NASA to just be doing stuff in space. Sending people to the Moon in a way that doesn’t “reduce the cost or risk of future operations” isn’t a very responsible way of spending tax dollars that are going to be paid in large part by James and my generation.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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29 Responses to A Point Worth Repeating

  1. redneck says:

    I probably should reply over there except that I only go there when you, Rand, or Clark recommend an article.

    The difference in investment seems to be lost on many of the replies. To me, it is the difference in a poor 18 year old buying an expensive car or an education. He can only afford one, and will spend the next 5 years paying for it. Working nights and weekends for that dream. Yes the car is much more glamerous for a while. Much more so than spending 60-80 hours a week studying and working. The question being, how does it affect the rest of his life.

    At 24, both are broke, one has a 5 year old car and 5 years work experience. The other has a masters degree, some work experience, no car, and probably had a lot less fun recently. Which do you bet on for the future.

    That is infrastructure for life, similar to depots and RLV development. The other is vehicle focus now with opportunity cost for the future.

  2. James says:

    Jon,

    Your post was much more eloquent than I could have put it. I think you hit the nail on the head – and described exactly what I was thinking in my comment over at SpacePolitics.

    Redneck, your comment is almost spooky. How did you know I’m working on a masters’ degree but yearning for a new car? 🙂

  3. redneck says:

    James,

    Not spooky at all. Fudamental choice that people make in life. 20 something is the age that the consequenses just start to show up.

    Space age and I are 50 something and the consequenses of previous choices are painfully obvious in both cases.

    Space, unlike individuals, can become young and energetic again, given the right decisions.

  4. Bill White says:

    Sending people to the Moon in a way that doesn’t “reduce the cost or risk of future operations” isn’t a very responsible way of spending tax dollars that are going to be paid in large part by James and my generation.

    I suspect that a great many people (including Dr. Griffin) would deny that is it technologically feasible to use the Moon to reduce the cost of future operations unless we are talking about a great many decades, if not a century.

    I suggest that Dr. Griffin views Marburger’s vision as being somewhat like nuclear fusion. In the distant future, yes its a great opportunity but for the immediate future we can only make it work if more energy (money) goes in than comes out.

    If building cis-lunar infrastructure capable of genuinely lowering the costs of a Mas mission will take 50 or 75 years, or maybe longer, then for a Mars-centric person ESAS could very well be the best route to pursue.

    Lunar LOX extraction would seem the mot obvious first step and yet NASA investment in that is minimal to non-existent and I note that a recent witness before Congress testified to the belief that ISRU is NOT viable in the near term (would cost more than the benefits for a long time).

    The same fellow talked about the need for a lunar exit strategy.

    = = =

    All this said, DIRECT 2.0 appears to offer greater options for everyone.

  5. gravityloss says:

    Excellent analogy, redneck.

  6. Karl Hallowell says:

    Lunar LOX extraction would seem the mot obvious first step and yet NASA investment in that is minimal to non-existent and I note that a recent witness before Congress testified to the belief that ISRU is NOT viable in the near term (would cost more than the benefits for a long time).

    The same fellow talked about the need for a lunar exit strategy.

    This testimony came from Dr. Noel Hinners.

  7. googaw says:

    If building cis-lunar infrastructure capable of genuinely lowering the costs of a Mas mission will take 50 or 75 years, or maybe longer, then for a Mars-centric person ESAS could very well be the best route to pursue.

    If it would take more than fifteen years, in other words longer than most of the NASA management and senior engineers are likely to remain working at NASA, then it is of no interest to them. Ditto for most politicians. Of course, they have to talk as if they are seriously interested in the longer term, but that’s just to keep up NASA’s image.

    Also, the skill sets needed for ISRU are very different from aerospace engineering. ISRU can’t be used to keep the current NASA employees employed — for this reason also ISRU is of no interest to them. The same is mostly true of NASA and DoD aerospace contractors.

    If you are looking to NASA for long-term vision, you are barking up the wrong tree.

  8. Chris says:

    What the hell does a strawman like ISRU have to do with the president’s vision of building a robust LEO launch market?

    Chris,
    19, carless, and working on my BSc.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Keep pushing hard, Jon. I was 19 when man landed on the moon, and it was so very exciting. At your age, you’re feeling cheated, but you don’t yet know how it feels to be cheated nearly a whole 40 years after going to the moon by the mediocraties in government who took our money and gave us the shuttle, the ISS, large and avaricious contractors, and NASA as you know it now. Don’t let it happen to you and your generation. Rah!

  10. googaw says:

    the president’s vision of building a robust LEO launch market?

    The “vision” of a very unpopular and lame duck President is no longer of any importance.

  11. Jon Goff says:

    Bill,
    You don’t need lunar ISRU to drastically lower the cost and risk associated with Mars missions. What you need is a thriving cislunar transportation network with propellant depots, reusable in-space transportation, and preferably multiple earth-to-orbit RLV providers. Lunar ISRU would be icing on the cake, but isn’t what I was referring to. Just making the earth-to-orbit, and depot infrastructure better would drastically reduce the cost of Mars missions.

    ~Jon

  12. Karl Hallowell says:

    Chris, you wrote

    What the hell does a strawman like ISRU have to do with the president’s vision of building a robust LEO launch market?

    There is no president with this vision. Now or potential. It’d be nice, but it hasn’t happened yet.

  13. Monte Davis says:

    I have no problem with a long hard road, just so long as it’s the right one.

    There’s an old story — European or English? — about an aged landowner who had a new lane laid out, and instructed his manager to line it with oak saplings.

    “But… milord, it will take generations before those can reach a decent size.”

    “Well then — we’d better get started, hadn’t we?”

  14. Jon Goff says:

    Monte,
    Exactly. There’s nothing wrong with long-term projects, so long as you’re headed in the right direction and proceeding at the best realistic speed. Personally, I think that the progress is going to start accelerating once things get to the point where space becomes more and more an economic than a political activity, and that the “long-term” is closer than most people think. I just think that getting to that acceleration point is still going to be a major project for many years yet.

    ~Jon

  15. googaw says:

    There’s nothing wrong with long-term projects, so long as you’re headed in the right direction and proceeding at the best realistic speed.

    Actually there is a problem here, highlighted by second clause. How can you be so sure that you’re headed in the right direction? There are a vast variety of options when it comes to space development, and the future is notoriously unpredictable. For everything that science fiction got right, there are any number of things they got quite wrong, from flying cars to (gulp) cheap space travel by Pan Am in 2001. Instead of positronic robots we have laptop computers and the Internet. This “long-range thinking” is just an entertaining exercise in daydreaming. Far better to create the future by solving useful problems today.

  16. Ed says:

    Dennis Wingo quoted you in SpaceRef. In the same article, he answers Chris’s question about ISRU.

  17. Karl Hallowell says:

    googaw, it seems to me the answer is to try a lot of things and don’t settle on one approach unless it is shown to work a lot better than the other choices.

  18. googaw says:

    karl hallowell: googaw, it seems to me the answer is to try a lot of things and don’t settle on one approach unless it is shown to work a lot better than the other choices.

    I wholeheartedly agree. I’d add that, unless it’s just a simple matter of orbital mechanics (and it rarely is, especially in the ISRU area), that before we settle it should be shown by actual hardware in space and actual profitable business, not just on paper and not just by some project whose economics are highly distorted by subsidies. The Shuttle, for example, demonstrated little about the economics of RLVs, and the ISS has proven little about the economics of space stations, but they have given people a lot of bad ideas, both pro and con, about the realtive merits of such projects. (Pro in the sense that many think of RLVs and space stations as necessary or important for space development just because NASA has for so long thought they are, and has ordered so vast a number of engineers to spend so much time on such projects, with the result that most aerospace engineers and space fans think in such terms regardless of their economic merits, and con in the sense that many think that because NASA does them in a very expensive way, they must be inherently costly things to do. Neither of these claims are necessarily true, and the Shuttle and ISS give us little clue as to whether or not they are true).

    In other words, in the space area no one should ever take for granted that the convential visions of future development reflect anything resembling the technologically or economically best space projects. Indeed, something that has been a vision or hope of many people for a very long time, but never has been accomplished, or has been accomplished only in ways far more expensive than useful, probably reflects something quite wrong with the vision, either technologically or economically or both.

    Let me also add while I’m here that ISRU would radically change most of our basic assumptions about space technology and economics. I’ve already mentioned that it would radically change the engineering skillsets needed: for ISRU operations mining and chemical engineering skills are far more important than aerospace engineering. But it would also change fundamental assumptions aerospace engineers have always held about the relative costs of power vs. propellant mass in the rocket equation, the importance of tankage factors and costs of propellant production when choosing propellant, and so on. Those pursuing ISRU visions should really start with a blank piece of paper, and the first books they should crack should be mining and chemical engineering, not aerospace engineering.

  19. Monte Davis says:

    the first books they should crack should be mining and chemical engineering, not aerospace engineering.

    Agreed, with 3 caveats:

    1) At first, ISRU will be very strongly constrained by the same from-the-ground-up high costs: at thousands of dollars per kg, you simply can’t deliver enough equipment for volume production until you’ve “bootstrapped” for quite a while.

    2) People captivated by Zubrin’s chemistry for producing oxygen and propellant from the Martian atmosphere (which is indeed nifty and credible) should not generalize that gas/fluid-phase engineering — where the atmosphere keeps delivering your feedstock to the intakes, and the only moving parts are valves and impellers — to anything that involves processing crunchy, massive solids. The latter is a whole ‘nother class of engineering in terms of equipment mass (see above) and trouble-proneness (see below).

    3) A lot of ISRU thinking conceals tacit assumptions about really really good robotics and ultra-high reliability. I’ve been around enough mining to know that typically there are lots of engineers and mechanics climbing around the gear for a loooooong time — and not in spacesuits — before it gets anywhere near its planned throughput. And even when it’s up and running, there are always mechanics at hand to un-jam this or that.

    The idea that a few astronauts are going to unfold some ultra-lightweight equipment that will then do its thing, gathering and chewing up tons of regolith 24/7 for long periods unattended, is…. uhh…. speculative.

    In short, ISRU will bring about the “radical change” you project — but “radical” doesn’t necessarily mean “quick.”

  20. googaw says:

    at thousands of dollars per kg, you simply can’t deliver enough equipment for volume production until you’ve “bootstrapped” for quite a while.

    This depends on the mass throuput ratio, which can vary by thousands depending on the material being extracted and processed and the technology (reflecting the mining and chemical and mechanical engineering expertise) with which it is extracted. That opportunity to improve costs by orders of magnitude, by choice or discovery of target bodies and materials as well as by new technology, is not available with aerospace engineering as it is with ISRU.

    should not generalize that gas/fluid-phase engineering — where the atmosphere keeps delivering your feedstock to the intakes, and the only moving parts are valves and impellers — to anything that involves processing crunchy, massive solids. The latter is a whole ‘nother class of engineering in terms of equipment mass (see above) and trouble-proneness (see below).

    The biggest difference is in terms of expertise. Being gas phase, with the only moving parts being valves and impellers, it bears some resemblance to the combustion engines and life support systems with which many aerospace engineers are familiar. The processing of “crunchy, massive solid” materials is by contrast quite alien to the working space community.

    But in fact mining machinery crunches massive solids every day with high mass thruput ratios. The MTR of a gravel quarry, for example, can be thousands per year, and coal and many other mines also have high outputs of mass processed per mass of equipment. It will be a challenge to miniaturize and automate such operations and keep the high MTR, of course.

    The idea that a few astronauts are going to unfold some ultra-lightweight equipment that will then do its thing, gathering and chewing up tons of regolith 24/7 for long periods unattended, is…. uhh…. speculative.

    I agree, but there’s nothing for it but to start trying it, on a very small scale and without the astronauts at first to be sure. I’d also suggest that robust equipment usually has a higher MTR than the ultra-lightweight structures most readily thought of by aerospace engineers. What we want for ISRU is small and robust. We can, though, use expensive materials that many mining engineers only dream of, for example we can make copious use of diamonds far harder than any rock they will encounter.

    Meanwhile, ROVs are being deployed by the hundreds in the offshore oil industry to dig trenches on the ocean floor, and plans are afoot to use ROVs to dig, grind, mix, and pump gold, copper, and other ores from the ocean floor to waiting ships. Most of the earth’s surface, and thus most of its minerals, lies under the oceans still waiting to be tapped. So much of the technology for automated and reliable mining is being developed, just not by NASA or anybody else in the space community.

  21. Monte Davis says:

    mining machinery crunches massive solids every day with high mass thruput ratios.

    Indeed it does: with (as you note) massive components and abundant power, both of which are gonna co$t at a lunar, Martian, or asteroidal site.

    I take your point on marine ROV operations. I hope you’ll take mine, from someone who 35 years ago was covering the breathless stories about fortunes to be made from ocean-bottom manganese nodules… and expects to wait at least that long before the bonanza in methane hydrates. NB that we’re much farther ahead in getting at that nice fluid-phase oil and gas… 🙂

    So much of the technology for automated and reliable mining is being developed, just not by NASA or anybody else in the space community.

    I consider that a good thing — and have argued for a long time that NASA should concentrate on technologies specific to space, and adapt off-the-shelf robotics etc., rather than spread itself thin in an effort to be an all-purpose “futures” shop.

  22. googaw says:

    Monte, we don’t have to dream of manganese nodules or methane hydrates, we can focus on learning from and contributing to the many current real world projects involving deep sea ROVs for digging, dredging, trenching, and directly mining, for example oil fields, diamond mining, and copper mining.

    I wrote: mining machinery crunches massive solids every day with high mass thruput ratios.

    Monte: Indeed it does: with (as you note) massive components and abundant power, both of which are gonna co$t at a lunar, Martian, or asteroidal site.

    It will be a challenge to miniaturize, automate, and provide power without substantially reducing the MTR, to be sure. But the point of MTR is that one can amplify one kilogram of equipment launched out of earth’s deep gravity well into hundreds or thousands of kilograms of materials useful for a variety of things. That’s orders-of-magnitude improvements of the kind we have not gotten from aerospace engineering despite tens of billions of dollars of R&D. The high MTRs of many earthside processes demonstrate the many possibilities in this regard. There is nothing inherently difficult about mining and processing materials in space, it just hasn’t been tried yet, nor is it yet a serious academic discipline, and it’s very unfamiliar territory for the aerospace engineers who populate NASA and other parts of the space community.

    We’ve been beating our heads against the wall for decades trying to bring launch costs down and in other ways trying to improve space economics through aerospace engineering. For those of us who are seriously interested in long-range thinking, rather than NASA’s pretense of same while dreaming of recreating a 40-year-old project, it’s time to try something different. ISRU can bring many orders-of-magnitude improvements. It’s where the action is space will be, and that makes the current vanguard of its development, the undersea ROV and robot technology, the place to be now for making real hardware that solves economically real problems and gives us the technology to build an actual spacefaring civilization, instead of a mere handful of wildly expensive space excursions, in the future.

  23. Karl Hallowell says:

    I think there’s another solution to the MTR equipment. Namely, build it on the Moon. The idea is to ship over barely enough to seed a small machine shop and extract basic materials (like raw aluminum) from lunar soil. Then slowly build up larger scale equipment as labor and mass from Earth permits. You could even have a machine shop on Earth prebuild all the equipment to see if the equipment and the process for making the equipment works.

  24. googaw says:

    Karl: build it on the Moon. The idea is to ship over barely enough to seed a small machine shop and extract basic materials (like raw aluminum) from lunar soil. Then slowly build up larger scale equipment as labor and mass from Earth permits

    I’m afraid that, looked at from a chemical and mechanical engineering point of view, and from an economic point of view, there are some basic problems with these kinds of scenarios.

    The simplest problem with this scenario to understand, but not the worst problem with it, is that earthside chemistry and (less obviously but not much less) machinery is thoroughly dependent on elements like hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen that are scarce to practically nonexistant on the moon. Elements available on the moon count for far less than half of the mass of materials earthside industries depend on. Even most of what is available on the moon requires the more expensive kinds of chemistry, such as the splitting of aluminum and silicon oxides. It’s our very bad luck that our moon is an awful place to set up industry.

    This could be remedied by importing ice from comets or asteroids, and it’s still possible we might get lucky and discover enough ice on the moon to get things going. But if one has to go to an asteroid or comet anyway, that body will have all the basic building blocks available, and in more easily extracted form (and how easily extraction and chemistry can be done is crucial), and thus will be where the real action is.

    The much harder problem, whether on moons or asteroids or any other frontier, might be recognized by reading Adam Smith and then studying technologies used on frontiers as with the Polynesians or the Old West. Industry gains efficiency from division of labor, both among people and among machines. The more general-purpose a machine is, the lower its MTR.

    On the frontier, if you want to be self-sufficient you sacrifice MTR. Contrast the village blacksmith’s shop, which can produce the wide variety of parts needed by the village and farms but is low MTR, with the steel mill on a railroad that is high MTR.

    To take a modern example, CNC machines that cut out a wide variety of parts have very low MTRs. That is why, even if CNC machines were the only “seed” required to bootstrap industry, this bootstrapping would be an extremely slow process, as you suggest.

    To get the high investments needed to get going one needs to deliver benefits to earthside customers, and to deliver benefits to earthside customers one needs high MTR. OTOH, the need for real options in these industries combined with the high cost of launching stuff from earth will urge towards more flexibility and self-sufficiency with lower MTRs. But the MTR still has to be high enough to make it cheaper than importing the various parts needed from earth. These will be the grand trade-offs to be made in building spacefaring civilization.

    In the Old West if you added up the mass of all the people, livestock, lumber, mines, roads, carriages, shops, fields, barns, silos, warehouses, homes, and so on needed to make the minimal self-sufficient or self-replicating village, we are talking millions of tonnes as a probably great underestimate. Far beyond what we could ever hope to launch from earth.

    Machines are not plants and there are no “seeds” that can grow into machines. One needs a massive network of machines to make more machines. Worse, machines in modern global industry are designed with the highest division of labor in mind. The more high-tech a machine is the more likely this is to be true, and the most extreme form is in the machines we currently send into space. Their parts depend for their origin and assembly on mines, factories, and transportation systems massing in the trillions of tonnes. Machines needed to be self-sufficient on a frontier would be of a radically different design, based on radically different design paradigms, than those known to today’s engineers in any engineering discipline.

    The most minimal in this regard were the Polynesians, who could take everything with with them on a canoe. They did this by relying on biology and a few common rocks for everything in their lives, including their housing and transportation. They could take their entire society on their canoes in the form of just seeds, roots, piglets, and themselves. One cannot do anything like this for space industry, although of course science fiction is full of wish-fulfillment fantasies, like “nanobots”, that are said to be able to do so.

  25. Anonymous says:

    The simplest problem with this scenario to understand, but not the worst problem with it, is that earthside chemistry and (less obviously but not much less) machinery is thoroughly dependent on elements like hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen that are scarce to practically nonexistant on the moon. Elements available on the moon count for far less than half of the mass of materials earthside industries depend on. Even most of what is available on the moon requires the more expensive kinds of chemistry, such as the splitting of aluminum and silicon oxides. It’s our very bad luck that our moon is an awful place to set up industry.

    That some alloys are dependent upon hydrogen and carbon is true, nitrogen not so much. However, there are many high strength alloys made from nickel, cobalt, and titanium that do not. We use Titanium drill bits and other hardware in the machine shop industry all the time.

    Also, machining today is moving in a dramatic fashion to lasers. With this move, your objections to machining withers. Today’s lasers are between 8-20% efficient for solid state lasers. The Army has put together solid state lasers with powers of up to 100 kilowatts.

    As far as ISRU processes there are some that require little or no consumables. Vapor phase pyrolysis is one that has great potential for the Moon and only requires input heat from solar thermal and some electricity. I am looking at a further process that uses the same lasers as you would use for cutting for creating the vapor phase of metals.

    Dr. Larry Taylor at the University of Tennessee used a standard microwave oven to heat real regolith (not the simulated crap) to over 1400 degrees C within 1 minute. That is hot enough to drive all volatiles out of the regolith (these are at concentrations of 10-100 times the concentration at the equator even out of the cold trap.). It only takes 1700 C to drive out the oxygen from magnesium, 1800 to get the oxygen out of iron, and 1900 to get the oxygen out of silicon.

    The thing that is the enabler for the Moon is energy and that is where our early focus should be.

    Dennis

  26. googaw says:

    Dennis: That some alloys are dependent upon hydrogen and carbon is true, nitrogen not so much.

    I am referring to processes, not mere output. As every mechanical engineer and metallurgist knows, here is copious dependence on air, water, and other fluids in mechanisms and throughout the metallurgy industry. That one ignores this shows that one doesn’t have much of a mechanical engineering or metallurgy background, has not thought these problems through very far, or is simply clinging to an irrational religious belief in the body that hangs visibly in our own sky and the dream that has traditionally funded NASA.

    As far as ISRU processes there are some that require little or no consumables.

    These processes have much lower MTR and much lower flexibility than those we can conduct on earth, or those we could conduct other places with copious water, hydrocarbons, ammonia, etc. They again demonstrate the painful reality that the moon is an awful place for industry.

    We naturally have a strong emotional attachment to our own moon, both because it floats tantalizingly in the sky right above us and because the moon was once the obsession of a political space race. But these considerations have nothing to do with real mining and chemical engineering. These prejudices are one of the biggest reasons to start with a blank notebook, a mining engineering book, and a chemical engineering book, and forget about what you thought you knew about space economics and ISRU. What you thought you knew is wrong. It’s not even close.

    Meanwhile, there is plenty of opportunity to bend hardware today by working on deep sea ISRU, which is a booming industry. Instead of quasi-religious debates over heavenly bodies, and lobbying NASA to spend billions on this futuristic project instead of spending billions on that one, with deep sea ISRU real hardware and real economics are at work.

  27. Karl Hallowell says:

    googaw, at first, I found myself agreeing with you. It does sound reasonable since the environments of Earth and Moon are so different. But then I realized something. On Earth, we rely on processes using hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen not because we have to, but because it is more cost-effective. On the Moon, it’s just a matter of developing processes that don’t rely on those elements. And most of that development can be done cheaply on Earth.

    It’s been almost 40 years since we’ve known enough about the chemistry of the Moon to design industrial processes. And we’ve already come up with numerous potential processes for extracting glass, aluminum, titanium, oxygen, etc from the default lunar soil. My take is that you grossly exaggerate the difficulty of developing new industrial techniques. As I see it, industry on the Moon can readily adapt to Lunar conditions. The chemistry isn’t a serious obstacle.

    A grad student on Earth with some of the cruder lunar simulants could easily explore new lunar industrial processes. Total cost would be less than a few tens of thousands of dollars a year.

    And it doesn’t need to become competitive with the Earth-side industrial processes to work well. After all, launch costs remain high meaning even a crude, inefficient process on the Moon, as long as it doesn’t require a lot of labor (at least on the Moon), can be competitive with Earth industry for heavy items.

  28. googaw says:

    On Earth, we rely on processes using hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen not because we have to, but because it is more cost-effective.

    It’s more cost effective by many orders of magnitude.

    we’ve already come up with numerous potential processes

    These are bad science fiction based on naive extrapolation of NASA’s prior projects and bad attempts at lobbying for a NASA moon base. They are all very low MTR and low flexibility, and for very few of them has even a partial working prototype been built. They are also economically useless: it will be far cheaper to import volatiles to the moon from earth or the asteroid belt and use well-known processes with high MTR or high flexibility.

    This industry-out-of-moondust meme is another economic and engineering fantasy created by NASA’s pouring vast amounts of engineering and space enthusiast dreams into an Apollo project to satisfy a political urge but that bore no relation to economically viable space goals or projects. It’s time to reboot: start with a blank notebook, forget everything you thought you learned from NASA or science fiction, aerospace engineering or your fellow space enthusiasts, about supposedly logical plans for space development. Get out a couple of good chemical and mechanical engineering textbooks, open up that notebook, learn to estimate economic viability without being prejudiced by your dreams, and come up with some ideas that have some real economic value.

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