I stumbled into another Mars First!!! rants a few days ago giving all the reasons why Mars would be developed ahead of the moon. I didn’t see any reason to change my opinion this time either. Given a reasonable amount of free market in space, the moon is a a clear winner. The only way that Mars will be developed first is by a top down, massive effort with myopic focus on the red planet.
The reason free enterprise would develop the moon first is time to market, perceived multiple markets, and financial barriers to entry, any or all of which a single megaproject would have to ignore to hit Mars first. The most obvious aspect of these problems with Mars vs Moon is travel time and launch windows to destination. A ship to Mars must do a serious check out of every system and all alternative systems (back ups) in orbit before the launch window opens. The mars ship then has several months in a Hohman orbit to Mars, followed by several more months at Mars waiting on a launch window back to Earth, and then a Hohman orbit back to Earth. The time involved means that the Mars ship will not be available for the next launch window back to Mars and must wait many more months before its’ second mission to the red planet can start. The Mars ship can, at best, use launch windows roughly 52 months apart. A Lunar ship can do 50-200 runs to Lunar orbit and back in the meantime. This means that a Lunar ship can be sized at 2% of the Mars ships size, and still haul at least equal tonnage. A ten ton Lunar ship can almost certainly beat a five hundred ton Mars ship to market.
If you wish to make the argument that a Mars settlement ship could be initiated with say fifty tons, then equivalent delivery to the moon could be done with a one ton ship. These relatively smaller ships for the Lunar trade could also be used throughout cislunar space for placing, repairing, or recovering satellites as well as various prospecting and local exploration jobs. The Mars ships could have no other revenue streams.
There are other considerations. A Mars settlement ship will need to have every possible commodity required for years of survival either on board or delivered in advance before it leaves Earth orbit. The Lunar ship can par the list down considerably for essentials and almost eliminate the back up systems for the back up systems. Two or three deliveries to the Lunar surface could possibly suffice for a start on early development with less than ten percent of the material needed for a safe Mars settlement. Given the possibility of rapid return if necessary, and crew rotation on a schedule, an initial Lunar base could be as small as one person, while a Mars base might need a half dozen or more to keep the crew reasonably sane.
The point of a free enterprise type system favoring the Lunar surface over that of Mars is that no one individual, nation, or company needs to do the whole job however “the job” is defined. I think the trading post and inn just might be a more realistic development scenario than many of the highly focused plans. One relatively small company places a minimal shelter on the moon. The people that run the trading post sell oxygen, food, tanks, and repair services to people that come to the moon for their own reasons as well as buy the used equipment and surplus provisions when they leave. Next the trading post would be renting those used suits, rovers, robots and drills to people that come to the moon for different purposes entirely. Eventually there would be an extensive inventory of useful and useless equipment and supplies available at the trading post and inn. A brisk trade in whatever Lunar materials are found useful could develop at the same time.
The inn part of the business would be a throwback to centuries past when an inn might be the only place in several days’ travel to sleep indoors and eat food that you hadn’t caught yourself. A tiny facility that allowed people to relax a short while and get a decent bath, talk to others in person, or even get drunk which would likely be fatal out in the open country. A place where it is possible to recharge the personal batteries before going at it again.
The implications of the trading post model are only obvious to a small percentage of the people with our esoteric interests. There are many that focus on various top down development plans that miss the possibilities of a free market settlement. There are those that will read this post and immediately insist that Tycho is the wrong location because the settlement must obviously be at the north pole, south pole, highlands, lowlands, far side or wherever. They will insist that the initial development must be done with robots, or a massive dug in base, or for the purpose manufacturing LLOX or, radio astronomy, or some other purpose that is clearly the most urgent reason to invest the billions for Lunar development. The trading post model is a way to start developing the moon without the billions from a single source. A way to get started without a government program or other massive investment source.
Launch costs to LEO coming to $500.00 a pound or so with reliable launch on demand would be a prerequisite for the scenario I suggest here. $500.00 a pound to LEO should allow $2,000.00 a pound to LLO, and then perhaps $8,000.00 a pound to the Lunar surface. Any numbers here will be based on that $8,000.00 a pound to deliver Earth people and products to the Lunar surface.
After enough information is available for some company or individual to make a decision, a ten ton first module is delivered to the Lunar surface with one person to run the post. At $8,000.00 a pound, that is about $160M for transportation costs and about that much more for the actual hardware for an initial investment of $320M for the facility. Bunk beds for three people, a kitchen, some supplies, and an airlock are the minimum requirements for Tycho Trading Post and Inn #1. Rental space suits may or may not be available early on. Tycho was selected because other companies had already already staked out the prime locations at the poles and elsewhere.
The first customers might be prospectors, explorers, or tourists as long as they have a checkbook or line of credit. Each person with their gear could be as little as 500 pounds delivered to the Lunar surface for a price tag of $4M each. They can pay to sleep in a bunk, purchase consumables as needed, and hire minor repairs from the resident trader/innkeeper. If they need 10 pounds of consumables per day, that is $80,000.00 cost to the post with mark up to $100,000.00 a day to the customer plus bunk and equipment rents to perhaps double that. At $200,000.00 a day average, a tourist can spend a month at the inn for a total of $10M including transportation. They can sell their suit and other disposable goods to the trader at a steep discount when they leave.
A prospecting couple might spend six months on the surface with only a few days at the Inn given the right camping equipment. That might be a few tons of equipment and supplies initially with provisions bought when needed. The total package might cost them $100M including transportation. If they will not need the equipment they brought again, they might sell it to the post so that the post now has a used rover, camping equipment, and prospecting tools available for rent.
A robot developer might send a mechanic with a half dozen robots to iron out the hardware and software kinks before putting them on the market. Depending on details, a month of field troubleshooting might cost the developer $10M or so after which that company has a field tested Lunar exploration robot available for sale. The mechanic will probably leave the tools behind so the post now has more repair capability.
When somebody starts producing resources from Lunar materials, the trading post will be right there to buy them for sale to the next group that needs those products, or even ship to Earth objects of sufficient value. As the post expands organically, people will need to bring less and less stuff with them for use or survival. A 200 pound person in shirtsleeves could get there and spend a few days for $2M or so after a while, or even weeks for the same money when in situ provisions are available.
As costs come down, more amenities become available like the baths and bar mentioned earlier, with exercise facilities and racket ball, dancing, gambling and fine dining. When the worlds oldest profession becomes the moons’ 100th oldest profession, I think it is safe to suggest that settlement is well and truly started.