[Note: After getting a few posts into this series on the “how” of alternative lunar transportation concepts, I realized that some commenters were asking about why we should even be going to the Moon, or what we’d be doing there. So even though this series focused more on the “how” of lunar transportation development, I figured a short up-front post about why we should care might be useful.
Also, I should add an up-front caveat that I’m not doing this post or series in an effort to bad-mouth other destinations such as NEOs, Mars, Venus, etc, or to propose that NASA should focus all of its money an effort on the Moon, or anything like that. I think all of those destinations are potentially interesting, and that humanity will be better-off if it can figure out how to pull all of them into its economic sphere. The point of this post and series is to explain the ways the Moon could be interesting, and to explore what technologies or approaches might enable that.]
While trying to exactly predict future markets and economic trends is often an exercise in futility, I think we can still make a broad brush-strokes “elevator pitch” for why the Moon is potentially interesting as a destination for space development. As the only pre-existing destination in space that can be accessed both quickly and frequently1, the moon is interesting for at least three or four application areas: resources, adventure, science, and possibly settlement:
- Resources: There are many resource-intensive things that can be done in space once the cost of resources in the required orbits come down far enough. These include orbital space settlements in LEO or the Lagrange points, massive communications or power-beaming platforms in high-LEO, MEO, or GEO, space tourism destinations, and all sorts of travel to destinations beyond Low Earth Orbit. If the cost of lunar-derived materials and/or manufactured goods delivered to these destinations can be competitive with Earth-launched or NEO-derived materials, then lunar mining and resource processing could be a very important reason to go to the moon.
- Adventure: In addition to raw materials, the Moon is a potentially very interesting destination in itself. Both for scientific exploration, but also for plain adventure. People visit all sorts of dangerous places on earth just for the shear thrill and beauty of it. If the cost of travel to/from the Moon can come down, the Moon is a potentially very interesting destination for adventure tourism and public or private exploration.
- Science: We’ve barely scratched the surface of understanding our nearest celestial neighbor, and on its far side there is a radio-pristine area for locating various types of observatories. Once again, If the cost of transportation to/from the Moon came down rapidly there are many international agencies and private societies who might be interested in studying the Moon and using it as a platform to explore the heavens.
- Settlement: This one has more “if’s” involved, but If it turns out that 1/6g is sufficient for long-term human health2, and If the cost of travel to/from the lunar surface can come down significantly, it very well could be a good destination for Earth’s first off-world settlements. It’s probably not as ideal as Mars or Venus, but if the other three activities are going on, and humans can adapt to the lunar environment, you will see settlement of the Moon on at least some scale.
I could probably go on, but to me those provide ample justification for being interested in going to the Moon, but as you can see, the success of all those applications depend strongly on driving down the cost of going to and returning from the Moon, both in absolute terms, and also relative to other competing alternatives such as Earth launch using RLVs and NEOs.
How to actually do that is the focus of the rest of this series.
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- Trip times of days instead of months and efficient revisit periods of around a week instead of years to decades
- As I’ve pointed out many times on this blog, we really have no idea how the human body reacts to gravity levels between microgravity and 1G. We might not be able to adapt healthily to any place other than Earth or Venus, or even Ceres gravity might be enough to enable long-term settlement. The fact that we’re supposedly six decades into the space age and still don’t know how much gravity we need is nothing short of a travesty. See some of the posts in this tag for more info on how we might be able to find out: http://selenianboondocks.com/category/variable-gravity/