All Astronautical Evolution posts in 2016:
The Way Forward (May)
Manned Spaceflight Statistics (April)
Back to 2015:
New in 2015:
Short story The Marchioness
2016: Stragegic goal for manned spaceflight…
2015: The Pluto Controversy, Mars, SETI…
2014: Skylon, the Great Space Debate, exponential growth, the Fermi “paradox”…
2013: Manned spaceflight, sustainability, the Singularity, Voyager 1, philosophy, ET…
2012: Bulgakov vs. Clarke, starships, the Doomsday Argument…
2011: Manned spaceflight, evolution, worldships, battle for the future…
2010: Views on progress, the Great Sociology Dust-Up…
Index to essays – including:
The Great Sociology Debate (2011)
Building Selenopolis (2008)
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When Will Jan Wörner Get His Moon Village?
Is it yet time to return astronauts to the Moon?
One of the great formative experiences of my childhood was following the news about the Apollo Moon missions. I waited up all night to see the live TV of the first moonwalk in July 1969. So do I want to see a return to the Moon? Of course I do!
And as I am the author of a full-length science fiction novel partly set in and around the future lunar base of Selenopolis in Mare Foecunditatis, as well as in Sinus Medii at the centre of the lunar nearside, you can believe me when I say I’ve given these matters some thought!
Now Jan Wörner, Director General of the European Space Agency, has been speaking about his plan for a Moon Village – a permanent, manned base station on the Moon. The video (released 26 February) can be viewed on the ESA website or on YouTube.
According to the narrator, “the Apollo era showed that, with the right commitment, giant leaps are possible” (1:10). But this is not what Wörner has in mind. He talks rather of small steps made by multiple countries. As the narrator explains: “The idea is that the Moon base would follow the International Space Station as a global project” (1:28). Wörner specifically mentions the Americans, Russians, Chinese, Indians, Japanese, and finally “even more countries with smaller contributions” (presumably including such small fry as the member states of ESA) (1:36).
The narrator concludes: “So, we’re going back, and this time we’re planning to stay. The commitment to the Moon Village from the head of ESA sends a powerful message. However, it could be twenty years before technology is ready to make it happen” (5:15). This is then followed by Andreas Mogensen talking about the “huge development cycle that has to be started again […] It’s the entire suite of technology that we need to develop” in order to achieve the plan.
These statements flag up a number of warning signals for me:
So, much as I would love to see astronauts walking on the Moon again, I have to conclude that Professor Wörner is going out on a limb here, pushing his dreams way beyond any realistic political or entrepreneurial support. Or, as one of the YouTube commenters wrote: “Funding? Please say you got enough funding? No in 30 years bullshit please.”
Does anyone else have any better ideas?
A group of space professionals are promoting the idea of an International Lunar Decade, to begin in 2017, 60 years after the International Geophysical Year (which saw, amongst other things, the launch of Sputnik). Their Call to Action, addressed to the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, makes a number of interesting points:
So why does the United Nations need to be involved? The concluding paragraph states: “The UN is the only global body that can provide a deliberative process to engage member states […] The opening of the space frontier and the creation of a self-sustaining space economy is a global challenge that calls for a global response. […] International collaboration is key to success and the UN can play a key role. Defining the architecture for international collaboration to build the space economy is the challenge that must be addressed.”
Do we really need more global bureaucracy? Surely the key to success should be clear by now? – it is a liberal economic and regulatory environment in one or another developed country, in which entrepreneurs such as those now working in the United States can try out a variety of innovative ideas without interference from global bureaucrats who want to do it their way. The International Lunar Decade plan as it stands is therefore inconsistent, adopting now a pluralist and capitalist, now a monolithic and socialist attitude to progress. But maybe that’s just part of its cunning plan to appeal to everyone?
In another recent announcement, the papers from Chris McKay’s lunar workshop held in August 2014 have now been published, as reported in an article in Popular Science by Sarah Fecht entitled “We Could Be Living on the Moon in 10 Years or Less”.
Certainly, one of the papers mentions commercial applications: “As transportation to and from the Moon becomes more frequent and cheaper, the lunar tourism market should begin to emerge and could become a significant source of income in the future.” But there is a great deal of illusion mixed in with the realism: frequent references to the ISS as an example to follow rather than to avoid; the involvement of Russia, Europe and China together with the United States; the idea of extracting “precious metals from asteroid impact sites” instead of going directly to the near-Earth asteroids themselves.
Worst of all is the total absence of any recognition that low-Earth orbit has to be built up commercially before any sustainable return to the Moon can begin.
The example of Antarctica
Here’s a point I’d like the advocates of an official global plan for lunar development to mull over. Wernher von Braun once compared lunar exploration with that of Antarctica, where the key to access was the development of an enabling technology: the aeroplane.
The first flight to the geographic South Pole and back was achieved by Cdr Richard Byrd in 1929 in a Ford Trimotor. The first aircraft to actually land at the South Pole, in 1956 – only the third expedition to reach that location since Amundsen in 1911 and Scott in 1912 – was commanded by Rear Adm George Dufek. He used a Douglas Dakota DC-3, supported by a USAF C-124 Globemaster (see images here).
No government exploration agency had prepared for these flights with a “huge development cycle” to develop an “entire suite of technology”. Both the Ford Trimotor and the DC-3 were already successful commercial passenger aircraft by the time they went to Antarctica, and the Globemaster was a widely used USAF transport. The commercial application came first, the exploration role only later on, once the technology had been matured through large-scale application – the opposite of the top-down, government-led space exploration approach.
Obviously, space and the Moon are different from Antarctica. Yet there is still, I believe, a lesson to be drawn. Embark on Andreas Mogensen’s “development cycle”, meaning obviously a space agency-led development cycle, and you’ll end up with another Apollo. Maybe it will even be successful for a while, but it will eventually be cancelled.
The way to avoid this is to promote the growth of a variety of commercial services, firstly in low Earth orbit, serving mainly large-scale space tourism and to a lesser extent commercial and government research, and later in higher orbits as demand grows to see the Moon from up close. Then, when a government lunar exploration plan is drawn up, it can rely on chartered commercial services all the way to lunar orbit. Once it establishes a base on the Moon itself, the travellers who would want to use that base are ready and able to come.
The only way to do this sustainably is to commercialise each step before embarking on the next one! If there are ten people living on the Moon, then there must be hundreds making round-the-Moon sightseeing flights, and thousands in space hotels in low Earth orbit at any one time. Government space agencies cannot achieve this: it’s up to the diversity of entrepreneurs making up the broader economy, which governments can encourage but not command!
For a talk I gave in March 2008 at the British Interplanetary Society on developing the Moon, in which I made many of these points, see “Building Selenopolis”.
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