Spudis comments at last Aldridge Commission meeting, New York, June 2004
Of a lot of the visionary things that the President outlined in his new vision for space exploration, I think one of the most visionary was his advocacy of using planetary resources to create new capabilities.
Now, what is a space resource? Basically a resource is something that you find in space offplanet that you can use, that you don't have to drag with you out of the deep gravity well of the Earth. So by virtue of its position in space, it has inherent value. It has operational value because you can use it to create new capability, and it has economic value because it doesn't cost you. You're already using something that's there.
And this is, to me--one of the things that Carly mentioned was sustainability. To me, one of the essences of sustainability is to create new capability. It's an enormous amount of leverage. It allows you to do things that you couldn't otherwise do except at great cost, and therefore you probably wouldn't try to do them. So this is a great challenge, and in fact one of the most innovative things, because this is something also that we've never done in space. This is something that's going to be brand new. And we need a new way of thinking about it and a new way of looking at things. There's a synergy here, too, between science and engineering. Science is required to identify resources and to characterize their physical and chemical states, but engineering is needed to actually make those materials, or energy, useful, to somehow harness that for some productive end.
We've had many presentations on resources during the Commission's lifetime. We had oral testimony from Mike Duke of Colorado School of Mines, Andy Chang from APL, and Dave Morrison, and then we had submitted written testimony from Stu Nozette of NASA, Dave Criswell from the University of Houston, and Klaus Heiss from High Frontier, all of them emphasizing the potential high leverage of the early use of lunar resources. Now, the Moon actually contains the materials and the energy we need to bootstrap a space- faring infrastructure. There's no doubt about this. We know what the Moon is made of. We know what elements are there. The real issues are what physical states these elements are in and how can we get at them. So it's an issue of processing, an issue of collecting and processing, not an issue of their presence or the physical plausibility of it.
I don't minimize the technical difficulty of this; however the payoff is so large that, at a minimum, it should be a fairly significant R&D effort of this new initiative to try to understand "Can we do this?" And fundamentally, I think, that's what this initiative is about, it's about creating new capability and to answer the question "Can we live off-planet?" Well, a key thing about living off-planet is not having to drag everything we need with us when we go there. It's learning how to use what's there already.
So, specifically, let's talk a little bit about the Moon. It's bulk materials, and by this I just mean the rocks and the soil that make up the regolith, the outer part of the Moon, are useful for simple building purposes. For example, when you get to the Moon you're going to want to survive the lethal radiation environment of the Moon. The Moon is above the Van Allen Belts, so it gets cosmic rays and it's susceptible to solar flares. One example of an early use of lunar resources is to cover your habitat module with lunar regolith. A couple of meters of lunar regolith will adequately shield the inhabitants of the Moon from cosmic radiation or solar flares. But more importantly, I think, it's the volatile elements of the Moon that potentially give you the greatest leverage. The Moon by weight is about 40% oxygen. It's bound up in silicates, but we know how to extract that. We know there are simple industrial chemical processes that can extract bound oxygen. So it's something that we know can be done. But more importantly, we found that there's hydrogen on the Moon. There's hydrogen from the solar wind on the lunar dust grains and there's also elevated amounts of hydrogen in the dark areas near the poles, the cold traps on the Moon. Basically what we don't know is what state this hydrogen is in. Is it in some kind of molecular form, implanted by the solar wind, or is it in the form of ice deposited as a result of the steady accumulation of cometary volatiles over time?
I think NASA has developed a nice preliminary architecture to get the first-order answers to these questions that we need. Specifically, is--this was brought up today, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is scheduled to fly in 2008, and there are many other international missions to the Moon. The Europeans are flying the Smart-1 mission. The Indians plan to fly a mission called Chandrayaan 1 in 2007. The Japanese plan to fly an orbiter called Selene, which will map the whole Moon. All of these missions will provide critical scientific and engineering data that will allow us to assess where these materials are, what their physical states are, and how we can possibly extract them.
After we map this material from orbit, after we determine where these potential deposits are, the obvious next step is to go down to the surface and measure in detail what their physical and chemical properties are. With those two sets of information, both of which, by the way, are in the NASA architecture for returning to the Moon, we'll be able to actually make intelligent decisions on how we'll go about processing and using this material. I think we need to conduct some ground research to experiment with different kinds of extraction processes and how you would actually gather and store the material that you collect and then also then you could follow up those experiments with actually flight demos where you could land small robotic landers on the Moon and make test amounts of propellant or extract hydrogen or actually produce solar panels on the Moon to generate electrical energy.
One thing that I've been thinking about is that this seems to be a missing hub of expertise at NASA in regard to this. Because it's sort of the nexus between aerospace, classical aerospace, expertise and the expertise that's used in terrestrial mining and manufacturing. So NASA needs to think about setting up something--possibly call it the Office of Planetary Surface Engineering--that would investigate some of these technologies. And you might call it--think of it as Boeing meets Bechtel: two different kinds of industrial centers of expertise and yet they need to merge, because this is a new field that we don't quite know how to operate in yet. The potential of this is actually quite revolutionary. I think people tend to underestimate it. If we can do this, if we can actually make the resources we need to create new capability, it totally revolutionizes the paradigm of spaceflight. Right now everything, literally everything, that we need in space, we take with us. And it's an enormous penalty as we drag it up out of the gravity well of the Earth.
If we can use this material, it will create new opportunities for three different things. For science it creates new opportunities because you can build, for example, reusable lander spacecraft. You can have a robotic lander that can land repeatedly on the Moon and be refueled in space to make repeated trips. So, you don't have to build a new lander every time you want to land a payload. So you have routine access to the lunar service, in addition to routine throughout cislunar space, which basically relates to two other things: if you can access cislunar space, you can access any orbit between LEO and the Moon. Now, what's the significance of that? Well, simply this-- literally all of our commercial and natural strategic space assets occur in this volume of space. Right now we cannot access any of them. We design spacecraft, we launch them on off, we put them in that orbit, they perform or they don't. If they do perform, they have a limited lifetime. When they die, they're written off.
Think of it a different way: think if we had the ability to routinely move from that--from low Earth orbit to any point in cislunar space. It would completely change the way we design, configure and operate spacecraft, which relates to literally everything that space assets provide us, from resource utilization, to communications, to national surveillance. All of those things are affected.
In that sense, what Les mentioned about the fundamental vision, the fundamental goal, which is to advance scientific security and economic interest to the United States through space exploration, this relates--this is at the very heart of this. Because what this initiative, I think, really is all about is creating new capability. And when we have new capability, it always pays off and always in forms that we couldn't have predicted before.
Finally, one other point I would like to make in this regard is one testimony, one of our witnesses said, "Exploration offers up commercial opportunities." And, in fact, I think nowhere is this better possible than in the area of space resources. NASA's role in this should be to identify the technologies and the techniques needed to produce this material but should not be in the business of manufacturing it. I think this is a classic example of an area that's ripe for transition. Once NASA has pioneered the way, has shown this is how you can get to these things, this is how you can extract them, this is how you can store them, then it will be transitionable to the private sector to actually turn that into a workable business. Thank you.
Spudis Lunar Resources was created by renowned planetary geologist Paul D. Spudis (1952-2018) and is archived by the National Space Society with the kind permission of the Spudis family.