Why go back to the Moon?

24 02 2010

President Obama has recently scrapped our push to get to the Moon by 2020.  For the most part, I agree with the decision.  However, there is something making a lot of play in the press that I feel the need to address – Namely, the many vocal assertions that there is no good reason to go back to the Moon.  They couldn’t be more wrong.

There is a very simple and pressing reason to go back to the Moon.  It isn’t political and doesn’t make a case for a show of “soft power” against China’s burgeoning space/military space programme.  The real reason for us to go back is what we science types call in-situ resource utilization, or ISRU for short.  To those who aren’t familiar with the phrase, you all understand it as “living off of the land.”

It’s so simple, really, that most people won’t or don’t even think of it.  It’s obvious.  When you go somewhere new, you need to know how to use what’s available to you to survive.  (Or, as the early American colonists discovered, those winters are going to get mighty long.)  If we consider the rest of the solar system as other “New Worlds” to eventually inhabit or as locations to obtain resources, then it only makes sense we learn how to work with what is there.  The Moon is the closest separate planetary body where we can begin to do that.

ISRU techniques are amongst the most important and significantly underdeveloped of our space capabilities right now.  Developing these techniques is not only a practical skill with utility across the solar system, there is money to be made.  -Lots of money, actually, for those who can summon the resources and guts to do it first.

For one, any material under someone’s control in orbit or on another moon/planet is instantly worth $10,000/lb.  Why?  Because that’s how much it costs to launch anything from the surface of Earth.  Then, if you factor in the intrinsic value of whatever the material is, the value just goes up from there.  Not a bad business prospect.

Take the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, for example.  With a veritable planet’s-worth of material floating out there without even the potential of an ecosystem attached to it, the asteroid belt is a guilt-free, virgin Yukon primed for a rush.  Trillions of dollars of resource-able material lie in wait within each asteroid, of which there are hundreds, if not thousands.  Also not a bad business prospect.

So, do we really need to go back to the Moon?  That all depends on your perspective.  It might not directly stimulate a commercial space transport industry like Obama’s new plan will, (which I believe we desperately need to break access to outer space out of the grip of national governments and into the public economy,) but at the same time, whoever owns ISRU will corner the only certain future market there is.  -We know Earth and its capacity to withstand resourcing is finite.

Young Rockefellers are in the wings today.  Obtaining and controlling outer space resources are key.  The Moon is an obvious place to learn how.  That’s why it’s important to go back.

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