Mining The Moon May Be The Ideal Kick Start Necessary to Colonizing Space In General
Harvesting Nearly Unlimited Lunar Mineral Resources Could Propel Humanity Into Deep Space, And Beyond...
In many futuristic space travel scenarios, you often hear talk about mining the Asteroid Belt or incoming comets that come within range of the inner planets of the Solar System every few decades or so. This would be practical with a fusion space propulsion system, or something likely to be available to humanity on an even more near term basis, a plasma drive.
Yet even with such rapid methods of propulsion in deep space compared to current rocket technology, the Asteroid Belt and most comets are still very far away. Getting a mining crew to the surface of one and then their cargo back to Earth would be a monumental and expensive undertaking. Why then do we seldom hear talk of mining the Moon itself? It’s one big lifeless rock in space itself, and its as close to us as we could hope for.
If you’ve seen the movie Moon starring Sam Rockwell, you know that the surface soil or mantle rock known as regolith might also be a valuable source of helium3. Helium3 is a an extremely rare and valuable isotope of helium that might be useful in powering a fusion drive. It’s only slightly less rare on the Moon than on Earth, but in sufficient quantities there due to solar radiation bombardment over the eons, that mining the surface for this compound might be extremely lucrative.
The Apollo missions to the Moon brought back approximately 841 pounds of Moon rock, so we are pretty well acquainted with what the surface of the Moon is made of. Depending on where the rock is collected from, it contains a wide variety of valuable minerals from magnesium and phosphorus to many nearly priceless, rare earth elements.
Even by conventional rocket technology, the Moon is also pretty close as distances in space go. At a mean distance of around 256,000 miles from Earth, the Apollo missions were able to reach it in as little as only three day’s time. That’s a week’s turn around for sending relief mining crews there and bringing others back, not an impractical time scale for a long-term engineering project.
The cost of using conventional rocketry to get to the Moon and return is still prohibitive however, and requires what is known as a BDB (big dumb booster). We haven’t had one of these in the US since the days of the Saturn V that was used for the Apollo missions of the late 60s. Private firms like Space X are developing their own rocketry systems, but for the foreseeable future their only goal is to use them to service the ISS (International Space Station), put satellites in orbit, or promote space tourism at sub-orbital altitudes.
BDBs that are currently used to launch satellites and men to the ISS have come from the European Space Agency with the Ariane rocket, or from the Russian Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) out of the Baikonur Cosmodrome launch site in Kazakhstan. Other states are also developing their space based rocketry programs such as China and India, and they may actually develop active bases on the Moon long before the US gets back there. Despite all their advances, China and India are still essentially Third World Nations. It’s entirely possible that the US will be beat in the race to colonize space by Third World Nations. What does that say about how far we’ve fallen since the days of John F. Kennedy's pioneering vision?
Even if we still had the Space Shuttle in service, (an outdated 1970s, Nixon era technology itself), it never had the capability for reaching escape velocity and making a journey to the Moon. Its maximum orbital speed was around 17,000 miles per hour, and escape velocity requires a minimum of about 24,000 miles per hour.
So while mining the Moon might offer tremendous commercial prospects, it still hasn’t motivated the US government to want to set up a base there, despite efforts by George Bush Sr. to do just that back in his single term as president in 1989 - 1993. Its likely that for the next few generations to come we will have to rely on the vision of private space development agencies to make any realistic attempts to get there.
While fusion research is still ongoing a practical, portable fusion drive may be 50 to 100 years away even yet. Such technology would offer enormous benefits to mankind if it ever came about. It would in fact be a game changer for the human race, making electrical power on Earth virtually free and limitless if the fusion systems were based on deuterium, a hydrogen isotope that could be harvested from seawater. A fusion drive would have essentially no danger of meltdown, and produce virtually no radioactive waste. Such a drive built into a spacecraft could give it a specific impulse or delta V acceleration of up to one to two million. At such a velocity, its likely we could get to Mars and back in a round trip of two weeks, a revolutionary time scale that mimics our travel time to the Moon back in the 60s.
Fusion then could greatly change humanity’s future in space in our lifetimes if breakthroughs were made in the next 20 years or so. It would make colonization and mining of the inner Solar System practical, and exploration of the outer Solar System planets beyond Jupiter, by manned crews not just lifeless probes, also realistic. It would spread the species beyond one single world, and perhaps prevent our extinction in an environmental or political catastrophe.
The plasma drive is a much more practical concept for the near term however, and also revolutionary by modern space propulsion standards. It is due to be tested in low Earth orbit in 2014. If successful, this could lead to later tests farther out. Perhaps a return visit to the Moon using such a drive would demonstrate that it is worthwhile to go there, and start the ball rolling for a real push to develop the vast, unexploited resources of our nearest neighbor.
Current plasma drive tests show it may have an operating speed of 123,000 miles per hour, making a trip to the Moon possible in nearly two hours. Would you book a spaceflight to the Moon if it only took four hours to get there and back? Currently a one way trip by airplane from New York to London takes about 7 hours, so a trip to the Moon and back with this plasma drive could be almost twice as fast. This is the amazing progress of innovations in propulsion that are not just on the drawing board but in the development stage.
In moving humanity forward in difficult times, it has always been necessary to think big and take unprecedented risks. This outlook requires being optimistic and seeing life as full of opportunity. Without such thinking life often falls back to a brutal grind for preserving the status quo.
We are told by diverse sources that the ability to dream is essential to our future. Jonathan Swift said that “Vision is the art of seeing the invisible,” and the Bible itself warned that “Without vision, the people perish.” Making a concerted effort to set up a base on the Moon, motivated by the profit obtained from mining the tons of otherwise useless rocks and dirt there for commercial interests, might just be the single best goading influence to get us out into deep space. Once we are there, its likely we’ll never settle for being confined to one little blue marble of a planet ever again. Isn’t it about time we got started on this? What on Earth, after all, are we waiting for?