Space: beyond 1999

Chemistry & Industry, 20 December 1999

The Moon: resources, future development and colonization
David Schrunk, Burton Sharpe, Bonnie Cooper & Madhu Thangavelu
Chichester: John Wiley & Sons
Ppxv+432, 34.95, ISBN 0 471 97635 0

If only we'd listened to Gerry Anderson, we'd be living there by now. His Space:1999 television series was based in Moonbase Alpha, the first permanent lunar colony, staffed by a multinational team of scientists and military personnel in space-age fashions.

Or, to take a slightly more high-brow example from science fiction, Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: a space odyssey showed industry taking its first steps into space, with Pan-Am flying to orbiting hotels and the mineralogical exploration of the lunar surface.

What these visions of the near future assumed was that the impetus of the US Apollo programme would continue past the initial goal of sending a couple of test pilots for a lunar walkabout and round of golf, into serious long-term colonisation and exploitation of the near extraterrestrial environment.

What they didn't count on was the collective failure of nerve that saw funding slashed and the grand project abandoned. Once the glory was won, this government-driven project fell to fundamentally political pressures, from a Congress jealous of the billions of dollars sequestered by NASA and from a disillusioned public, who, at a time of social turmoil at home and unpopular military intervention overseas, came to view the space programme as a grotesquely grandiose extension of US foreign policy.

But is the time now right to return to the Moon - not, this time, in a politically driven, publicly funded national gala, but in a long-term multilateral industrial venture based on solid commercial and scientific returns? David Schrunk, Burton Sharpe, Bonnie Cooper and Madhu Thangavelu believe it is, and this book is their manifesto.

A multidisciplinary team who met by chance at a 1994 conference on lunar exploration, the authors have a vision of the Moon as the ultimate out-of-town science park. Virtually all of the raw materials needed by any lunar colony are already there, they argue. And the technology needed to exploit them is available today. All that appears to be missing is the will.

Chemistry and the chemical industry would inevitably play a leading role in the colonisation and exploitation of the moon. Importing materials from Earth is prohibitively expensive, thanks to the $10,000/lb cost of carrying mass away from the home planet's gravitational clutches.

But all the elements needed for colonisation are available hidden in the regolith - the rubble of rock fragments and dust that covers the lunar surface. The challenge is the universal challenge of chemistry: how to manipulate those elements into useful molecular forms. The need to live off the land would fuel the development of a uniquely lunar chemical industry.

The regolith contains metals, minerals and oxygen, and inert elements such as helium and neon, useful for compressed gas and other applications. And a high concentration of helium-3 promises plentiful fuel for fusion reactors.

While few of the organic feedstocks of the terrestrial industry are available on the Moon, trace elements including carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen are constantly delivered by the solar wind. As earlier researchers noted, one cubic metre of regolith contains the chemical equivalent of lunch for two, with plenty of carbon and nitrogen left over.

The regolith can therefore provide the building blocks for the fatty acids, amino acids, vitamins, sugars, water and oxygen needed to support life, and for the whole portfolio of polymers and plastics.

A series of inorganic reactions can create simple organic molecules such as ethene and formaldehyde, which can then be built into basic foodstuffs and plastics. A small-scale industry encompassing organic chemistry, biochemistry and plastics could be founded in the first stages of colonisation - perhaps with automated production units landed on the surface to ensure a supply of these chemicals for the first human settlers.

Water is another basic requirement of any colony, and recent studies indicating the presence of up to six billion tonnes of ice bode well for colonisation plans. Data returned by the 1996 Clementine mission indicated that the regolith in the shadows of the lunar poles included a substantial fraction of ice. The subsequent Lunar Prospector mission confirmed this and, even more significantly, suggested the presence of vast seams of ice below the regolith.

This ice probably fell in a shower of meteorites, most of which contain some H2O. The permanently shadowed craters of the lunar poles provided ideal deep-frozen storage for this key resource, which Clementine team member Paul Spudis described as 'the most valuable piece of real estate in the solar system'.

This book presents a comprehensive overview of the peculiar challenges and opportunities presented by the industrial colonisation of the Moon. It covers a range of topics from power generation fusion reactors, photovoltaic cells or, most intriguingly, heat engines exploiting the 300K temperature difference between the lunar day and night - to lunar governance, including a less convincing advocacy of an 'engineering discipline of laws'.

The pharmaceutical and biotech industries get a relatively brief look-in with the observation that lunar laboratories would be ideal secluded environments for working with biohazardous materials. The authors also note that, once a colony had been well established, the Moon would be an ideal home for the physically disabled and elderly: one-sixth Earth gravity offers greater mobility and less chance of a bad fall.

All we need to return to the Moon is the will, and this book is designed to build that will. It is certainly an inspiring read, and would be enjoyed by fans of Stephen Baxter and Kim Stanley Robinson at least as much as by its target audience of students and space industry professionals.

The more evangelical passages tend to be somewhat gushing, and the authors show rather too much faith in the willingness of the private sector to commit resources to long-term, high-risk ventures, but their case is persuasive and, perhaps most importantly, visionary.

As John F Kennedy declared nearly 40 years ago when he committed the US to the first lunar landing: we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard. People have never been willing to remain in one place given the means to travel further afield, and it is, after all, a big universe out there. The question is, if not now, then when?