By Harrison Schmitt, Chairman Of Interlune-Intermars Initiative, Inc. and Apollo 17 Astronaut before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee’s Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space on November 06, 2003
Apollo astronaut Harrison Schmitt (right) and CSSS Vice President Jim Plaxco at the 2007 International Space Development Conference.
The Apollo 17 mission on which I was privileged to fly in December 1972 was the most recent visit by human beings to the Moon, indeed to deep space. A return by Americans to the Moon at least 40 years after the end of the Apollo 17 mission probably would represent a commitment to return to stay. Otherwise, it is hard to imagine how a sustained commitment to return would develop in this country.
I must admit to being skeptical that the U.S. Government can be counted on to make such a “sustained commitment” absent unanticipated circumstances comparable to those of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Therefore, I have spent much of the last decade exploring what it would take for private investors to make such a commitment. At least it is clear that investors will stick with a project if presented to them with a credible business plan and a rate of return commensurate with the risk to invested capital. My colleagues at the Fusion Technology Institute of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Interlune-Intermars Initiative, Inc. believe that such a commercially viable project exists in lunar helium-3 used as a fuel for fusion electric power plants on Earth.
Global demand and need for energy will likely increase by at least a factor of eight by the mid-point of the 21st Century. This factor represents the total of a factor of two to stay even with population growth and a factor of four or more to meet the aspirations of people who wish to significantly improve their standards of living. There is another unknown factor that will be necessary to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change, whether warming or cooling, and the demands of new, energy intensive technologies.
Helium has two stable isotopes, helium 4, familiar to all who have received helium-filled balloons, and the even lighter helium 3. Lunar helium-3, arriving at the Moon as part of the solar wind, is imbedded as a trace, non-radioactive isotope in the lunar soils. It represents one potential energy source to meet this century’s rapidly escalating demand. There is a resource base of helium-3 of about 10,000 metric tonnes just in upper three meters of the titanium-rich soils of Mare Tranquillitatis. This was the landing region for Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11 in 1969. The energy equivalent value of Helium-3 delivered to operating fusion power plants on Earth would be about $4 billion per tonne relative to today’s coal. Coal, of course, supplies about half of the approximately $40 billion domestic electrical power market. These numbers illustrate the magnitude of the business opportunity for helium-3 fusion power to compete for the creation of new electrical capacity and the replacement of old plant during the 21st Century.
Past technical activities on Earth and in deep space provide a strong base for initiating this enterprise. Such activities include access to and operations in deep space as well as the terrestrial mining and surface materials processing industries. Also, over the last decade, there has been historic progress in the development of inertial electrostatic confinement (IEC) fusion at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Progress there includes the production of over a milliwatt of steady-state power from the fusion of helium-3 and deuterium. Steady progress in IEC research as well as basic physics argues strongly that the IEC approach to fusion power has significantly more commercial viability than other technologies pursued by the fusion community.
It will have inherently lower capital costs, higher energy conversion efficiency, a range of power from a few hundred megawatts upward, and little or no associated radioactivity or radioactive waste. It should be noted, however, that IEC research has received no significant support as an alternative to Tokamak-based fusion from the Department of Energy in spite of that Department’s large fusion technology budgets. The Office of Science and Technology Policy under several Administrations also has ignored this approach.
On the question of international law relative to outer space, specifically the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, that law is permissive relative to properly licensed and regulated commercial endeavors. Under the 1967 Treaty, lunar resources can be extracted and owned, but national sovereignty cannot be asserted over the mining area. If the Moon Agreement of 1979, however, is ever submitted to the Senate for ratification, it should be deep sixed. The uncertainty that this Agreement would create in terms of international management regimes would make it impossible to raise private capital for a return to the Moon for helium-3 and would seriously hamper if not prevent a successful initiative by the United States Government.
The general technologies required for the success of this enterprise are known. Mining, extraction, processing, and transportation of helium-3 to Earth requires innovations in engineering, particularly in light-weight, robotic mining systems, but no known new engineering concepts. By-products of lunar helium-3 extraction, largely hydrogen, oxygen, and water, have large potential markets in space and ultimately will add to the economic attractiveness of this business opportunity. Inertial electrostatic confinement (IEC) fusion technology appears be the most attractive and least capital intensive approach to terrestrial fusion power plants, although engineering challenges of scaling remain for this technology. Heavy lift launch costs comprise the largest cost uncertainty facing initial business planning, however, many factors, particularly long term production contracts, promise to lower these costs into the range of $1-2000 per kilogram versus about $70,000 per kilogram fully burdened for the Apollo Saturn V rocket.
A business enterprise based on lunar resources will be driven by cost considerations to minimize the number of humans required for the extraction of each unit of resource. Humans will be required, on the other hand, to prevent costly breakdowns of semi-robotic mining, processing, and delivery systems, to provide manual back-up to robotic or tele-robotic operation, and to support human activities in general. On the Moon, humans will provide instantaneous observation, interpretation, and assimilation of the environment in which they work and in the creative reaction to that environment. Human eyes, experience, judgment, ingenuity, and manipulative capabilities are unique in and of themselves and highly additive in synergistic and spontaneous interaction with instruments and robotic systems (see Appendix A).
Thus, the next return to the Moon will approach work on the lunar surface very pragmatically with humans in the roles of exploration geologist, mining geologist/engineer, heavy equipment operator/engineer, heavy equipment/robotic maintenance engineer, mine manager, and the like. During the early years of operations the number of personnel will be about six per mining/processing unit plus four support personnel per three mining/processing units. Cost considerations also will drive business to encourage or require personnel to settle, provide all medical care and recreation, and conduct most or all operations control on the Moon.
The creation of capabilities to support helium-3 mining operations also will provide the opportunity to support NASA’s human lunar and planetary research at much reduced cost, as the cost of capital for launch and basic operations will be carried by the business enterprise. Science thus will be one of several ancillary profit centers for the business, but at a cost to scientists much below that of purely scientific effort to return to the Moon or explore Mars. Technology and facilities required for success of a lunar commercial enterprise, particularly heavy lift launch and fusion technologies, also will enable the conduct, and reduce the cost of many space activities in addition to science. These include exploration and settlement of Mars, asteroid interception and diversion, and various national security initiatives.
It is doubtful that the United States or any government will initiate or sustain a return of humans to the Moon absent a comparable set of circumstances as those facing the Congress and Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson in the late 1950s and throughout 1960s. Huge unfunded “entitlement” liabilities and a lack of sustained media and therefore public interest will prevent the long-term commitment of resources and attention that such an effort requires. Even if tax-based funding commitments could be guaranteed, it is not a foregone conclusion that the competent and disciplined management system necessary to work in deep space would be created and sustained.
If Government were to lead a return to deep space, the NASA of today is probably not the agency to undertake a significant new program to return humans to deep space, particularly the Moon and then to Mars. NASA today lacks the critical mass of youthful energy and imagination required for work in deep space. It also has become too bureaucratic and too risk-adverse. Either a new agency would needed to implement such a program or NASA would need to be totally restructured using the lessons of what has worked and has not worked since it was created 45 years ago. Of particular importance would be for most of the agency to be made up of engineers and technicians in their 20s and managers in their 30s, the re-institution of design engineering activities in parallel with those of contractors, and the streamlining of management responsibility. The existing NASA also would need to undergo a major restructuring and streamlining of its program management, risk management, and financial management structures. Such total restructuring would be necessary to re-create the competence and discipline necessary to operate successfully in the much higher risk and more complex deep space environment relative to that in near-earth orbit. Most important for a new NASA or a new agency would be the guarantee of a sustained political (financial) commitment to see the job through and to not turn back once a deep space operational capability exists once again or accidents happen. At this point in history, we cannot count on the Government for such a sustained commitment. This includes not under-funding the effort – a huge problem still plaguing the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station, and other current and past programs. That is why I have been looking to a more predictable commitment from investors who have been given a credible business plan and a return on investment commensurable with the risk.
Attaining a level of sustaining operations for a core business in fusion power and lunar resources requires about 10-15 years and $10-15 billion of private investment capital as well as the successful interim marketing and profitable sales related to a variety of applied fusion technologies. The time required from start-up to the delivery of the first 100 kg years supply to the first operating 1000 megawatt fusion power plant on Earth will be a function of the rate at which capital is available, but probably no less than 10 years. This schedule also depends to some degree on the U.S. Government being actively supportive in matters involving taxes, regulations, and international law but no more so than is expected for other commercial endeavors. If the U.S. Government also provided an internal environment for research and development of important technologies, investors would be encouraged as well. As you are aware, the precursor to NASA, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), provided similar assistance and antitrust protection to aeronautics industry research during most of the 20th Century.
In spite of the large, long-term potential return on investment, access to capital markets for a lunar 3He and terrestrial fusion power business will require a near-term return on investment, based on early applications of IEC fusion technology (10). Business plan development for commercial production and use of lunar Helium-3 requires a number of major steps all of which are necessary if long investor interest is to be attracted and held to the venture. The basic lunar resource endeavor would require a sustained commitment of investor capital for 10 to 15 years before there would be an adequate return on investment, far to long to expect to be competitive in the world’s capital markets. Thus, “business bridges” with realistic and competitive returns on investment in three to five years will be necessary to reach the point where the lunar energy opportunity can attract the necessary investment capital. They include PET isotope production at point-of-use, therapeutic medical isotope production independent of fission reactors, nuclear waste transmutation, and mobile land mine and other explosive detection. Once fusion energy break even is exceeded, mobile, very long duration electrical power sources will be possible. These business bridges also should advance the development of the lunar energy technology base if at all possible.
A business and investor based approach to a return to the Moon to stay represents a clear alternative to initiatives by the U.S. Government or by a coalition of other countries. Although not yet certain of success, a business-investor approach, supported by the potential of lunar Helium-3 fusion power, and derivative technologies and resources, offers the greatest likelihood of a predictable and sustained commitment to a return to deep space.
Appendix A: Space Exploration And Development – Why Humans?
The term “space exploration” implies the exploration of the Moon, planets and asteroids, that is, “deep space,” in contrast to continuing human activities in Earth orbit. Human activities in Earth orbit have less to do with exploration and more to do with international commitments, as in the case of the Space Station, and prestige and technological development, as in the case of China and Russia. There are also research opportunities, not fully recognized even after 40 years, that exploit the opportunities presented by being in Earth orbit.
Deep space exploration has been and should always be conducted with the best combination of human and robotic techniques. Many here will argue the value of robotics. I will just say that any data collection that can be successfully automated at reasonable cost should be. In general, human being’s should not waste their time with activities such as surveying, systematic photography, and routine data collection. Robotic precursors into situations of undefined or uncertain risk also are clearly appropriate.
Direct human exploration, however, offers exceptional benefits that robotic exploration currently cannot and probably will not duplicate in the foreseeable future, certainly not at competitive costs. What we are really talking about here is the value of field geology. Many of my scientific colleagues, including the late Carl Sagan, have made the argument that everything we learned scientifically from Apollo exploration could have been done robotically. Not only do the facts not support this claim, but such individuals and groups have never been forced to cost out such a robotic exploration program. I submit that robotic duplication of the vast scientific return of human exploration of six sites on the Moon would cost far more that the approximately $7 billion spent on science and probably more than the $100 million total cost of Apollo. Those are estimates in today’s dollars.
What do human’s bring to the table?
First, there is the human brain – a semi-quantitative super computer, with hundreds of millions years of research and development behind it and several million years of accelerated refinement based on the requirements for survival of our genus. This brain is both programmable and instantly re-programmable on the basis of training, experience, and preceding observations.
Fourth, there are human emotions – the spontaneous reaction to the exploration environment that brings creativity to bear on any new circumstance, opportunity, or problem. Human emotions also are the basis for public interest in support of space exploration, interest beyond that which can be engendered by robotic exploration. Human emotions further create the very special bond that space exploration has with young people, both those of all ages in school and those who wish to participate directly in such exploration.
Fifth, there is the natural urge of the human species to expand its accessible habitats and thus enhance the probability of its long-term survival. Deep space exploration by humans provides the foundations for long-term survival through the settlement of the Moon and Mars in this century and the Galaxy in the next.
Second, there are the human eyes – a high resolution, stereo optical system of extraordinary dynamic range that also have resulted from hundreds of millions of years of trial and error. Integrated with the human brain, this system continuously adjusts to the changing optical and intellectual environment encountered during exploration of new situations. In that sense, field geological and biological exploration is little different from many other types of scientific research where integration of the eyes and brain are essential parts of successful inquires into the workings of Nature.
Third, there are the human hands – a highly dexterous and sensitive bio-mechanical system also integrated with the human brain as well as the human eyes and also particularly benefiting from several million years of recent development. We so far have grossly under utilized human hands during space exploration, but the potential is there to bring them fully to bear on future activities possibly through integration with robotic extensions or micro-mechanical device integration into gloves.
Finally, there is a special benefit to deep space exploration by Americans – the continual transplantation of the institutions of freedom to those human settlements on the Moon and Mars. This is our special gift and our special obligation to the future.