Preserving the Wilderness – of the Moon?

by Daniel Brenton on October 30, 2011

in Space

Should we declare the Moon the celestial equivalent of a national park, or strip mine it to the core for everything it’s worth?

One small step ...

Start: Recently, an article from Digital Journal, “China could own the Moon by 2026, U.S. space entrepreneur warns,” caught the attention of a Facebook friend, Sue Spencer Mitchell, and prompted a lengthy discussion: should we preserve the wilderness — on the Moon?

In the article, aerospace entrepreneur Robert Bigelow makes the case that China, with their eyes on becoming a world power in the heavens, may soon take the lead in exploiting space, and specifically the resources of the Moon.

Susan’s argument is, basically, that she would hate to look up in the sky at night and think of our celestial sister, a source of wonder since before the human race was even capable of it, degraded into a a colossal strip mine or nuclear waste dump in the sky.

Even though I’m a hardened space program buff, Susan’s sentiment is not lost on me. The Moon has been a presence in our collective consciousness for the entire existence of our species, a companion to which we have deified as a goddess in numerous cultures through the ages. We have attributed its influence over the menstrual cycle (Menses, from the Latin mensis [month], which in turn comes to us from the Old English mona and the Gothic mena: moon). Less seriously, we honor it as an object of romance for swooning couples.

And ask any police officer — they’ll tell you the time of the full Moon, for whatever reason, is consistently a time of greater lunacy.

So, here we are in the 21st Century, being given this dire warning that the Evil Empire of China will take the Moon away from us and rape it/her for whatever it/she has to offer.

(That is … before the rest of the world has the chance to do likewise?)

Should the lunar wilderness be protected?

Protecting the Moon

Oddly, or maybe not so oddly, NASA is in the process of declaring the landing sites of Apollos 11 and 17 off limits so that “we can inspect them historically and scientifically.”

This, however, is only a few acres on a world the size of Europe and Africa combined. Other than this, what is there to protect?

Other than a cultural attachment to regarding our neighbor in space with an intangible sentimental value, the only thing this writer can think of is if the Moon harbors life of any kind. Considering the harsh conditions of the Lunar environment — temperature swings from 280 degrees Fahrenheit above to 243 below, intense radiation in the two-week lunar “day,” and an atmosphere so tenuous that for practical purposes it doesn’t exist — the chances of life existing there would seem remote.

Of the 842 pounds of lunar material from six different locations returned to the Earth by the Apollo project, none of it has shown any sign of any indigenous life, certainly as we understand it. However, biological researchers are constantly finding life clinging to existence in the most torturous of terrestrial environments, and with the confirmation of the presence of water ice at the lunar south pole through NASA’s LCROSS Mission, it would be premature to close the book on the subject, just yet.

Making the assumption that there is no life on the Moon — or, if there is, no one in power to decide the Moon’s fate who cares anyway — the task of exploiting the Moon is still nothing to be considered lightly.

The Moon as a Nuclear Waste Dump

Turn the Moon into a nuclear waste dump? This idea has been floated from time to time — and Gerry Anderson Productions did this in their completely forgettable science fiction television series Space 1999 — but otherwise this is not very likely. No, not very likely at all.

As scientist Michio Kaku pointed out in 2009, it costs about $10,000 to put a single pound into orbit, and about ten times this amount to land anything on the Moon. Now, if we wanted to simply throw it at the Moon, we’re still talking at a value somewhere in between.

With the home page of the Department of Energy site studiously scrubbed of any reference of nuclear energy (the same agency responsible for the abandoned Yucca Mountain Project), I had to in fact resort to Google to find anything meaningful on the subject, and found a National Geographic article for information, “Half Life—The Lethal Legacy of America’s Nuclear Waste.” The article notes that, just for starters, we have roughly 52,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel to deal with.

Taking a step further, I found this page at the U.S. Transportation Council website, where a fact sheet describes the typical transportation “casks” for spent nuclear fuel (SNF).

A generic truck transportation cask for SNF weighs 50,000 pounds (25 tons), and one for rail five times that. Assuming something like the truck cask would suffice for transportation of SNF into space, there are only a handful of rockets that can loft one into Earth orbit, and none that could shoot this in the general direction of the Moon. (The old Saturn V could have sent roughly two of these into deep space per launch, but the last one of these rockets was made nearly half a century ago.) This kind of cask can only handle four pressurized water reactor fuel assemblies, or nine boiling water reactor fuel assemblies, either of which appears to be less than half of the overall weight of the package.

The bottom line is that it would take literally thousands of rocket launches to get this material off of our planet, thousands of launches of a rocket that does not exist.

Now, think about this — even if we had the ability to dispose of nuclear waste in this manner, would Liberal and Green activists let this happen? (This portable document format report available at the FAA website mentions the protests surrounding the launch of the Jupiter space probe Galileo, which was contested because of its use of nuclear material in small radioisotopic thermoelectric generators.)

I think, given the refusal to deal with or address anything related to the nuclear industry expressed by the politics of the country at this time, this is probably less likely than finding life on the Moon.

Strip Mining the Moon

However, as unlikely as using the Moon as a nuclear waste dump is, we might, for the right treasure, start strip mining it.

Given the cost of sending anything to the Moon and bringing it back at this time, whatever this treasure might be, it would have to be thousands of times more precious than gold.

And, as it turns out, we have a candidate for such a thing: an isotope of Helium known as Helium-3. Helium-3 has been proposed as a fuel for thermonuclear fusion, a cleaner, safer form of nuclear energy. Thermonuclear fusion has been demonstrated and research in it has made a number of breakthroughs, but fusion still at the point where it isn’t anywhere near cost effective. Some experts are suggesting this break even point is still half a century away.

The Moon, though, is an obvious source for this fuel. Because of the radioactive decay of rare earths, the ratio of normal Helium (Helium-4) to Helium-3 in the Earth’s mantle is about 300 parts Helium-3 to a million parts Helium-4. The Moon is about 100 times richer in the isotope, as are some of the other planets. Comets are also a likely source, being composed mostly of ices.

And where do we find the Helium-3 on the Moon? Apparently, it’s just laying around. The lunar regolith (“soil”) would be processed for the material, in a strip mining effort portrayed with some accuracy in the recent Duncan Jones film, Moon. 100,000 million tons of regolith would have to be processed to collect a ton of the isotope, though the mining of lunar ice might be a better alternative.

Another cost effective break-even point is if the material could be returned cheaply enough to the Earth to make it worth the effort. In this article in Wired from 2006, Jim Benson, founder of space contractor SpaceDev, calculated that it would take more energy to get Helium-3 back from the Moon that we would get out of it. I do not know the basis of his estimate, though I do wonder if eventually some kind of infrastructure could be established on the Moon that making the collection and transportation of the isotope more cost-efficient.

I must confess Helium-3 is something close to my heart — as close as any inert element could be, I suppose — because the isotope was the “McGuffin” of the novel I co-wrote, Red Moon. Unfortunately, the basic story line of Red Moon has been overtaken by events in the real world — a “driver” to part of the story was the question of the existence of ice on the Moon at all.

The vision of the Moon being surface-mined for a precious and rare isotope is, in my estimation, the most likely possibility of exploitation of the Moon in the foreseeable future. The sheer financial return from Helium 3 would make it the only thing I’m aware of that would make mining the Moon viable.

Posturing, Anyone?

One small step ...Realistically, what Bigelow is doing is employing what are basically scare tactics for America to move in the direction of needing the services his business can provide. The “Dean of Science Fiction” Robert Heinlein used just these same arguments sixty years ago (mostly using the Soviet Union as the Evil Empire) in both his novella “The Man Who Sold the Moon,” and in his contribution to the George Pal film Destination Moon. A decade later, Heinlein painted a vivid and technically plausible picture in his novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress of the destruction of major cities on the Earth by boulders launched by rebels in control of Moon-based railguns. These are evocative arguments, and may have in fact helped Wernher von Braun sell Moon flight to the American people.

Given the economic realities of commercial space travel in the present — and the lack of vision of the leaders of the world powers — I seriously doubt that we will see the meaningful industrialization of space in the lifetimes of anyone living today.

Though, in all fairness, given the belligerence of the human species, we ignore the long-term possibilities at our peril. I am not blind: China crushed Tibet without even a hint of remorse despite the outcries of the rest of the world, and I doubt it would show any mercy to any power for which it has no need.

So, save for a few probes and maybe a scattering of new footprints, I suspect for the next century the Moon will remain aloof, distant, scarcely any different than the Moon our prehistoric ancestors beheld in puzzled wonderment millions of years ago.

I can only hope (and maybe even pray) that when the human race finally has the technological prowess to truly conquer the Moon, it will do so for not for the prevailing world power at the time, but for the betterment of all humankind.

We can only hope.

• • •

Copyright © 2011, by Daniel Brenton. All Rights Reserved.

End

Evan October 31, 2011 at 12:23 am

We can hope. The treaty over Antarctica perhaps gives optimism, encouragement.

Daniel Brenton October 31, 2011 at 2:14 am

Evan —

Thanks for the visit, and the comment.

I was only vaguely aware of the Antarctic treaty, and now both you and Ari Herzog (over on Facebook) have brought it up.

I see by this Wikipedia article that China is one of the 48 signatories. So, yes, this is an encouraging sign.

– Daniel

TomR October 31, 2011 at 4:57 am

Interesting article, Daniel! I have a couple of thoughts.

Not sure if you remembered about Arthur Clarke’s vision of Space Elevators, but if they work & are implemented, they’d significantly lower the cost per pound of space launch. Most of what I’ve read about space exploration still holds the Moon in an enviable ‘jumping-off point’ to exploring our solar system, mostly because of available material and lower gravity.

While the Moon does have significant sentimental & emotional meaning to us, I believe that mining asteroids would cause much less of a backlash and be just as profitable. The Moon could be used as a “catcher” for a very simple asteroid recovery & processing program. Aim for the dark side. No one will see…

And, though you may poo-poo the old Space:1999 series, I still wants me an Eagle. Direct descendant of the 2001 moon buggy. Seriously, that was the best thing on the show! ;^)

Daniel Brenton October 31, 2011 at 12:12 pm

Tom —

Yes, I thought about going into the Space Elevator concept, but it seemed like a side-track here. I believe we are about at the point where there are materials of sufficient tensile strength to do this, but the bottom line there is that this is a ginormous undertaking. I did read Clarke’s novel about building a space elevator (The Fountains of Paradise) but he took a few liberties — one being that he set this on the island of Sri Lanka, but moved the island several hundred miles south to the equator. The elevator would need to be anchored somewhere very close to the equator in a geologically stable area, and a quick glance at a map suggests South America and central Africa. Given that, the first obstacle is the politics of it. Another huge obstacle is what to do with all the satellites orbiting the Earth under geosynchronous altitude — do we zap them all out of orbit somehow, escort them to a higher level, learn how to flex the tower to avoid them, or a combination of the above? Despite all this, the end result — having a sort of vertical “railway” to space — would be one worthy of our species and usher in an era of us being a true space-faring society.

And, I agree, comets would probably be a better source of Helium-3. Given the sophistication we’ve been demonstrating with the use of celestial mechanics on space probes, we might be able to capture these things into Earth orbit and mine them more easily.

And, yes, I watched Space 1999 faithfully, though I wonder if I was being a bit masochistic in doing so. I’ve always liked the hardware associated with Gerry Anderson’s productions (all the way back to … eh hem …Supercar), but the writing and acting of Space 1999 were just abysmal. The first season attempted to be as cosmic as 2001 every week, and the second season tried to be an action adventure series. I’m afraid the stacked improbabilities of the series did it in for me — the premise, for starters, was that a huge explosion of the nuclear waste dumps on the Moon sent the Moon out of orbit and roaming through other solar systems. 1.) Nuclear waste doesn’t just “blow up;” 2.) Any impulse powerful enough to move the Moon out of Earth (and the Sun’s) orbit would probably pulverize it, if not vaporize it; 3.) The Moon would have to wind up moving at relativistic speeds to reach these other solar systems in anything less than a human lifetime, and if it was, how would those (admittedly pretty cool) Eagles have enough velocity change ability to make a reconnaissance flight of any of those planets they kept running into?

Not to be a killjoy, but, in my humble opinion, there’s a level of internal logic you have to reach in order to achieve “the willing suspension of disbelief,” and Space 1999 failed in that regard miserably.

Thanks for stopping by.

– Daniel

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