NASA Science Missions Can Jump-Start the Lunar Economy
However, changes are necessary if we want our activities on the Moon to be sustainable.
Buy local. A familiar phrase. But when the next closest store is 240,000 miles away, buying local takes on a whole new meaning.
As we head back to the Moon, this time to stay, sourcing as many of the raw materials, products and services as possible locally (at the Moon) won’t just be a good idea, it’ll be essential. Otherwise, we won’t be staying for very long.
High Launch Costs Create Lunar Incentive
Shipping charges to the Moon are astronomical (sorry, couldn’t resist), so there’s a lot of incentive and opportunity to make the things we need out of the local (lunar) materials.
In addition, services will be just as important to source locally. The more economic activity that takes place on the Moon, the more likely we’ll be able to make our presence there financially sustainable, growing and permanent.
Every scrap of economic activity is important as we push the limits to make our lunar and Mars aspirations economically viable. Congress only has so much funding for NASA. Creating an in-space economy, based on the local resources, is how we’ll grow past the limitations of NASA’s budget.
Integrated vs. Unintegrated
Lunar science missions can be an important jump-start for this economic activity. If we deconstruct and then commercially integrate these missions, there will be an even bigger impact.
For example, an unintegrated science mission could be a rover that drives to a location, drills down into the lunar regolith, analyzes the material, and then processes it to demonstrate water extraction.
An integrated version of this same mission might be to break it up into four separate projects that work together in a commercial manner. One project is a drill. The second is a material analyzer. The third is a material processor that extracts water. The fourth is a rover capable of moving payloads (drill rig, regolith, analyzer, processor). Each is a separate business that purchases the service or raw material of the other. Just as before, water extraction is demonstrated.
Both approaches meet the science objectives. However, the commercially integrated version also creates a marketplace on the Moon. That’s economic activity on the Moon. This is an important step as we try to maximize the chances our presence on the Moon will be sustainable.
Here are some other possible benefits:
- Smaller cost, less complexity per individual project. Easier to raise funds/attract investors.
- Each is a focused capability that can be made more robust, reliable and long-lived.
- Lowered costs for other missions when they use these existing capabilities.
- Increased versatility and flexibility for creating new missions.
- More opportunities for a larger number of people and businesses.
- Congress and the public/voters see immediate, relatable benefits…beyond research.
Unwise to Wait
In conclusion, we need to transform our science missions to not just collect data, but to do so in a way that concurrently creates a lunar economy. The eventual establishment of a full-scale commercial lunar water/fuel depot will hopefully be one of the groundbreaking results of these science missions…years down the road. But we don’t have to wait for that result.
The lunar economy can, and should, start now.
- Updated November 27, 2019. Removed info relating to Space Centric Memberships, which we no longer offer.