The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Lunar base illustration
International cooperation and private-sector cooperation will make the development of lunar bases like this more likely. (credit: NASA)

Pioneering the way out

Humanity is on the verge of an achievement that may be unique in the galaxy. The technology base we have built now allows us to extend the journey begun in the African savanna long ago into the Solar System. As is the human way, exploration will be followed by bases, true communities, and commerce. Before any of that can happen, however, we must find the economic and political structures that will support the technology.

The International Space Station (ISS) is once again in trouble. With the loss of Columbia and her crew and the subsequent grounding of the shuttle fleet, ISS runs the risk of being temporarily abandoned. NASA plans to have shuttles flying again soon, but that is not certain. The old workhorse Soyuz is the only way to reach ISS until shuttles are flying again, and the Russian financial situation makes regular Soyuz flights questionable, especially without rich tourists paying their way. A better system to get people into space must be developed.

This is but the latest crisis along a nineteen-year-long road for ISS during which its survival has been seriously questioned numerous times. Many argue ISS is primarily a political, not a scientific, project; because of the engineering compromises to accommodate many scientific fields, they argue, it is not an ideal platform for anything—and a project costing several tens of billions of dollars should certainly be “ideal” for something. Others say good science can and will be done on ISS, that, indeed, ISS will be a force in laying the foundation for twenty-first century breakthroughs.

So, who’s right? Perhaps as importantly now, can a manned space station dependent upon the space shuttle program be maintained? Is such a station a leap too far until we have a more reliable, less expensive surface-to-orbit transportation system?

Changing project, changing budget

To be more than a dead end, ISS must lead somewhere. Even if its facilities were to help open new vistas in pharmacological research, for example, how will that new knowledge be put to use? If microgravity manufacturing is required to take advantage of that knowledge, ISS lacks the resources necessary to support large-scale drug production; a pharmaceutical company wanting to pursue such drugs would have to start from scratch. Finding the capital to build an orbiting drug factory, manned or robotic, would almost certainly be beyond the ability of any single corporation. To take advantage of any discovery made on ISS would require a consortium.

Budgets are ways to manage projects to completion, whether the completed project is a space station or a new house in Pocatello. If the completed project keeps changing, and changing drastically, the budget will be of little use.

The ISS project has already pioneered one concept. The multinational group building the station will set a new standard in international cooperation if it operates this large project through the next two decades. That experience in bringing the needs of various partners together and managing such a complex enterprise may be as important as anything else we get from the project.

The tortured history of the project can be traced back to Ronald Reagan’s decision to build a new American space station. The escalating cost of the station is fundamentally the result of meeting constantly-changing budgets (an attempt which has largely failed) with a constantly-changing station design and focus while still meeting the desires of the participating nations. Budgets are ways to manage projects to completion, whether the completed project is a space station, a new house in Pocatello, or a fiscal year. If the completed project keeps changing, and changing drastically, the budget will be of little use. Throw in the fact that this project was attempted at a watershed in human history—the collapse of the Soviet Union, the subsequent reordering of international affairs, and the near collapse of the new Russian economy—and the miracle may be that anything is in orbit at all.

A successful ISS could suggest ways nations might approach political disputes on Earth. It can definitely lay the organizational and political groundwork for the next major push into space, this one beyond low Earth orbit.

Applying the ISS model to the Moon

The Moon beckons. As it has for decades, Luna offers a new world, one with vast mineral resources, energy pouring down on it from the Sun, and, we know now, one that likely has substantial amounts of water ice on or near the surface. The main obstacle in putting humans permanently on this new world has been the initial cost of such an effort. Combining the experience gained from managing ISS with the profit-making know-how of large and small private companies, however, could be the key to bringing the Moon, for so long in Earth orbit, into the human world forever.

NASA clearly would relish building a lunar base; the scientific promise is enormous. Probing the history of the Moon would deepen our fundamental understanding of the development of the Solar System and allow the development of technologies that will take us to Mars. Optical telescopes could be built to extraordinary size in the Moon’s low gravity, and, operating routinely in cloudless skies, could revolutionize once again our understanding of the universe. The far side of the Moon is the ideal place to site radio telescopes. Blocking the radio noise of Earth with the rocky body of the Moon itself, such radio telescopes would compliment the work of their optical cousins, and carry out the ultimate search for broadcast signals from extraterrestrial societies.

Such is the promise of building upon the ISS model. The current space transportation systems of the world pose a major problem, however. Demanding even more from a three-ship shuttle fleet that has already been flying for so long seems less than realistic. NASA and the larger space community recognize that. NASA had been trying to develop the successor to the shuttle for a few years. Recently, however, that program was abandoned due to budget overruns. Congress needs to finally back that effort with the funding necessary to do it correctly. If America is serious about sending astronauts into space, it must do all it can to give them the best chance of getting safely home. Flying a system for the foreseeable future that was fundamentally designed in the 1970s almost certainly cannot be said to do that, regardless of the number of internal upgrades the shuttles get.

President Bush’s new plan for the space program does call for the retirement of the shuttle fleet by 2010, development of a new human-rated spacecraft, and building a base on the Moon, for starters. Some experts project the new initiative, including flying humans to Mars, to cost $150-$200 billion, spread over twenty-five to thirty years. That’s not chump change, but neither is it unprecedented spending at the federal level. Compare that total to the expenditures for what will be roughly eighteen months of operations in Iraq, for example. Movement on the new plan since the speech, however, has been less than obvious. The Bush plan allowed for an international effort to reach its goal, but the President didn’t emphasize that approach. By bringing other nations into the project, though, the burden on the American taxpayer could be dramatically reduced and the benefits spread, strengthening the ties binding the partners together politically as well as economically.

Forging public-private partnerships

Corporations are also looking to the Moon as a new profit source. From projects to put a rover on the lunar surface that can be driven by armchair explorers on Earth to grand corporate visions of hotels in the magnificent crater Copernicus, there is no lack of moneymaking possibilities. By bringing the public and private sectors together, the Moon can be opened to both scientific research and economic boom.

By bringing other nations into the project, the burden on the American taxpayer could be dramatically reduced and the benefits spread, strengthening the ties binding the partners together politically as well as economically.

Forging a public-private partnership would allow us to pursue truly opening space to human endeavor. Of course, bringing corporations in as junior partners would mean governments would have to give up a certain amount of control, but the benefits would outweigh the loss. Corporations, for example, could earn the right to pursue profits beyond Earth by building vehicles and bases and probes at a reduced rate of profit, buying into a new business opportunity by aiding in keeping the budget of the overall project in line.

Solar power satellites are a potential source of plentiful and safe energy, but developing and deploying an SPS system will strain capital markets, probably too much for it to be done entirely by the private sector. Once factories are established there, the perfect place to build and launch solar power satellites will be the Moon. It has the resource base from which such satellites can be constructed, and the low gravity that would make getting them into space a veritable snap. (Indeed, one hundred years from now, if not sooner, lunar settlements will almost certainly be the main launch sites in the Earth-Moon system because of the low gravity and lack of heavy atmosphere.) Midwiving an SPS system through a development phase that will take decades will clearly require public sector support as well as private investment.

Studying biology on Earth, in the microgravity of ISS, and in the one-sixth terrestrial gravity of the Moon will allow scientists, for the first time, to factor out the effects gravity has on biology, perhaps leading to fundamental new insights on life itself. Again, the public sector has a place in the pursuit of such knowledge.

Capital needs legal protection. Corporations will not invest billions of dollars on a project unless that investment has some legal safeguards. Right now, space law is, to use an astronomical word, nebulous at best regarding property rights, the extraction of profits from operations on other worlds, etc. Having Earth’s major nations involved in such a consortium would not only stimulate efforts to clarify commercial space law, but also, simply by their presence in the consortium, give investors the confidence to put money into the projects.

The key to a successful public-private consortium dedicated to building and operating a lunar base may well be in how it structures the budgetary responsibilities of all the partners. For the governmental partners to maintain political support for the program, huge budget overruns will have to be guarded against. On the other hand, the corporate partners will no doubt want guarantees of steady funding levels by the governments involved, political swings notwithstanding. A mechanism for handling budget problems should be written into the agreement establishing the consortium.

The key to a successful public-private consortium dedicated to building and operating a lunar base may well be in how it structures the budgetary responsibilities of all the partners.

The Moon awaits, in all its desolate splendor. Opportunity awaits for people who have the vision and the ability to seize it. ISS, with its several nations working together, could and should be the first step out. A lunar base built by corporate partners seeking profits and public sector partners seeking progress and peaceful exploration could and should be the second. Such a base, however, and possibly the space station, will only become practical after we have cheap and systematic access to space. That is, after a more robust successor to the space shuttle is flying. An advanced system connecting humanity to Earth orbit will untie the final knot limiting us to our home world.

Beyond the Moon, Mars grabs the imagination, hopefully to be explored and settled following the lunar consortium model. And beyond Mars, urging us on, is an amazing human future.