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Lunar base illustration
International efforts to support lunar development could kickstart development of a far larger space economy. (credit: NASA/John Frassanito and Associates)

The International Lunar Decade: Scenarios for long term collaboration in space development

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“Fundamental research and Moon and Mars missions are very expensive. We can solve many more tasks if we act together and save our budgets.” – Igor Komarov, Director Roscosmos1

In late March, Russian media reported that there was an agreement between NASA and Roscosmos to build a next generation space station involving existing ISS partners as well as additional ones—one must assume China, India, Korea, Brazil, or other states with space capabilities and ambitions. The next day, Rusian Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin, to whom Roscosmos reports, stated that no decision had been made. NASA also made a statement denying a deal, but welcoming interest in long term collaboration.

What if, though, the US, Russia, and other partners were to discuss the possibilities of broader collaboration in space development, perhaps as far ranging as envisioned in the proposed International Lunar Decade (ILD)?

What is the ILD?

The ILD is an initiative of the International Lunar Exploration Working Group (ILEWG),2 the National Space Society (NSS),3 and the FOTONIKA-LV research center of the University of Latvia.4 ILD is an emerging vision for building the foundations for a permanent human presence beyond Earth orbit. The ILD came into focus at the November 2014 conference The Next Giant Leap: Leveraging Lunar Assets for Sustainable Pathways to Space and was documented in the International Lunar Decade Declaration that resulted from the conference.5 The Declaration is a living document subject to change as the vision of ILD deepens, gains specificity and evolves with the inclusion of more groups and perspectives.

The focus of the ILD initiative is the industrial development of the Moon and of cislunar space.

ILD provides a framework for international collaboration in the concurrent development of policies, technologies, infrastructures, and financing methods required for the emergence of a sustainable space economy beyond Earth orbit. While the space economy is multifaceted and already exceeds $300 billion in annual revenue, there is as yet no commercial activity in space beyond Earth orbit.6

The recent Pioneering Space Summit in Washington, DC, reached this consensus:

“The long term goal of the human spaceflight and exploration program of the United States is to expand permanent human presence beyond low-Earth orbit and to do so in a way that will enable human settlement and a thriving space economy. This will be best achieved through public – private partnerships and international collaboration.”7

Permanent human presence in space becomes possible only if a self-sustaining economy emerges in space with the potential to generate net positive value from aggregate investment in technologies, facilities, human development, space launch, transportation, communications, and other costs of operation. The ILD provides a framework to guide collaboration required to achieve the breakthrough to a self-sustaining space economy that is necessary for permanent human presence beyond Earth orbit.

The focus of the ILD initiative is the industrial development of the Moon and of cislunar space. Industrial development means creating the capacity for repeated production of goods and services reliably with predictable costs and profitability. The development of Infrastructures and technologies required to achieve the breakthrough to a sustainable space economy will enable declining costs and increased reliability and safety for space exploration and space operations within the Earth-Moon system as well as to Mars and beyond.

If fuel, water and other consumables, as well as spacecraft structures and components, can be produced from lunar or asteroid material, the cost to lift such material out of the gravity well of the Earth can be avoided. This would generate economic activity in space. If activity in space can also meet major critical needs on Earth, this would directly generate cash needed to expand the space economy further into the solar system.

Asteroids may be discovered that are composed of rare and critically needed materials. But even the materials common in the lunar regolith could be a gamechanger, if processing methods can be commercially scaled to produce solar arrays at exponentially decreasing costs. Space-based solar power (SSP) was first proposed by Peter Glaser in 1968 but, despite subsequent serious analysis by NASA and others, a clear competitive advantage over terrestrial alternatives like nuclear power has not yet been demonstrated. However, if SSP components do not have to be launched from Earth, costs for SSP could be reduced significantly, until some natural limit is reached. Fabrication of solar arrays from lunar regolith could lead to meeting the needs for electrical power on Earth, one of the greatest challenges facing humnanuty as the advance of climate change forces rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Peter Schubert has secured patents covering technologies to process lunar regolith.8 Scenarios for development could include first securing the energy needs for operations on the Moon and in space and then addressing high-value applications such as disaster relief and military needs on Earth. Only then would SSP systems be developed to address baseload power needs where very competitive power generation costs are be required. The National Space Society has developed an extensive library of resources on SSP.9

The cost of activities in space and international collaboration

Getting to space has cost as much per kilogram as the most precious substances. Operating in space is extremely expensive and dangerous. The cost of human operations in space can only be covered by the very largest and technically advanced economies until a competitive economy emerges beyond Earth orbit.

Concerns about the cost of space exploration are not new and date to the early years of the space age. The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and US President Kennedy were in discussions regarding collaboration in space in 1962, as NASA documents note:10

…the President saw that the U.S. and the Soviet Union had a peculiar responsibility to lead the way toward international cooperation. As a consequence, Kennedy said that he had asked certain members of his administration to prepare “new and concrete proposals for immediate projects of common action” that he hoped would be discussed by representatives from the two countries at an early date “in a spirit of practical cooperation.”

The vision of the ILD is to foster international collaboration that leads towards the industrial development of the Moon and cislunar space that enables the emergence of a self-sustaining space economy.

The international collaboration that shaped the International Space Station (ISS) is a response to the high cost of space activities. By pooling the financial and scientific contributions of international partners, the cost to each partner was significantly less. While a government-centric approach to design and development led to an explosion of costs, this needs to be put into historical perspective. The $150 billion invested in ISS thus far by the five space agency partners has yielded a cost per person day thus far of $7.6 million, compared to the person-day cost of $19.6 million for Skylab. Competitive pressures are driving down anticipated launch costs that will favorably affect ISS operating costs in the coming decade.11 ESA has calculated that its contribution of $8 billion over a decade has cost each EU resident 1 euro per year, or less than the average cost of a cup of coffee in most of Europe.12

As space launch and space operations become industrialized with greater frequency of launch, coupled with the advent of reusability, launch costs can be expected to decline by an order of magnitude and more13 for most classes of payloads. The exception will be the very largest launch vehicles, much of whose high cost per kilogram is due to low frequency of launches for major government-directed missions.

The vision of the ILD is to foster international collaboration that leads towards the industrial development of the Moon and cislunar space that enables the emergence of a self-sustaining space economy. ILD is intended to provide a framework for concurrent development of policy, technologies, and infrastructures to enable industrial development. Industrial development will lead to the emergence of space goods and services that can be traded with increasing returns on investment as well as enable the emergence of a competitive economic model for space beyond Earth orbit. Business competition will drive reductions in cost with increased performance that will increase utilization of space assets and open opportunities to more players across an increasingly diversified field of economic activities. As lunar and cislunar activities become increasingly routine, industrialized risks and direct costs will come down, with rising opportunities attracting more investors.

It is very important to develop good models for the emergence of the lunar/cislunar economy to help guide the development of better development roadmaps. Where should funds from participating governments be directed to advance enabling technologies and infrastructures to enable the emergence of a self-sustaining space economy? What is the superhighway to prosperity in space that needs to be constructed with public funds to foster rapid development of space commerce? These are questions that will be explored in many conferences in the coming years as the ILD process deepens.

Historical antecedents

An International Lunar Decade was launched in 2007 to cover the period through 2019, with the starting date marking 50 years since the International Geophysical Year (IGY) that was the start of the Space Age. IGY emerged from the international collaboration that was made possible after the death of Stalin in 1953. IGY involved over 60 countries and left a legacy of organizations and collaborative networks that continue to play a vital role in advancing science and human progress. ILD was first proposed by the Planetary Society in 2006.14 ILD 2007–2017 gained the endorsement of COSPAR, the International Lunar Exploration Working Group, and other space-oriented organizations. ILD 2007–2017 had significant goals for collaboration in lunar exploration that were largely met facilitated by the coordination provided by ILEWG.15,16

Future scenarios

Consider the following three scenarios regarding the new ILD:


If ILD does not gain COPUOS endorsement and the UN General Assembly does not sanction ILD as a global initiative, intense international collaboration anticipated by it will not take place. However, significant international collaboration in lunar exploration and lunar development is highly likely, but may not include the US given the present NASA policy that does not anticipate significant lunar activities. If the US and or other major spacefaring powers do not support an intensive ILD, endorsement by COPUOS would be unlikely. Depending on the attractiveness of specific ventures and missions and the persuasive skills of the people involved some of the highest potential projects will still get done. There is a high likelihood of a human landing on the Moon, but by countries other than the United States.

Expected results:

  • No defined process to resolve issues key to commercial development beyond the Earth, such as property rights.
  • No process to develop a governance regime for space activities beyond Earth orbit beyond the voluntary, non-binding activities of the International Space Exploration Control Group (ISECG)
  • No pooling of resources to develop enabling technologies and shared cislunar and lunar infrastructure.
  • No process to involve the public at large to build support for human expansion into the solar system.
  • No process to build the spacefaring capabilities of states with modest or emerging space capabilities.

It is conceivable that the aggregate investment in space activities beyond Earth orbit may even exceed what could take place with ILD due to competition among spacefaring powers. However, the impact towards creation of a self-sustaining space economy and progress towards permanent human presence in space is likely to be significantly less than would take place with intense international collaboration through the framework of the ILD.

B. ILD funded at ISS levels ($150 billion in 2010 dollars invested over 10 years)

This baseline scenario assumes that ILD receives the support of COPUOS and of the UN General Assembly with multiple initiatives undertaken at international, state, and regional levels as well as technical bodies such as COSPAR, ISECG, ILEWG, and others. Key matters such as policy development relating to property rights on the Moon and other bodies in the solar system, or long-term financing for space infrastructure development, may require the formation of working groups or commissions established for those specific purposes. In the spirit of heightened international collaboration, the main spacefaring powers choose to fund an ILD program that includes concurrent development of technologies, infrastructures, policies, and funding mechanisms to drive towards achievement of a self-sustaining space economy beyond Earth orbit. Other states would be invited to participate with a level of financial commitment commensurate with their level of involvement.

Expected results:

  • ILD provides a defined process to resolve property rights and other issues required to develop a self-sustaining economy beyond Earth orbit.
  • ILD pools resources from participating states and commercial business and directs resources aimed at achieving strategic objectives and roadmap milestones in the development of enabling technologies and infrastructures needed for industrial development of the Moon and cislunar space.
  • ILD provides an open, supportive environment for competitive development of industries and business in space.

What could be achieved with an aggregate ten-year investment of $150 billion (2010 dollars), roughly comparable to the investment in ISS? We can assume launch costs an order of magnitude less that the aggregate costs of operating the Space Shuttle to build ISS. Possibly as much as ten times the payload could be launched, or a significant portion of the potential budget could be used to develop specialized transport vehicles from Earth orbit to the Moon as well as to develop the capacity to process lunar water for fuel as well as other capabilities. Where ISS has a crew of six, facilities relating to ILD in cislunar space and on the Moon could easily be an order of magnitude more by the end of ILD. Additionally, with 3-D printing and vastly improved computing and communications capabilities, each invested dollar would return some multiple of performance that was achieved with the ISS. Additionally, the experience gained from ISS as well as the anticipated increase in launch rates and frequency of missions that can be expected would serve to further improve what is gained from each invested dollar. In fact, the ILD could be built on the foundations of the existing collaboration underway with the ISS and could be seen as a continuation of that collaboration with many more partners.

C. ILD funded to achieve breakthrough within a decade

This scenario would include all elements of B but assumes developments that could drive significantly increased investment in space such as:

  • Discovery of a valuable asteroid, justifying investment in retrieval, processing, and space manufacturing capabilities that drives decisions on infrastructure development and policy development aimed at encouraging lunar and asteroid mining and related industrial development in cislunar space.
  • Commercially scalable technology is demonstrated to process lunar regolith to produce solar arrays, spacecraft structures, oxygen, and more.
  • Ideas such as burial on the Moon, or life extension due to lower gravity, become popular among those able to spend large sums.
  • Space-based solar power gains recognized as a promising response to increasingly threatening climate change entering the market first as power for areas affected by natural disasters and wars.
In addition to discussions by technical specialists in multiple disciplines, the ILD needs to be sanctioned as a global initiative. The United Nations is the natural vehicle for the launch of a global initiative with COPUOS being the forum for analysis and discussion of such issues.

Investment in a global, cooperative space program could significantly exceed $150 billion over the course of a decade if key needs on Earth can be met as a result of activities beyond Earth orbit. The “trillion-dollar asteroid” made of platinum group metals is frequently brought out as a possibility, but such an asteroid within reach of known technologies has yet to be discovered. Clean energy to meet needs on Earth is a multi-trillion-dollar market where known sources of supply may be insufficient to meet needs by 2050. If clean energy from space could be demonstrated as potentially competitive with existing terrestrial options, very large investment in lunar industrial development would become attractive. Under such a scenario, as commercial opportunities expand an increasing share of investment will come from private sources.

Studies by J. Wertz suggest lunar construction costs may be far less than assumed in earlier planning. A 1,000-person facility on the Moon would not cost 200 times a barebones space outpost for five. Wertz also points to the potential for operations on the Moon to be able to attain self-sufficiency with about 1,000 or more personnel.17,18

There is no reason to stop collaboration and forward planning after a decade

Subsequent to ILD 2017–2029, there could be an “ILD 2030–2040” that could see the development of a facility on the Moon home to more than 1,000 people, with large-scale industrial operations also getting underway. A decade later, by ILD 2040–2050, large-scale solar arrays built from lunar regolith could become a significant factor in the terrestrial energy markets.19 The International Energy Agency anticipates a requirement for more than $100 trillion of investment in electrical power generating capacity to meet the demand expected by 2050. Space-based solar power built from lunar regolith could see exponentially declining costs as the technology matures, making SSP competitive with other alternatives.

Such investments would spawn a new age of prosperity and the first trillionaires, who could then easily fund initiatives such as the “Moon to Moon to Mons” project proposed by Al Analuzia and David Dunlop.20 However, by then the capabilities to process lunar regolith and asteroid materials could be sufficiently developed that much larger research and space settlement spacecraft, built in space, would become feasible to carry hundreds of scientists and pioneers to Mars. Very little mass of those spacecraft would come from materials launched from Earth.

ILD launch

The ILD has scientific, technical, policy, legal, financial, economic, and political aspects that will be discussed in multiple upcoming conferences leading up to the ILD launch in 2017 and beyond. In addition to discussions by technical specialists in multiple disciplines, the ILD needs to be sanctioned as a global initiative. The United Nations is the natural vehicle for the launch of a global initiative with COPUOS being the forum for analysis and discussion of such issues. COPUOS approval is required for a matter to be submitted to the UN General Assembly. If COPUOS affirms support of ILD, the next step would be to submit the matter for approval by the UN General Assembly and for the International Lunar Decade to be declared a global activity sanctioned by the UN to start in 2017, the 60th anniversary of the International Geophysical Year.

The 58th COPUOS Session is scheduled for June 10–19, 2015, in Vienna. Thus far no COPUOS member state has agreed to propose that COPUOS consider proposing a UN General Assembly resolution that declares the International Lunar Decade. Delaying a UN vote to 2016 to assure sufficient political support may be necessary, but if at all possible it would be important to introduce the ILD idea to COPUOS already at the 58th Session. If there is a country ready to propose ILD to COPUOS, contact the ILDWG. We will help you!

Upcoming conferences

The ILEWG, led by Executive Director Bernard Foing, has organized lunar sessions with an ILD theme at the European Geosciences Union conference in Vienna April 13–17.21 The Fifth International Workshop on Lunar Surface Applications that also takes place April 14–17 in Florida will feature discussion of ILD. Another conference that discuss ILD is the Third European Lunar Symposium, held in Frascati, Italy, on May 13–14.

Given broad support, the ILD can provide the framework for intensive international collaboration in space exploration leading towards the industrial development of cislunar space and the Moon.

A major upcoming conference where the ILD will be featured is the ILD workshop within the program of the International Space Development Conference (ISDC), organized by the National Space Society in Toronto, May 20–24. A draft agenda for the ILD workshop at ISDC is available. Multiple websites will be carrying information about aspects of the ILD as the process advances and more specific issues are discussed. FOTONIKA-LV is planning an ILD workshop in Riga on June 8–9, with agenda under development.

Given broad support, the ILD can provide the framework for intensive international collaboration in space exploration leading towards the industrial development of cislunar space and the Moon. This can enable the breakthrough to a self-sustaining space economy beyond Earth orbit. The confluence of technological advancement with the increased aggregate capabilities and wealth now available to humankind makes the breakthrough to permanent human presence in space compelling and perhaps almost inevitable. However, the numerous wars underway indicate that irrationality can transform the inevitable into the impossible. Hard work is required to make the ILD vision a reality. Those ready to pitch in should contact the International Lunar Decade Working group through ILEWG, NSS, or FOTONIKA-LV.


  1. Interview with Igor Komarov, Director, Roscosmos regarding collaboration with the US and other countries in space
  2. The International Lunar Exploration Working Group (ILEWG) is a public forum sponsored by the world’s space agencies to support “international cooperation towards a world strategy for the exploration and utilization of the Moon - our natural satellite”
  3. The National Space Society (NSS) is an independent, educational, grassroots, non-profit organization dedicated to the creation of a spacefaring civilization. Founded as the National Space Institute (1974) and L5 Society (1975), which merged to form NSS in 1987, NSS is widely acknowledged as the preeminent citizen's voice on space. NSS has over 50 chapters in the United States and around the world.
  4. The FOTONIKA-LV national science center of the University of Latvia conducts research on photonics, space sciences, quantum sciences and related technologies and includes the Institute of Astronomy, the Institute of Geodesy and Geoinformatics, and the Institute of Atomic Physics and Spectroscopy. FOTONIKA-LV is the primary research center in Latvia involved with space sciences. Facebook page
  5. ILDWG 2015 “International Lunar Decade Declaration” (current draft)
  6. OECD (2014), The Space Economy at a Glance 2014, OECD Publishing.
  7. Pioneering Space Summit -
  8. P. J. Schubert 2014 “Energy Resources Beyond Earth – SSP from ISRU”, Conference presentation, Gateway to Space, St. Louis, November 2014
  10. NASA 1962
  11. Wikipedia 2015 Total costs through 2015 and costs by country are covered here
  12. ESA 2015
  13. Wikipedia 2015 Summary discussion of launch cost trends
  14. Planetary Society 2006 Press Release
  15. ILEWG 2006 “Lunar Beijing Declaration”
  16. ILEWG 2010 “Beijing Lunar Declaration 2010”
  17. J. Wertz 1999 “Architecture for Developing an Economically Viable International, Large-Scale Lunar Colony”
  18. J. Wertz 2014 “The Moon Rocks: A program to create a near-term, economically self-sustaining 1000-person colony on the Moon”
  19. P. J. Schubert 2014 “"Energy Resources Beyond Earth – SSP from ISRU”, Conference presentation, Gateway to Space, St. Louis, November 2014
  20. A. Anzaldua, D. Dunlop 2015 ““Moon to Moon to Mons”: Synergies for Moon and Mars development”, The Space Review
  21. European Geosciences Union 2015 session info , orals, posters