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Peacekeeper ICBM
Retired ICBMs like the Peacekeeper (above) could help stimulate the development of a lunar base, rather than compete directly with commercial launch vehicles. (credit: US Air Force)

How an ICBM-based "bridge to nowhere" can help start a Moon Village

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Recently, in respective SpaceNews op-eds, Scott Lehr and George Whitesides crossed swords (or plowshares?) about the most recent variation on an old idea: hauling ICBM components out of retirement to put them to more peaceful uses. I’d first heard of something like this in Bruce Lusignan’s proposal to use ICBMs to create an forward base in low Earth orbit for an international Mars mission. What has happened since that time is a wave of commercialization initiatives. So it’s unsurprising that markets, rather than politics, would be the latest arena of debate about non-lethal uses for this inventory.

It’s unsurprising that markets, rather than politics, would be the latest arena of debate about non-lethal uses for this inventory.

Lehr says using Peacekeeper rocket motors to launch small satellites would make the US more competitive in that particular segment of the launch market, which is currently dominated by subsidized players abroad. Lehr is, of course, talking his book, since his company, Orbital ATK, makes the Minotaur, which is substantially ICBM-based.

But Whitesides has a pecuniary interest of his own. He is CEO of Virgin Galactic, which not only offers perpetually delayed suborbital fun-rides, but has also begun a small satellite launch initiative of its own, one that might even orbit a satellite before anything very recreational happens elsewhere in the company. Whitesides’ complaint is understandable: there could be a “crowding out” of private sector initiatives.

I’d like to see what I can do to antagonize both sides of this debate.

First, however, let me go back to an old ruckus from 2008: the uproar over US congressional earmarks. Many projects that enjoyed earmark funding promises at that time were derided as “Bridges to Nowhere.” Since 2008 was also the year of Sarah Palin’s vice-presidential candidacy, and since Alaska had two Bridges to Nowhere earmarks of its own, I found myself studying bridge projects. I did this in (frankly partisan) hopes of finding some awful embarrassment for Palin. In a way, I was disappointed: neither Alaskan bridge proposal was as ridiculous as it seemed at first.

One of these Alaskan bridges would have connected a (low-volume) international airport to a small town nearby. It probably would have improved the local economy by getting more tourists who were bound for Misty Fjords National Monument to stay longer at a slightly more developed waystation. The other bridge would have connected Anchorage to a relatively undeveloped subdivision across a river that was served by a ferry only when winter ice didn’t make the transit too difficult. It might have sparked a construction boom across the water from downtown.

But it gets better. With the kind of low-interest financing that tends to be more available when the Federal Reserve targets the lower bound of interest rates in a recession, it seemed possible that these bridges had a kind of business case. That is, they could eventually have been revenue-positive for their respective municipalities. Coincident with the Fed targeting the lower bound is the economic predicament that justifies such low interest rates in the first place: high unemployment in a recession. Later in 2008, the global economy imploded. Suddenly, certain Bridges to Nowhere looked a lot like “shovel-ready” projects.

Bridge projects are infrastructure. Stimulus spending tends to be oriented toward infrastructure because it’s most often shovel-ready when a recession hits. Infrastructure investment doesn’t cause much private sector crowding out, because it’s not something the private sector directly invests in. It’s a public good: few users directly pay the carrying costs, but if the project is chosen wisely, the economy as a whole tends to benefit for a long time to come.

The sooner a Moon Village can scale up, the more opportunities that launch providers—including American providers—would see to serve a growing Village.

Getting back to space launcher plowshares: to be honest, I think George Whitesides is pretty close to correct. Even though a private-sector entity that uses excess ICBM motors is still in the private sector, those freebies could mean there’s effectively been some crowding out done with a past public investment. But Scott Lehr also has an excellent point about how private sector space launch initiatives in the US are not on a very level international playing field to begin with.

Against this background of two launcher company executives facing off, there’s the Moon. Remember the Moon?

The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation has responded enthusiastically to an ESA director’s proposal to put a base on the Moon, possibly more enthusiastically than any government entity in the EU. The FAA would prefer to have more US-based spaceflight to oversee. And if those launches are mostly for ESA and for any Moon Village partners that happen to materialize, well, it’s still spaceflight, potentially by American launch providers, launches that could still take place within FAA purview.

Let’s look at the bright side of all this self-serving talk. Government can sometimes take an economic “pump-priming” role, shoes that the private sector won’t fill on its own. Government is perhaps at its best when it steers private interests toward public good in ways that also help those private interests.

What I propose is to crash a lot of these excess ICBMs wherever the ESA says they’d like their Moon Village. Since these vehicles would arrive at speeds in excess of two kilometers per second, the vehicle wreckage would be quite fragmentary, to be sure. But the detritus would consist largely of pure metal pieces. When you consider the costs that would need to be sunk to mine and refine metals on the Moon, starting from bare regolith, these rocket chunks would have great value. Compared to anything you could scoop up on the Moon today, they would have enormous value added. A big plain on the lunar surface strewn with pure metal could give Moon Village a major initial boost in starting ISRU metallurgy of its own. Even in the meantime, metal 3D printers could use collected shrapnel as feedstock. The sooner a Moon Village can scale up, the more opportunities that launch providers—including American providers—would see to serve a growing Village.

Surely, the US should crash this Bridge to Nowhere on the Moon only with “international earmarks”: that is, it should make sure Moon Village partners only process these metals if they bought them at some market rate. The proceeds from the sales could be paid into an account that could be drawn upon by Moon Village partners to buy launch services from American commercial providers.

I’m not sure whether I’ve antagonized both sides of this debate enough. My hope is far more vaulting, actually. It’s to antagonize sides of the debate I haven’t even heard of yet. This is ambitious of me, I suppose. But we all have our dreams of greatness, do we not?