Moonshot, longshot – Investigate Australia Mar 05

The moon’s still out there, but what is it good for? Maybe the next century of Asian economic growth, says Pat Sheil

Since Eugene Cernon closed the hatch on the Apollo 17 lunar module and hit the grunt button, the moon has been a very quiet place. We’re used to the idea now, but in the early 70s the notion of a deserted moon in 2005 would hardly have seemed credible. We were meant to have Holiday Inns on Mars by now, right?

The are good reasons why none of this has happened, not the least of which is that once we knew it could actually be done, going to the moon quickly lost the lustre of heroic achievement and became just another budget line item. If there isn’t a quid in it, and all the prestige value has been milked, then it’s time to mothball the idea until there’s a good reason to do it again. A profit angle sure wouldn’t hurt.

But governments are lousy at making money – remember the hype about drug companies whipping up miracle cures in zero G aboard the shuttle and the space station? With no whiz-bang, frontier busting purpose, the shuttle has proved to be the greatest lemon in the history of transportation, largely because it had nowhere to go and nothing to do when it got there.

Since the Columbia disaster the lemon has mutated into a grapefruit. NASA is so terrified of losing another one that they have restricted its use to delivering odds and ends to the space station, a destination in name only. One more prang and the remaining two will go straight into museums.

The shuttle has become, in the minds of NASA, an accident waiting to happen, and if you or I lived by the new NASA definition of “acceptable risk” we’d all wrap ourselves in cotton wool and crawl under a rock for the rest of our lives. (There is a beautiful story on this subject dating back to the early days of the Apollo program. Werner von Braun had assured NASA that he could achieve an impossible “four nine” reliability, by which he meant that 99.99% percent of his launches would succeed. Word around Houston was that he achieved this by asking his sycophantic fellow German scientists “Is there anything wrong with this design?” only to hear “Nein”, “Nein”, “Nein”, “Nein”.)

But things may be about to change. For space to be worthy of investment, it has to generate a return, and at the moment the only money is in communications and imaging satellites, because they actually deliver a saleable product. The moon, on the face of it, is a desert. But then so was Western Australia in the 1880s. The moon may be about to have its first gold rush.

The gold, in this case, is helium 3. Helium 3 is a very rare isotope of helium which accumulates on the moon from the solar wind, but exists in tiny quantities on Earth. The reason it glitters, from an economic viewpoint, is that it looks like the best fuel for the nuclear fusion power plants that we’ve been promised for the last fifty years. If fusion can be made to work, it will change the energy market in ways that haven’t been seen since the discovery of electricity. And the people who control the He3 supply will get very, very rich.

Sure, there are a lot of “ifs” here, but that’s never stopped speculative investors from sniffing around scenarios that promise mountains of money. These things have a habit of snowballing, and recent events have put the moon back on the table, as it were.

For one thing, George W. Bush has made wacky pronouncements about “going back to the moon and on to Mars”. These can largely be ignored, because it ain’t going to happen, not the way he envisages it, anyway. Most of us will be long dead before there’s a Mars base. But he will be throwing money at the idea, if only by gutting other NASA programs. The space caper, from a purely business perspective, is a lot more sophisticated than it was the last time big government moon money was flying around, and there are companies now that will want a bigger slice of the action than sub-contracting work on engines and paint jobs.

Secondly, there are new players. Take the Soviets out of the game, and throw in Europe, Japan, India and China. These last three especially have very serious long-term energy problems. They have serious short term energy problems for that matter, but by 2050 these nations will have found new sources of energy or they will have imploded.

All of these countries are launching moon probes in the next few years. Europe’s Smart-1 arrived in lunar orbit in November. Japan launches one next year. India and China have both announced moon shots by 2007. All of them will be doing mineralogical surveys.

They are not doing this for fun. Sure, there’s an element of flag-waving in it all, especially in China’s case, but there’s also the small matter of possession being nine-tenths of, well, everything.

D.J. Lawrence, planetary scientist at the US Los Alamos National Laboratory was in India in November addressing the International Conference on Exploration and Utilization of the Moon being held in the northern city of Udaipur. “Potentially there are large reservoirs of helium 3 on the moon,” he said. “Just doing reconnaissance where the minerals are and to find out where helium 3 likes to hang out is the first step, so when the reactor technology gets to work we are ready and have precise information.

“It really could be used as a future fuel and is safe. It is not all science fiction.”

But what of the 1984 UN Moon Treaty, which forbids nations from making territorial claims on the moon, or anywhere else in the solar system? Australia is a signatory. Significantly, the USA and China are not, and with stakes this high, they’re not likely to ratify any time soon. But even if they did, there’s nothing in the treaty, or the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which forbids corporations claiming territory. And this may be a clue as to how this will eventually pan out. Space agencies like NASA are already looking at the sub-orbital flights of Spaceship One last year that took out the US$10 million X Prize, and coming up with their own prize schemes. NASA has announced the Centennial Challenge prizes, which may soon top US$200 million, for private projects including robotic lunar landings and sample return missions.

It’s not that hard to conceive of a multinational mining corporation teaming up with an aerospace company and taking a punt on something like this, especially when success could reap not only tens of millions of dollars to recoup the initial investment, but also put them in pole position when the gun goes off in the claim-staking race. You can almost hear ‘em now. “Treaty? Don’t apply to us – we’re the Lunar Energy Corporation, not the US Government!”