Jul 20, 2019

Axios Deep Dives

50 years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, with Michael Collins in orbit, landed on the Moon for the first time.

  • This Axios AM Deep Dive — with illustrations by Aïda Amer — looks at our lunar ambitions today.
  • Smart Brevity count: 1,660 words (~6 minutes).
1 big thing: Factory Moon

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The Moon, long an object of fascination and exploration, is now also seen as a place to make money, Miriam Kramer and Alison Snyder write.

The big picture: 50 years ago during the Apollo 11 mission, humans were drawn to our closest cosmic neighbor by scientific curiosity and the desire to demonstrate technological prowess and geopolitical power.

But now there's a financial incentive for the entrepreneurially minded.

  • Companies focusing on "interplanetary" opportunities have received $192 million in investment over the last 10 years, mostly for the development of lunar rovers and landers, according to a new report from Space Angels.

NASA, Jeff Bezos and others envision the Moon as a place to harvest water that can be broken down for rocket fuel and used for missions deeper into space.

  • That fuel, in theory, would eventually be cheaper to make in space than propellant launched from Earth.
  • Platinum and other rare metals could also lie beneath the Moon's surface and potentially be mined in the future.
  • To make that happen, the lunar surface needs to be prospected and infrastructure — roads, launch pads and power — would have to be set up to support permanent human operations.
  • This coming exploration and development phase is expensive and creates an opportunity for companies.

The driver is government money and support. That will likely be the case for at least the next 10–15 years, says industry analyst Carissa Christensen.

  • NASA — which plans to land people on the Moon by 2024 as part of its Artemis mission — is already awarding contracts for the private development of robotic lunar landers and concept studies for landing systems that could help perform research and bring people down to the surface.
  • The agency is also exploring whether private companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Sierra Nevada can help to build its Gateway — a small station around the Moon that will be used to stage missions down to the surface.
  • Some of the world's top researchers in lunar ISRU — in situ, or on site, resource utilization — outlined what the Moon has to offer in the way of markets and products, at a workshop this week.

What they're saying: There are still open questions about what resources are on the Moon, the scale and price point of Moon-made fuel that warrants investment and, aside from governments, what the long-term market would be for products and services.

  • And there are cautionary tales about the difficulties of doing business in space.

Yes, but: "The mission of ISRU is to sustain life, not make a profit," says Clive Neal, an engineering professor at the University of Notre Dame and organizer of this week's workshop.

  • ISRU's proponents say the real value is its potential role in allowing us to not only take ourselves off our home planet but thrive there, in an entirely new niche for human life.
2. All the Moon landings
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Data: Axios research; Graphic: Harry Stevens/Axios

Humans have successfully landed 20 crewed and uncrewed missions on the Moon’s surface, with more in the works, Harry Stevens writes.

Details: The timeline beneath the Moon shows when each landing occurred, highlighting the 37-year gap between the last Soviet mission in 1976 and the first Chinese one in 2013.

An interactive version of the graphic is here. You can spin the Moon, and you can tap on each mission’s dot — either on the Moon itself or on the timeline — to learn more.

Bonus: The Moon is a young person's game
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Data: SurveyMonkey online poll of 2,620 adults conducted July 3–7, 2019, with a margin of error of ±2.5 percentage points; Poll methodology; Chart: Harry Stevens/Axios

While most Americans think the U.S. should be a global leader in space exploration, many remain hesitant about visiting, living on and working on the Moon.

Younger adults are far more interested in visiting the Moon as tourists compared to older adults.

  • 65% of adults 18–24 years old would visit the Moon if money were not a factor, compared to just 25% of those 65 and older, according to an Axios-SurveyMonkey poll.
  • By contrast, American adults across all generations are reluctant about living and working on the Moon, if settlements were established there.
3. What's on the Moon

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

There is at least some ice on the Moon, but it's not yet clear how much or what form it's in, Miriam writes.

What's happening: NASA plans to find out in the coming years with the Lunar Flashlight spacecraft expected to launch in 2020.

  • The craters in the poles are thought to be potentially rich in ice100 million to 1 billion metric tons, according to some estimates — because they are permanently in shadow.
  • But it's still unclear if that ice is in a usable form or location.
  • If water is found and the agency can learn how to harvest it, NASA could potentially go on to mine resources from other bodies — like Mars.

Yes, but: Mining on Earth is already difficult, with equipment that needs to be operated and maintained sometimes daily. Mining elsewhere in the solar system will likely be even more challenging.

  • "The dose of realism is huge," Neal says of the mood at the workshop about mining resources on the Moon.

Flashback: The LCROSS experiment slammed into the Moon in 2009 as the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter watched, catching a glimpse of water spewing from the impact site in a permanently shadowed crater.

  • While the presence of that small amount of water is promising, it was just one sample from one area.
4. Blue Origin's long game

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

While there may not be money in harvesting resources from the Moon yet, Bezos' Blue Origin is playing the long game, developing its capabilities in preparation for the day that could pay off, Miriam writes.

The big picture: In the short term, the company wants to help NASA get astronauts back to the Moon. In the long term, Blue Origin hopes to bring about a future where millions of people are living and working in space, sustained, at least in part, by harvesting resources from the Moon.

"It's this generation's responsibility to go build the infrastructure around getting to orbit, getting into space cheaply and reliably."
— Bob Smith, CEO of Blue Origin

Yes, but: It's difficult to build a business around mining resources from the Moon without properly characterizing what is there. Blue Origin is working with a team of science advisers to figure out what sites on the surface might be most attractive for these kinds of operations, Smith said.

Blue Origin's next step toward bringing about Bezos' vision of the future hinges on the company's Blue Moon lander, which has been in development for about 3 years.

  • The lander could bring cargo and eventually people down to the lunar surface.
  • One day Blue Origin also hopes to use water harvested from the Moon to make propellant that would fuel Blue Moon.

Go deeper: Everything you need to know about Blue Origin

5. A higher moonshot

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The last geopolitical race to space seemed existential, set against the nerve-rattling competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The outcome was the moonshot — the astonishing launch of two humans onto the nearest body in space, Steve LeVine writes.

As the U.S., China, Europe and a host of privateers try to establish the first permanent perch on the Moon, it seems reasonable to ask: Is returning to the Moon a half-century after Apollo 11 really a moonshot?

Or should the Moon be at most a silent sideshow, and the forefront of the new quest be Mars — or, as an uber-ambitious moonshot, even Titan, one of Saturn's moons?

"For the next 20 or 30 years the Moon is just a geopolitical status symbol."
— Nicholas Wright, a U.K.-based analyst

Mars is the next target: NASA first plans to send humans to the planet in the early 2030s. SpaceX is talking about putting a crew in Mars orbit by 2024, but experts are highly skeptical.

  • Robert Zubrin, an aerospace engineer and Mars evangelist, says a reasonable aim is somewhere in the middle — around a decade.

What's next — in a really futuristic sense, according to Amanda Hendrix, a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, is contemplating something far more ambitious: Titan.

  • In 2005, the EU landed a probe called Huygens on Titan — and NASA is planning to send a drone there in 2026. Both Hendrix and Zubrin said we are at least a half-century from putting humans on it.
  • Zubrin advocates aiming there in our stretch-thinking because it has helium-3 and other materials needed to support life and technological civilization.
  • Why it matters: "Helium-3 is the ideal fuel for fusion reactors and fusion rockets, making available nearly infinite energy for an expanding civilization and enabling spacecraft with the ability to achieve our next moonshot after Titan — the reach for the stars."
6. 1 fun thing: Moon mythology

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

In 1960, NASA director of space flight development Abe Silverstein proposed the name "Apollo" for the first crewed U.S. mission to the Moon after reading through a mythology book. An image of Apollo riding his chariot across the sun inspired him, because it matched the ambition of the program, Jessie Li writes.

Yes, but: Apollo was a Sun god, whereas Artemis was a Moon goddess. So "Apollo" made less mythological sense as a name for Moon expeditions.

  • "An ancient Greek would have thought twice before daring to name a lunar mission after the goddess (Artemis') younger brother," says Keyne Cheshire, a classics professor at Davidson College.

Only now is Artemis getting the credit some say she deserves.

The context: 50 years ago, the workforce behind Apollo 11 was majority white and male. With the Artemis program, NASA aims to be more inclusive by sending the first woman to the lunar surface.

What's next: After Artemis, Cheshire would recommend "Callisto" — who was "originally a young comrade" of Artemis — as the name for a future Moon mission. (Callisto is the name of one of Jupiter's moons.)

  • "Wouldn't it be nice of NASA to put Callisto in some way back in Artemis' camp by naming a Moon mission for her?"