If you were to write an article about the “lunar economy” a few years ago, most people would have thought you were watching too many science fiction movies — or, were just a little crazy. But with the industry’s acceleration over the past several years, it seems as the development of a lunar economy will happen within our lifetimes.
The United States has a rich heritage in space, and recently, NASA selected 11 companies to conduct studies and produce prototypes of human landers for its Artemis lunar exploration program. The aim will be to put American astronauts — the first woman and the next man on the Moon’s south pole by 2024 — and establish sustainable missions by 2028. We talk to some of the companies involved in this exciting initiative, and where it could lead next.
Peter McGrath, Boeing’s Director of Global Sales and Marketing for the Space Exploration business, admits that exploration will benefit humanity in a host of ways. “There is the technology development required to make such a goal achievable that is then moved through the economy in different ways. Then there is direct research in space that is used on Earth, such as medicines,” he says. “More companies are seeing potential economic benefit to space exploration, too. Add to that the inspiration of these efforts and you get an effect such as Apollo had on the leaders of today’s human spaceflight efforts. The work we do today inspires students to become engineers and do more remarkable things.”
There could be numerous benefits to humanity once these missions begin in earnest. Frank Slazer, vice president of strategy and business development for space at Aerojet Rocketdyne, believes the importance of a regular series of missions to the moon isn’t limited to the space industry — although, it would greatly strengthen the space industrial base and workforce. Slazer grew up during the Apollo program and admits it had a huge effect on him, as well as tens of thousands in his generation. He adds, “We were inspired to go into STEM careers, and even though only a small fraction of my generation went into the space industry, others went into fields such as IT, medicine, and aviation. This Apollo generation is the one that gave us affordable PCs and the internet, smartphones, and amazing advances in medicine, science, and materials technology. A regular cadence of highly visible human exploration missions will energize this new generation to pursue STEM careers and may help supercharge our economy.”
However, there are ambitious timelines at play. There are also considerable technical challenges, as companies look to go beyond just landing on the Moon, and look to create future ecosystems for living and working in a lunar economy. Robert Curbeam, VP of business development, space systems at Northrop Grumman believes the ability to return humans to the lunar surface in five years is “very reasonable” given the right technical concept and capabilities — using best practices and standards, while effectively managing risk. “Propulsion is always a major technical challenge in spaceflight, and we see that as an area targeted for using high-heritage systems and active risk-reduction, he says. “NASA is focused on speed to land the next man and first woman on the Moon by 2024.”
He adds that development of next-generation human landing systems will provide a game-changing capability for access to the lunar surface. “The ability to land both humans and large masses on the lunar surface opens up endless possibilities for scientific exploration, and opens up markets through the industrial utilization of the Moon. When Northrop Grumman’s lunar module touched down at the Sea of Tranquillity, carrying two NASA astronauts on July 20, 1969, both the space industry and the world were changed. Suddenly things that felt impossible had been achieved and fuelled our desire to continue innovating and exploring,” he says.
Andy Crocker, director of space strategy and lunar program manager at Dynetics, believes that taking a balanced approach to risk is key. For lunar missions, we must be willing to live with appropriate levels of risk and understand that absolute minimum risk may not be appropriate. In the last 50 years, Crocker says NASA has improved both its understanding and management of the risks of human space flight, and that it has driven new technologies to lower said risks. “Without a doubt, a focus on safety and controlling risk is good. The current schedule for Artemis absolutely requires timely decisions,” he says.
He continues, “The enterprise of human exploration requires accepting risks and willingness to sacrifice. Astronauts are explorers; like explorers have for millennia, they choose sacrifice. They understand they are part of something bigger than themselves, and they accept the risks. As mission planners and system designers, we sometimes need to remind ourselves of the saying, ‘Perfect is the enemy of good enough.’ Trying to be perfect will sabotage success. Likewise, trying to eliminate every risk is a misguided — and impossible — goal. One could say, ‘Zero risk is the enemy of good enough.”
Slazer admits that the space industry is now building on decades of experience to take the next giant leap. He points to the fact that Aerojet Rocketdyne is using innovative technologies, such as Solar Electric Propulsion, 3D printing, and other advanced manufacturing techniques to deliver reliable and affordable deep space propulsion systems. However, it will take more than just great technology to succeed. He adds, “While we have the technology and the capabilities to succeed in going to the Moon in 2024, it will require increased funding for NASA and a sustained bipartisan commitment to space exploration. One of the biggest differences between now and Apollo was that then, the Congress and the White House sustained their support over five Congressional election cycles and three Presidents – including a change in the President’s party. We need that kind of consistent support to succeed.”
Space Based Communities
One of the highlights of SATELLITE week in Washington was a presentation by Jeff Bezos unveiling Blue Moon, Blue Origin’s lunar lander. Bezos spoke passionately about the development of human communities in space, and life away from Earth. It could become a reality over the next few decades. Crocker believes the establishment of communities of humans living in space is inevitable. “The fact that a few very well-off visionaries currently are passionate enough that they are investing significant money and energy into it naturally makes it a popular topic of conversation. Their passion — and investment — absolutely push progress faster than it would happen otherwise. Still, it is a very long-term vision,” he says. “We strongly believe that in order to realize this exciting long-term vision, we have to focus on establishing a sustainable presence in the near term. Certainly, helping NASA put humans back on the Moon is immediately critical. Enabling broader exploration of the Moon and Mars is also critical in the near future.”
Curbeam says commercialization of the lunar surface will drive humanity’s long-term, sustained presence on the lunar surface. “As access to the lunar surface becomes more attainable, and business cases for commercial markets on the Moon begin to close, human presence will become more necessary, and expansive,” he says.
McGrath believes if we are to sustain life on the surface of the Moon we will need to be able to launch large infrastructure to the surface which will need heavy-lift rockets including Space Launch System, and large landers. In addition, we will need water and power which is why there is a desire to mine water from the moon’s south pole instead of bringing all the water from Earth. NASA is performing research on a large power station as well, he adds.
A Game Changer
Saying something is a “game-changer” goes into the realms of cliché, but it seems what we are talking about could be one of the times where it is the appropriate phrase to use. McGrath says sending humans beyond Earth orbit was a gamechanger in the 1960s and there’s no reason to think it won’t be the same this time. “The industry will need to develop communications systems geared toward deep space in addition to other technologies, but a sustained lunar exploration and then deep space exploration program stands to offer a lot of development opportunities,” he says. McGrath admits there are significant differences between now and the lunar program of the 1960s. He points to the fact that Apollo was not meant to put infrastructure in place near or on the Moon that could be used and reused by the crews coming in. “The challenge for the moon program is the timing, landing astronauts on the moon in five years. It can be done, but that goal requires a lot of decisions to be made quickly,” he says.
Crocker argues that creating a lunar economy is really about sustainability. “The buzzword at the Human Landing System Industry Forum at NASA headquarters on February 14th was ‘sustainability.’ NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said, ‘This time, when we go to the moon, we’re actually going to stay. We’re not going to leave flags and footprints and then come home to not go back for another 50 years.’ That’s the right sentiment, but it’s hard to put into practice, and it seemingly became harder after U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced, less than six weeks later, the plan to land humans by 2024,” he says.
He adds that the industry can’t allow itself to go fast just for the sake of going fast and ignore engineering-based, forward-looking solutions. “We can’t allow ourselves to go fast without involving key stakeholders, like the science community and international partners. The real risk of moving too fast is unsustainability — that a lack of affordability of the systems or lack of demand from NASA and commercial entities leads to an inability to maintain a viable lunar economy,” he says.
Slazer admits it is hard to precisely tell the impact on the current industry but it will push the development of new technologies, like high power electric space propulsion, that could have a big impact in other markets. In the long term, the reason for going back to the moon — and especially to the south pole of the moon — is to use lunar resources for future mission. Combine the extraction of lunar water for propellants and breathable oxygen with other technologies, such as in-space manufacturing, and you could really revolutionize how we do things in space, he says.
It is clear there are ambitious plans at play here and the industry is ready to work overtime to make these happens. Time will tell how quickly they come to be realized, but with U.S. companies using their technology expertise, it is likely that these visions will be realized sooner rather than later. The next ten years could be some of the most exciting we have ever seen and lead us into a dimension that perhaps many thought it was impossible.
What Things Might Look Like in 2030
So, in just over ten year’s time, what might things look like? Will this vision of a lunar economy be realized? Slazer says, “I don’t want to overhype this effort but if we are able to achieve a landing in 2024 and we continue to invest in sustainable capabilities such as the reusable lunar ascent vehicle and growth versions of the Space Launch System, we could see the start of a multinational, long term effort to utilize the Moon and begin learning how to go to Mars more quickly and more affordably than prior forecasts would have predicted.”
Crocker says he would like to see a robust, steady, long-term government funding profile for human exploration of the Moon that enables a regular rhythm of missions that gradually increase our capabilities. He adds that he would also like to see governments and academia lead the way with scientific discoveries and technology breakthroughs that pave the way for commercial ventures to create new economic opportunities. Broad international collaboration on lunar exploration that involves current and new players in open, free enterprise, is another thing on Crocker’s wishlist. “I’d like to see us use the Moon in responsible ways to benefit us on Earth. Long term, I’d like to see these endeavors lead to safe, healthy habitation away from our planet,” he adds.
McGrath believes we are on a path that will see many humans working on the Moon and in lunar orbit regularly while also continuing research on the International Space Station (ISS) and increasing capabilities throughout. He thinks we may even have a crew of astronauts on the way to Mars by 2030.
Curbeam believes that by 2030, he foresees an evolving commercial marketplace on the lunar surface, similar to NASA’s efforts today in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). “The emerging space economy built on mining, tourism and scientific research will empower countless future generations. With Human Landing Systems, the lunar surface will become increasingly more accessible for taking advantage of the resources it can provide and propelling humankind into deep space exploration,” he says. “Mars remains the horizon goal, and the work accomplished around and on the Moon over the next decade plus will ensure we send the first humans to Mars in the 2030s.” VS