"Improving" the Moon, and the Developer's Role:
Part I: Making the Moon More Valuable
It is futile to agitate for the opening of the Moon until we have made it more valuable to open.
by Peter Kokh, © 2000 The Lunar Reclamation Society
[From ideas put forth in Moon Miners' Manifesto #132 & 133, February & March 2000]
The Moon as "Unimproved" Real Estate
I have seen many a proposal of how to jump start a frontier with land grants and land sales. Maybe I don't understand them. To me, they seem like so many pyramid schemes based on nothing. Yes, the Moon is more than nothing. The ingredients for "stone soup" are all there. But it takes more than the right elements in sufficient quantity to make a land valuable. They have to be present in a form we know how to mine and produce. And on the Moon that is not the case. The land has theoretical value only. What can one do with it when the tools to do anything do not exist?
"Improving" the Moon Starts on Earth
A. Poor Ore Mining Technologies
The considerable "bricks & mortar" portion of Earth's economy, which will never disappear or become irrelevant, has been built entirely upon the tapping of "enriched" resources. It is obvious that it will be cheaper to mine rich veins of ore than more homogenized concentrations of the elements vital to industry. It is obvious, too, that if we are to have self-reliant settlements on space, that they must also be able to "produce" economically, the elements needed for their own industries. The hitch is, that concentrated ore bodies are a terrestrial asset which we are unlikely to find elsewhere in the solar system. No where else has there been billions of year of geological processing of a world's crust and mantel in the presence of water. Not even on Mars, where such processing may have started only to be nipped in the bud much too early.
For accessing necessary resources on the Moon, on Mars, and even on the asteroids (where there is an unsubstantiated widely held belief that concentrated ores may indeed be found), we need to develop mining, beneficiation, and processing technologies that are economical in unenriched deposits. Talk to a mining engineer, and it is likely that if you bring up the subject of "mining the Moon" or Mars, you will be greeted with a contemptuous, condescending put down. No one knows with confidence, how to "produce" metals or other elements from such "poor" ores economically on industrial production scales. To point to lab-verified pathways of getting oxygen, for example, is not helpful or useful.
We will see no self-reliant resource-using lunar or Martian settlements until we have such technologies. Give us CATS and we will still have nothing! Nor would a political turnaround of unrealistic proportions that would make a lunar or Martian "outpost" a confirmed agenda item change this situation. "Local Industry" beyond a few relatively easy and simple symbolic things, will not be necessary for the token outposts such a political miracle might put on the agenda. We must not assume that if NASA (i.e. Congress) did indeed reverse itself, it would undertake crash programs to develop such technologies.
There is another way, a very mundane way to get the job done. Sadly, space-enthusiasts in general are too much too impatient to sidetrack their efforts to indirect methods that may in fact be much more powerful. These very same "Poor Ore Mining Technologies" would be very useful on Earth, whether we ever do go on to open up the space frontier or not.
Consider Earth's economic geography. The distribution of iron ore, copper, bauxite (aluminum), uranium, and other elements vital to industry has in large measure predetermined which nations have thrived and which have not. Of course, other factors play vital roles: arable fertile soil, access to the sea, forests, and the enterprise quotient of the people.
Poor Ore Mining Technologies would usher a substantial equalizing force into the world economy. Soils everywhere contain abundant aluminum and iron, but not necessarily in the concentrations and in the mineral forms we "know how to" work with cost-effectively. Chemical engineers must blaze new pathways that balance favorably energy inputs, secondary marketable byproducts, and environmental impacts. Concrete specific proposals tailored to the mineralogical circumstances of the various candidate locations need to be made to local or non-local investors and partners that stand to profit. Some of these poor ore mining technologies may have direct or indirect application to the situation we will find on the Moon or Mars or elsewhere. But even where this is not the case, we will be building up a pool of people with a "can do" attitude to supplant the present unhelpful crowd of "can't do" mining experts.
Molecular technologies under exploration by people like Steve Gillette of the University of Nevada-Reno offer some real revolutionary promise of an end run around present mineral-cracking hurdles. When it comes to producing strategic elements that are much less abundant, like copper, zinc, silver, platinum, gold, etc. where a 1% ore is considered rich, bio-extraction technologies need to be pushed. Without concentrated ore bodies, such elements are often present in only parts per million [ppm], or even parts per billion [ppb]. Bioengineered bacterial cultures may be able to greatly beneficiate or enrich these ambient concentrations. Here on Earth, such technologies would make many nations less dependent on others, less subject to political blackmail.
B. Novel Building Materials
On the Moon, there are neither forests to supply us with wood, nor petroleum reserves to supply us with chemical feedstocks for the host of synthetic materials to which we are addicted. Even on Mars, with a carbon and nitrogen rich atmosphere and plenty of hydrogen at least in polar ice, bringing such traditional building materials and manufacturing stuffs on line will be a trick. But is the situation any different for scores of countries on Earth that do not have appreciable forests, or who cannot afford to make further inroads into those they still have, and without native oil reserves?
Glass-glass composites have been proposed, and lab-researched, as a promising option for lunar settlement industry. But if we learned to produce a versatile array of glass composite building products and manufacturing stuffs, that could be an immense aid to the economies of countries that must presently import vast quantities of lumber and other products. There would seem to be ample economic incentive for taking this exotic stuff out of the labs, make fortunes in doing so right here on Earth, and in the process develop, debug, and put "on the shelf" a ready-to-go industrial technology that could be a backbone of early lunar and Martian industrial settlements. We developed this idea in more detail in MMM # 16, June 1988. But while glass fibers are finding their way into new concrete formulations, no one has bothered to try to earn a buck by taking glass composites themselves beyond the laboratory curiosity stage.
Metal alloys are another area deserving more research. Most pure metals have poor performance characteristics and benefit greatly from inclusion of varying amounts of "alloying" ingredients. Yet it does not seem to dawn on most space supporters that the Moon's considerable "on Paper" wealth in iron, aluminum, magnesium, and titanium - the four "engineering metals" - does not guarantee the easy and economic production of the various alloying elements we are used to using to improve the performance characteristics of each. Steel needs carbon, in poor supply on the Moon. Aluminum alloys generally are rich in copper, a ppb trace on the Moon. Metallurgists who step in to research more "frontier-feasible" alloys which are still "serviceable" may end up producing alloys with considerable marketability here on Earth.
C. "Biospheric" Technologies
Biosphere II was an attempt to come up with a centralized solution for biological life support. Though the specific experiment "succeeded" only by "cheating", in fact we learned much. The only thing that can be dismissed as a failure, is an effort from which we learn nothing. It is much easier to dismiss than to criticize constructively, and when reading such negative reports, one should always discount for the temperament of the reporter.
Beyond Earth, settlements must reencradle themselves in mini-biospheres that each settlement must establish, grow, and maintain. This will entail the unprecedented challenge of "living immediately downstream and downwind" of oneself. Pioneers in space will not pollute because, unlike us spoiled terrestrials, they cannot "get away with it," putting off pollution problems to the next generation.
But to attempt to do this in a centralized way is just as ineffective as are centralized methods of growing and controlling economies. Modular "market" techniques must be the basis of any effort to establish, grow, and maintain space frontier biospheres. Systems that treat human wastes at the origin and greatly reduce any residual problem that must be handled on a larger scale, are much better suited for non-ivory tower communities of non-static size.
In fact, many people are experimenting with "living machines" and other techniques to integrate plants, air quality maintenance, and waste treatment in unit-sized systems. Such an approach will not only make city-size biospheres a more practical prospect, but will also enable appropriate-size life support systems for spacecraft on long deep-space journeys. We need technologies that are "scalable." In contrast, solutions addressing fixed, static size situations are not helpful at all.
The terrestrial profit prospectus of modular biospheric technologies is immense. In the last few decades we have seen the emergence of gargantuan urban complexes in the third world. For the most part, such cities have grown and continue to grow faster than urban utilities can add capacity to keep up with them. The pressure on centralized water treatment facilities is unreal, and the loser is public health. Inexpensive ways to tackle human wastes home by home, unit by unit, that freshen interior air, and provide additional sources of food, would do much to make such monster "blob" cities more livable. There is a market! Let's make money now, and learn how to do space right in the process.
The Gospel of "Spin-up"
The traditional fare of the space faithful is what has long been known as "spin-off." NASA spends hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars developing new materials and technologies that the agency needs for use in space, all at taxpayer expense. Then these technologies are made available to industry at large, providing the usual litany of "benefits for the public" of space research.
"Spin-up" would take the opposite path. Enterprise would brainstorm technologies deemed vital down the road in space for their potential Earth-market applications, so as to make money now. The frosting on the cake is that technologies also needed on the space frontier, would be predeveloped now at the expense of the consumer, rather than the taxpayer (YES, there is a world of difference in this distinction), and would be ready in time "ready to go" and at relatively low cost to those who will in due course attempt to open the space frontier to genuine self-reliant local resource-using communities beyond Earth's biosphere and atmosphere.
"Spin-up" is a more economical and efficient way to get the research done in a timely fashion. It is the only path not dependent on uncontrollably fickle political tides. And in so far as it is consumer-user financed rather than tax-payer-forced, it is a more moral way to achieve "minority goals" such as ours.
But above all, the "spin-up" route is the only sure way to get the job done. To rely on the traditional route means putting all our eggs under a hen that is not motivated by instinct or any other reliable force to hatch them. We have complained before that those who want to open space by political coercion are abdicating the responsibility for the fulfillment of OUR dreams to those who do not share them, and cannot be made to share them.
If you are blessed with the talent to be an entrepreneur, consider that getting involved in pioneering some of the terrestrially useful technologies needed also in space may do more to guarantee the timely opening of the real space frontier than any amount of seemingly more direct involvement in micro-satellites and micro-launchers.
We do not expect those with electronics and propulsion expertise to get into totally different fields. Each of us must do our thing. Rather, we want to encourage and set loose the untapped talents of others who have not realized that they have a potentially powerful role to play, however indirect. The important thing in opening space is not instant gratification. It is well-targeted patient hard work.
If you are a young person not yet established in a career, consider chemical engineering, poor ore mining technologies, new materials science, "from scratch" synthetics production, bioextraction technologies, molecular mining technologies, experimental agriculture, and modular environmental systems as rewarding fields in which you can make a difference, both down here and out there.
Rocket science can take us to other worlds. It cannot enable us to do anything useful once we get there. Iridium may have failed. It was a detour. There are other, ultimately more powerful and profitable ways to build up to a space frontier economy. Do not waste a moment wallowing in discouragement at recent setbacks. In the end, they won't matter.
Entrepreneurs could make a tidy bundle here and now by developing technologies needed on the space frontier that also would have a real market on Earth. Poor Ore Mining Technologies, for one. Not only could one make money selling such technologies to "resource poor" nations on Earth, not only would you end up putting "on the shelf' technologies needed on the frontier, but even more important, just by doing so, you would make that land on the Moon much more valuable. For the R&D being done, the resources on this world will become more than "theoretical" - they will become real. They will become something we know how to work with. Then, only then, is any talk of land grants and land purchases something more than wild-eyed pie-in-the-sky.
Follow-up Lunar Science & Prospecting Missions
To make the Moon more valuable, we have to do much more work on its global resource map, on the Moon's Economic Geography, using probes with instruments that tell us what we need to know, not just what scratches the intellectual itches of geological investigators who have no interest in what the Moon could be. We need to map in greater resolution than that of Lunar Prospector, the larger enriched deposits of all the major chemical suites, locate potential energy sources like thorium, and use special orbiting radar arrays to ferret out near surface lavatube networks.
So much for NASA's job. But it won't get done if we leave the priorities up to academia and ivory tower curiosity. A a community, it is not enough for us to vigorously defend the science mission portion of the NASA budget.
We must start getting involved in the choice of missions and in the selection of mission goals and of the appropriate instrumentation. As a backup, we have to beef up legislative efforts to supply "carrots" for entrepreneurial prospecting missions.
In addition to guaranteeing that the prospecting "homework" is done, entrepreneurs must tackle the new technologies needed to economically develop these resources: poor ore mining technologies, glass composite production and fabrication, and other new materials suited to the resources available.
It is time to develop a terrestrial alternate nuclear fuels industry built on conversion of abundant Thorium 232 into fissionable Uranium 233. Earth's thorium reserves exceed the combined total of all other known sources of power.
Both for use on trackless parts of our home planet and on other worlds, entrepreneurs might develop marketable vehicles able to negotiate boulder strewn fields "as if they were paved", and other minimum infrastructure transportation methods.
Metallurgists can develop alloys that serve well enough without the rarer alloying ingredients in strategic short supply.
Experimental agriculturalists can continue development of plants that provide petrochemical-like feedstocks from which to make a whole host of useful synthetics. All these technologies, pursued to make money here and now on Earth, will by their very applicability to the Moon, make that world more valuable.
And of course, if we could get there faster, cheaper, sooner, that would up the value of land on the Moon even more. Now, when NASA has begun to look more to commercial partners than to "contractors", truly commercial development of hardware like inflatable habitats, lower cost launch vehicles, and even nuclear rockets start to make sense. NASA has tossed the ball to industry.
Yes, after all this, the Moon will still be "undeveloped real estate." But technologies like these available, the prospects for actual development efforts will be much more realistic. We will have taken the settlement of the Moon from the pages of science fiction and put it into the working projects folder of corporate boardrooms.
It is futile to agitate for the opening of the Moon until we have made it more valuable to open. - PK.
Part II: The "Developer's" Role:
The Moon "as is" is not an attractive piece of Real Estate. Putting together a package to attract anchor tenants and a "viable mix" of other clients, splitting costs & burdens, may be just the "accelerant" needed to start Lunar Development in earnest.
by Peter Kokh, © 2000 The Lunar Reclamation Society
["The Developer's Role" was first published in Moon Miners' Manifesto # 131, December 1999]
Improved Real Estate
Most readers will be aware of the distinction between "improved" and "unimproved" real estate. "Improved" real estate has on site or boundary access to utilities like water, gas, and electric. The lot may or may not have other "improvements" e.g. drainage grading. "Unimproved" real estate is just raw ground, with no utility access, perhaps not even road access, the kind of stuff Florida an Nevada fly-by-night "developers" want to sell you in the middle of a swamp or desert for a "bargain of a lifetime" price/ Lot's of luck doing anything with it!
All lunar real estate is "unimproved"
That does not mean that some locations are not better advantaged than others. Polar sites may have access to water-ice reserves. Highland/Mare Coastal sites have access to both major suites of pre-pulverized (read "pre-mined") regolith. Sites along the Mare Imbrium rim are richer in Potassium and Thorium and KREEP elements. And so on. But these are natural assets. No land on the Moon is man-improved, i.e. with utility access, or with any other kind of location-location-location traffic generating engineered "improvements." This is a daunting, if not intimidating fact facing anyone who has a free enterprise idea for a lunar location.
The same can be said of Mars, of course.
Allen Wasser has proposed a lunar "land grant" program to attract lunar development. But perhaps the only ideal customer for such a real estate regime is the "developer" who will go into the prospect site and make improvements that will render it especially attractive to specialized mining, processing, manufacturing, and other types of private enterprise. The first such developer to "improve" a resource-rich well-situated site, may, in the process be founding the first genuine lunar settlement. Even if there is already a scientific outpost on location, without improvements the "settlement" will not come.
The perspective of other interested parties
The mining company, the manufacturing company, the hotel operator, do not want to have to do such unaccustomed preliminary work as setting up power supplies, providing water, building a space port, providing communication relays, etc. If these things were already in place, ready to "plug into" and ready for "hook up", the location would be immensely more attractive. Industrial and commercial enterprise would not have to assume the extra burden of paying for these improvement costs up front, but would merely tap in, and pay a monthly or annual usage charge: utility bills. This drastically cuts their financing costs as well as the time between arrival on the Moon and first returns on investment. It makes their job in closing a deal at a bank that much easier, more realistic.
The Lunar Site Developer's tasks:
(1) Picking a Site for Improvement:
The first task is to analyze candidate sites on the basis of "strengths & weaknesses". The developer should draw up an "Existing Conditions Map." This will include the topography within the area, noting potential obstacles and assets for construction. If there is a science outpost already established, any sharable assets (power, communications, roadways, launch pad) should be noted.
Do assets outweigh liabilities? Are there any "targets of opportunity" such as proximity to uncommon but valuable resources, passages through topographical obstacles such as passes through nearby ridges, natural bridges over nearby rilles? Are there known intact lavatubes in the vicinity? What is the ratio of highland-derived to mare-derived soil in the local regolith? Are there scenic highlights in the area? Is there enough flat terrain for emplacement of large solar arrays? Is there a logical location for a spaceport?
What are the liabilities? Lack of easy access to neighboring areas of the Moon? Uneven terrain? A large number of inconveniently placed boulders? Rilles or ridges that are not easily negotiated? Such liabilities must be weighed along with assets.
Next the developer needs to brainstorm this mix of assets and come up with a winning strategy to attract enterprises to buy in the development.
(2) The Site Development Plan
Site development plans should work with the lay of the land, develop topography suggested transportation corridors in the vicinity. The location must be picked for the spaceport with adjacent surface warehousing and shipping/receiving areas. Will the spaceport provide loading and unloading equipment so that incoming freighters do not have to carry the extra mass of self-unloading equipment? Developing the Port Facility will be part of Phase One.
A graded Road Network linking identified industrial park properties and residential and commercial areas and other special identified use areas must be provided. Easily gradable roadways to important nearby off-location resource-rich areas should be identified and marked. Care must be taken that all such identified sites are easily serviceable both by road and by utility providers.
3) Financial Considerations:
The proposed development must be
- market supportable
- physically doable
- financially viable
To this end, the developer needs to take on "natural partners" in order to subdivide the task and conquer the load. "Natural Partners" will include:
- a power generation company (solar &/or nuclear)
- an oxygen production facility. Among potentially competing proposals, one that employs processes that produce enriched tailings especially attractive to other potential manufacturers should be given the nod. Such beneficiated byproducts will help identify and attract other clients.
- a water production facility. If the site is not proximate to polar ice fields, and the developer does not wish to co-develop such icefields along with a means of transporting water, or hydrogen produced from it, to the development site, then, if hydrogen produced by heat-scavenging of any and all regolith moved in development of the site does not produce enough to be reacted with locally produced oxygen to meet needs, the balance must be brought from Earth. The only rational way to meet primary water recovery and waste treatment needs is on the spot where the water is grayed. This will be a burden each tenant-client of the development must assume. The development's shared mini-biosphere must be modular both in construction and in maintenance. This means primary treatment at the source of the problem for both water and air.
- a mining processing-building component manufacturer to turn out prefab modular building components to fit customer needs, in order to defray the cost of bringing additional pressurized volume from Earth at much greater expense.
Such a partner building component manufacturer could then enter into a joint venture with the developer to produce "turnkey" factories, ware-=houses, commercial and residential properties for other clients on the basis of need and request.
Additionally, such a company could construct "hanger sheds" or space-frames constructed of glass composites or steel, covered with plates of the same material, then over-blanketed with regolith to provide "improved" radiation proof "lee vacuum" for easy set up of modular habitat structures, especially less expensive, lighter, cheaper to ship inflatables and hybrid rigid-core inflatables (on the TransHab model). Such hangers or ramadas might be built as rille-spanning vaults: virtual man-made or more exactly, man-restored lavatubes, which is what most sinuous rilles originally were.
Another joint venture would be to provide improved access (graded ramps and elevators) to any buildable lavatubes in the area. Shafts drilled through the lavatube ceiling/roof filled with fiber optic cables, with sun collector on top and light defuser within the lavatube, would be an immensely attractive improvement, as would be a lavatube floor topographic map. No enterprise will buy space within a lavatube, no matter how many theoretical advantages it offers, without solid concrete information, and prepared access and minimal lighting.
These "Natural Partners" will be the "anchor" tenants" necessary to attract other partners, clients, and tenants to the development. These latter must be identified with special care to create a viable mix of enterprises that will both provide a healthy balance of diversified exports and meet a major portion of the physical needs of the growing community of people locating in the development to run and operate the various enterprises:
- modular housing, other pressurized structures
- furniture and furnishings
- other basic products
This is a plan in which costs are identified and shared in a manner that makes the development
- physically doable
- financially viable
- environmentally compatible
- politically feasible
It is a prescription for a rational plan to share both equity and debt, to remediate any waste problems, and to share the costs of further improvements useful for all or most parties.
Reader comments and suggestions to further improve this general approach to lunar industrial development are welcome. <MMM>
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