Let’s Make a Manned Mission to the Moon

After a year of analysis of its LCROSS lunar-impact probe mission to the moon, NASA has announced the discovery of up to a billion gallons of frozen water – known to many as “ice” – in the floor of a south-pole crater permanently in shadow. They also found silver, carbon monoxide and mercury.

The discovery could not have come at a more opportune time for NASA, which in recent years has begun to list as aimlessly as a ship with no sails. With the discovery of lunar water comes an onrush of possibilities; bloggers and journalists the world over are already speculating about manned moon bases, the first extraterrestrial mining mission and even encountering new forms of life, a key element of which is, after all, water. While the latter may not necessarily imply the former, it’s certainly a hell of a notion to hold on to for the time being.

However, not everyone is excited about NASA’s discovery. Some people feel that the space program – in the midst of growing economic crises across the world – should take a seat on the back burner for the time being. After all, why should we care what’s happening on the moon when we can hardly hold things together down here on Earth?

It’s a debate that holds more weight than people might initially think. For one, the discovery of water on the moon has opened doors of an enormous amount. On a planet where drinkable water is becoming more and more a precious resource – so much so that it’s become a significant factor in the Middle East conflict – finding 1,500 Olympic swimming pools’ worth of water just a hop, skip and liftoff away should not be disregarded. In the very possible event that water becomes a source of contention, not just among countries in the Middle East but countries all over the world, the technology to find and harvest water off-planet could very well deter World War III. Even if that doesn’t happen, the ice can be used to not only supply manned bases with water, but can be separated into hydrogen and oxygen – elements not only necessary for human life but for rocket fuel, too.

The possibility of building manned bases on the moon stands to kick into gear an entire new industry and method of life. It can revolutionize the way we as a species use and interact with outer space; scientists and entrepreneurs argue that it can bloom into a garden of trade, travel and discovery. In that sense, it would make economic sense to begin supplying stations on the moon because, as its gravity is one-sixth that of Earth’s, launching from there would be much cheaper.

Then there are the economic repercussions to take into account. Lunar water represents an entire planet of business opportunities – OK, maybe just a moon’s worth. From building the moon bases so many people are already drooling over to running the mining operations to dig out chunks of ice from the moon’s craters, finding a financially motivating reason to invest in the moon will not be difficult.

Greg Baiden, chief technology officer of the robotic technology firm Penguin Automated Systems, seems to concur. “I think the moon is clearly the answer,” he said at a recent conference in Sunnyvale on discussing technologies crucial for space settlement. “I could easily make a business case for going to the moon.”

Some companies have already started gearing up and mapping out strategies to mine moon water to fuel manned moon bases. Shackleton Energy Company, for instance, has its sights set on selling rocket fuel in orbit by 2020. With only 10 years to make a sci-fi nerd’s wet dream a sci-fi nerd’s reality, the timeline comes off as a little more than ambitious, almost cocky. The technology to build a mostly robotic lunar mining operation, though, exists today in the here and now. Such robots could be controlled directly from Earth.

“We’ve reached the point of tele-operations now that I think it’s feasible to mine the moon,” Baiden said.

The moon’s proximity to the Earth means that such communications between man and a robotic mining operation can potentially occur in real time with a lag time of no more than a second or two.

Lunar water mining would also be the first step in a long tour of accessing the moon’s other resources. Aside from the aforementioned elements, we also know to exist in the moon methane and ammonia, which can be utilized for their carbon and nitrogen. Such elements would be irreplaceable for a lunar settlement intent on spending a long while on the moon’s surface. And once nuclear fusion becomes a viable source of energy, entrepreneurs can then seek the moon’s caches of helium-3, an important fusion fuel.

Simply because the effects of money invested in mining for lunar water wouldn’t be seen on the Earth’s own surface is not reason enough to disregard NASA, or this recent discovery, as extraneous. Water on the moon could very well become a crucial factor in our species’ survival; it could also play a crucial role in the development of space exploration.

And really, what part of the phrase “lunar moon base” does not excite you?

AE Anteater is a fifth-year English major. He can be reached at emailremoved@uci.edu.