Mine Design and Construction

Even with limited data on prospective lunar mining sites, basic site characterization supplied by Apollo allows some generalized design work to begin. Integrating limited data with a few assumption$ can yield a reasonable baseline lunar mining and milling operation.

The high cost of space transportation, especially of people, suggests that a lunar or asteroidal mine should be highly automated. But terrestrial mining industry experience with automation has been bleak. Mining operations, because they are complex, difficult, hard on equipment, and have many degrees of freedom, are poor candidates for automation. While systems like ventilation control, haulage trains, and equipment monitoring have been automated, no mine production system has ever been completely automated. Even though removing workers from a relatively dangerous environment seemed sufficient justification, production automation was too complex and unreliable to be economic. Present industry practice is driven solely by economics: Can money be saved by automating? The strategy is to automate a small, well-defined task and then do extensive debugging before automating another task. Given this poor record, automatic systems should be used with caution, have plenty of redundancy, and, if possible, have people present to solve the inevitable unexpected problems.

The automation trend does appear to be accelerating, however. The latest attempts are far more sophisticated and complex. For example, a Swedish firm has been experimenting with an automatic underground blast hole drilling rig. Underground blast hole drilling is a complex operation with many degrees of freedom and multilevel decision-making.

Our study group advises caution in automatirng lunar or asteroidal mining operatiorls. Although it is possible that a completely automated mine would be less experlsive tharn a similar manned operation, the issue is still in doubt and needs further study, We further note that a completely unmanned system is highly unlikely; no matter how well designed they are, automatic systems will eventually require human intervention. The basic tradeoff question is, "Would it be less expensive to develop an automated system or to accept the higher operating costs of a manned operation?" One more, important point should be made: The development of reliable automated mining systems would find a lucrative terrestrial market.


We recommend that several steps be taken to clarify the questions of lunar and asteroidal mining:

  1. Determination of realistic markets for products from nonterrestrial resources is of major importance, because market income determines mine size, location, and mining and milling method in short, the project.
  2. Additional remote sensing by satellite for the Moon and by telescope and later spacecraft for asteroids should be done to provide a more robust data base on which to evaluate nonterrestrial resources.
  3. 3Any remote sensing or onsite data-gathering projects must be evaluated for specific support of mining activities. Site information lowers costs.
  4. Local sampling programs to determine the extent and minability of the deposits will still be necessary even after reconnaissance data have been gathered. These programs may combine surface sampling and sample return missions.
  5. Technology for nonterrestrial mining must be studied in detail. Mining operations are notably difficult to automate and may ultimately require significant human intervention in the nonterrestrial case. The tradeoffs between manned and automated mining methods must be analyzed in detail and the best strategy selected. Error in either direction could result in the failure of the project.
  6. Simplicity of equipment and mining method is a must for the first project gathering nonterrestrial materials. Reducing complexity will reduce development, capital, and operating costs.


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Metals. In Advances in the Astronautical Sciences 53 (Proc. Princeton Conf. Space Manufacturing 1983, ed. James D. Burke and April S. Whitt): 375-389. San Diego: American Astronautical Soc.

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Curator: Al Globus
NASA Responsible Official: Dr. Ruth Globus
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