Low-Cost Strategies for Lunar Settlement

By Bruce Pittman (Winter 2014)

Weekend Workshop Report
The Challenge: Put a settlement capable of supporting 10 people on the Moon by 2022 for less than $5 billion.

Every once in great while you get the opportunity to participate in a truly remarkable event; for me, this was one of those occasions. The workshop, co-sponsored by NSS, was the brainchild of Dr. John Cumbers with my assistance and that of Dr. Chris McKay, noted planetary scientist from NASA Ames, and Will Marshall, CEO of PlanetLabs. The one-day workshop was hosted by Steve Jurvetson, managing partner of Draper, Fisher, Jurvetson at their corporate offices on San Hill Road down the street from Stanford University.

To this unique event we invited a wide collection of scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, artists, civil servants, venture capitalists, and even a few lawyers. The rationale for this workshop was stated as, “In the past, the perceived costs of a lunar base have led to a widespread view that it would cost tens of billions of dollars per year, for many decades. Our hypothesis is that if we can provide convincing arguments that the cost of a lunar base might be 10 times less than previously thought, then perceptions will change, the nature of the debate will change, and we will make a permanent presence on the Moon a reality.”

The day started off with a welcome from Steve Jurvetson. Steve is an investor in SpaceX and sits on their board. He had just flown in that morning from the SpaceX propulsion facility in Texas, where he viewed the launch and subsequent crash of the F9R. He brought back and shared with us some pieces from the wreckage that he collected when inspecting the crash site with Elon. He then introduced the three plenary speakers.

Chris McKay of NASA Ames remarks were on “Why Focus on Low Cost” and he talked about why he believes that to get to Mars it is important to go to the Moon first. But he highlighted the need to do this return in a way that dramatically reduced the cost so this supported and would not inhibit Mars exploration. He also talked about his experience in the Antarctic and suggested the international cooperation at the South Pole as a model for lunar settlement.

Jeff Greason, CEO of XCOR, was the next speaker and he spoke on “Goals and Means for Lunar Settlement.” Jeff enthusiastically disagreed with Chris and said the Antarctic was a terrible model in that it eliminated the potential for mining and other resource extraction on the Moon. He also said that he thought the minimum size for a viable lunar settlement was 100 or so.

The final opening speaker was Will Marshall, CEO of Planet Labs, and his talk was titled, “An Agile Approach to Settlement on Luna.” Will described a minimalist approach to lunar settlement that leveraged commercial companies such as SpaceX to reduce the cost and accelerate the lunar development.

Dr. Ben Haldeman of Planet Labs acted as the workshop moderator and did a great job of keeping everything moving and on time. The first breakout session topics were: 1) Location and Site Selection, 2) Precursor Missions, 3) Transportation Systems, 4) Terrestrial Analogs/Biospheres, 5) Deriving Value on the Path to a Lunar Infrastructure, 6) Role of Self-replicating Machines & Human-Robotic Interaction (which I moderated), and 7) Overall Architecture for Settlement.

After lunch we went into the second set of breakouts: 8) Solar Power, Batteries, Thermal, 9) Cost Reduction Incentives and Mechanisms, 10) Lunar Habitat, 11) Life Support and Human Needs on the Moon, 12) ISRU & Manufacturing, 13) Creating an Economical Settlement, and 14) Creating a Thriving Community.

After a break, we entered into the Unconference, where people grouped together to discuss a topic that they wanted to address in more detail. I ended up in a rather large group of about 15 people, where we talked about sources of near-term funding for such an effort and the objectives that could be identified. One key idea that came up was to advocate for a lunar robotic precursor program that would leverage off the investments being made by the Google Lunar X Prize (GLXP) teams. Bob Richards, CEO of Moon Express, was in that group with me, as was Alex Hall, former senior director of the GLXP.

At the end of the day, everybody got together for a wrap up, titled, “Models for Commitments and Continued Engagement,” led by Steve Jurvetson. The goal of this session was to discuss ways to keep the spark that had been ignited at this event alive and growing. What kind of organization was needed, what support and funding was required, and who was willing to step forward and offer leadership for such an effort? Each person was then asked to publicly state what they were committing to doing to advance this cause over the next 30 days. We each wrote this commitment down on a postcard that we addressed to ourselves. John Cumbers then collected these and they would be mailed to each of the participants 30 days later. The conclusion reached by the group was that a lunar settlement by 2022 for less than $5 billion is certainly a stretch goal—but everybody agreed that if it was approached correctly that is a goal worth striving for.

This was a remarkable event I felt privileged to attend.

This article was written by Bruce Pittman, Senior Vice President and SeniorOperating Officer for the National Space Society. The article originally appeared in Ad Astra, Winter 2014.