The current geopolitical context somewhat ensures that lunar activities will get funded in the upcoming years. Even if we could consider it is not for the good reasons, it is an opportunity. Living in space will have a lot of side benefits, so maybe it is a blessing in disguise?
To make our return to the Moon sustainable, we will need to live there and use the local resources. The reason is obvious: it will increase initial costs, but reduce recurring costs. The spanish pioneers didn’t bring with them the necessary wood and stones to build the new world, they used what they found onsite. On a smaller scale, people like me who do hiking know how useful it is to be able to refill water & food during the trip, and not have to pack everything for multiple days… it really makes a difference!
Whether our lunar expeditions are expected to last 1 week or 1 year, the recurring cost of these trips will be smaller if we make an initial investment on infrastructures to use local resources.
That’s what’s different about returning to the Moon today, compared to the 60s. Every major spacefaring countries share this vision, and the current NASA administrator repeats it often: “this time [we go to the Moon] to stay“.
This time to stay. Ok. How do we do? Why did we stop going there the first time? The answer is easy: it was too expensive to sustain, because sustainable presence wasn’t the goal.
In the 60s, we were barely starting to launch satellites, and the goal was mostly about making the trip, not what’s done at the destination. In 1961, Kennedy chose to lead the Americans to the Moon and do the other things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard”, and to do them “before this decade is out”. With such an ambitious goal, engineering and financing systems were put in place. To win the race and show that Americans could accomplish great things, swiftly. After they won the race, the nationalist euphoria fell down and public support declined, so the spendings weren’t acceptable anymore for politicians. Visited for the first time in 1969, the Moon didn’t see any boots since 1972.
Today, programs are no longer articulated around goals, but capabilities. There is still a broad objective, returning to the Moon before 202X, but the building blocks are put together one by one, step by step, instead of having a single big monolithic program. First the rockets, then crewed capsules, lunar landers capable of pinpoint landing, … soon, prospection rovers, lunar habitats, and in-situ resource utilization devices.
There is no specific roadmap, but one by one, the building blocks are coming to life, and we are getting closer to the Moon, because the future costs to reach it are getting lower and lower.
Another big difference: some of these developments are done by private companies (especially in the USA, on the initiative of NASA). The government co-finances development costs, so it’s a bit artificial to say “private”. But once the initial research and development costs are absorbed, these private actors will be able to continue their lunar activities by requiring much less inputs from governments, who can then focus on the next steps (like going to Mars, or do some heavier base-building on the Moon), without sacrificing the continuity of the services they helped bring to life.
The goal of the U.S. is to build an ecosystem of private actors with complementing capabilities, that could buy services to each others, and where NASA would only be an anchor customer at first, then just one of many customers. International partners would be welcome in such an ecosystem, because they would also be bringing their own capabilities and services.
It may not sound very convincing, because it is a bit abstract. There are no business plans saying: I will invest X much, and after Y years I will have a return of Z. Everyone is completely in the dark, because nobody knows where we are going. We can easily imagine how certain services could emerge: transport companies, logistics companies, companies to manage energy networks, mining companies, construction companies, food and life support companies, waste processing companies, foundries, … But today, the pieces of the puzzle do not fit together, because there are no end customers. Who would want to go to the Moon and buy the services of all these people? What revenues will the lunar activities make to justify all these expenses?
At first, it will be the governments that will fill the lack of lunar “exports” (income from customers outside of Luna), and NASA is betting that inventiveness and the entrepreneurial mindset of the private sector will discover what lunar activities can sustainably finance themselves in the future.
It was impossible, in 1788 when the British crown established the Sydney penitentiary camp, to know that 60 years later it would become a democratic state exporting thousands of tons of sheep wool every year, today the 14th nation in terms of economic power. Christopher Columbus did not go to America with the goal of building tobacco farms and boat factories.
It’s impossible to know in advance what businesses will work. I personally think that lunar exports will be mostly intellectual (tourism, sports in reduced gravity broadcasted over the internet, intellectual property of innovations stimulated by this new environment, totally regular rocks but sold at a premium price because they come from the Moon, …), because massive physical exports would require a lot of improvement on rockets. But who knows what tomorrow will bring? When we talk about a 60-year horizon, we are talking about a horizon where young people (or even not yet born today) will be at the end of their professional careers. A lot of things can happen in the meantime…
By starting today with activites sponsored by governments, what will the Moon look like in 60 years? If we don’t go, we won’t know.