At the final press conference of the 2 December 2016 Ministerial Conference, ESA Director General Jean Woerner, again expressed his and ESA’s commitment to the ESA Moon Village. Neither wanting to call his idea a project nor a program, it is doubtful if and when this is all supposed to happen, creating a lot of uncertainty.
(Update: To read a 2018 about the first commercial mission in 2019, read our article: “First 2019 commercial mission to the Moon will be European” )
If you need a little refresher on what the ESA vision is all about, try this ESA clip: “Moon Village”
Trying to save the initial enthusiasm in the space community about the concept, I will outline an alternative narration, that might offer some clues about what a well defined Moon Village Concept, a Moon Village 2.0 could look like.
Moon Village 2.0: A clear end goal you can help make happen.
First of all an invitation and an e-mail adress
As an open village you are free to enter our Moon Village, join modules and make use of our facilities. This corresponds well with the idea of mutual assistance and peaceful cooperation referred to in the Space Treaties. Many forms of local use and sale for local use of those resources are allowed within the Treaties today, and some countries already allow their citizens use of these resources for any peaceful, non-military, civilian purpose. If you want to discuss ideas and desire cooperation you can find us via firstname.lastname@example.org
The end goal of the Moon Village
The Moon Village will serve as a permanent supportive infrastructure that can be tended by robots and crew. It will be the central hub for a larger CISLUNAR – MARS transportation infrastructure. The Moon Village will be a destination for scientific research of the entire Moon environment, but also a safe space harbor for exchange of products, equipment and extracted or stored and recycled resources. A small scale production infrastructure for plastics, gases and metals will be established to reduce transportation of dumb mass from Earth. The goal is not to duplicate the Antarctica model, but to establish a village with a local commercial resources market able to pay for its own independent existence and expansion. This entails that opportunities to commercialize resources should be embraced. Independence also means that we could learn to cultivate food crops, woody crops and elevate livestock in other gravity wells with an expansive surplus production.
Space is full of resources , many times more than the Earth is, and using them benefits humanity. Businesses however need some form of certainty on the manners they can turn their activities into a profit, enabling the establishment of a growing market and presence.
Refined goods like gases and propellants will regularly be shipped from the Moon surface to the Orbit of the Moon, to the Earth-Moon Lagrange Points (e.g. L1 between Earth and Moon), the Mars system and even Low Earth Orbit. The dedicated cargo platforms could be either single use or reusable Single Stage to Orbit rockets, using liquid fuels/metal fuels (e.g. magnesium based, an abundant element on the moon) or electrically propelled tugs that use their propellant even more efficiently. Laser driven systems and electromagnetic mass drivers will eventually be integrated because of their clear benefits, but for civilian applications these laboratory technologies still require a decade worth of R&D and investment and are not counted upon.
A further technology that will enable testing technologies directly on the moon and not on Earth, is a recent break through in additive manufacturing. In 2017 a group succeeded in printing with non weldable space grade alloys. This is revolutionary because this feat, for the first time in many decades of research, opens up the entire range of metals to 3D printing at their full strength. As a result, it is better to do the R&D process, and repairs, directly on the moon. Find out more about this process here.
This implies that the Moon will serve as test bed for dual use technologies. These are technologies, like habitats, landers, rovers, life support, that can be used both on the Moon and on Mars. Designing them for use at both planetary destinations -the Moon would be called a planet if it were not to circle Earth-, saves decades worth of R&D time. Any weight penalties would be offset by the propellant abundance paradigm. In that paradigm the Celestial bodies, including the moon, are abundant in resources and we should design for their use.
Location, a lava tube on the South Pole
It is time for the international community to settle on one location for this Moon village. The South Pole, with water ice containing permanently shadowed craters and shorter moon nights, has been circulating as an ideal location for an initial settlement. Water for life support, power and propellant are all available. It is a good idea.
A better idea still is to look for entrances to lava tubes in the same area. Exploring them would offer us a look inside of the moon, deeper than most proposed moon drills could. The shielding provided by these natural caverns, against radiation and temperature swings, would be very kind on both materials and crew and serve as an ideal location to place habitats and other facilities. Exploring these tubes from their rim would result in exciting science and exploration opportunities. At a later date we could cap them off with inflatable bladders, insulate and reinforce the walls with shotcrete or concrete cement or plastic foams, and pressurize them.
We want a moon village on the rim of a lava tube, exploring the cave below it, while having access to a permanently shadowed crater with water ice on the nearby South Pole.
Even if we do not find such a tunnel, our surface base will probably look like one. Architectures using regolith to protect against radiation, result in that architecture, including he one proposed at ESA. As a result the author proposes to take a look at tunnel boring machines and explore if instead of using them to dig cavities, we can adapt their design to additively manufacture surface-tunnels with regolith.
Synergistic designs to activate dead weight
We want each of the objects we initially land and test on the moon to be as versatile as possible and from the first landing contribute to the end goal. This can lead to original solutions:
A single use Moon lander for cargo is a large object with large propellant tanks. If we use non toxic propellants these large volumes can be equipped with air locks to serve as a crew habitat. This is a new tech solution, explored for LEO by IXION, and to shake out the details, should be experimented with early in the landing campaign. The empty tanks/crew can also be used as reservoirs where landed mining robots can store their gases. A variant on this even uses inflatable propellant tanks, constrained in their expansion on their trip to the moon. Once landed they could expand to a volume larger than the original lander, greatly increasing their usefulness to receive mined gases and/or crew.
Instead of dead weight landing gears, we can equip them with electric wheels adding mobility to your slightly heavier lander, while not having to land a separate vehicle. On the way to the Moon they could double as mass reaction wheels orienting the spacecraft. Mining tools could be integrated with the lander which would result in the lander to act like, with lack of a precise term, a surface-roving-moon-mining-and-resources-storing-‘Grazing Moon Cow’. With the Chinese Moon Rabbit or ‘Yutu’-rover that landed some years ago, this can be the start of an entire family of farm animals, or moon robotic surface mobility packages.
Separate pillow shaped habitats, the size of a large living space of about 5by3by8 meters, with airlocks on each sides, could also be offloaded from such a lander; equipped with a bladder for liquids, separated from the wall. Before being crewed they would be inflated by a co-manifested mining bot, and serve as gas and fluid reservoirs, designed to be able to freeze out during the days long moon nights without damage. A throughput port plate, e.g. for a robot or crew to manage gases, would be part of every hab. . The habs, connected and inflated with the mined resources, would be be buried, either with 3D printed interstitial walls, or simply with plain dumped regolith serving to reinforce, eliminate radiation and offer temperature control.
Such a pillow hab. would only weigh about 500 kg and the mining or utility robot also 500 kg. For this purpose I would propose organizing a yearly One ton To The Moon design competition, where these payloads are designed to be co-manifested on each lunar lander flight, with only the rover being specialized for specific tasks (mining/producing plastics/metals, other).
Because we want to explore lava tubes and craters, we have an immediate use for CABLE ROBOTS. In the low gravity of the Moon, these low weight systems, equipped with articulated arms on a central cabled platform, can service very large areas and hence are a very clean and useful addition to build up the infrastructure of a Moon Village, but also do precise work (modern robot arms) without kicking up dirt. A clear example of a technology designed for use on Earth that can be spun in for service on the Moon.
Fast track to commercial exploitation on first landing
A great monetary benefit would already come from the simple act of concentrating resources (gases/minerals) in one spot, without even refining them. The inflatable lander being used as a reservoir for gases of any type, would result in an immediate reduction in the number of future required rocket launches. A company might sell this cost saving on expenditures for resources as a product.
Having a busy destination is paramount in attracting more activity and commercial providers. A resource attracts a lone explorer, but life attracts more life and busy cities attract people and businesses off all kind. In a build up to the end goal, this would be emulated by committing to a yearly cadence to that destination with elements that duplicate, compete with and build up on each others capabilities. Sharing exploration data freely and setting up a local market for the sale of literally life saving resources will result in a more rapid commercialization of access to deep space.
Lacking abilities can be fast tracked into production by organizing design competitions with clear goals, and commitments to buy multiple products, modeled upon the NASA COTS-agreements that produced the broad competitive family of crewed and non-crewed transportation systems on the American Launcher Market. From nothing, they created a broad commercial provider space in the span of about a decade, allowing NASA to buy launch services at lower cost than it could achieve if it would try to build these systems alone, as they would be burdened by heavy bureaucratic rules and snail paced oversight.
ESA and NASA, or all partners combined, could commit to buying a yearly tonnage and set of capabilities to be delivered to the Moon. They could also set open standards that anybody can design to. (An example of this is the International Docking Standard). Having a yearly scheduled train going to the moon, and having the ability to co-manifest smaller payloads on it (university and other cubesats/ small science and communication packages) would create a very busy ecosystem of suppliers and customers, all active in the entire cislunar space and coming up with new commercial ideas to mutually support and profitably serve each other and new potential markets.
Not a phased approach but an immediate build up
While agencies pride themselves with diagrams and illustrations that show phased approaches, this is completely unnecessary in the proposed architecture. We do not need an exploration phase, followed by small robots running around and testing mining tools , followed by cargo landers that are a little bit bigger, eventually followed by crew. That approach would require many launches and is very wasteful. It can be done much more economically and faster. Every launch is a habitat, a cargo lander platform and has a mining robot. The build up is immediate, not phased, and all modules multiply each others capabilities. Setting up long conservative R&D programs is overkill in light of the capabilities we already have.
Co-manifesting these three separate functions (habitation, exploration, mining&Production) on each flight, is the most efficient manner in creating a balance between capabilities and services with an immediate potential for commercial in situ valorisation of resource services.
It also allows for crews to set foot on and tend this moon village at any time in the expansion of the village, without having to await a decade of build up efforts. Once we have a human rated lander (e.g. the SSTO of the design onestagetospace proposes), we have all the equipment and modules in place for extended missions.
Frequent surface testing
But we also need a lot of learning moments, possibilities and occasions to experiment and fail with resources in their relevant environment.
The TRL or, technology readiness level scale, has worked fine, but the cost to try to buy engineering certainty also drives the entire programmatic costs up considerably. If we want a fast build up of elements and technologies for the Moon, anything that doesn’t involve crew safety could be tested much faster on the Moon and provide valuable test data that goes in the next iteration of the product. We want to understand how products and equipment fail on the moon, in an environment filled with abrasive moon dust, and challenging temperature swings. This can only be done through testing them on location. We will learn more and more rapidly.
The central idea that Mr. Woerner voiced, that of an openness to all willing participants, indeed is important. We are one world community with many different voices and insights. The creativity of all of us can only help to make this an interesting village. Still, we need a more uniform vision on the infrastructure that such a village would require. I hope that the proposed solutions help to draft a more clear initial outline.
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