Sunday Coffee with Jeemes: Why is everyone going to the moon?

Brilliant and brave Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon.

                     WHY IS EVERYONE GOING TO THE MOON? 

“Streets full of people, all alone

  Roads full of houses, never home

  Church full of singing, out of tune

  Everyone’s gone to the moon.”

 

                                                     Jonathan King

(Song), 1965

 

“China’s return of helium-3 [from the moon] suggests that the moon could become the Persian Gulf of the mid to late 21st century.”

 

                                                     Mark R. Whittington[1]

 

“To explore the vast cosmos, develop the space industry and build China into a space power is our eternal dream.”

 

                                                     Chinese President Xi Jinping[2]

                                                                                                                 

         Have you wondered why all this sudden interest in the moon?

China has launched probes to the “dark side” of the moon and landed rovers, NASA has staked its reputation—not to mention billions in future funding—on its moon-centered Artemis project, and several privately funded entities from Elon Musk’s SpaceX (planning to use its new Starship rocket to ferry humans to and from the moon) and Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin is vying to build a lunar lander. Not to mention lunar-based plans by Japan, South Korea and India. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin—up to his cheeks in other problems right now—has vowed an intention for Russia to renew its moon plans.

But why the moon and, more importantly, why now?

In my previous missive I mentioned Kamran Khozan and his presentations in Texas and Oklahoma for Westwin Elements Inc., my former student KaLeigh Long’s effort to build the first largescale cobalt refinery in the U.S. During one of those presentations, Kamran casually mentioned the recently completed Chinese lunar mission and stated the true goal was to obtain strategic minerals from the moon, but they didn’t get all they hoped for.

That was it.

No further explanations.

An explosive bit of information buried in his presentation.

But that simple statement sent my mind reeling as I asked myself three questions: first, how did Kamran know that? Second, if true, why do we not know more about the true goal of the most recent moon-related “Space Race”—the quest for strategic minerals? And thirdly, what are the long-term ramifications for my grandchildren and their children twenty-to-thirty years from now?

So, I started digging—or perhaps more apropos—mining for data on the topic.

A few days after Kamran’s mysterious statement, word started filtering out that the Chinese Chang’e 5 lunar mission had returned with a new mineral from the moon’s surface. According to Xinhau (China’s state operated news agency), the Chinese named the “kind-of colorless transparent columnar crystal” Changesite-(Y) and further claimed that the new mineral contains helium-3, an isotope touted by many scientists as a potential fuel for future fusion reactors.[3] The crystal mineral they brought back was very small—one-tenth the size of a human hair—but the potential for helium-3 has many scientists excited. It’s advantage for fusion energy reactors is that, unlike tritium and deuterium (the other isotopes of helium), it does not create radioactive neutrons.

Great news huh?

Not so fast my friend! Helium-3 fusion may not become a reality before the middle of this century because of the technological obstacles involved.

Nevertheless, the allure of an energy source that promises to be a solution to both energy scarcity and climate change (in a political environment that consistently relegates fossil fuels to the back of the room) will drive future efforts to start mining operations on the moon.

To that end, according to NASA, China is preparing for the next phase of its lunar exploration program leading to a research base at the south pole of the moon. Chang’e 6[4] will be another sample-return mission focusing on ice deposits at the moon’s south pole; Chang’e 7 is projected to be an orbiter, lander and rover combination to prospect for water at the south pole; and, Chang’e 8 will test technologies for the eventual construction of a lunar base. Sometime in the 2030’s, China (perhaps in partnership with Russia) plan crewed lunar landings.[5]

But wait a minute!

Weren’t all of us glued to our television sets, along with an estimated 530 million viewers around the world, on July 21, 1969, when American astronauts Neil Alden Armstrong (1930-2012) and Buzz Aldrin landed and walked on the moon?

Excuse me, but haven’t we already won the Cold War-era “Space Race”?

The race to the moon?

Apparently not.

Before I leave the topic of Neil Armstrong, allow me to relate a quick personal account. Armstrong (like me) was a native of Ohio. Not only was he the first person to walk on the moon, but a skilled aeronautical engineer, naval aviator during the Korean War, and test pilot. His final career move was as a university professor at the University of Cincinnati. Armstrong owned a small farm near Lebanon, Ohio that we would frequently drive by when Ima and I would visit my parents in Springboro, Ohio. Before he moved to the farm, Armstrong rented a house directly across the street (Turner Drive) from my Grandma Clara Akers’ house.

Small world huh?

At any rate, today, NASA’s much-ballyhooed effort to return to the moon—the Artemis program—has seen the launch of Artemis 1 twice delayed (a new launch date is scheduled for September 27 with a back-up date of October 2).[6] The delay has been embarrassing for NASA which, unlike the well-funded Chinese lunar missions, is dependent on handouts from Congress (and news item: our government is broke! We are printing money at an unsustainable rate to fund insatiable military, social and government spending programs). Artemis 2 will send U.S. and Canadian astronauts around the moon in 2024, and by 2025 or 2026, Artemis 3 will land our first astronauts on the moon since Apollo 17 in 1972.[7]

Of course, the future of lunar exploration—and exploitation—may not lie with big government programs but smaller, more flexible, and more technologically savvy private efforts. By the end of this year, two robotic missions, one by Intuitive Machines,[8] the other by Astrobotic[9] plan to land probes on the lunar surface. That is not to mention the ambitious lunar plans of SpaceX[10] (the SpaceX on-line prospectus touting its moon program begins with “only 24 humans have been to the moon in history, and no one has been back since 1972”) and Blue Origin’s “New Glenn” vehicles.

And other space-related start-ups are popping up constantly.

Perhaps more interesting is the fact that the lure of strategic minerals is prompting a new race to the moon between China and the U.S. (as well as the aforementioned commercial entities). So what? Such a rivalry could bleed over into dangerous geostrategic territory. As one commentator observes: “Their [China and the U.S.] inability to cooperate on space risks not only an arms race, but also clashes over extracting potentially hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of resources on the moon and elsewhere.”[11] Moreover, Western officials fear that unless a set of rules is established to govern exploitation of resources on the moon (or asteroids or other solar system planets and moons), “you could have a Chinese company on the moon in the 2030s claiming territory with a resource on it, in the same way the Chinese have claimed the entire South China Sea.”[12]

As if we don’t have enough problems. Right?

All this leads me to mention an interesting, at least in my view, legal angle pertaining to the new space race for the moon. At the center of a growing dispute for a set of rules to govern future commercial exploitation of the moon, is the U.S.-drafted “Artemis Accords,” a non-legally binding set of principles to govern activity on the moon, Mars and beyond. NASA claims the agreement is in accord with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and provides the framework to put human astronauts on the moon and kick-start mining operations of lucrative lunar elements.

But the age where the U.S. can unilaterally dictate legal institutions to the rest of the world is over.

In short, China, Russia and several other nations are refusing to play by these new Western rules. The Chinese media complains, for example, that the U.S. wants to set up a “space-based NATO,”[13] and the agreement’s provision for “safety zones” are but thinly disguised land grabs in violation of international law.[14] Moreover, Beijing sees the U.S. reliance on past rulemaking mechanisms as a sign the West is losing its steam. As a recent article in the pro-China Global Times suggests: “Space observers also pointed out that as NASA is trying to relive its Apollo glories, China is working on innovative plans to carry out its own crewed lunar landings.”[15]

China’s view (that they are poised to seize the upper hand in space) is echoed by many in the U.S.: in a space-industry session in June 2022, the 350 participants (for the first time) were pessimistic about the future U.S. role in space—predicting that China will overtake the U.S. as a dominant space power by 2032.[16] A recent Pentagon study likewise found China on track to surpass the U.S. as the dominant space power by 2045.[17] According to the Chinese data company Qichacha, there are now about “95,000 space-related enterprises in China, a country that will complete more than 60 space launches in 2022” (surpassing its record setting 55 successful launches in 2021).[18] How do we reverse this trend? According to one expert: we need to strengthen our space industrial base, encourage innovative companies like SpaceX (with over 35 space launches last year) and Blue Origin, mobilize our commercial base, and set the rules agenda.[19]

By any set of metrics, that’s a tall order.

What does all this mean for the future of my grandchildren? What will they see when they look up at the moon?

By 2035—barring a complete global economic meltdown, nuclear war or a civil war in the U.S.—I fully expect lunar mining operations to be yielding lodes of rich ore. A new generation of strategic minerals will push technological boundaries into the realm of unforeseen consequences. Moreover, the extension of commercial rivalries into space (on the moon and Mars) is likely to make the future world for my grandchildren even more dangerous than today.

If that is possible.

But, then again, I am a glass-half-empty sort of guy.

 

 

[1] Mark R. Whittington, “China has returned helium-3 from the moon, opening door to future technology,” The HILL, Sep 18, 2022.

[2] Xi’s remarks are from the Introduction to a white paper on China’s space program, released in January 2022 and which includes China’s intent to launch a robotic lunar mission around 2025.

[3] Ibid.

[4] China’s Chang’e program takes its name from the Chinese moon goddess. See, “China plans more moon missions after finding new lunar mineral,” Bloomberg, Sep 10, 2022.

[5] Dr. David R. Williams, “Future Chinese Lunar Missions,” nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov, Sep 5, 2021; Chris Young, “China plans 3 moon missions to investigate a potential new source of energy,” Interesting Engineering, Sep 12, 2022.

[6] The costly delays and technical problems associated with NASA’s SLS rocket for the Artemis launches –it took 11 years for NASA to go from nothing to the first moon mission, but has taken the agency 12 years to go from having all the building blocks for a rocket to having it on the launch pad—are convincingly laid out by Eric Berger, “The SLS rocket is the worst thing to happen to NASA—butt maybe also the best,” ars technical, Aug 23, 2022.

[7] Whittington, “China has returned.”

[8] The TO2-IM (Intuitive Machine) mission is planned to lift-off from Cape Canaveral aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 and land a tall cylinder on 6 legs in the Vallis Schroteri region. The lander will be studded with sensors and lunar surface probes and will be operational for 14 days. Five more similar probes are planned. The project manager is Dr. Susan Lederer. See, David R. Williams, “TO2-IM (NASA Space Science Coordinated Archive),” nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov, Apr 27, 2022.

[9] See, Jeff Foust, “Astrobiotic lunar lander on track for late 2022 launch,” SpaceNews, Apr 21, 2022.

[10] See, among others, Victor Tangermann, “NASA: SpaceX Only Has to Prove It Can Land Astronauts on the Moon, Not Bring Them Home Again, Futurism, Aug 24, 2022.

[11] Bruce Einhorn, “China, US Are Racing to Make Billions From Mining the Moon’s Minerals,” Bloomberg, May 17, 2022.

[12] Ibid. Quote is by Malcolm Davis, former Australian defense official and now space policy researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] See, Eric Berger, “China’s official view of NASA’s Artemis program appears to be dismissive,” ars  technical, Aug 23, 2022.

[16] Arthur Herman, “How to Beat China in the new Space Race” (Commentary), New York Times, Sep 11, 2022.

[17] Ellen Knickmeyer, “A New Space Race? China adds urgency to US return to moon,” AP News, Sep 15, 2022.

[18] Herman, “How to Beat China.”

[19] Ibid.

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