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A possible timeline to a future with easy low cost access to the Moon – like travel to another continent today

There are two elements to this – how easy it is to get to orbit and how easy it is to get from LEO to the Moon.

SUMMARY

First for the flight to orbit, I see the Skylon – or a similar spaceplane capable of flying to orbit from a conventional runway as the key to low cost fligth to space. I am from the UK, and we hear more about it here than you do in the US – still, it’s mainly those keen on aerospace who will notice the news stories about the Skylon even here.

It has remarkable engines capable of cooling down the incoming air by over a thousand degrees C in a hundredth of a second without any clogging by frozen ize or liquified air have passed every test. From then on it’s reasonably straightforward though innovative engineering by the country that built Concorde, and in collaboration with ESA who have their own native rocket technology with the Ariane (rocket family). The UK has also launched its own Prospero (satellite) back in 1971. It’s reason for stopping the program was financial and political, not ability.

Skylon doesn’t need its tiles replaced with every mission because it has a cooler re-entry than the shuttle, it can take off from a reinforced runway and can land on any runway. It has a turn around time of a few days so a fleet of skylons could do hundreds of flights to space a year – and because of lower overhead, pretty much 100% re-use, I think it will way undercut normal rockets and that eventually flying to space will be similar in cost to flying to another continent.

Then I think with such frequent flights to space, it will make commercial sense to save millions of tons of fuel a year by setting up an orbital spinning tether system to pick up hypersonic planes from Earth’s atmosphere and boost them to LEO and vice versa with the returning flights reboosting the tether after the launches of the flights to LEO. This idea doesn’t need super materials like the space elevator. It also gets you to orbit much more quickly – one of the disadvantages of the space elevator is that it would take a long time to reach orbit unless you go along it at extremely fast and probably unsafe speeds.

Once you have a flight to the Moon every week then someone can make a profit by installing the lunar end of Hoyt’s cislunar tether system and then at that point it becomes as easy to get to the Moon as to another continent, and at that point lunar tourisim could really take off – though surely present in a small way for a long time.

This is not a prophecy. It’s just an idea for one possible future, but a likely one. And I see it as neutral, could be good, coudl be bad, depending how it is done.

I think the first bases there are bound to include scientific bases and that it would start off much like Antarctica. There are bound to continue to be many scientific robotic missions,but I mean scientific bases with humans on board.

The first of these would be the one that ESA plan – with their idea of a lunar village on the Moon which will involve collaboration of many countries including Russia, Japan – all those involved in the Space Station except for the US. They may change their plans but at present do not want to land humans on the Moon, just keep them in orbit above it, because their sights are set on Mars and they see landing on the Moon as a distraction. China however are dead keen on the Moon and may join in. I think that would be great myself – far better have them as one habitat in the ESA village than with a second Chinese small base on the Moon. It doesn’t mean we approve everything they do – it’s like taking part in the Olympics with them.

Anyway the key to it all is low cost travel to LEO and I think the key to that is the Skylon. And since details of the Skylon design will be new to many of my readers and others may not know how much progress there’s been in it, I will spend much of this article on it.

FROM EARTH TO LEO – SKYLON – AND WHY NOT SPACEX FOR LOW COST TRAVEL TO LEO?

Few even amongst space enthusiasts realize quite how much progress is being made with Skylon and how advanced the project is already. I know that in the US many think that SpaceX is the future for low cost travel to orbit. But I think it will only be able to go so far with the approach of re-using rocket boosters and re-assembling enginees to launch to orbit in re-conditioned boosters. And I think it will be a while before they have humans traveling to orbit regularly in their rockets, mainly because they keep blowing up every dozen flights or so, and their competitors Boeing can fly on any rocket and so will use the much more reliable Atlas V. This is not a criticism of SpaceX as it is normal for rockets to blow up frequently in their early stages. Many of the Atlas V early flights also blew up but it is now very reliable. And I don’t think their launch escape system can make it into a rocket that passengers will use in preference over the Atlas V. Unlike the case for cargo, your rocket not blowing up is very high priority for passengers and they are not likely to use the launch escape system for human volunteers until it is actually needed because of the high g which can harm your body – they have only used it with crash dummies so far.

So we may not see the SpaceX savings for human spaceflight for a few years yet. I think that Boeing will beat Space on humans to orbit myself. A

I would go for the less glamorous, less well known, Reaction Engines. SpaceX may dominate for the next decade for unmanned cargo, and for some of that period perhaps also for human spaceflight to orbit – but with stiff competition from Boeing.

After that I think the Skylon will take over – or other space planes like it. There are space planes being developed in other places for instance in India. But Skylon is much further advanced in its design than any of the competitors – seems to me. Surely eventually there will be many space planes of various designs and following various different principles, but I think it will be first on the scene myself.

Of course I may be influenced because I live in the UK. But those who are fans of Space may be similarly influenced because they live in the US. Let me explain why I am so enthusiastic about Skylon and see it as the next big thing.

In case you don’t know what it looks like, here it is, a cool looking design:

The basic idea is that it flies to the upper atmosphere at 26 km and Mach 5.5 using engines that work much like a conventional jet engine except they are hardened to be able to work with a hypersonic airflow intake. It then closes the air intake and uses the same engines as rocket engines which then burn stores of onboard oxygen to fly as a rocket engine to orbit. Though that saves only a fraction of the Mach 22 needed to reach orbit, it makes a huge difference actually. That’s because of the way rockets have to use fuel to carry more fuel to get to orbit it uses only a fifth of the fuel of a conventional rocket engine. That’s how it is able to reduce the amount of fuel to be small enough to fit into a plane that can take off from a conventional runway, though one that has to be reinforced to carry the extra weight of all the fuel.

When it returns from orbit then with the fuel tanks empty it is very light, lighter than the Space Shuttle and so doesn’t need those ceramic tiles that were so problematic for the Space Shuttle. Instead it uses an aeroshell of a high temperature silicon carbide fibre reinforced glass ceramic material.

It’s designed so that unlike a normal plane the outer shell is not load bearing. It’s skin works more like that of an airship than that of a conventional plane with a stress bearing outer shell. This lets it have a very thin skin which saves on the total mass.

This is something that has been on the go for decades as it started life as the Hotol.

File:HOTOL.JPG – Wikimedia Commons

As you see the HOTOL looked like a rocket with wings. It was a natural starting point. However rhey didn’t manage to win over the British government with this design and never got enough funding to continue.

This idea seems to make sense as it flies so fast through the atmosphere – does it not need to be optimized like a rocket to present as little as much cross section? You still get space enthusiasts in internet forums saying they should have stuck with something like this.

However it turns out that lift is just as important as the air resistance. It uses up most of its fuel in the lower atmosphere and optimizing it for flight like a jet engine and moving the engines forward to the wings is the key to the design of the Skylon. They had a choice of nacelles hung below the wing like passenger jets or wing tip placement and the wing tip won out.

That’s why it looks much like a conventional jet engine with shorter wings and engines further back than for many.

It may seem that they haven’t got much yet to show for all their work – just an aircraft engine. But for Skylon the engine is the major challenge. It uses the air for oxygen to burn its hydrogen fuel on board and by getting up to Mach 5.5 at 26 km before it switches to rocket mode, then it saves a lot of fuel. It has to get to Mach 22 to reach orbit but in a conventional rocket most fo the fuel is burnt up before it reaches Mach 5.5 and so Skylon will only need a fifth of the total fuel compared to a conventional rocket.

To be able to fly as fast as Mach 5.5 as an air breather it needs to cool the intake air from 1000 °C down to −150 °C in a heat exchanger. It has to avoid liquefaction of the air and freezing out of water vapour into ice. And it has to do all that in a hundredth of a second! The detail are a secret – but it involves 3D printed parts as an essential part of the design. The precooler was tested and proved to work in 2015, and this test convinced others that they were onto something. They have now tested all the components of the engine separately. The next stage is a test of the entire engine in 2020 in a demo engine that has all the parts working together though not packaged like the final engine so they can get inside and look at things. See Funding flows for UK rocket engine

Here is Richard Varvill talking about their engine.

They completed the design, and tested it and it actually works! This is an astonishing aerospace achievement. This is why it is getting a lot of attention here in Europe in the aerospace community to the extent that the UK government has already gone through the process of searching for a place to build a runway for it – even before design on the plane itself starts. It’s an all purpose spaceport but will be specifically designed with a reinforced runway to accomodate the Skylon. It can take off from a conventional runway but when fully loaded to fly to orbit then the runway needs to be reinforced as it is far heavier than most planes on take off. It can land on any conventional runway that can take jet engines. It does not land at high speed like the Space Shuttle.

It’s low density design is part of the reason it can have a much lighter weight skin construction too. On re-entry its skin will heat up to only half the temperature of the Space Shuttle.

USING THE UPPER ATMOSPHERE AS A BRAKE – SPACE SHUTTLE

This is the way it is done today, to use the upper atmosphere as a brake, then slowly parachute to the surface or glide down in the lower atmosphere. How easy that is to do depends on the spacecraft.

If it is a heavy one like the Space Shuttle (now retired of course) then it can only slow down deep in the upper atmosphere, where it is dense. So it gets very hot. That’s why the Space Shuttle had to have ceramic tiles able to withstand temperatures up to 3,000 °F (1,650 °C)

Space Shuttle Enterprise banking on its second approach and landing test, during early flight tests.

NASA artwork for Space Shuttle re-entry – it’s high density, so can only slow down deep in the upper atmosphere, and gets very hot during that stage of its flight

LOWER TEMPERATURE REENTRY – SKYLON

Skylon will be able to fly to orbit from its reinforced runway, return back to Earth, and then take off again within a couple of days with a crew of 200 to assist.

Its design is much lower in density than the space shuttle, once it has used up its fuel to get into orbit. So it slows down in the atmosphere at higher altitudes on the way down.

What really matters is the mass per cross sectional area it presents to the atmosphere or more exactly, its ballistic coefficient. Skylon could slow down even higher in the atmosphere if it presented a large blunt face like an aeroshell, but it has to be streamlined for the other stages of its flight. However it is also able to compensate for that to some extent by steering during the early part of the flight to slow down more quickly.

Skylon (future design being developed by UK / ESA). It flies to orbit from a normal length runway, reinforced to take the weight of fuel on lift off and may fly in the 2020s. It is heavy when it takes off, but during the landing, having used up most of its fuel, it is low density and so slows down much higher in the atmosphere than the Space Shuttle

As a result, it will reach lower temperatures than the Space Shuttle on re-entry though higher than a supersonic jet at Mach 3. Here are a few figures for skin temperatures for comparison, hottest first. These are the figures for the hottest parts of the spacecraft or plane:

SKYLON’S ZEPPELIN-LIKE TRUSS CONSTRUCTION, WITH A REINFORCED GLASS CERAMIC AEROSHELL

Modern planes have “stressed skin” structures, where the skin of the plane itself takes up all, or most of the external load from the wings, tail, other stabilizing structures and heavy components such as the engine (See fuselage for details). But the Skylon uses a structure much more like a zeppelin or a small plane. It’s girder-like with a thin glass ceramic outermost shell, which is just a heat resistant covering and doesn’t take any stress at all.

Structure of the Skylon – internal truss framework made from carbon fibre reinforced plastic composite held together with Kevlar ties. It has aluminium propellant tanks suspended inside it. Covering that, it has a thin outer aeroshell of a high temperature silicon carbide fibre reinforced glass ceramic material. For details see page 2 of this report

This ceramic outer skin is black, which is why Skylon is shown that colour in most of the artist renderings. This is an animation to show the concept for a mission to orbit, and back, by Reaction Engines who developed the idea. Re-entry starts about seven minutes into the video

CIVILIAN AIRCRAFT FOR PASSENGERS

Though Skylon can be used to send cargo to orbit, it’s also being sold as a passenger jet, one that can fly from London to Sidney in four hours! The British hypersonic jet that will change the world

This is how it works:

Narrated by Brian Blessed. This an old video from before the Space Shuttle retired but it gives a good idea of how it could take passengers to the ISS. It could also take them to other spaceports on Earth.

The video description reads:

“Though the SKYLON has primarily been designed to launch satellites, consideration has been given to its passenger carrying capabilities. SKYLON is basically a hypersonic aircraft with hybrid engines, changing their mode of operation as the vehicle leaves the atmosphere. On return, because it is an aircraft, it has a cross range capability and ends its flights by landing conventionally on a runway.

The SKYLON payload bay is 12.7m long, 4.6m wide and 4.6m high. During normal satellite delivery operations, the bay would carry an interchangeable payload container. When used for passenger transport, an alternative pressurised, self-contained module could readily be fitted between flights. This module would provide a breathable atmosphere and additional life support for 30 or 40 passengers. Under the floor of the cabin, part of the space is needed for life support equipment, with the rest available for passenger baggage and cargo.

The central feature of the module is the transfer airlock, used for docking to a space station and for in-orbit transfer between vehicles. Normal ground access is by means of two side doors in the module, which line up with doors in the exterior of the SKYLON fuselage. Passengers would enter and exit using normal airport airbridges.

In case of a ground emergency, e.g. runway overshoot, passengers would exit the cabin through these doors and make their way to the ground by conventional inflatable chutes. The cabin also has two toilet cubicles, operating along the lines of those found on the Russian ‘MIR’ space station.

… Acceleration (G-Force) experienced by the passengers needs to be considered. It has been shown that it is possible to adjust the ascent profile in such a way that acceleration effects would be no more extreme than those felt on a modern fairground ride, and would not pose a problem for a typically healthy and fit person. Effects felt during the descent phase would be even less extreme.”

WHY NO WINDOWS?

The Skylon may seem a bit disconcerting if you are used to a normal plane because it has no windows.

Of course it can have internal LCD screens displaying the view outside for its passengers. This may be the norm by then – once we have screens that can be used on such a large scale inside a plane. It’s a saving for a conventional jet too, to be able to get rid of the windows.

Windowless planes could be a reality in less than 10 years

Also, though it can’t have windows during the ascent and descent through the atmosphere, it can have them once it is in space with the passengers in free-fall.

It’s payload doors can then be opened and it can roll around to give the passengers a view of the Earth throug h windows at the top of the passenger compartment. From the Reaction Engines video description from the video I just shared:

“It would be possible to incorporate windows in the ‘roof’ of the module. During ascent and descent, the payload bay doors would be kept closed, but during the coasting ascent and while in orbit, the payload bay doors would be opened and SKYLON rolled ‘upside down’, providing views of the Earth. While not strictly necessary, windows would possibly reduce the symptoms of space sickness by providing a spatial reference, and of course, the views would far surpass anything that could be seen on a screen. These windows would need to be of a triple layer design, such as those found on the Space Shuttle.”

PILOTED FROM THE GROUND

Skylon is designed to be piloted from the ground like the SpaceX rockets rather than by an onboard pilot like the Space Shuttle. The Space Shuttle didn’t have to be designed that way. After all the US military is still running its X-37B mini shuttle which completes its top secret flights without any humans on board.

Air Force X-37B Spaceplane Launches on May 20 with Military, NASA and LightSail Payloads: Watch Live – Universe Today

The Russian competition for the Space Shuttle, the Buran, also was entirely piloted from the ground

File:Buran.jpg – Wikipedia

WHY THE UK CAN DO THIS – ALONG WITH ESA

We have a track record here – we were the third space power after the US and Russia – not many know that. So we have been in the space business for a long time. We have also got lots of experience in supersonic flight. We have our own indigenous ICBMs – the Trident missiles are our own design, and not made in the US. That’s relevant because the ICBM flight to orbit and re-entry is not unlike that of Skylon – the same re-entry challenges for instance of high temperature materials for the skin.

We originated Concorde too.

HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE BEFORE WE HAVE REGULAR FLIGHTS OF THE SKYLON

Concorde went from the time the UK first asked for submissions to first flight in 13 years. Concorde’s career

The Space Shuttle went from first funding to first flight in 9 years though that’s based on a lot of funding and a background of previous space station studies. Space Shuttle timeline

Skylon already has its engines designed, built and tested and its design is also finalized in its broad details. Like the Space Shuttle, they have the background of many years of work on HOTOL, starting in 1982.

I think they can reach the same stage with Skylon in around a decade. Just depends on funding. If that keeps coming along then I think we can have Skylon doing its first supersonic and hypersonic test flights by the end of the 2020s. I don’t think it is premature of the UK government to look into building a runway for it already even though most fo the concept only exists on paper to date.

Because I think the design is good and they have worked out many of the potential issues in advance I expect it to be flying to orbit soon after its first hypersonic flights.

We are already planning a spaceport for flight to orbit which the Skylon can use for the UK Could Scotland really have a spaceport?

It should be ready by the time it is ready to fly. The Queen’s speech introduced the government’s plan to pass a bill for the new spaceport though this seems likely to be delayed by Brexit and perhaps won’t happen until next year.

It’s not just for Skylon. Right now it would be used for launching of satellites that are fired to orbit slung below a plane like this:

See Spaceport plans delayed by Brexit

This started in 2014 when the Government asked for submissions in its search for a spaceport site. The site needed to be in a remote location far from a center of population and not interfere with ordinary passenger flights so out of a major flight path for instance.

This was the shortlist

Commercial space flights from UK spaceports by 2018, says Government

“The sites needed to be a safe distance from densely populated areas and have a runway that could be extended to more than 3,000m (9,842ft).

“The need for a long runway was because the government envisaged the spaceport launching horizontal take-off “spaceplanes”, not old-technology vertical rockets.

“Most of potential spaceplanes, such as the British-built Skylon, are still quite some time away from flying but ministers wanted the UK to be in position to catch the first wave when it arrived.”

Could Scotland really have a spaceport?

Interestingly, they don’t think of suborbital tourism as for Virgin Galactica as the main customers:

“There was much talk of spaceports taking tourists on sub-orbital flights but the Scottish space community seems agreed that initially their main business would be delivering satellites into orbit or carrying out scientific research.“

Could Scotland really have a spaceport?

This favours Scotland with its lower population density and large areas of open countryside.

The two remaining candidates who have announced plans to bid for it are both in Scotland, Prestwick and Machrihanish which is near Campbeltown. See Spaceport plans delayed by Brexit

WILL ROCKETS EVENTUALLY BE PHASED OUT?

I know this is a very bold projection to make. But I’ll make it anyway for discussion.

In the long term – well I think rockets will be phased out completely perhaps a couple of decades from now.

I think that we will fly to space in space planes, and that rockets will be relegated to history at least for launches from Earth surface – used maybe for recreation and some other uses – a bit like the hot air balloons of the nineteenth century. That’s just for launches from Earth’s surface – rockets would continue to be the way to launch from the surface of the Moon – but even then – eventually maybe railguns or tethers will take over pretty much all of it.

That leaves interplanetary space where high ISP future upgrades of ion thrusters may well take over from conventional rockets – and also solar sails too. Still will have rocket thrusters and small rockets e.g. to get to orbit from the Martian surface or to land on and take off from the Joviana moons or Mercury, Ceres etc – but those gigantic rockets capable of lifting against full Earth gravity may become a thing of the past, relegated to museums.

TETHERS TO GET TO SPACE MORE EASILY

Normally, you need to travel at about Mach 20-25 to go into low Earth orbit (depending on how high the orbit is). The launch assist tether reduces that to Mach 12 or less.

This shows rendezvous of tether tip with a hypersonic plane lifting a payload from it which will then be accelerated into orbit. Image credit Tethers Unlimited. See also: ” Disruptive Technology

See also : Hypersonic Airplane Space Tether Orbital Launch (HASTOL) System.

This video explains it well:

For more details, see Launch Assist Tethers. You could use the same process in reverse to de-orbit a spacecraft to Mach 12 in the upper atmosphere, and then it glides down from there.

That’s still very fast. It’s four times the speed of the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird supersonic spy plane, or Virgin Galactica’s SpaceShipOne (Mach 3.09), and more than twice the speed of the Skylon.

Still – it would reduce the rocket state of the Skylon considerably, it just had to increase speed by about Mach 12.5. That would reduce the amount of fuel hugely and give it much more payload or permit a smaller spaceplane with the same payload.

JP AEROSPACE’S AIRSHIPS TO ORBIT

I think the JP Aerospace airships to orbit are interesting too. Especially if we have a tether system in place already for the transition from hypersonic flight at say Mach 12 to orbital velocity in one go – then they may not need to tackle the immense challenge of an orbital airship six kilometers in length. I know they say 6000 feet but their figures don’t work for the lift for a 6000 foot airship to orbit. It just doesn’t have enough lift if you crunch the numbers as James Fincannon did.

This shows the idea, one of his airships in the vacuum of space.

As Jeff Foust, editor and publisher of The Space Review wrote back in 2004, when JP Aerospace were still working as part of the USAF,

“It would be easy to dismiss ATO [Airships to Orbit] as simply an interesting idea—or worse—but for the fact that some elements of the system are already being built. Under an Air Force contract JP Aerospace has been developing the NSMV [Near Space Maneuver Vehicle, now called Ascender], developing several subscale vehicles as well as a full-sized one, over 50 meters long. The full-scale NSMV is currently in a hangar in Texas, with flight tests slated to begin later this month. The Air Force is not necessarily interested in the ATO concept—they see the NSMV as a potential high-altitude reconnaissance platform—but their support has paved the way for continued development of the system.”

It is no longer being done on contract to the US airforce. They are working on it as an independent company and paying for each stage as it goes along with no big splash risky investments, by selling transport to the edge of space much as is done with balloon flights.

Anyway – I used to be more optimistic than I am now after many conversations on the Space Show particularly with James Fincannon. I still see no show stoppers but the challenges are rather huge, especially with the airships having to be 6 km in length to get to orbit with a reasonable payload.

Especially if we have “skyhooks” – it just doesn’t seem worth it to go to the effort to develop the orbital airship to go the extra speed from Mach 12 to Mach 20+.

However I do think that hypersonic airships are possible in the upper atmosphere. The idea may seem bizarre to you if you haven’t come across it before – if so – I suggest you take a closer look. It may still seem bizarre but you may be surprised how many of the objections that spring to mind immediately have been answered already.

If hypersonic airships are indeed possible – their transatmospheric airship might perhaps be part of the mix in a future like this for passengers with plenty of time or for cargo if they get the costs really low. They may be able to compete with Skylon – hard to say.

For more on this, my Space Stack Exchange answer here: Is the “airship to orbit” mission profile feasible?

and longer article: Can JP Aerospace’s Future Giant Airships Slowly Accelerate To Orbit? Looking At The Numbers

HOYT’S CISLUNAR TETHER

The one thing that surprises me is how little attention is given to Hoyt’s cislunar tether. If you had one mission to the Moon per week it would pay for itself in mass transfer to the Moon in less than a year and from then on you have fuel-less transport from the atmosphere at sub-orbital velocities all the way to the lunar surface and back, as often as you like, can expand on the elevator to carry larger loads by bootstrapping – and it is far more feasible than the space elevator which gets a lot of press, or the lunar elevator which I think may be impractical because of its length and the time it would take for a payload to reach Earth Moon L1 especially in early stages.

You hear about the space elevator over and over, but hardly anyone ever mentions Hoyt’s cislunar tether transport system. I think this is the key to low cost transport to the Moon myself. It’s explained here: Robert Hoyt’s Cislunar tether transport system. More details: CISLUNAR TETHER TRANSPORT SYSTEM

As with the launch assist tehter, it could capture a payload from a suborbital spacecraft moving at Mach 12, and boost it to a high orbit or even, all the way to the Moon.

Well this gets especially interesting if you do it on the Moon. Robert Hoyt designed a cislunar transport system which looks like this:

The Cislunar Tether Transport System. (1) A payload is launched into a LEO holding orbit; (2) A Tether Boost Facility in elliptical, equatorial Earth orbit picks up the payload (3) and tosses it (4) into a lunar transfer trajectory. When it nears the Moon, (5), a Lunavator Tether (6) captures it and delivers it to the lunar surface.”

At the Moon end of the transport system, the tether can be stationary relative to the Moon’s surface when closest to the Moon. There are many details to the idea – that’s just the outline of how it works. See his Cislunar tether transport system.

His summary reads:

“We have developed a preliminary design for a 80 km long Earth-orbit tether boost facility capable of picking payloads up from LEO and injecting them into a minimal-energy lunar transfer orbit. Using currently available tether materials, this facility would require a mass 10.5 times the mass of the payloads it can handle. After boosting a payload, the facility can use electrodynamic propulsion to reboost its orbit, enabling the system to repeatedly send payloads to the Moon without requiring propellant or return traffic. When the payload reaches the Moon, it will be caught and transferred to the surface by a 200 km long lunar tether. This tether facility will have the capability to reposition a significant portion of its “ballast” mass along the length of the tether, enabling it to catch the payload from a low-energy transfer trajectory and then “spin-up” so that it can deliver the payload to the Moon with zero velocity relative to the surface. This lunar tether facility would require a total mass of less than 17 times the payload mass. Both equatorial and polar lunar orbits are feasible for the Lunavator™”

The interesting thing about this is that it needs almost no fuel!

“By balancing the flow of mass to and from the Moon, the orbital momentum and energy of the system can be conserved, eliminating the need to expend large quantities of propellant to move the payloads back and forth”

That works because the LEO is lower in the gravitational well. So whenever you send material from the Moon to Earth, the system actually gains energy, a bit like a ball rolling down a hill.

One of the strong points in this design is the low mass to payload ratio of 10.5 to 1 for the tether in LEO and 17 to 1 for the tether in lunar orbit.

If the tether in LEO is already built – well once you have a payload to the Moon every week – well you save on the total payload to the Moon in a year – if all the ones from after the tether is built are essentially zero cost in fuel to decelerate to the lunar surface.

SO -WHAT IS THE BASIC IDEA – HOW IS THIS EVEN POSSIBLE?

I’ve just described it in a nutshell, there is enough there to understand it – but if you haven’t seen it before then you probably need a bit more explanation. So, the basic idea is simple though there are lots of details to sort out.

Let’s start with the basic idea that makes it possible at all. The idea is that the Moon is higher in the Earth’s gravitational well than LEO. So it should be possible to liberate a lot of gravitational potential energy by transporting materials from the Moon to Earth.

Then, if you send a lot of material from the Moon to the Earth – a fair bit could also come back from Earth to the Moon.

Let’s try something simpler than his final proposal to explain the idea. With the launch assist tether in LEO you have half of it already. It needs to be configured to send payloads to the Moon.

So then you need another one in lunar orbit. Let’s forget about the complications of the synchronization with the surface for now – if you can repeatedly load the lunar tether with materials when it is closest to the Moon and most slowly moving – and release the load when furthest from the Moon on the tether – then the tether itself will then accelerate that fast enough to reach LEO.

This causes the lunar tether to de-orbit to a lower alitude of course. But now the payload as it reaches LEO is caught by another spinning tether. It gives it energy so boosts its orbit and drops the payload from the Moon into Earth’s atmosphere at a very low entry velocity – much less than usual lunar return.

Meanwhile that tether picks up another load from Earth suborbital trajectory (space plane say) – perhaps on a later pass, doesn’t have to be at the same time – and boosts that towards the Moon so lowering its orbit again. When that is caught by the lunar tether it boosts its orbit and the payload is decelerated down to the lunar surface or very low lunar sub-orbital trajectory.

If it is in equilibrium, just one mass going back and forth between the Earth and the Moon, with swap overs at each end – then through natural losses both tethers slow down gradually and gradually de-orbit and you’d need to figure out how to keep them going. It will need a constant input of energy though far less than is needed to boost from the Earth to LEO and back.

That already would be quite a saving. It’s much easier to keep them spinning than to have all those launches to and from the Moon. You would have to arrange to have payloads always sent from Earth to the Moon whenever another payload returns from the Moon to Earth and vice versa to take full advantage of it (again not necessarily at the same time). Until we have lunar exports, most would be going from the Earth to the Moon but you can always just send dummy payloads of lunar regolith to Earth.

But if you can arrange to have more material go from the Moon to Earth than the other way around, then it is just like a waterwheel with water going down a slope – you can use that to generate power. In his scheme that excess energy is used to keep both tethers rotating indefinitely without any losses.

There are lots of wrinkles to it to sort out, which he covers in his paper – including how exactly to harness that excess energy to keep the system running – but that’s the basic idea. It’s not that radical. It’s just two momentum exchange tethers.

The LEO tether is already a pretty standard idea for making it easier for future hypersonic space planes to get into orbit with much less fuel. And the idea of a lunar momentum exchange tether surely can’t be original either. It’s just the combination of the two that’s original. The innovation is to load the one near the Moon with materials from the lunar surface and use the gravity gradient as a power source.

SYNCHRONIZING THE TETHER TIP WITH THE LUNAR SURFACE

Then he also has the idea of synchronizing the tether tip at the lunar end to be stationary at the lunar surface. That’s like a really neat extra feature.

The lunar surface synchronization may be the hardest part to imagine working as neatly as he describes. But remember the tether would actually be momentarily stationary relative to the lunar surface when it is closest to the Moon. So synchronization may be easier than it seems at first.

However, it’s not going to be a game spoiler if for some reason he can’t do that, as you could still get from the Moon all the way to LEO with a small sub-orbital lunar hop up to the slowly moving tether tip – and from LEO to the Moon with a very small amount of decelertion to soft land on the Moon.

I think it is inevitable myself that soon after we have regular flights to the Moon, several a month, that some entrepreneur will pay the extra for the lunar rotating tether and so complete Hoyt’s system., if it is not done by a government or international organization.

WHAT WOULD A FUTURE BE LIKE WHEN IT IS POSSIBLE TO FLY TO THE MOON AS EASILY AS TO ANOTHER CONTINENT?

The Skylon might not get there right away. After all a two day turn around time between flights, though much better tha the Space Shuttle, isn’t the same as just landing and taking off again – and though it has only a fifth of the fuel of a comparable rocket, it does have much more fuel than a fully loaded jet plane and that’s expense as well, and the fuel is liquid hydrogen that has to be kept liquid until the launch.

Still – I think it will be a huge saving over anything we can do with rockets – and eventually there are bound to be more innovations that will bring the price down and down. Maybe the JP Aerospace transatmospheric airships, maybe something else. For instance, light sails perhaps? Or the ideas for launch loops. Or even the space elevator once we get materials strong enough to build it. I look at some of the many suggestions that have been made here: my answer to Why is it so difficult to penetrate our atmosphere with a returning spacecraft? In other words, why can’t the vehicle slowly enter our atmosphere? – and out of all those ideas, some maybe impossible fantasies – maybe there will be others that actually become practical in our lifetimes.

So what happens when the price goes right down to the same levels as for airplane flights (if this does happen)?

Well we could expect billions of people to fly into space every year and a million space flights a year in a future like that, similar to ordinary airplane flights. Of course some may just go into space as a fast way to get to the other side of the world e.g. it would cut down the time to get from the UK to Australia or Washington to Tokyo hugely.

I can imagine space hotels in LEO would be very popular and also tourism on the Moon for those who are able to set aside a few days to get there and back – too close for a weekend trip away but close enough to get there and back in a week.

It would be faster to get there if they have some way to speed up the transition to the Moon e.g. with some future more powerful variation on an ion thruster – but the orbital tether system also could be arranged to send payloads to the Moon at faster speeds and the tether to receive them at faster speeds too. I’ve not seen any discussion of that – just throwing out an idea to discuss. If we had very rapid transit to the Moon, might there be weekends away on the Moon?

I see this future as neutral – with potential for great good, but also great harm too.

If the cost of transport to and from the Moon goes down like that, then its resources would become easy to extract.

Dennis Wingo has hypothesized in his Moonrush book, that the Moon may also have valuable platinum group metals (ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium, and platinum) which could be mined, the result of the impacts of these iron meteorites.

Taking this further, there’s a hypothesis by Wieczorek et al that magnetic anomalies on the Moon around the south pole Aitken basin may be from the remains of the metal core of a large 110 km diameter differentiated asteroid that hit the Moon to form the basin. If so, they could be useful sources for platinum, gold, etc.

From Wieczorek et al, the North and South poles are marked N and S. Notice the magnetic anomalies clustered around part of the rim of the South Pole Aitken Basin. This is thought to be the result of an impact by a 110 km diameter asteroid. Wieczorek et al hypothesize that the magnetic anomalies trace out the remains of the metal core of this asteroid. If so these could be rich ores, including iron, nickel, also platinum and other platinum group metals (gold, rhodium etc). See page 16 of Crawford’s Lunar Resources: A Review

Platinum is a particularly useful metal. It is heavy, soft, malleable as gold and silver, easy to draw into wires, very unreactive, and has a high melting point. Out of gold, silver, platinum and copper, platinum is the densest and the hardest and the least reactive (the others are somewhat better in terms of electrical and thermal conductivity, and malleability, but it’s not too bad at those either). So, it’s not just useful for catalytic converters, fuel cells, dental fillings and jewelry.

We’d probably use it a fair bit in other ways too if it didn’t cost so much.

You’d extract it using the second half of the Mond process. You don’t need the first half as the ore already consists of pure metal. You pass carbon monoxide over the ore at a temperature of 60 °C (it could just be warmed by the heat of the sun) and then remove the nickel and iron at high temperatures in an attached 3D printer to make parts from them.

The residue then consists of rare metals like platinum, gold etc, which is what you would then return to Earth. The rest would probably be used for in situ construction. For more about this see:

Carbon monoxide is a toxic gas of course, but that doesn’t matter on the Moon. The platinum is low in abundance but higher than on Earth, the process itself involves pumping gases around inside a transparent envelope heated by the sun – and it can be a biproduct of mining for iron and nickel for use on the Moon, The iron would be used for railways on the Moon amongst other things and nickel / iron is great for batteries

As an example, if we were to mine (6178) 1986 DA – a rare Earth orbit approaching M-type asteroid at 3 km in diameter, then it has an estimated 100,000 tons of platinaum group metals.

The metal core of the 200 km asteroid that formed the Aitken basin would be larger than this. So there may be a lot of platinum on the Moon. It all depends how easy to extract. And that in turn may depend on how much of the process can be automated.

Of course the Moon is not the only source of platinum. Iron rich asteroids are the natural target to go for. But the ones that need least delta v from Earth are only accessible in an easy way once per decade. The lower the delta v to get to them, the closer their orbital period is to Earth’s and so the more slowly their position in their orbit drifts relative to Earth. Asteroid miners have the idea of snagging material from an asteroid and bringing it into cislunar space for mining – or they could have autonomous mining operations on asteroids. Perhaps we will get platinum from both sources in the future.

However, perhaps easy transport to and from the Moon might be the key to making platinum from space economic if we are not mining it already by then.

In a future with abundant platinum, as readily available as copper, we might even use it for much more mundane ways such as a roof covering (like copper and lead) for its corrosion resistance, or piping, like copper pipes but more corrosion resistant – or radiation shielding or heat sinks.

Then – enthusiasts for lunar mining often mention ice as a potential top export – if it exists at the lunar poles in the quantities that some preliminary findings suggest – then even with the low cost Skylon transport to LEO water may be easier to supply from the Moon. The aim of the Shackleton energy company is to mine the Moon for ice.

One reasonably sure industry for the Moon is manufacture of computer chips – in a future with such low cost transfer there then it may make more sense to set up a comptuer chip factory on the Moon which already has a far harder vacuum than they can achieve easily on Earth – and may even be able to use processes that are uneconomic on Earth.

Another proposal is to cover large areas of the Moon with solar panels built using native resources. You can turn the lunar dust into glass as easily as boiling a kettle using microwaves. That’s because of all the nanoscale iron in the dust. So a solar paving robot could go over the surface making solar panels by melting a very thin layer of a micron or so thick of glass and then depositing materials on top to make solar cells.

This is a report from the Center for Advanced Materials at the University of Houston, suggesting the possibility of an autonomous solar powered lunar photovoltaic cell production rover

It would use silicon extracted from lunar materials to make the cells themselves. There are various ways you can do the extraction, and, magma electrolysis may be best. The panels then are based on low efficiency silicon cellsvacuum deposited on glass. This is not easy to do on Earth but would be possible in the ultra high vacuum conditions on the Moon. Techy details of this suggestion are here.

It would require transporting a small mass to the Moon in the form of the rover which then over several years of driving could build a 1 MW facility on the Moon.

Idea for a robot to drive over the surface of the Moon leaving solar panels in its wake wherever it goes, using only indigenous lunar materials to make the panels. The panels would be only 1% efficient, but given that there is no shortage of real estate on the Moon, that might not matter. It might be more important to make the panels in situ without any imports from Earth than to make them highly efficient

Structure of the panels

For making glass on the Moon see the section: Lunar glass

This would be useful for bases there. Later on however a similar approach could be used to create large areas of panels made with native resources to beam power back to Earth.

See

There are many other ideas. I cover some of them in my section

in Case for Moon First.

COULD THERE BE TRILLIONAIRES FROM SPACE?

But in this future then there are risks too. I do see possible dystopian futures – for me they would be driven by the wealth of space mining. Trillionaires who use their wealth to build luxury homes and buy space yachts costing billions, not millions and earn enough to pay off the national debt not just of one of the poorest countries, but the entire national debt of the US from their pocket change.

That’s assuming that space mining is as lucrative as the space mining enthusiasts make it out to be which I am skeptical about.

Platinum is a particularly useful metal. It is heavy, soft, malleable as gold and silver, easy to draw into wires, very unreactive, and has a high melting point. Out of gold, silver, platinum and copper, platinum is the densest and the hardest and the least reactive (the others are somewhat better in terms of electrical and thermal conductivity, and malleability, but it’s not too bad at those either). So, it’s not just useful for catalytic converters, fuel cells, dental fillings and jewelry. We’d probably use it a fair bit in other ways too if it didn’t cost so much.

With the cost way down we’d start to use it in many other ways. Then computer chips also are obviously going to be widely used.

Then like with diamonds – once the billion dollar chip factories on Earth are all closed down and the platinum industry also, with a business cartel to raise prices so that the world pays premium rates on everything just as they do for diamonds that cost far less to extract and get to the customer than the amount they charge the end consumer.

If that was permitted perhaps it would make the trillionaires in space scenario more possible?

They wouldn’t need to sell it at the same price as it is sells for now. But just hike the price up enough so they make an immense profit on every ton they ship to Earth. They could still sell at far less than the cost of production on Earth or recycling on Earth. And acting as a cartel, raise or drop prices to the optimum point to keep everyone else out of the competition for their own mutual financial interest.

To start with the high prices might be justified. Perhaps the production costs mean that platinum sells for the price of silver to start with, to give an example.

Maybe as the costs go down, they could sell it for the price of aluminium once the space industry is well developed – but they instead continue to sell it for the price of silver. Way undercutting terrestrial mining and recycling – but selling it way above cost so making a vast profit. And if the first in on the industry do this then it’s mutual financial interest for everyone else who joins the industry to join the cartel.

They may not keep this up for long. Perhaps someone breaks rank and undercuts them. But just a decade like this may actually lead to this trillionaires in space possibility?

This is just an idea.

If it does happen – then many of the trillionaires may be reasonably generous and engage in worthy projects with their wealth as for some of our billionaires, but when you have trillionaires rather than billionaires – each able to fund an army too – that’s then a future that I just don’t think is a good one to aim for.

I don’t think the free market economy will sort this one out on its own without regulation. I think that just as with many aspects of the world economy – the space economy will also need some oversight and regulation.

Compare: International economic law – Wikipedia

I’m no economist though. I would be interested to hear what an economist thinks about a future with cheap metals from space that used to be precious metals before, such as platinum and gold, and what that would do to our ecnomy – and also whether powerful people could use that situation to exploit the Earth and if this would need regulation.

So far I haven’t seen any study of this situation and if anyone knows of one do say. Also detailed analysis of whether trillionaires from space really are possible.

REGULATION OF SPACE ECONOMY

I don’t think this is going to happen – they would be regulated in some way – I am using this as an argument to show that just as for industries on Earth there would be some regulation of space imports too.

Regulation is definitely possible – in the near future then it will be dependent on Earth for it’s very survival and its enterpreneurs will be from Earth – and though they may have holiday houses on the Moon will probably live on Earth most of the time too and remain citizens of Earth and subject to its laws – of the nation state they belong to as well as any agreed upon international treaties like the Outer Space Treaty. A future where people would renounce citizenship of Earth seems rather remote to me.

I also can’t see manual unskilled labour being useful on the Moon any time soon, I think most of the surface work will be automated and robotic with humans mainly working inside the habitats and skilled astronauts inspecting the facilities out doors.

EFFECT OF SPACE RESOURCES FLOODING THE EARTH DESTROYING NATIVE INDUSTRIES

There is another issue – the possibility that a flood of cheap platinum and other materials from space used to destroy the world platinum industry and whatever else can be done better in space – e;g; the computer chip industry.

This is a transition problem, to a future where things now done on Earth are done in space. But this too is likely to lead to regulation I think.

WHO WILL WORK ON THE MOON?

Of course you’d have many skills not to do with the day to day technology of habitats.

I can imagine a future lunar science organization saying something similar to this statement by the British Antarctic survey:

“We employ a wide range of people at British Antarctic Survey from top-flight scientists to chefs. We want to attract the best no matter what the job. The rewards and opportunities on offer are the kind that money can’t buy. Imagine being a scientist working thousands of miles from home experiencing life in one of the most extreme places on Earth, or an engineer with responsibility for keeping our research stations operational. When not working in the polar regions you could be working in our office and labs in the beautiful city of Cambridge. Browse this section to find out if we’ve got what you want and if you’ve got what it takes to join us.” https://www.bas.ac.uk/jobs/

also Careers at BAS

I expect a future science base on the Moon once it really gets going and there is easy access to be similar – nucleus of many people including scientists, engineers, chefs, and others keeping everything going. At the moment the same people do both the research in the ISS and the maintenance, make the meals (which are ready prepared so there isn’t much involved in it) and they are trained as astronauts primarily. But in future then I expect there will be people who take on many different roles.

Then the tourist industry would employ people there as well.

As for lunar commerce – well I don’t think this will involve many people in situ on the Moon. Just because having humans on site adds to the expense – and we are able to do more and more in remote places on Earth through automation. For instance a quarry in Australia with all the lorries controlled remotely through tele-operation with only an occasional site visit for repair / inspection.

(AP Photo/Matthew Brown) Self-driving, 416-ton trucks are hauling raw materials around Australia

The teleoperators are 750 miles away and are not able to do anything by hand if anything goes wrong. I expect mining on the Moon to be done like this – with perhaps nobody living there permanently and occasional inspection visits.

WILL WE HAVE LARGE SETTLEMENTS ON THE MOON?

As for reasons for large human settlement on the Moon – well that’s the thing, I don’t see many reasons why it would happen. Scientists and tourists as in Antarctica. Explorers. But the costs have to go way down – not just for transport to the Moon but also for life support once you get there – before it is worth the expense of sending humans there in large numbers. Thousands maybe, millions, can’t see it any time soon.

If nothing else, spacesuits are multi-million dollar items at present and are used rarely and still have to be replaced quite often. I just can’t see workers in spacesuits on the Moon when it costs millions of dollars per year per person repairing and replacing their spacesuits.

This could change in the future as spacesuits become more robust and easy to repair , habitats longer lasting, and closed systems more effective at recycling including growing their own food in space.

LUNAR VILLAGE

This is the ESA video about ideas for small robotic missions first, followed by Antarctic base type settlements on the peaks of (almost) eternal light at the lunar poles.

I use ESA as my main example here and throughout this book, because they seem to have the most developed ideas for a Moon base of any of the space agencies currently. What’s more, they are actively pursuing their idea of a moon village, with a reasonable chance of success, since it’s based on many established international partnerships.

That includes their partnership with Russia. Then, though currently NASA say that they won’t send any astronauts to the lunar surface, they are open to partnerships in other ways. ESA are already committed to partner with the US in their Exploration Mission 1 / 2 to enter a distant retrograde orbit around the Moon, and they can also partner with India, Japan, and even China, which I think adds to their chances of success.

They are also open to partnership with commercial space and private ventures as well as government space agencies. Of course we could get many surprises in the future, for instance who can tell whether the next president of the US might change direction again and decide to go “back to the Moon”, but on the basis of the situation as of writing this, I’d bet on ESA as the most likely to set up a Moon colony, if I was a betting man.

This is the ESA director general Jan Woerner talking about his ideas.

This is their plan for the base itself

(more background)

And this is how they would build the base with 3D printers on the Moon

Adding regolith shielding to one of the habitats (using robots controlled telerobotically from Earth). Photograph ESA / Foster + Partners.

For techy details see: Lunar Outpost Design, 3D printing regolith as a construction technique for environmental shielding on the moon

For more about the advantages of this village idea, see also the section below: How an international lunar village saves money, and is safer than separate bases spread out over the Moon, through use of communal resources

In the process we will find out what humans do best, and what robots do best, starting off with robots first, and then humans on the Moon. Then we can continue outwards in an open fashion, building on what we’ve learnt.

HOW AN INTERNATIONAL LUNAR VILLAGE SAVES MONEY, AND IS SAFER THAN SEPARATE BASES SPREAD OVER THE MOON -THROUGH USE OF COMMUNAL RESOURCES

Johann-Dietrich Woerner, Director General of ESA outlining his vision for the ESA village and Space 4.0 in his visit to China in April 2016 said:

“Let’s open space. Space is beyond all borders so let’s also have the cooperation beyond borders, When you ask astronauts, and I’m sure also the Chinese astronauts will tell you the same: they cannot see any border from space. So this is a very nice vision. We should use this and cooperate worldwide on different schemes, and I think Moon Village has its value for that.”

I think an international effort would save money for all concerned and is also much safer and more equitable. It’s much like a village on Earth, with a shop, post office, maybe a hardware shop etc.

  • Landing pad and beacon already in place. Will simplify landing to have a flat surface of lunar glass, no dust, and beacon to land there. Also good to create a lunar glass surface around the village to reduce the levels of dust brought in after EVAs. Each country can do this for itself of course, on its own little patch of the Moon for its habitats, but it avoids duplicated effort if it is done once only.
  • Can use the best site available . Especially at the lunar poles there may not be that many sites, just a few square kilometers total. In an international effort then all the habitats can be built at the most optimum site. Similarly there may be some caves that are optimal. If there’s one lunar village, it can be built at the very best site for humans on the Moon. Otherwise, latecomers to the scene will have less good sites.
  • Minimizes contamination. If some areas need to be preserved for scientific study, then putting all the habitats in one place reduces contamination
  • Services already in place. Especially for new arrivals, it may be a great benefit to be able to hook into the villages electricity and oxygen generation and fuel generation capabilities, and power storage until you develop your own.
  • Able to develop a large space such as a cave. This especially applies to the lunar caves. If the caves are large, as they may be, it might be possible to develop the entire interior of a cave like a Stanford Torus / O’Neil cylinder. If so, again it makes much more sense for everyone to be in the same cave rather than have a half dozen here trying to develop one cave, a dozen in another place and three astronauts in another place all trying to create their own habitats.
  • 3D printing of the regolith shielding. If someone has already brought a 3D printer to the Moon able to make shielding for habitats by sintering the regolith or making it into some form of concrete using resin or whatever, then everyone else from then on can use the same machinery and don’t need to bring their own printers with them. This is likely to be a large machine.
  • Similarly for cranes, or for vehicles to travel over the surface or any other complex heavy machinery that can be used communally by the entire village
  • Ability for neighbours in the village to give each other practical help. Especially in case of an accident, but also simple things like you have short term trouble with your oxygen supply, or CO2 scrubbing, or even just, that temporarily you run out of salt or whatever it is. Or your plants die and your neighbours can give you new seedlings.
  • Shared medical help
  • Also to help with advice and tips. Maybe the Americans have an expert in environmental control and spacesuits, and the Russians have a good doctor expert at heart conditions or an osteopathic surgeon, and the Europeans have an expert in the technology of the rovers, and the Japanese, an expert in telerobotics, or whatever, they can just call by, look at the situation, and give their advice in person.
  • Refuges in an emergency. Any of the habitats can be an emergency shelter for all the others.
  • As it develops further you’ll have specialized shops and facilities. Hotel for tourists, workshop area for mending the vehicles and equipment, lab area for researchers, tele-operations and communications hub, electronics fabrication and 3D printers, the folk involved in mining the lunar resources, etc. etc. In a lunar village this can develop early on. If every nation has a different habitat scattered around over the surface of the Moon, then it may be a long time before each tiny research station / settlement reaches this level of specialization.

In this way, the different habitats in the village can be maintained by different space agencies but with shared utilities etc. That’s partly why I think the ESA village is one of the most promising of all the human moon mission plans to actually come to something. Why duplicate everything? And the bases need to be close together because of the difficulty of moving around on the Moon and the swiftness with which issues could arise. If the other bases are hundreds of kilometers away they wouldn’t be able to share much or do much to help each other in a real emergency, not in the hostile vacuum conditions of the Moon.

IDEA THAT WE SHOULD ALL SHARE IN THE SPACE MINING BOOM – AND OF A SOVEREIGN WEALTH FUND

The Outer Space Treaty says that “the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind”

In the US the idea of relying on free market enterprise in space to benefit humanity is popular. But in Europe there’s more support for something extra on top of that.

We tend to think that all of humanity should benefit directly financially, or in other ways, from the space mining boom (If we have one). This idea is called the “common heritage of mankind” in the Moon treaty. That’s rather a broad statement to make, there are many on both sides of the pond of course with both views.

Anyway I’m from Europe and perhaps this influences my thinking, but I’m very keen on the common heritage of mankind approach. Perhaps it may be interesting to hear why?

One idea discussed on “the conversation” is the idea that space industry could be a basis for a sovereign wealth fund, which could then be used to guarantee a minimum wage world wide, similar to the Alaska sovereign wealth fund, but applied globally rather than to a single country.

That could eliminate the worst of poverty, hunger, access to clean water and sanitation, education etc. world wide. Just a few dollars a week sovereign wealth fund would eliminate a lot of third world poverty and allow small farmers to invest in tools, a bicycle, other things that would transform their future.

Also, if we had a trillion dollar space industry it might be much less of an imbalance if those new trillionaires were balanced by everyone having a guaranteed minimum wage.

This sovereign wealth fund also could be used to support space projects. A trillionaire who has earned their wealth from space might choose to spend it all on a platinum plated house and yacht on Earth. There’s no reason why they would plough it back into space except for their own particular mining operations, likely to be largely robotic. They might be like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet and engage in big philanthropic projects, in medicine and so on. But again they might not. It would all just depend on who they are. That seems too much like pot luck to me, once you start talkign about trillionaires rather than billionaires.

While a sovereign wealth fund might be used to fund many projects in space of benefit to all humanity.

Another possibility is some way of ensuring that the space industry provides ways for the poorer countries to get into space and set up their own mining operations – that rather than being squeezed out from ever mining in space by the wealthy countries who get there first, they get assisted to take part in it too.

But personally I prefer the sovereign wealth fund approach. It does work. Norway used it to great success with its offshore oil industry, even though the industry nay sayers said it would never work and drive the big players away. But when Norway went ahead anyway and put in place a big tax funding its sovereign wealth fund – there was no shortage of oil companies ready to extract the oil under the new conditions.

TAPERED TAX RECOGNIZING RISKS

Of course, any kind of sovereign wealth tax would need to recognize risks in the early stages. A company that is attempting something that is just on the border of possible should be given all the encouragement it needs, and the last thing you would want to do at that point is a hefty tax or to request them to divert funds elsewhere to support other mining companies. Perhaps it should be tax free initially, even tax breaks from whatever is their national tax.

But once they are up and running and have a healthy balance sheet, then why not tax them, like everyone else, and if so, why not have an element of that tax used for a global sovereign wealth fund?

Or similar, maybe a fund used to combat world poverty, to provide clean water for all, to support worthwhile projects in space, or one way or another, to recognize that the assets in space are the heritage of all mankind. That would certainly have my vote.

But if it is just another industry at a similar level to the others, billion dollars type companies, similar in size to Microsoft or SpaceX, I don’t see it as a huge issue either way.

There are many other issues here. For instance what about communally used space assets? Whoever sets up Hoyt’s cislunar tether system would be in a position where they could charge pretty much what they like to use it, way above the actual costs of maintenance. How would that work?

I’m sure there will be much here to occupy space lawyers, economists, and politicians for decades to come. This is an article I wrote about: Will Anyone Ever Own Their Own Land In Space – And May We Get Wars In Space In The Future?

It is a very technical subject and I’m no expert, so perhaps that article is most useful for the links to expert opinion and the questions it raises.

NEED FOR A BREATHING SPACE

I think that’s a good thing if the process of human settlement goes slowly myself, slowly as in thousands living in space, rather than millions in the next few decades, as it gives us a breathing space to work out how to do things in space. Long term I think we have to work – not towards a utoptia – but a future with less violence, less warfare, in space – or it is just not going to work long term.

I can’t see us having space colonies of any size so long as international politics continues as it does today – or unless there is some way in which politics functions differently for space colonies. None of the space colonization solutions for millions of people would be safe from attack by simple kinetic energy such as a suicide mission on a spacecraft like the twin towers but directed at a lunar outpost. Never mind a deliberate attack by a country or political grouping or rival space trillionaire.

I think the lunar caves would be the most secure from, say, a Sept 11 type suicide bomber attack. Even they though would need some infrastructure for their residents to travel to and from the facility and that would be vulnerable. And without supply from Earth – at least until a long way into the future, they woiuldn’t survive for long.

A rapid response to shoot a spacecraft out of the sky if it heads straight for the base would just end up with masses of debris instead still headed for the station.

Nothing short of Star Trek force fields would work. Living deep underground on the Moon would not be enough to be safe from attack if all the entrances are bombed by your enemy and dependent on supply from Earth – as well as a very very expensive way to attempt lunar colonization. I can’t see a future with millions in space with similar politics wo what we have on Earth today. Something has to change first.

Warfare depends on supply and all supply routes to space colonies would be by spaceships which are also very vulnerable as are the entrances they use for those colonies. I just can’t see a fuure with Star Trek type wars in space even way into the future. In Star Trek they get around that with force fields and hull integrity shielding. But those seem way far future ideas. We have nothing even remotely resembling them at present.

And, I think that’s good! We don’t want to export our politics into space and fill the galaxy with warring factions with unimanginable weapons and self replicating machines, cyborgs and uplifted creatures – creatures genetically engineered for human or even super human intelligence.

Carl Sagan thought similarly though coming at it from a different angle, that we have to head towards a more peaceful future for space colonization to succeed.

WE CAN BE ONE OF THE WISE ET’S

(this is extracted from my Case for Moon First)

We can be one of the wise ETs. I think, there is evidence that we may be wiser than the most reckless ETs possible, which might destroy themselves in space wars pretty much as soon as they begin on spaceflight. Carl Sagan refers to this as “the intrinsic instability of societies devoted to an aggressive galactic imperialism”.

Though we have stumbled a lot, we have made many good decisions, such as dealing with the problems of DDT and CFCs, human rights (a lot of progress though much still to do), preventing chemical and biological warfare (even in the almost all out conflicts of WWII neither side used the chemical weapons of WWI, I know there have been exceptions but most wars don’t use them).

We’ve developed nuclear weapons, and yet, for decades we haven’t used them. Indeed Carl Sagan suggests that maybe weapons of mass destruction are the deciding factor here. After talking about our own efforts to deal with nuclear bombs he then goes on:

“If every civilization that invents weapons of mass destruction must deal with comparable problems, then we have an additional principle of universal applicability. Weapons of mass destruction force upon every emerging society a behavioural discontinuity: if they are not aggressive they probably would not have developed such weapons; if they do not quickly learn how to control that aggression they rapidly self destruct. Those civilizations devoted to territoriality and aggression and violent settlement of disputes do not long survive after the development of apocalyptic weapons. Long before they are able to make any significant colonization of the Milky Way, they are gone from the galactic stage. Civilizations that do not self-destruct are pre-adapted to live with other groups in mutual respect.”

He goes on to say that because we have only just reached this stage then this future scenario of mutual respect may seem unlikely because of our short term perspective. He suggests that the required changes may take a thousand years or more, for us to reach maturity as a species. From Carl Sagan’s “The Solipsist approach to Extraterrestrial Intelligence”,

We’ve prevented starvation with the often forgotten Green Revolution between the 1930s and the 1960s, stopped nearly all whale hunting, done lots of work to preserve species and environments etc. If you compare our present world with what it could have been without all those initiatives – I think it gives room for optimism for the future too. And I think we’ve made an excellent start on peaceful use of space with the Outer Space Treaty.

Although it’s frustrating that we don’t have warp drives or even the Star Trek “Impulse drive”, and easy ways to build habitats in space, I actually think it helps, that space is so hostile. Hopefully by the time we figure out how to live sustainably in space habitats, we also have figured out how to do it peacefully, or reasonably so. With competition of course, but more like the Olympic Games than WWIII. Hopefully we can become more forward looking as we continue to colonize space. Perhaps the increased resources from space can help us to become more peaceful if we can handle it right.

If so we might well eventually have a chance to explore even our entire galaxy peacefully, and without harmful consequences to ourselves and other intelligent species that may exist in our galaxy. And if we meet ETs, the ones that still retain space technology, then they also I think would be ones that have figured out how to explore the galaxy in a similarly peaceful way.

It’s not a utopian dream. It’s just a practical vision for the future. Many things about our present day would seem utopian and impossible if you tried to explain how our society and world works to someone from the nineteenth century.

See also – my Projects To Get To Space As Easily As We Cross Oceans – A Million Flights A Year Perhaps – Will We Be Ready? though my ideas have moved on since then.

I cover many ideas for getting to space in this answer – some may be impractical, unlikely, or impossible but I look at them anyway: my answer to Why is it so difficult to penetrate our atmosphere with a returning spacecraft? In other words, why can’t the vehicle slowly enter our atmosphere?

And this is my Moon First book:

See also our group:

This article and my Case for Moon books have benefited from many discussions on that group, and resources found by members posting to the group. You may be interested to join if you are interested in a Moon first approach for humans in space, or an approach to human exploration of space that takes planetary protection as a core principle. Anyone with an interest in these topics is very welcome to join us.