Why the Moon Matters

In 1982, ten years after the last Apollo Mission left the Moon, Ronald Reagan introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative to defend the free world from nuclear ballistic missiles.  While professional thinkers and academics in the United States denounced it, called it destabilizing, and even suggested it was impossible to achieve, the Soviet Union took it very seriously, made every effort to eliminate it, and spent whatever it took to compete.  They eventually went bankrupt.  SDI, while not fully implemented, was a geopolitical success built on the credibility of Apollo.  As Ronald Reagan predicted, “We win.  They lose.”

Through SDI, the Brilliant Pebbles program was born as a space based system to track ICBMs and provide fire-quality coordinates for their kinetic destruction.  Years later, in 1994, the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (now the Missile Defense Agency) repurposed a Brilliant Pebbles satellite to orbit and map the Moon.  The mission, called Clementine, tested military sensors and made history when a bistatic radio frequency experiment using the Goldstone radio antenna in California showed evidence of lunar water ice through enhanced circular polarization of the radio signal.  Later experiments by NASA and other space agencies provided more evidence suggesting 10 billion tons of water ice at each lunar pole.

This single discovery should have immediately transformed America’s space program.  Water ice not only represents a critical in situ resource for life support (air and water); it can be cracked into its components, hydrogen and oxygen, to create the same chemical propellant that powered the Space Shuttle.  Even better, this chemical propellant sits at the poles of the Moon, which receive almost constant sunlight at an angle that creates permanent shadows.  While the water ice is in the shadows, the permanent sunlight enables photovoltaic power, which is necessary to crack the water into hydrogen and oxygen.

All of this is available on a world that has no atmosphere and a gravity well that is 1/6th that of Earth.  In other words, standard aerodynamic limitations do not apply permitting the placement of the propellant into orbit either around the Moon or around the Earth.

From the discovery of water ice on the Moon until this day, the American objective should have been a permanent outpost of rovers and machines, with occasional manned missions for science and maintenance.  The purpose of such an outpost should have been to utilize the materials and energy of the Moon to drive down the costs and increase the capabilities of American cis-lunar space operations.

Water ice on the Moon could be used to refuel satellites in orbit or power satellites that conduct on-orbit maintenance.  With the right leadership, it is possible that government and commercial satellite operators could save hundreds of millions of dollars by servicing their satellites with resources from the Moon rather than disposing of, and replacing, their billion dollar investments.  In time, the customers of Direct TV, Dish Network, internet broadband from space, XM radio, weather data, and others could see their bills reduced.

While most satellites are not currently powered by liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, next generation satellite architectures could utilize the lunar propellant if low-cost in-orbit servicing were available.  Commercial operators will follow if the United States leads with its own constellations.  Such leadership would require a whole-of-government approach with the interagency support of the newly reconstituted National Space Council.  The objective is a self-sustaining, cis-lunar economy, whereby government and commercial operators save money and maximize the utilization of space through lunar resources.

Utilizing propellant and materials on the Moon is also the first step for manned missions deeper into our solar system.  A permanent human presence on other celestial bodies requires in situ resource utilization.  The Moon, with its three-day emergency journey back to Earth, represents the best place to learn, train, and develop the necessary technologies and techniques for in situ resource utilization and an eventual long term human presence on Mars.  Fortunately, the Space Launch System and Orion are close to being developed and will start testing in 2018.  This system, with a commercial lander, could quickly place machines and robots on the moon to begin the cis-lunar economy.  With the right presidential guidance, humans could return in short order as well…this time, to stay.

There are other economic benefits to a permanent presence on the moon.  We should pioneer the utilization of lunar oxides for in situ additive manufacturing (3-D printing) to sustain and develop lunar operations.  If economical, we should pioneer the extraction of highly valuable platinum group metals and the ability to transport them back to earth.  The United States government should play a part in retiring risk for these endeavors with the intent to privatize and empower commercial companies to sustain the cis-lunar economy.  This could fundamentally alter the economic balance of power on Earth.    

As the cis-lunar economy develops, competition for locations on the Moon (the poles) and lunar resources is inevitable.  The Chinese currently have landers and rovers on the Moon.  The United States does not.  Very soon, the Chinese will be the first of humanity to explore the far side of the Moon and place robots at the poles.  As my friend Congressman Bill Posey says, “They are not going there to collect rocks.”  Meantime, China has its own manned space station.  The United States does not.  China has a domestic capability to launch its Taikonauts (Astronauts) into orbit.  The United States relies on Russia.  China and Russia are also testing direct-ascent antisatellite missiles and co-orbital antisatellite weapons.  They are proliferating satellite jamming, spoofing, and dazzling technologies.  It is time for the United States to re-posture.

It must be stated that constitutionally, the U.S. government is required to provide for the common defense.  This includes defending American military assets in orbit AND commercial assets in orbit, many of which have dual role of providing commercial and military capabilities.  The same applies for assets on the Moon.  The U.S. government must establish a legal framework and be prepared to defend private and corporate rights and obligations all within keeping the Outer Space Treaty.  The United States must have cis-lunar situational awareness, a cis-lunar presence, and eventually must be able to defend freedom of action in space.  Cis-lunar development will either take the form of American values with the rule of law, or it will take the form of totalitarian state control.  The United States can decide who leads.

Space utilization has transformed the human condition, including how we communicate, navigate, produce food and energy, conduct banking, predict weather and perform disaster relief.  While much of these gains are a result of private investment and commercial markets, they are only possible because the United States government retired much of the risk for these capabilities.  Today, we are experiencing an international space renaissance, but the United States must lead.  The first launch of the Space Launch System is less than two years away.  In 2021, we will use the Orion capsule to send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit for the first time since the 1970s.  Commercial launch vehicles are maturing and commercial deep space habitats are currently in development.  A renewed focus on utilizing the Moon can help further these advancements.  The choices we make now can forever 

CD01 Staff for Bridenstine About CD01 Staff for Bridenstine
Congressman Jim Bridenstine was elected in 2012 to represent Oklahoma’s First District, which covers Washington, Tulsa, Wagoner Counties plus portions of Rogers & Creek Counties. Bridenstine serves on the House Armed Services Committee and the Science, Space and Technology Committee. In 2018 he was confirmed as NASA Administrator. To see more of his articles via OKGrassroots while in Congress formerly via Bridenstine.house.gov