Feb 27 2011

Commercialization of the Moon — How Soon and Who?

The Journal of the British Interplanetary Society (Vol. 63, No. 2, 2010) highlights a fresh perspective on near-term lunar development. In fact, the authors assert that

Action taken in the next few years can lead to the gradual, steady expansion of commercial, market-based activity on the Moon and in the neighborhood between the Earth and the Moon.

How soon will lunar hotels accommodate serious fun-seekers from Earth?
Click .

Economists Wei Lin (Xiamen Univ., China) and Kruti Dholakia and Euel Elliott (both of UT at Dallas) imagine a bright future for international development of the Moon — potentially including lunar resources, human colonization, space-based solar power, asteroid mining, fusion energy — but wisely counsel that such endeavors,

…require a long-term perspective.

This is good advice, not only because of their multi-century timeline — 2020 to 2150 — estimated from NASA and other sources, but because of predictable long-term economic trends as well as wildcards.

For example, they list 2020-2030 as the time when human flights resume to the Moon and scientific explorations expand. But the first permanent lunar base (including first colonization and in situ resource use) dos not occur until after 2030 (-2050).

This creates a potentially serous timing issue because the 2015 Maslow Window is likely to end abuptly by the mid-2020s due to long-term economic and geopolitical forces. The last time this happened was in the late 1960s when 3 Apollo Moon missions were canceled by President Nixon in response to

…budget exigencies during a time of rising domestic turmoil over the Vietnam War…

Unfortunately, over the last 200+ years (back to Lewis and Clark), this is the typical pattern for termination of an Apollo-style golden age of prosperity, exploration, and technology: a rapid economic downturn accompanied by a major, international war.

Every effort should be made to accelerate initial colonization activities on the Moon. Because unless a human outpost can be established in deep space (i.e., a Moonbase or Mars system colony) by the early-to-mid 2020s, we risk being trapped in LEO for several decades after 2025, like we have been since 1972.

Citing the International Space Station as an admirable model for international cooperation in space, and the continuing effects of the 2008-10 financial crisis, the authors suggest that,

Rising powers like China and India are seemingly well placed to assume a more prominent role given their growth rates and their ability to weather the economic crisis compared to the West.

For example, China is apparently moving ahead with landing humans on the Moon by the early 2020s. And while the authors neglect the stunning global boom expected near 2015, they do suggest an intriguing “paradigm shift” regarding the increasing fraction of commercial versus government (as during the 1960s Cold War) activities in 21st century space.

Whether our next “Sputnik Moment” will be triggered by expanding international commercial activities in space rather than a 1960s-stye geopolitical compettion acted out in space, is not clear. But it will likely begin with smaller Sputnik Moments in education, international economics, and in military technology that are already taking shape.

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