Since astronauts last walked on the moon in 1972, no person has visited this cold lunar body, but a renewed interest in the moon as an economic and scientific resource has launched a new space race. For The New Yorker, Rivka Galchen explores why many countries and private interests, from Boeing to Jeff Bezos, are developing technology and plans to put people back on the moon to mine, inhabit, and use it to launch other space craft.
Now, you will ask me what in the world we went up on the Moon for,” Qfwfq, the narrator of Italo Calvino’s “Cosmicomics,” says. “We went to collect the milk, with a big spoon and a bucket.” In our world, we are going for water. “Water is the oil of space,” George Sowers, a professor of space resources at the Colorado School of Mines, in Golden, told me. On the windowsill of Sowers’s office is a bumper sticker that reads “My other vehicle explored Pluto.” This is because his other vehicle did explore Pluto. Sowers served as the chief systems engineer of the rocket that, in 2006, launched nasa’s New Horizons spacecraft, which has flown by Pluto and continued on to Ultima Thule, a snowman-shaped, nineteen-mile-long rock that is the most distant object a spacecraft has ever reached. “I only got into space resources in the past two years,” he said. His laboratory at the School of Mines designs, among other things, small vehicles that could one day be controlled by artificial intelligence and used to mine lunar water.
Water in space is valuable for drinking, of course, and as a source of oxygen. Sowers told me that it can also be transformed into rocket fuel. “The moon could be a gas station,” he said. That sounded terrible to me, but not to most of the scientists I spoke to. “It could be used to refuel rockets on the way to Mars”—a trip that would take about nine months—“or considerably beyond, at a fraction of the cost of launching them from Earth,” Sowers said. He explained that launching fuel from the moon rather than from Earth is like climbing the Empire State Building rather than Mt. Everest. Fuel accounts for around ninety per cent of the weight of a rocket, and every kilogram of weight brought from Earth to the moon costs roughly thirty-five thousand dollars; if you don’t have to bring fuel from Earth, it becomes much cheaper to send a probe to Jupiter.
Experts predict a host of benefits and problems with this renewed lunar interest, from environmental damage to political tensions involving the 1976 Outer Space Treaty. Some see the moon as more of a solution than a problem.
“There’s the argument that we’ve destroyed the Earth and now we’re going to destroy the moon. But I don’t see it that way,” Metzger said. “The resources in space are billions of times greater than on Earth. Space pretty much erases everything we do. If you crush an asteroid to dust, the solar wind will blow it away. We can’t really mess up the solar system.”