If you believe, there's nothing up there to see


Submitted without comment, Senate subcommittee testimony purporting to be from Apollo 17 Astronaut Harrison Hagan "Jack" Schmitt:

P.O. Box 90730
Albuquerque, NM 87199
505 823 2616


NOVEMBER 6, 2003


The Apollo 17 mission on which I was privileged to fly in December 1972 was the most recent visit by human beings to the Moon, indeed to deep space. A return by Americans to the Moon at least 40 years after the end of the Apollo 17 mission probably would represent a commitment to return to stay. Otherwise, it is hard to imagine how a sustained commitment to return would develop in this country.

I must admit to being skeptical that the U.S. Government can be counted on to make such a "sustained commitment" absent unanticipated circumstances comparable to those of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Therefore, I have spent much of the last decade exploring what it would take for private investors to make such a commitment. At least it is clear that investors will stick with a project if presented to them with a credible business plan and a rate of return commensurate with the risk to invested capital. My colleagues at the Fusion Technology Institute of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Interlune-Intermars Initiative, Inc. believe that such a commercially viable project exists in lunar helium-3 used as a fuel for fusion electric power plants on Earth.

Global demand and need for energy will likely increase by at least a factor of eight by the mid-point of the 21st Century. This factor represents the total of a factor of two to stay even with population growth and a factor of four or more to meet the aspirations of people who wish to significantly improve their standards of living. There is another unknown factor that will be necessary to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change, whether warming or cooling, and the demands of new, energy intensive technologies.

Helium has two stable isotopes, helium 4, familiar to all who have received helium-filled baloons, and the even lighter helium 3. Lunar helium-3, arriving at the Moon as part of the solar wind, is imbedded as a trace, non-radioactive isotope in the lunar soils. It represents one potential energy source to meet this century's rapidly escalating demand. There is a resource base of helium-3 of about 10,000 metric tonnes just in upper three meters of the titanium-rich soils of Mare Tranquillitatis. This was the landing region for Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11 in 1969. The energy equivalent value of Helium-3 delivered to operating fusion power plants on Earth would be about $4 billion per tonne relative to today's coal. Coal, of course, supplies about half of the approximately $40 billion domestic electrical power market. These numbers illustrate the magnitude of the business opportunity for helium-3 fusion power to compete for the creation of new electrical capacity and the replacement of old plant during the 21st Century…

Whole article.

Alvin Toffler gives a bronx cheer to lunar helium energy here.

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  1. From the review of Toffler’s book:

    “Despite visionary passages about … potential moon-based helium energy….”

    Not sure how that’s a bronx cheer. But here’s one: do these people seriously believe that an economic basis for space travel will be found in MINING?

  2. Given that we can’t yet break even with D-T (the easiest fuel cycle), He3 seems like a long shot on top of a long shot. Current projections for D-T fusion plants predict prices of 5-8 cents/kWH, which isn’t even competitive with solar.

    I’m a big fan of space exploration and development, and I work in the field of fusion, but if I could find a way to short sell He3 fusion I’d do it in a heartbeat.

  3. Anybody recall The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlien?
    (I hope I’m recalling correctly here.)

    Maybe Helium-3 could be compacted like a snowball and catapulted back to Earth. That way it could kill two birds with one snowball:

    1. Snap Earth out of its shit a la Al Gore. (Maybe a snowball could land on Al, killing three birds with one snowball.)
    2. Stop the insane Crusades against Muslims.

  4. I know almost nothing about fusion, but even if, just for the sake of argument, He3 fusion could somehow turn a profit, I’m thinking that imports from the moon would be kind of expensive. What percentage of that weight would be actual He3? He said “trace” amounts, which I’m assuming means significantly less than 0.1%. (I don’t know if “trace” has a precise definition among analytical chemists or geologists, but I doubt it.) Now, he did say that those soils are rich in titanium, and that’s certainly something that you could sell as well, but I see it as more of a way to get a little extra cash from a waste product. I can’t imagine that bringing titanium back from the moon would be profitable in its own right.

  5. If somebody can prove that my pessimism is unfounded, by all means do so.

  6. I can’t prove it unfounded, because I share it, but maybe only having to lift 1/6 the weight and shoot it back at a leisurely pace to earth might help. But I’d doubt even that. All-robot extraction and transportation would help too, but probably not by enough.

  7. thoreau and Cavanaugh,
    From a planetary and moonetary perspective, this makes as much sense as a raindrop having greedy, coveting designs on a raindrop twenty feet away.

  8. Yeah, I guess if this would be done then it would be done with robots packing lunar soil into cannisters that would launch into some highly optimized trajector and then splash down in the ocean.

    Still doesn’t seem cheap. And given the costs involved, and how much revenue the He3 would have to generate to make it worthwhile, I assume that revenue from titanium-rich soil would be kind of like the revenue the auto mechanic gets from vending machines in the waiting room: Loose change in the big picture.

  9. Loose change in the big picture.

    Software is just pennies under the table.

  10. togolosh:

    I was wondering what the state of D-T fusion was these days. Have the cost drivers changed at all? Is any progress being made?

    I remember in college there were all these grand ideas about lasering fuel pellets to drive the process, blah blah blah. Then a big bunch of no news. Frankly, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that people are still working on it. Man working on that part of the binding energy curve is nicer than the sorry little slope you get with heavy stuff like Uranium in a fission scenario …

  11. Right now, it costs roughly $3,000-$6,000 per pound for NASA to send anything into space.

    Now I’m a big believer in space travel. I’ve always liked the romance of a “space corp” of quasi-military-scientific, for-the-good-of-all-man-kind types running the show.

    Unfortunately NASA has been run by mediocre minds, funded (or not) by politicians with little vision and America has been more interested in producing movies about astronauts than producing real ones.

    Microgravity research, holes in the ozone layer, satellite repair jobs and losing space probes are all the lame, pissin’ in the wind crap that NASA seems able to manage (or not) these days – except for the Spirit rover, of course.

    I don’t know what it will take…but I’ve read some good ideas about government subsidized private ventures (I know…I know…but a lot of successful ventures have been government subsidized including everything that led to the founding of this country) that seem doable.

    I’d like to see a new model for NASA where it becomes a support agency for this sort of thing.

    If it doesn’t, I imagine NASA’s relevance will be gone in the next decade or so…largely because some wily entrepreneurs lost patience and got their own thing going.

  12. Call me wacky. I don’t see any economic viability to space travel without paradigm shifting propulsion per unit energy improvements.

  13. If somebody can prove that my pessimism is unfounded, by all means do so.

    See, now the little pout isn’t necessary.

    The article was about the science, and a refutation of the science would be appropriate.

  14. The Senate Committee on Science, blah blah blah blah blah, The Honorable Sam Brownback, Chair.

    That’s just freaking great. Is it November yet?

  15. The biggest problem with all of this is that the whole proposal is contingent on a profitable use for vast quantities of He3 in power generation. Assume, if you like, the most optimistic scenarios for extraction and shipping costs, all brought to you by the magic of the private sector.

    They still need somebody to buy that helium on earth. Somebody who values it for more than just balloons or low-temperature physics experiments. I’m not aware of any fusion research that’s even close to commercial feasibility. Granted, fusion isn’t my field, but I’d like to think that if fusion were even close to feasibility then the results would be all over the front pages of major science journals.

    I’m not holding my breath here.

  16. It’s too soon to start planning lunar mining. First we’ll need to get the space elevator operational. The actual mining will most likely be done by Von Neumann machines


  17. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_elevator en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clanking_replicator

    stupid squirrels

  18. Gee. With our current, state-driven technology, mining another planet is not efficient. Tell us something we don’t know. Where’s your fucking drive, people?

  19. I notice that SpaceDev, the Poway, CA company which was once a favorite of The New Yorker to become the first company to bust a profit in the heavens, doesn’t seem to have delivered on its plan (PDF) to travel to Asteroid Nereus beginning in 2001 or 2002, and no longer mentions Nereus at all on its site.

    On the plus side, SpaceDev is still apparently alive, which is hard enough for any company to do. So here’s hoping a new asteroid swims into SpaceDev’s ken soon.

  20. Getting stuff back from the Moon is cheap since it’s at the top of the gravity well. Build a simple mass driver and toss it back at the Earth. It’s also a good way to rule the world. A couple of unstoppable moon rocks crashing down onto a country and they surrender.

  21. It seems to me that the driving force behind most plans to get people into space are either:

    1. nations looking to improve their prestiege
    2. folks that like the idea of it (aka Star Trek/Star Wars/B5 fans)

    Most economic proposals for deep space missions seem far-fetched to say the least. Which I guess explains why most of the private space entrepenuers seem focused on the low-orbit tourist market (the target customers being wealthy members of #2).

  22. A couple of unstoppable moon rocks crashing down onto a country and they surrender.

    Or the people being bombed simply destroy/blockade the launch facility supplying the lunar inhabitants and doom them to a slow inevitable death. It’s not like a lunar colony will be self sustaining for a long time (if ever).

  23. All-robot extraction and transportation would help

    You must never have played Descent.

  24. All we have to do is drill for oils in Alaska and we will never run out of energy. I believe from what I have heard that there is an infinite amount of oil there.

  25. Launch costs are beginning to drop, and relatively dramatically at that… Elon Musk’s SpaceX will likely be able to put cargo into orbit for $1,000-1,200 a pound before the decade is out, and given the recent scramjet breakthroughs, it wouldn’t suprise me if the first orbital spaceplanes are built by the end of the next decade, lowering the price even further (perhaps to around $100-200 a pound); at these prices, space access may soon become a reality…

  26. Jason – The basic cost drivers for D-T haven’t changed, mostly because the fusion community is focused on Tokamaks. There are alternative approaches with some promise, but the basic rule of fusion devices still holds: Promise is inversely correlated with the amount of research done, i.e. the less you know the easier it is to be optimistic. There is some very interesting work being done at the University of Washington and at some of the national labs, but most of the alternative concepts (referred to within the community as Innovative Confinement Concepts) are underfunded. This situation will get worse with the inevitable cost overruns on the International Thermonuclear Energy Reactor (being built in Caderache, France) – small overruns will almost certainly be made up by completely killing off some of the ICCs, the same way that the Shuttle killed off a bunch of promising basic science probes during the late 70s and early 80s, and ISS did the same in the 1990s.

    There is some privately funded work going on, but it’s underfunded and Angel investors are rightly wary because there are a lot of very convincing crackpots out there looking for money. Also investors doing due diligence tend to go to the experts, most of whom have invested their entire careers in tokamaks or are otherwise deeply entangled in the mindset of big money DOE funded projects.

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