A proposal for making a Moon city

18.09, Monday 5 Mar 2012

Here’s a fact about the Moon and space exploration that somebody told me a couple years back: If it costs $X to get to Earth orbit, it costs $10X to get to the Moon, and it costs $100X to bring something back.

One of the games I like to play is “there from here.” For example, I would love for humanity to have cities in the Asteroid Belt. In this age of peak everything I have a preference to do belt tightening. The solution to not having enough resources on Earth is to not be constrained to Earth. Let’s go mining in space. Cities in the Asteroid Belt then – how do we get there from here?

The challenge being that technology develops stepwise. It happens in increments, and the reach of each increment is dependent on the incentive and the amount available to be invested. Sometimes a leap is made. So maybe the incentive is big. The Space Race between the USA and the USSR was one such incentive. Or the promise of finding a cheap route to the lucrative spices in the Indies spurred the Europeans to send ships west across the Atlantic. Or you can keep the investment required low. Citizen science projects use the coordinating technology of the internet to allow many low investments to make big progress. In order to develop technology towards cities in the Asteroid Belt, we need to find the steps to get there. We’d have to have cities on the Moon first. And for that, at the very least, we need to be able to easily get to and return from the Moon.

But why go to the Moon in the first place? There’s nothing there. And space technology is so expensive. It would be a massive investment to develop cheaper space technology. No incentive.

Okay, so here’s a thing. Technology evolves from where we are now. What are some things we’re getting great at right now? Robot factories. Mining. Thank you Foxconn. Thank you rapacious appetite of the consumer society for hard to find rare earth minerals.

And to review: It’s much cheaper to get to the Moon than to come back, so make it a one-way journey. And it’s peak everything, so the value of mineral resources is only going to go up.

Two other thoughts: the X Prize (Revolution through Competition), and USA Homestead Act of 1862, whereby a system to grant land rights to individuals was set up, by which a person living on and improving the land was granted property.

Here’s my proposal:

We build robot mining factories and send them to the Moon.

Once there, they extract and purify valuable resources, packaging it in an automated fashion to be picked up. Time passes. The piles of nicely packaged and purified minerals grow and grow on the lunar surface. Meanwhile commodity prices on Earth also rise. The piles steadily grow in value. And grow, and grow. A prize that increases in value the longer you wait. CEOs of manufacturing companies look lustfully through their telescopes. The CEOs eye one-another suspiciously.

Until suddenly it becomes worthwhile to develop technology to get to the Moon and bring it all back. Whoever gets to the pile first is allowed to keep it. There is a race! Mining companies make the leap to the next generation of space technology.

And as a spin-off we have a sustainable Moon-Earth shuttle service. Stick a few people on the shuttle, establish a permanent settlement, ta da, Moon city. Next step Ceres.