News of billionaires funding their own space projects has become so commonplace that Infospace founder Naveen Jain’s recently announced target date of 2017 for landing the first of three robot rovers on the moon has received little press attention. Certainly the goal of his Moon Express company—to begin mining a lunar gas called helium3—hardly sounds as profitable as Elon Musk getting a high-profile NASA contract to service the space station or as exciting as Richard Branson’s plan for sub-orbital tourism.
Yet many scientists believe that retrieving helium3 from the moon could finally make it possible to generate an unlimited supply of nuclear energy here on Earth without creating radioactive waste. Unlike enriched uranium, reprocessed plutonium, or thorium, helium3 can power fusion reactors without posing any danger from potential accidents, natural catastrophes such as the 2011 Japan earthquake, terrorist sabotage, or inadequate shielding of spent fuel rods.
Unfortunately, helium3 is a very rare gas on Earth. Our planet’s thick atmosphere and magnetic field block the rays from the sun that carry the element. But as much as 1.1 million metric tons of helium3 are believed to exist in abundance at or near the surface of our airless moon, which has been saturated for billions of years by unfiltered solar winds. Just 40 of those tons—about enough to fill two railroad boxcars—could likely power the entire Earth at our present level of energy consumption for a year.
Clean Energy—From Space
The potential of helium3 to provide clean energy is so great that many observers consider importing it to be the real long-term goal of most private space investors. What distinguishes Jain’s business plan from those of his billionaire competitors, which include not only Musk and Branson but Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is not his interest in a safe nuclear fuel but his willingness to forgo income streams closer to Earth, such as servicing the International Space Station (ISS) or launching tourists into orbit, and go straight for the moon. We need to start thinking of our nearest celestial neighbor, Jain says, as Earth’s eighth continent, not as some distant planet.
Many foreign governments and companies seem to think he has it right. The Chinese version of NASA, which is aggressively committed to establishing a human colony for mining helium3 by 2030, has already put a lander on the moon and aims to begin retrieving lunar soil samples by 2017. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has begun talking about having its own gas processing facility on the moon within a decade, and Russia’s S.P. Korolev Rocket and Science Corporation says it too has a program to ship helium3 back to Earth.
Ironically, it is U.S. political establishment that seems to have the least interest in helium3, as well as the lessons of its own history. From the days of the Erie Canal down through the Hoover Dam, the Manhattan Project, and the Apollo moon program itself, government accomplishment in complex engineering stands in stark contrast to most everything else it has attempted.
With 43 years’ experience in spacecraft instrumentation and design since the last Apollo moon landing, 15 years of astronauts living and working on the space station, and the expertise that comes from successfully landing and operating three Mars robot rovers, America’s obstacles to mining the lunar surface are certainly formidable but hardly science fiction.
Make America Can-Do Again
Perhaps it is time to listen to the growing number of environmentalists who have conceded that only nuclear power can realistically substitute for coal and gas, if hydrocarbon emissions are really to be reduced. In April 2014, the United Nations’ 200 member Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change formally threw its weight behind atomic energy, calling for a tripling of output as the only way to stop atmospheric pollution.
On October 6 of this year, Carol Browner, who served as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator during the Clinton administration, wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal, admitting she “used to be against nuclear power but changed my stance after realizing that without it we will likely fall short of our carbon-pollution goals.”
In 1968, American audiences thrilled to Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic masterpiece, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” in large part because he had so painstakingly researched what scientists had said was realistically possible to build on the moon by the year in the film’s title. The fact that in 2015 so many of our citizens and politicians see no hope for the future beyond further empowering some regulatory bureaucracy like the EPA shows just how far we have lowered our sights.