Angels Needed to Tap Moon Bounty

Former Astronaut Sees Potential

A future geologist born today could find a career in a remote, relatively unexplored place.

The moon, for example.

Harrison H. "Jack" Schmitt worked on the moon in 1972.

As a NASA scientist-astronaut, he flew on the Apollo 17 mission in the role of field geologist and lunar-module pilot.

That made Schmitt one of the last two human beings to visit and walk on the moon.

Or as he might say, the last until next time.

Schmitt will present the sixth annual Michel T. Halbouty Lecture, "Wildcatting the Moon," on April 10 at the AAPG Annual Convention in Houston.

His discussion will touch on a potential place for private enterprise in space exploration, the possibility of mining the moon's helium-3 as an energy resource and the importance of a return to space travel.

He clearly sees off-Earth existence as the next major step forward for the human race.

"At least to get started in an enterprise of this kind, you have to have permanent settlements," Schmitt observed.

"Once you have permanently settled the Moon or you're in the process of establishing settlements, you have begun to move our species into other modes of existence, much like when the species began moving out of Africa," he said.

Please log in to read the full article

A future geologist born today could find a career in a remote, relatively unexplored place.

The moon, for example.

Harrison H. "Jack" Schmitt worked on the moon in 1972.

As a NASA scientist-astronaut, he flew on the Apollo 17 mission in the role of field geologist and lunar-module pilot.

That made Schmitt one of the last two human beings to visit and walk on the moon.

Or as he might say, the last until next time.

Schmitt will present the sixth annual Michel T. Halbouty Lecture, "Wildcatting the Moon," on April 10 at the AAPG Annual Convention in Houston.

His discussion will touch on a potential place for private enterprise in space exploration, the possibility of mining the moon's helium-3 as an energy resource and the importance of a return to space travel.

He clearly sees off-Earth existence as the next major step forward for the human race.

"At least to get started in an enterprise of this kind, you have to have permanent settlements," Schmitt observed.

"Once you have permanently settled the Moon or you're in the process of establishing settlements, you have begun to move our species into other modes of existence, much like when the species began moving out of Africa," he said.

Schmitt expounded his ideas on renewed lunar activity in his latest book, Return to the Moon: Exploration, Enterprise and Energy in the Human Settlement of Space, published in November 2005.

He sees a new effort starting somewhere to develop the Moon's resources for human benefit.

"That somewhere may be 15 years down the road," he said. "At one end is some very perceptive investor angels beginning this process."

Looking for Angels

Key to any long-term investment program will be the successful mining and use of helium-3 from the moon's surface layer.

Helium-3 could be an abundant source of fuel for future, fusion-power electrical power plants, and Schmitt estimated the cost of a privately funded lunar mining program at $15 billion.

"That kind of risk has to be managed carefully and, ideally, the best you could do is get it all put together in 10 to 12 years -- and that's why I say 15 years," he explained.

Moon mining for helium-3 fusion "isn't close enough for venture capital, but it's certainly near enough for angel capital" from investors who want to develop a technology in hopes of profiting from it later, Schmitt said.

"On the private side, there are these intermediate business benefits that will provide returns on investment along the way," he said. "They require much lower capital risk than actually getting to the moon."

At the other end of the spectrum, commercial development of the moon could become national policy, according to Schmitt.

"In that case, the biggest thing the government can do is to develop the very heavy-load launch vehicle necessary," he said.

"The approach NASA is going forward with is to adapt as much of the Space Shuttle technology as possible to put Apollo-like payloads or slightly larger on a trajectory to the Moon," he added.

Schmitt remains a solid supporter of NASA's programs. He bristled noticeably when asked if the public has lost faith in the space agency.

"I think it's mainly not so much the public's confidence as what the media presents as their confidence in NASA," Schmitt replied.

"The public, and especially young people, are still extraordinarily excited about and interested in space. The media get paid to question," the former U.S. Senator from New Mexico observed.

At the same time, Schmitt acknowledged that "NASA since Apollo has not always done itself well," in part because of funding problems.

"The reason the Shuttle program ran into trouble is that it was underfunded. Apollo was the last major space program we had with adequate funding," he said.

NASA continues to develop current rocketry used in the Shuttle program, but Schmitt thinks earlier, Saturn-type technology could be better for developing the Moon's resources.

"They're stuck with that because of their funding, even though a Saturn V system might be a better system to utilize for going into space, or a Saturn V derivative," he said. "Call it a Saturn VI."

Electrical Possibilities

Schmitt said his $15 billion estimate for private lunar development is based on the equivalent BTU-cost of coal, since helium-3 would compete with coal as a power-plant fuel.

Generation and sale of electricity, not mining, would be the ultimate economic driver.

"If you're talking about an indefinite commitment to the moon, you would look at the financial and risk-management issues differently than NASA has to," Schmitt said.

"The nice thing about the helium-3 fusion option is that there are several near-term benefits that do not require going back to the moon," he added.

Lunar exploration and mining could generate other profit opportunities in addition to the helium-3 resource.

"You would be sending material back to Earth," Schmitt said. "And I think within a few years there would be a tourist industry."

Space tourism "will be something that will catch the public eye," he continued. "There will be bits and pieces that are interesting, although very expensive."

If moon mining becomes a reality, many of the first long-term lunar settlers will be geoscientists, Schmitt agreed.

"There will be the need for a lot of specialized geophysical expertise to understand where you should mine, where you shouldn't mine," he said.

And geologists will be needed in a number of capacities, although they might be known as the first on-site astrogeologists instead of Earth geologists.

"The geology of the moon's surface debris layer, we call it the regolith, is quite complex," Schmitt said. "It has to be understood not so much to understand what your total resource base is, but how best to mine it.

"It's essential that you take people who are capable of understanding the geology and engineering necessary to access resources," he added, "more in the tradition of what we used to call mining geologists."

Down the Road

Schmitt's appearance at the AAPG meeting will be just one of many he makes during the course of a year. He likes to talk to geologists about the "bigger picture" of space resources.

"I'm always trying to get the geological professionals, and especially the energy part of that group, to think in a little bit longer term than a board of directors allows them to," he said.

He seems to have no doubt that Moon mining is within reach, and that at some point it will become necessary for energy generation -- lunar mining, and more.

"It's going to take everything we can come up with to meet our energy needs down the road," Schmitt said.

dqcczsacuwcxcwxbebytscvzrrdbrf

You may also be interested in ...