Hap Aziz knows plenty about computer technology and the Internet. Aziz is director of Internet and Instructional Technology at Valencia Community College in Valencia, Fla.
So, how are things going with the Internet these days?
Consider this: Aziz has developed a plan to secure mineral rights on the moon.
"What we can do is try to fund an expedition to the moon, and when we're there we can claim land rights," he said.
To pursue that goal, Aziz founded Interplanetary Investment Partners (IIP). Naturally, the organization has its own Web site, www.interplanetaryinvestments.com.
"For a donation of $25, you can receive a very unusual gift ... lunar land rights," says an IIP press release. "IIP foresees the initial colonization effort to be driven by commercial mining of lunar resources."
Aziz got the idea for a private space expedition from reading the works of science-fiction author Robert Heinlein -- "That triggered the thought in my brain," he said -- and then talking with engineers and academics.
He launched IIP this year, with a goal of raising $50 million and beginning off-Earth activities within 15 years. The space expedition will take 85 percent of the money and operations 15 percent, Aziz said.
Of course, before you decide to fund your retirement by investing in lunar real estate, you might want to do some research into space resources.
You'll need to talk to a geologist who's actually done field work on the moon.
Finding the Real Value
That would be AAPG member Harrison H. Schmitt, the astronaut-scientist who explored the lunar surface on the last manned Moon mission, Apollo 17, in December 1972.
Today Schmitt leads InterLune-InterMars Intitiative Inc., a company with its own plans to develop the moon's resources.
"The possibility we have seen is use of resources in lunar soil," Schmitt said. "The primary one of those is a light isotope of helium called helium-3."
And how valuable might that be?
"Helium-3, if it were possible to use it on Earth, today would have an energy equivalent value of about $4 billion a metric ton, with spot crude oil prices at about $28 per barrel."
The moon offers "a number of other resources that look promising, but not for return to Earth," according to Schmitt.
However, those resources could be valuable for use on the moon and in space, he added.
"As of now, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, to which the United States and most other nations are partners, would seem to prohibit owning land or mineral rights (on the moon)," Schmitt said.
"It does appear to permit, however, the ownership of minerals once extracted by properly licensed private or national entities. This would be much like our traditional public lands mining law."
To attract funding, Schmitt said he and his colleagues have approached lunar development as "a fundamental business problem."
But it turns out that both the price tag and the risks are high, with only $205,000 raised to date for research and technology development.
"My rough guess is, the capital investment needed to bring your first 100 kilograms of helium-3 back to Earth for use in the first 1,000-megawatt fusion plant would be $10 billion to $15 billion.
"That includes both the space component and the development of a commercial helium-3 fusion system here on Earth," he said.
Schmitt estimated it would take 10-15 years to develop both an extraction operation on the moon and the fusion plant technology, after initial funding of $15 million or so.
The timeframe and the full program cost, plus the uncertainty of a payout, likely would deter investors in the long-term opportunity.
"So far, the plan we've put together hasn't attracted the capital we need. So we're reworking it," he said. "What we're doing is looking at the fusion technology for the use of helium-3 and seeing what other, near-term applications are possible in the meantime."
By developing the technology for use in other areas, like producing medical isotopes, Schmitt said he hopes to "bootstrap" his way to an economically feasible, lunar-sourced helium-3 operation.
After leaving the space program, Schmitt served one term as a U.S. senator from New Mexico. He's now an adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which has a Fusion Technology Institute under the direction of Professor G.L. Kulcinski.
"They're the ones who first recognized that analysis of the lunar samples revealed the presence of helium-3," Schmitt said. "Unfortunately, that went unrecognized for 15 years after the samples were first analyzed."
One legal hurdle for lunar mining could be the proposed international Moon Agreement of the United Nations. The proposed agreement states that the moon and its resources are "the common heritage of mankind," and that exploitation of lunar resources shall be governed by an "international regime."
That treaty has gone into effect technically put not practically, according to Schmitt.
"None of the major space-faring nations, other than France, have signed it," he noted.
"I have recommended to various administrations, and continue to recommend, that we do nothing to put the Moon Agreement practically in force," he added.
"It would create great uncertainty that would further discourage investors, and probably prevent lunar resources from ever benefiting humankind."
More Work To Be Done
Manned deep-space exploration still draws sentimental support -- if not much financial support -- from the general public.
In part that's because of disappointment over NASA's failure to build on its Apollo program successes.
Jan Cannon worked in the U.S. space program and shares the frustration. Cannon is president of Planetary Data in Tecumseh, Okla., and serves as chairman of AAPG's Astrogeology Committee.
"There were more Apollo trips planned -- in fact, I think I was working on mapping landing sites for Apollo 22," he said. "We felt like the only good geologic trip was Apollo 17."
Cannon supports a return to manned lunar exploration and a new evaluation of space resources in the interest of science.
"I think from a scientific point of view, there's a lot of science left to be done, like on the moon. As far as making it a paying endeavor, we might have problems there," he said.
"A lunar far-side observatory would give us an unprecedented look, sort of like the Hubble (space telescope), but we'd be able to put it on a big, stable base on the moon."
Establishing a lunar research base likely would lead to major breakthroughs in areas like medicine, materials and new technologies, Cannon believes. It also would provide a base for better observation and exploration of the solar system, he said.
"We really need to take another look at Venus," he said. "I feel much of the information about Venus is incorrect. There are a lot of questions like that, that we're a long way from getting good answers on."
What's In a Name?
As always, money is the issue. Aziz said he sees three steps in funding IIP:
- "Generating some buzz and publicity."
- Attracting interest from wealthy investors and companies willing to make a large investment.
- Fully commercializing the venture through sponsorships, advertising tie-ins and other promotional "opportunities."
Aziz wants to distance himself from the wide variety of Internet-based services that offer to let you name a star or asteroid for a modest fee, and those selling lunar property deeds.
"Basically, they're all pretty much scams in one way or another," he said. "They're also selling real estate on Mars, and possibly some other planets."
In a typical transaction, a company allows you to choose a name for a star or an asteroid or some other feature in space for $20 to $30. The company promises to catalogue the name, register it with the appropriate copyright authority and send you a handsome "certificate of authenticity."
This drives astronomers crazy. They point out that only the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has the authority to name stars or other celestial bodies.
The IAU does not sell star names, or name stars after people. It gives stars what it calls, by its own admission, boring catalogue numbers. The only named stars have ancient, traditional names.
Anyone can send a name to the copyright office. When one of these companies "registers" a name, it includes the name only in its own catalogue, with no official status.
"As an international scientific organization, the IAU dissociates itself entirely from the commercial practice of selling fictitious star names or real estate on other planets or moons in the solar system," says the IAU.
The same holds true for asteroid names. For $25, you can find a service that will name an asteroid after your significant other. You get a warm feeling. You get a nice certificate.
You get to tell your significant other, "Whenever I gaze into space, I think of your asteroid."
But the name has no official standing, no matter what the company avows.
You're buying a piece of paper -- and whatever bragging rights you care to claim.
Within Our Reach
Several companies accept donations toward funding a private space program. Most are long shots, at best, but they add to the sense that outer space is within our reach.
SpaceDev, a publicly traded corporation, claims to offer "innovative, Earth-orbiting or deep-space mission design solutions." Amsterdam-based MirCorp arranges rides for space tourists and plans to build a commercial space station.
Space Adventures Ltd. claims to be "the world's premier space tourism company." Trans Lunar Research calls itself a nonprofit corporation set up to establish "the first manned Lunar Station," and also sells T-shirts in its "Moonshop."
Some oil industry research is already moving into space.
In October, the Soret Coefficients of Crude Oil (SCCO) project plans to launch an experimental apparatus on the Russian Foton M1 satellite.
SCCO is a joint research program of Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto, the Microgravity Research Center of Brussels and C-CORE, an applied R&D company in Newfoundland, Canada.
In space, the apparatus will measure diffusion in oil samples, induced by applied temperature gradients. Space testing eliminates inaccuracies caused by gravity or buoyancy.
Industry will use the SCCO data in numerical models for assessing oil reservoirs. Contributions for the project came from the Canadian Space Agency, the European Space Agency and TotalFinaElf.
For the new private pioneers of space -- including those in the predominantly private-funded multi-billion dollar satellite communications industry -- motivation and excitement spring from the thought, "This could really happen."
"All of the data from the Apollo missions, the NASA information, that's all available to the public now. We can actually build on what NASA did in the 1970s, using the cheaper off-the-shelf technology of today," Aziz said.
"The thing that cost NASA so much money was going from Earth to low Earth orbit. They were building in redundant systems that, if we had those kinds of systems in the 1400s, Columbus would never have made it to America."
More important, Schmitt said, "it was the first time and there were great uncertainties that required numerous parallel and conservative engineering approaches.
"Those uncertainties will be gone the next time we begin an initiative to access the moon and deep space."
Public vs. Private Funding
Schmitt considers the helium-3 project a technological certainty, and a strong contender for eventual success.
"Conceptually there are no breakthroughs. You just have to re-engineer stuff," he noted. "These resources are real. They exist. If we can get launch costs to one-thirtieth of what they were for Apollo, it's a very real possibility for the future."
He sees private space exploration as a given, too. Someday.
"I'm sure of it," Schmitt commented. "I just don't know when it's going to happen, or what the catalyst is going to be."
Aziz said he wants the public to know he's making a serious proposal for a private space launch.
"We're sincere. We want to do this on an open-book policy. And this is one of those long-term projects where patience is a virtue," he explained.
"Just starting out, it's going well in terms of buzz," he added. "In terms of raising money, we've raised less than $5,000 so far."
Today's question of privately funded space exploration may be part of a much older and larger debate: Which is better for developing resources, government spending or private enterprise?
Whatever the answer, "Enterprise" would make a darn good name for a starship.