Lunar commercialization is on the horizon
June 11, 2021 in Innovation, Technology
By Cindy Mahler, Boeing Research & Technology
We’re going back to the moon, maybe with a shopping cart. In December 2020, NASA named 18 astronauts to begin their training for the upcoming return of humans to our closest neighbor in space. The opportunity to return and stay this time is unprecedented. It’s a turning point in history as we, a space-faring society, figure out how to lower the cost of exploring the cosmos to enable the current seeds of space commercialization to blossom. By the year 2050, we hope to harness lunar resources to provide rare elements, metals and water.
In the past, space commercialization has been limited to satellites in Earth’s orbit because they provide value to users on Earth: communication, weather data, navigation, radio, television, remote sensing and more. As for human space exploration, governments have led the effort — putting people in space, building space stations and walking on the moon.
Government space programs provide the opportunity to expand the boundaries of what we know and determine where we drive humanity to explore the unknown, discover new worlds, and push the boundaries of our scientific and technical limits. While we have needed our governments and the political willingness for human space exploration to get to where we are today, now we must answer the fundamental question: What more can we do?
Due to the cost of needed infrastructure to survive in the harshness of space, business cases are difficult to close in a time frame that meets investors’ desires.
Many space companies are on independent journeys to achieve their vision, which often includes lowering the cost of access. In addition, companies generally divide space into commercial satellite, human exploration, military and other markets. As a result, they miss an opportunity to scale space commercialization by considering the interconnectivity between space markets.
What is missing is an integrated strategy to incrementally build up capabilities and technologies to enable commercialization.
Historically, expansion by governments on Earth occurred for three reasons: accumulation of land, access to natural resources and national security. For example, the development of railroads in the northern United States aided the growth of cities over time by providing a mechanism to move goods and resources across the country. The development of a transportation network between Earth and its moon can grow space commercialization in a similar manner.
When it comes to expanding humanity’s presence in space, land on other bodies cannot be owned or militarized, according to the United Nations Outer Space Treaty. But the 1967 treaty did specify that all U.N. members were free to explore and use the moon and other celestial objects in outer space.
Assuming all governments abide by the agreement, two of the reasons for expansion, land and national security, are immediately ruled out. That leaves us to explore the resources available off planet. And the moon is the ideal place to start.
The moon offers water, which can be used for life support and agriculture and can be converted into propellant. Ilmenite is a lunar compound that can be broken down to yield iron, titanium and oxygen.
Lunar surface rocks and soils, known as regolith, contain raw materials such as magnesium, aluminum, silicon and iron. These elements can be used for building infrastructure for use on the moon or in space.
Imagine a not-so-distant future where we could use lunar resources to meet our needs on the surface to sustain human operations. We could even stand up automation (robotics, remote operations, machine learning) such that resource extraction, refinement and production would take place, akin to remote mining operations on Earth. And we could resolve transportation, storage and waste issues as well.
Thanks to metallic asteroids that have crashed into the moon over time, there are platinum-group elements left behind. The moon also offers what we call rare earth metals (REMs), including scandium, yttrium and the 15 lanthanides. These metals can be used to manufacture electronics and electric batteries. REMs are difficult to mine on Earth because it is unusual to find them in concentrations high enough for economical extraction. Conditions for mining on Earth are also highly toxic for humans.
In recent years, countries such as the United States and Luxembourg have passed regulations supporting the use of space resources by those who extract them. Luxembourg is even offering financial incentives to space companies that open offices there and reimbursement of 45% of a company’s reseach and development investment.
In addition, in November 2020, the European Space Resources Innovation Centre (ESRIC) was officially launched in Luxembourg. The center’s website says ESRIC “aims to become the internationally recognised centre of expertise for scientific, technical, business and economic aspects related to the use of space resources for human and robotic exploration, as well as for a future in-space economy.”
And in December 2020, NASA announced contracts with four companies to collect moon rocks as part of the Artemis program, its effort to establish a sustainable presence on the moon. NASA’s official announcement says the moon propels us to Mars: “The ability to extract and use extraterrestrial resources will ensure Artemis operations can be conducted safely and sustainably in support of establishing human lunar exploration. Moreover, in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) will play a vital role in a future human mission to Mars. Like many other operations, ISRU activities will be tested and developed on the Moon, building the required knowledge to implement new capabilities that will be necessary to overcome the challenges of a human mission to Mars.”
In February 2021, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced its Novel Orbital and Moon Manufacturing, Materials, and Mass-efficient Design (NOM4D, pronounced “nomad”). The official announcement outlines a 54-month contract opportunity: “The effort … seeks to pioneer technologies for adaptive, off-earth manufacturing to produce large space and lunar structures.”
The program assumes an established space ecosphere by 2030. According to the DARPA press release, this includes “rapid, frequent launch with regularly scheduled lunar visits; mature robotic manipulation tools for building structures in space and routine on-orbit refueling of robotic servicing spacecraft … and the availability of in-space, non-destructive evaluation methods for in-process monitoring of manufacturing and near real-time design adjustments.”
Companies can strategically align with their country’s lunar goals to start and build up commercial strategies, using NASA and other space agencies as anchor customers to substantiate technologies and capabilities.
Space resources such as water and metals will inspire a sustainable commercial space strategy. However, due to the complicated nature and required infrastructure to make space mining and manufacturing a reality, this cannot be accomplished by one or even a handful of companies. It requires a mindset shift, supported by government regulations or incentives. Traditional space manufacturing and operations companies, heavy machinery and mining, power, communications, 3D printing, machine learning and artificial intelligence must also join forces.
By integrating a space exploration and commercialization strategy around resources, opportunity arises to build up capabilities in low Earth orbit (LEO) and on the moon both to support resource-based operations and to start the journey for future expansion of humanity’s off-planet presence.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Boeing performed market studies to test assumptions about how space commercialization could evolve in the next three decades. Integration, interactions and interdependencies between LEO and beyond Earth orbit (BEO) space activities were assessed.
- We considered space activities in six space market categories to fully evaluate their potential interactions and whether each drives new commercial activity. This includes a broader market that cuts across the other five, primarily launch and mission control activities necessary to support space operations.
- We determined if commercial innovation could change the path of the current commercial space ecosystem trajectory.
- We considered if interactions between numerous space markets could speed and scale a commercial space economy.
- We determined which International Space Station (ISS) payload facility gaps would unlock commercial benefits for the LEO/BEO ecosystem.
Our studies concluded that the current trajectory of human space exploration will continue to remain government led and funded unless industry changes how it approaches space markets. There is not an instantaneous ramp-up to a trillion-dollar space economy.
A commercial space strategy must identify value creators and/or generate demand in order to be viable. Highlighting the benefits of being in space will enable the maturation of nascent space markets. Then, lunar resources can be utilized and demand generated by leveraging low Earth stations, starting with the ISS, and capitalizing on government and NASA goals and investment (return to the moon and LEO commercialization).
However, no one company or government can do this alone. It will take a network committed to a unified vision to reach the next level. This means companies across multiple industries bringing their individual strengths and coming together in partnership. First, that vision must be agreed upon.
The following are starting places for an industry consortium to contemplate when working toward a unified commercial space strategy with 2050 on the horizon:
- Consider the full value chain when assessing emerging ecosystems.
- Expand the frame of analysis to consider the full range of business models when assessing new markets.
- Focus analysis on identifying unmet customer needs.
- Inform and shape customer and commercial strategies.
- Aggregate supply chains to fill needs.
- Invest in nascent technologies and pursue nontraditional investment strategies.
Together, we can work toward a unified space commercialization vision. Together, we can bring our strengths to the partnership to enable a future we’ve only dreamed about.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Cindy Mahler, a commercial space innovation strategist, has worked as a systems engineer on multiple NASA collaborations with Boeing, including Commercial Crew, Constellation and International Space Station.
ABOVE IT ALL: The International Space Station has orbited Earth with a crew aboard for more than 20 years. In that time, it has routinely been upgraded to maintain its cutting-edge lab facilities and to accommodate increased uses, particularly by commercial organizations wanting to perform research in an environment devoid of gravity.
Watch This Space
Commercialization’s already happening on the International Space Station
By Steve Siceloff, Boeing writer
The International Space Station (ISS) is a pioneer. During more than 20 years of operation in low Earth orbit, the largest spacecraft ever built has achieved scores of scientific discoveries and opened access to space science to more people than ever before.
The ISS has also served as a proving ground for commercialization efforts in orbit, opening the microgravity environment to a wider range of experimentation by private companies and research organizations. NASA established the ISS National Laboratory to match the enormous research capabilities of the ISS with opportunities sought by private companies to advance their products or decipher problems in a microgravity environment.
ISS research has ranged from growing protein crystals to testing medicines on disease cells to 3D printing fiber-optic cables that are able to carry a hundred times more information than Earth-made counterparts.
HIGH WIRE ACT: A NASA astronaut wires the Boeing-made International Docking Adapter in place on the International Space Station to provide an upgraded docking port for the new generation of crewed and cargo spacecraft produced and operated commercially by American companies including Boeing.
What started merely as offering room aboard the ISS for privately funded research projects grew to include launching microsatellites from the orbiting lab and incorporating an experiment airlock for commercial enterprises. NASA also instituted a pricing list for supplies and even crew time to support nonprofessional astronauts and private missions visiting the space station.
The purpose of the private missions will vary widely, from enhanced research by scientist crew members to weeklong sightseeing missions by space tourists, a signal of growing access to space. Although the permanent crew of the ISS is set at seven, there is plenty of room inside for more on temporary stays. In fact, the ISS recently hosted 11 people at once. The record crew size stands at 13. With an interior volume equal to an empty 747 jumbo jet, the ISS won’t likely run out of space out in space.
On the horizon are privately built modules that will connect to the ISS, plugging into its power and service infrastructure before disconnecting after several years to fly independently. Even with other orbital platforms in operation, the ISS is well positioned to continue its role as the cornerstone of research and commerce as well as shepherd the growth and operation of new capabilities in space.