NASA Aims to Open Moon for Business

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Business Opportunities

According to Eckert, commercial use of the moon's surface material, called regolith, is one of the most promising opportunities.

(Wallpaper photo: astronauts explore moon boulders.)

For one, he says, the regolith contains easily extractable oxygen and—to a lesser extent—hydrogen. Oxygen and hydrogen can be used to manufacture rocket fuel.

Rocket fuel could be produced on the moon and used nearby or supplied to fueling stations orbiting the Earth. This could lower the cost of space exploration, since the most expensive part of any mission is launching heavy, fuel-laden craft beyond Earth's gravity.

"If you had fuel in space, it wouldn't be necessary to take as much with you when leaving Earth. That might save a lot of money," Eckert said.

If it turns out that passing comets have deposited water ice on the moon, hydrogen and oxygen might be even more easily obtained, he added. (Water is a combination of hydrogen and oxygen.)

(See "NASA to Crash Probe Into Moon in Search of Water" [April 10, 2006].)

Another component of the regolith is silicon, which can be used to create panels that help generate solar power. Eckert says several companies are exploring the possibility of moon-manufactured solar panels to power lunar colonies.

Lunar panels might also be used to build Earth-orbiting solar power generating satellites that could beam energy to Earth, he adds.

According to the Space Frontier Foundation's Krukin, opportunity abounds in setting up the infrastructure required to do business in space.

Several companies are already bidding for a government contract to build and operate supply ships for the International Space Station.

And just as competition on Earth has resulted in better and cheaper cars, competition will result in cheaper, more efficient space vehicles than NASA would build on its own, he says.

"Government agencies are not motivated the same way as people who run companies and have to make a profit to survive," Krukin said.

Other companies, he adds, could construct buildings in space that fulfill NASA's preliminary needs for shelter on the moon—but in such a way that when NASA no longer needs the buildings, companies can take over the leases.

Further in the future, Krukin and Boeing's Eckert envision media companies having a field day on the moon.

For example, video cameras on robotic spacecraft can beam high-definition imagery down to Earth for use in advertising.

"Companies derive economic value from being associated with things that are new and exciting," Eckert said.

Krukin lets his imagination run to low-gravity sports and attendant sponsorship deals. There's golf, of course—pioneered by Apollo astronaut Alan Shepard and his three historic drives in 1971. And then there's volleyball, racquetball, and yet-to-be-discovered extreme lunar sports.

"Imagine the economic value of filming that and beaming it live back to Earth," he said.

Business Challenges

Before any of these ideas take hold, however, the business community needs confidence that the markets exist and are economically viable, Boeing's Eckert says.

He recommends that companies take an incremental approach to exploring the potential for investing in lunar commerce, just as they would on Earth.

In addition, the Space Frontier Foundation's Krukin adds, companies need to understand the legal and regulatory framework of doing business on the moon and elsewhere in space.

Space business is currently governed by international laws. "[But] no one was thinking that there might one day be private industry settling a claim on an asteroid or a corporation building a mining facility on the surface of the moon.

"All those issues," Krukin said, "need to be addressed."

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