Wednesday, February 17, 2016

A Refreshingly Honest Look at ISRU for Missions to Moons and Mars

It's refreshing to have an honest conversation about human spaceflight. I've written here previously about my frustrations that future human spaceflight hype discredits missions and makes it harder for us in the space world to do our jobs. Spaceflight is difficult, expensive, and takes time. Well-intentioned promoters downplay these challenges, but reality backfires on them. I'm an idealist by nature, but when it comes to the business and technical challenges of space, I'm a realist bordering on skeptic. Show me the detailed plan, show me the money, and show me how the technology is already being developed and tested.

It has been a pleasure to delve into realistic human spaceflight architectures at the Buzz Aldrin Space Institute this week. Only by detailing, step-by-step, a feasible and affordable means of creating a sustainable path to humans living on another world (Earth's Moon, Mars' moons, Mars itself, etc.) with a business case for industry profit can we accomplish such a monumental task. Apollo to the Moon was a one-time effort in history which will not and arguably should not be repeated. For decades, many in the space industry have known that sustainability (settlement, colonization, pioneering, establishing a base or outpost, whatever you want to call it) is what is needed. But there has never been a consensus on how to do it.

In-situ resource utilization (ISRU) is not a new concept but is surprisingly an under-appreciated and under-funded area of study. Instead of needing to bring all resources with us on a rocket from Earth to wherever we're going, it would save a lot of weight (which translates to fuel savings, which translates to money savings) to use the resources that exist in space already. Although it has been politically unpopular to say so for years, a heavy lift rocket such as the Space Launch System is likely not needed if we instead focus on ISRU.

To use two examples that we discussed today at BASI, if we can use lunar and/or Martian regolith (dirt) to create water and rocket fuel/propellant, we would not have to bring extra water and fuel with us on these missions. Existing water/ice H2O can be extracted from the regolith. Electrolysis can break H2O into hydrogen H2 and oxygen O2 which can be used as fuel. All that is needed is energy. On Mars, carbon dioxide CO2 is also available in the atmosphere for ,making fuel.

There are multiple unanswered questions that need to be studied in order to propose this course of action. How do we best mine this regolith, especially the icy regolith? Can and how do we break apart the regolith and ice to extract the elements needed? How much energy would it take? How pure does the water and fuel need to be? Can and how do we create a usable fuel? How much would we save launching from the Moon compared to launching from Earth with Earth's higher gravity? So many questions, too little done in experimentation!

Thankfully, planetary regolith experimentation is one of my things, and I find this all to be exciting questions to ponder and later to test. Unfortunately, so far there hasn't been an organized and collaborative effort. There are scattered teams working on ISRU at NASA centers, universities, and even a few commercial companies, but no one seems to be talking to each other in a productive way to move the field forward. Thankfully, building collaborations is also one of my things. Today's meeting was fun and I look forward to bringing together even more people to advance this effort and get things done!

Money is the main barrier, as it always is. Aside from NASA, I don't know of anyone willing to fund these efforts, and NASA money is scarce. Without much funding, ISRU demonstration progresses at a snail's pace and the concepts and technology won't be ready for prime time when missions are being planned. Of course, missions are also endlessly delayed, so this isn't urgent. Here's where my optimism returns: I believe that public-private partnerships will return humans to other worlds in my lifetime. In fact, I'm holding on to the dream that I'll be among the astronauts to walk on another planetary body. I'm working hard to do my little part to get us there in whatever way I can.

What can we do with lunar regolith? - NASA KSC, January 22, 2015


  1. Over half of the Earth's land surface is uninhabited. We can demonstrate methods here, improve them, then launch to the next planet to be humanized.

    1. Thanks for the link and the information, Ted! I know that some of the ISRU technology are already being tested on Earth, but there's so much more to be done. I'm looking forward to seeing the demonstrations progress and perhaps even getting involved in some myself!

  2. There is one barrier before money... it's simple belief. One day we may have colonies on mars. Before that day many will just refuse to see it. More than enough money exists, even a small part of NASA's budget would do it. But govt. could do it at NO COST.

    Give people a real interest with a land exchange. Nobody owns mars so all the money collected could go for colonist transportation costs at any market rate which people (not govt.) would determine.

    14,400,000,000 hectares is a huge asset. Capitalism works when you believe in it.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Ken. Our current international treaties, specifically the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, forbids national claim of sovereignty of outer space. Because the United States (or any other nation) cannot claim Martian territory, it (or anyone else) cannot do a land exchange. The U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitive Act signed into law last year doesn't change this; it even states: "It is the sense of Congress that the United States does not, by enactment of this Act, assert sovereignty or sovereign or exclusive rights or jurisdiction over, or ownership of, any celestial body." So, we would have to enact new laws and modify our treaty agreements to do what you suggest.