Almost a year ago, Johann-Dietrich Wörner, currently the director-general of the European Space Agency, proposed the construction of a “Moon Village” as the next great international space project after the end of the operating life of the International Space Station. The idea is a variation of a moon base, involving various national space agencies building their own habitats next to each other for mutual support. The Moon Village would likely share the production of air, water, and other consumables as well as common facilities such as laboratories.
Unfortunately, while Worner’s idea has gotten a lot of press, it has not gotten much in the way of support from the space agencies that would be counted on to contribute. NASA is stuck on its Journey to Mars and sees no use for landing people on the moon again. Russia might like to join in, but its current financial crisis means that its contributions would be rather limited. China has its own lunar ambitions, with a plan to land a rover on the far side of the moon by 2018, but it is unclear whether it would be part of another space agency’s plan. Even the member states of the ESA have, thus far, not reacted with enthusiasm.
Ironically, the private sector has expressed the most enthusiasm for the Moon Village idea. Companies such as Moon Express, Astrobotic Technology, and Shackleton Energy see the idea as a way to partner with the public sector to get their dreams of commercial enterprises on the moon, especially the mining of precious minerals like rare earths and platinum group metals, off the launch pad. Filling in the gap left by NASA’s skittishness concerning returning to the moon, the FAA is starting a dialogue between the commercial space sector and the ESA to iron out private sector participation in the Moon Village.
Still, the idea of forming a community on the lunar surface is not likely to go beyond the dialogue phase unless NASA moves away from regarding the moon as a quarantine region. NASA has the resources and experience necessary to jump-start putting moon boots back on the lunar surface for the first time since 1972.
Recent studies by MIT and a think-tank called Next-Gen Space offer the space agency an opening to put a return to the moon back on the launch manifest and to facilitate American participation in the Moon Village. Both studies note the fact that the moon has an abundance of water, trapped as ice in cold traps at the bottom of craters at the lunar South Pole and North Pole. Water can be refined into its component parts, hydrogen and oxygen, which can be used as rocket fuel.
A fuel depot in space, supplied from the moon, would lower the cost and complexity of going to Mars, since the fuel would not have to be carried all the way from Earth. The Mars ship would stop off at the fuel depot, top off its tanks, and then proceed on to the Red Planet.
Thus, as both a center of science and commerce, and as a source rocket fuel, the Moon Village would be of immense benefit to every country and private company that chooses to participate.