Here we are, almost 30 years since Apollo 11, and a manned return to the Moon seems nowhere in sight. The fact is that Congress has a shallow "been there, done that" attitude towards the Moon and doesn't want to hear NASA mention the word. But happily, NASA is not the whole story about space.
In 1994, the Air Force's Clementine orbiter put together an exhaustive photographic record of the entire lunar surface in unsurpassed detail - and found teasing hints of ice at the south pole. In 1998, Lunar Prospector was conceived and launched outside NASA by planetary scientists and space activists. Now a NASA-supported discovery mission, this became "the little probe that could." For very little money this small craft has in the past year added enormously to our knowledge of the Moon's resources. That knowledge gives us more confidence in the belief that a lunar operation could in time be largely self-supporting and help target areas of special advantage for placement of future outposts.
The U.S. has no presently "accepted" follow-up missions in the works. Carnegie Mellon, and the Lunar Prospector team under Alan Binder, are both working on proposals for landers to the polar ice areas - an absolute must. Japan and Europe have lunar missions under discussion.
The availability of appreciable water ice reserves excites the rocket jockeys who would use them up as cryogenic fuels. But ice is strategically more important to support lunar frontier agriculture, biosphere cycles, and lunar industry - all in closed recycling loops. If the ice is of cometary origin, there should be carbon and nitrogen oxide ices mixed in, and these will be of equal importance.
The Moon is no longer "drier than concrete" and as this sinks into the public consciousness, interest in the prospective lunar frontier may grow. But the second half of the one-two PR punch should be a mission now being brainstormed by space activists in Oregon. They propose an armada of "flash-probes" which would expose hidden lunar lavatubes beneath the surface to a wide array radar network on Earth. The Lunar Lavatube Locator Mission has several years of work ahead of it before it can become a candidate for a NASA discovery mission slot. A Moon with "hidden valleys sheltered from the cosmic elements" will be a much more attractive place for future colonization. Just how would a lunar frontier of several settlements strive to become self-supporting? We know we can make a wide variety of building materials from elements common in the regolith soils: ceramics, concrete, glass, fiberglass, glass-glass composites, iron, aluminum, magnesium, and titanium alloys. With these, we can make expansion modules for shelter, furniture and furnishings, vehicle components, and more. And because of the Moon's shallow gravity well, anything the lunar pioneers succeed in making for themselves will be much cheaper than importing it from Earth. This means cheaper goods for supplying the space station, future hotels, and pioneer expeditions to Mars. Even food, constituted largely of lunar hydrogen and oxygen, will be cheaper to send to the space station than to shuttle up from the nearby surface.
Avoiding imports also means finding substitutes for the wood, paper, and plastics to which we have become addicted (the lunar frontier will be just that--a rough frontier. The genteel would be best advised to stay on Easy Earth). But avoiding imports can only go so far. The pioneers will need many things that they cannot manufacture or process on the Moon. To purchase them, the pioneers will need to produce things for export. In addition to the items mentioned above, consider the following: lunar building materials may make solar power satellites an affordable dream, supplying cheap and clean and inexhaustible energy to Earth. Or the same materials could be used to make a pair of giant solar arrays, one on each limb (Mare Smythii and Mare Veris) to beam power to Earth via relay satellites. And, if ever the fusion engineers achieve their holy grail, adsorbed to the fine grains of the regolith "topsoils" of the Moon is a thousand-year supply of the ultimate clean fusion fuel - Helium-3.
Nuclear fission too will have a big place on the space frontier. Only nuclear rockets can open Mars as a frontier. Only nuclear ships can take explorers out to the asteroids and to the great moons of Jupiter and Saturn. But if the environmentalist fringe has its way, we might only be able to ship unfueled nuclear engines through Earth's atmosphere--and not the fuel. However, Lunar Prospector has found abundant thorium on the Moon, which can be reacted in a fast breeder into fissionable uranium 233. The Moon might just yet play Joan of Arc to the Mars Frontier.
I do not look for the government to get religion and go back to the Moon with a token outpost. If it happened, it could well cause more problems than it solved. Where are we on the "Antarctic Frontier" almost 70 years after “Little America?” Americans do pioneering quite well - their government does not. Perhaps an enlightened lunar legal and economic regime, under proper guidelines from a multinational consortia of construction, manufacturing, mining companies, and power utilities would do a much better job of opening the Moon.
Prospective employees could sign up with the various companies for short tours of duty on the Moon. It would be to the companies' advantage, however, to encourage people to reenlist--giving them major perks in lieu of the double passage it would cost them for a replacement. After a set number of reenlistments, one would become a "free agent" able to offer his or her services on the open market to other companies doing business on the Moon. This provides a mechanism for breaking out from "temps" into "settlers." Once hired by another concern, the free agent would become a citizen of the Lunar Frontier, and be allowed to establish a family. Maybe it won't happen exactly like that, but with the proper legal regime in place, we may succeed in "converting" an outpost into a settlement. That will be the real milestone.
Civil rule will be needed as soon as there is more than one company doing business in a location. And indeed, the one company town is something to be avoided at all costs. Good ones exist only in fiction and bad memory.
This is the dream. How do we get there from here? There has been some research into producing useful building materials from lunar resources--but we need much more. We need to take this research out of the lab. Upon finding profitable terrestrial applications ("spin up"), we should now debug each of these technologies, so that when we need them, we can hit the ground running. Glass-glass composites, cast basalt, serviceable alloys that can be formulated using only alloy ingredients that can be economically produced from the regolith - all these need more work. The rocket scientists working on cheap access to space may get us to the frontier. But it is the chemical engineers, figuring out how we can "live off the land" in the various places we go, who will be the real heroes of the frontier, giving us the tools to stay, and prosper.
Lunar Prospector has also put us forever beyond the naive simple time in which one place on the Moon looked as good as any other. If we are going to have a resource-using, self-reliant settlement, and not just a token science outpost at the mercy of each congressional session's budget-cutting expediencies, then we had best pick sites where our operations will be best advantaged. Sites, yes, plural. If we are going to do the Moon, and make it into another human world, we will need a multi-site beachhead.
We need to go to the poles to tap the ice reserves. Both poles are in highland landscapes. The highland/mare coastal areas offer access to both major suites of lunar materials, the aluminum-calcium-magnesium enriched highland regolith, and the iron-titanium enriched mare basalt regolith. And happily, these are also in "coast-hugging" areas of the maria where we find lavatubes--vast sheltered "lee" vacuum areas, free from cosmic radiation, solar flares, micrometeorites, and the extremes of hot and cold. Further, these areas are also free from the insidious 'everywhere' dust of the surface. These vast covered valleys will provide abundant volume for industry, warehousing - even agriculture and settlement.
Polar cometary water-ice reserves can be refined into methane (CH4) and ammonia (NH3), leaving the oxygen behind. Liquefied, these gases can be easily piped where needed on the Moon, to be burned with oxygen processed locally--in fuel cells at night to produce badly needed extra power - and to reconstitute water, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen.
In the north, Mare Frigoris offers coastal areas less than half the distance from the north pole than southern costal regions (Mare Australe, Mare Nubium, or Mare Humorum) are from the south pole. Further, Mare Frigoris is in the "Imbrium Fringe" area that Lunar Prospector has shown to be thorium-enriched.
Previously, this author had been partial to a settlement in Mare Crisium, simply because it is the single most identifiable feature on the face of the Moon as seen by the naked eye from Earth. But Mare Frigoris comes in a close second in this regard. Here, just north of the crater Plato and the Alpine Valley (providing access to Mare Imbrium and the whole "chain" of nearside maria) might be an especially propitious place to set up an initial settlement. A "first settlement" will be followed by others, as the economic advantages of various sites are pursued and as the lunar economy grows, diversifies, and becomes more vigorous and resilient.
We have more to learn about the Moon--both about what it is made of, and about what we can make out of it--before we can return with the confidence that we are equipped to stay. So close to Earth, the lunar economy will be part of an expanded Earth-Moon economy with the Moon acting as a veritable eighth continent. But the Lunar Frontier will have its own distinctive character and culture. It will be a place where one can start over, fresh, and make a difference, getting in on the ground floor. It will be one of those places where life is harder, but much more rewarding--just as on the frontiers of yesterday in the American West and Australia.
And so the Epic of Life will continue: from ocean to land to sky, and now to space. Each step seems so fragile, so tentative, so precarious. But the Epic of Life has a certain destiny that will not be denied. Meet you there.