#88 September 1995
Section 126.96.36.199.088.of the Artemis Data Book
by Peter Kokh
II. RETURN ON INVESTMENT and the R.O.I.al Profits from accessing space-based energy and lunar resources are far off. Can feeding the entertainment appetite provide a big enough, early enough return-on-investment [ROI] to economically "terrace" an initial manned return to the Moon and a starter base?
That's the idea of the Lunar Resources Company of Houston Texas, and CEO Greg Bennett. Bennett wants to see us return to the Moon, "the sooner the better", to develop the resources there and establish a two-world economy. Yet turning the first buck of profit from such a venture seems to everyone who has looked at the problem, a long ways down the road. So how do we attract investment capital? That comes down to asking, how can we provide an earlier return on investment?
Others have suggested "terracing" our way back to the Moon. LunaCorp's project to put a pair of videocam-equipped rovers on the Moon near the Apollo 11 site and have them take lots of footage on a 6-week-long long overland trek to the Apollo 17 site, could be the first terrace. Film footage would be available to virtual reality players, for a fee, at theme parks.
Entertainment ventures are financed by the expectation of fairly quick profits, not from industrialists and manufacturers, but from couch potatoes, the very people who are often most maligned as standing in the way of the future. It would be ironic, and fitting, if catering to their needs provided the missing interim financing link to get things going, again. Leisure dollars are certainly attractive, not being directly subject to national budget deficits or grandstanding politicians with 2-, 4-, and 6- year strains of myopia.
VR, virtual reality, is a new market, one already much bigger than the last over-hyped electronic wonder, holograms and holovision. Will expectations be realized? Will enough people find the VR experience satisfying enough to pay for it? - on a repeat basis? This remains to be seen.
The feature film industry, on the other hand, is long and well established. Moviemakers have been quick to follow where the scouts of humanity have led. They have taken us beneath the waves and up/down to the poles. Amateur filming in space began early and we had short TV "shows" done by Moon-bound crews. IMAX-made documentaries with extensive footage made from the Shuttle's payload bay, have shown millions the wonders visible from this Olympian perch. And now, "Apollo 13", a real feature film, professionally produced and directed, has been released, much of it shot in real zero-G, courtesy of endless short takes on the KC-135 "Vomit Comet" flying one parabolic trajectory after another.
Movie budgets these days are quite large, often in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The first billion dollar picture may well be produced sometime in the next decade. Not all of that investment goes for expensive, exotic sets and blow-your-mind special effects. But enough of the extra bucks are aimed in that direction to lead us to raise the question. Where will movie making take us next? When will "filmed on location" mean "filmed in orbit" or on a loop-the-Moon flight? Not with just tag along cameras manned by specially trained astronauts, but with actual studio film crews and real full-time actors?
Lack of reasonably priced access to space is the real hitch. It is one thing for a studio to "rent" an actually orbiting "set" such as a shuttle flight, or the Mir I complex (especially after it becomes surplus when the ISSA, the International Space Station Alpha, becomes operational). But the cost of getting crews and actors up there is currently too high.
Abracadabra "Cheap Access", and you can picture Universal or Paramount leasing Mir I, even spending a hundred mil or so to re-outfit the decommissioned station, to serve as the set for some orbital industrial espionage thriller, maybe even involving zero-G sporting or athletic events in some future Olympics. They might even pay to add a new module or two (perhaps, with another investor, a mini-hotel wing?), especially if, after the film crews are gone, the refurbished complex can be sold or leased to some commercial concern at a price that justifies the additional investment.
Will filmmakers ever take us where NASA has yet dreaded to tread? Why not? Split Mir I into two complexes joined by a winchable tether, and set the pair spinning around their common center of mass. A pair of flywheels, one at each end, could start the process and control the rate and also keep each subcomplex from twisting at the end of the tether. By carefully choosing the weight ratio and the rpms, the result could give Hollywood one "Moonbase" interior set, complete with one sixth gravity, and a "Mars base" interior set, complete with simulated three eighths gravity.
Would Hollywood ever pay for a real Moonbase made as inexpensively as possible with off the shelf hardware (duplicate station modules or Spacehab modules) and launched with existing cheapest available rockets? If not the whole starter base, how about an extra module or two to fit the plot of a film - ward room?, gym?, laboratory?, garage? - or a rover cabin? Perhaps they will prefer to wait for a passenger version of some Delta Clipper type* SSTO vehicle to enter service.
[* Fans of VTHL type alternatives fail to realize that winged landers are not going to be able to be refueled in orbit and go on to the Moon, whereas a VTVL tail-lander could do so.]
The odds would improve if, the film shooting over and done with, there was another commercial tenant, signed-on-the-dotted-line, to whom the new Moonbase could be turnkeyed. It would almost have to be a joint venture of some sort. But the idea of Hollywood paying half a billion towards the total cost of such a complex, or towards special features or outfitting on it - to fit the needs of the film (especially if attractive to the turn key tenant as well) is hardly absurd.
The couch potato wants to see and experience Mars for himself, not pay good tax money to send a handful of proxies there. But he wants to see it without spending months of round trip travel time or experiencing real risk and danger. Hollywood, traditional films and VR in combination, can give him what he wants. And perhaps that's why the traditional government sponsored space program has faltered. It has sent only proxies, and, in a failure of imagination (granted the technology has not yet matured), not really tried (or even intended) to take the rest of us along as voyeurs if not as voyagers.
While producers, like anyone else in business, want to minimize costs wherever possible, there is a limit to how much they can satisfy the public with fake special effects. There is a point at which faked fractional gravity is not really convincing. The public too, may begin demanding filming "on location" once they realize that it is affordable. Even when filming on lunar location becomes feasible, as many scenes as possible will be shot on Earthside sets. Yet the points are made. The public expects more and more realism, and the money to be made from a major successful film is beginning to approach a respectable fraction of what it might take to do an off-the-shelf return, cut the bureaucratic red tape money-eating pork!
Even a "Cheap Access" SSTO vehicle will not open space for the millions - not anytime soon. Combine Cheap Access with high-tech imaging that puts the stay-at-home "on location" and you have a dynamite combination. It is clear that Hollywood and entertainment have to be a major partner of any realistic near-term human return to the Moon, and of any human expedition to Mars. That will be a hard pill to swallow for many professional space-involved people, but if it proves to be the only way, it is a scenario that will win out.
The second half of a 1-2 punch - Advertising
Advertising is already a hand-in-hand not-so-silent-anymore partner of Hollywood film production. Advertisers will be a collaborator on any future repioneered space frontier. They too have real green money to spend, and will spend it where the couch potato can best appreciate it. In a major turn-around, it is the Resource & Energy people who may be following where couch potatoes demand that Hollywood leads.
If couch potato wallet funds justify a major portion of the money needed to float a first lunar return mission, more than that will be needed to keep the "permanent" outpost alive long term. Any such Hollywood-led venture will have to have industry and commercial consultants in tow. The outpost can be designed to support initial or lead-in industrial efforts. The Moon return crew could set up and tend, for a fee, pilot and demonstration oxygen production, iron beneficiation, and other equipment. The base would have to be co-configured so as to meet a turnkey operator's needs. Anything commercial and/or enterprising fits the scenario, and if a healthy mix of money-drawing activities is what it takes, that is what it will be. The only thing that is sure, except to the ostriches amongst us, is that the principal player will not be some government agency spending the people's tax money for intangible benefits.
The "terracing" paradigm is still in its infancy. We can only see the sketchy outlines of a for-profit-step "terrace" here and there. We are extrapolating on faith that the profit motive can find a sequence of early return-on-investment efforts that will succeed in establishing humanity, and Gaia, securely and permanently beyond the Earth Biosphere's atmospheric confines - the "R.O.I.al" road to space.
Is it so unthinkable that Hollywood could or would grab the lead - and not just tag along "later, when it's safe"? Isn't it just a case of a student or disciple growing up and becoming the teacher? Surely none of the world's space agencies have learned how to push the public's button. Holywood knows how, or at least may soon be willing to gamble a well-hedged billion or so that it does.
No one is saying that entertainment can do the whole job, or that we can start lunar development with a "Six Flags Over Copernicus" theme park. What Bennett and company are saying is that perhaps, in this era when every other potential player is waiting for the other to take all the gamble and get things started, this is a job i.e. priming the pump, that entertainment and advertising dollars may be up to, and that once established, a Moonbase with a commercial for-profit culture will take on a life of its own, quickly attracting multinational conglomerate developers and industrialists and energy people.
The Lunar Resources Company is not intimidated by commonly accepted cost projections inflated as they are by the expectation of continued NASA-business-as-usual rules of the game. He who takes the plunge resets the rules. It may well take a player not addicted to government money, but with plenty of experience in tapping the ultimate deep pocket, that of the couch potato.
The Artemis Project is LRC's name for its Commercial Moonbase endeavor*. At present Artemis is a trial balloon scenario using existing hardware. As new hardware comes on line, and alternate ways of getting the most out of novel combinations of existing hardware are realized, the continuing brainstorming behind this scenario is sure to advance. It is thus quite unfair to take cheap shots at Artemis on the grounds of its initial scenario.
Other criticism and skepticism centers on the real depth of the entertainment dollar fountain. But here again, since LRC is willing to consider a mix of commercial activities and functions that will not require landing too much weight on the Moon or require too much pressurized volume to support, this criticism misses the whole point.
Space for profit is a path not yet taken, and the size of the population claiming to be from Missouri is sure to swell until success brings out of the closet the "I knew it would work all the time" sudden majority.
But there are still those who do not yet realize that the old world order is gone forever. Public Space is dead.
Contents of this issue of Moon Miners' Manifesto