Israel gets to go to the Moon…but Iran doesn’t?
Back in October, William Waldon reported that an Israeli company from Tel Aviv, SpaceIL, participating in the Google Lunar X Prize, won the first phase of the contest by securing a launch contract to send their bouncy-lander to the Moon aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
Hardly seems fair does it? Even though the world has negotiated an arrangement with Israel’s rival, Iran, to end economic sanctions over their nuclear development, they still cannot do business with companies like SpaceX because they sponsor terrorism. Spaceflight technology crosses over into military technology, making it illegal for U.S. launch providers to do business with rogue states such as Iran.
SpaceIL secured their flight arrangements with a U.S company called Space Industries, which normally brokers small, secondary payloads, but which has purchased an entire $60M Falcon 9 launch to fly in late 2017. SpaceIL will fly as one of the two leading payloads on that rocket.
Moon Express, a U.S. company competing for the XPrize, has achieved a launch contract to fly their rover to the moon on a $5M Electron rocket built and operated by another U.S. company, Rocket Lab with an office in New Zealand.
Team Synergy Moon will partner with Interorbital to develop their own nanosat moon launcher that will test-fly in 2016. After that their payload will fly to the moon on their launcher, along with several other Lunar X Prize contenders, on an innovative new fuel-saving trajectory.
Why is interest in the moon growing? Some talk about Helium3, but industry does not yet know how to use that resource. However, platinum group minerals lay on the surface of the moon from asteroid impacts scattered throughout its history. The Earth’s surface has renewed itself regularly through plate tectonics and erosion, making these space-borne riches harder to find, but the moon’s surface has been geologically dead for about a billion years.
Whatever resources that exist on the moon, and are cost-effective to extract, are still uncertain, since the moon is still largely unexplored. The surface has been mapped and analyzed from orbit by robotic spacecraft in some detail, but only the United States and Russia have obtained actual samples…and those were collected, at great cost, from locations that were picked more for their safe landing feasibility than their mineral geology. Much more in the way of exploration and targeted sample gathering and analysis needs to take place by somebody.
Also, there has grown a renewed interest in solar system exploration with the moon as a fuel depot. Large quantities of water have been recently discovered there, locked in the polar regolith or buried under the surface. Water can be broken up into hydrogen and oxygen by solar-powered electrolysis and used for rocket fuel for long voyages, then fuel doesn’t have to be lifted at additional expense from Earth. However, all of that industry needs to be launched, setup, and maintained by someone, in a cost-effective way, ahead of anyone planning missions around it.
Because of the business potential on the moon, and in some cases military strategic interest, many of the world’s governments have begun to look at the moon more closely, but most lack the ability to reach it on their own. In the past, it has cost a lot of money to access space. Launch prices for the Space Shuttle were roughly $25,000 per pound to Low Earth Orbit, but more traditional launch costs run between $3,000 and $5,000 per pound. Anything bound for the moon would have to include its own rocket engines and fuel to fly out there and maybe back and the weight of all of that would be included in the launch price to Lunar Transfer Orbit.
However, recently there have been innovative new launch services companies willing and able to offer prices as low as $1,000 per pound to LEO. They continue to work to lower the cost even further. In the U.S., SpaceX has lead this effort and older providers have had to move in that direction or face extinction.
Combine launch providers that turn billions of dollars of cost into millions, with a new trend toward tiny nanosats that can piggy-back with other launches, and you have the makings of a new space race among private organizations and small countries. It takes a lower-cost launcher like SpaceX’s Falcon to bring the moon within reach of a small, private company like SpaceIL and anyone else who can legally do business. NASA, and now the U.S. Congress, are not just encouraging, helping, and supporting the development of Independent Commercial activities in Low Earth Orbit, but are openly facilitating them. Government-tied, military-style procurement practices by NASA will soon be a thing of the past, and with it the high-cost of access to space that has kept most private industries and small countries on the sidelines.
If someone in Iran, or some other U.S. military rival, wanted to send a spacecraft to the moon, they could maybe fly on Ariane, Soyuz, or one of China’s Long-March rockets. They’d pay more money for the trip though, making the project more difficult to justify and fund. They could also decide to spend a lot more money and develop their own moon-launch technology, but they wouldn’t get any technical help from NASA like NASA’s SAA partners in the U.S. do.
Now, Israel will get in on the game through SpaceX and Space Industries. The U.S. Canada, ESA, Russia and Japan already play in space together. China may soon be called out to bring their toys and both them and Russia have announced their intentions to setup permanent facilities of one kind or another on the moon.
Partnering shares scientists, ideas, and costs. It facilitates technology sharing and builds new and varied business opportunities for everyone…both in orbit and dirt-side. Several thriving, international businesses have long provided, launched, and/or operated robotic communications, navigation, and Earth-observing satellites in Earth orbit profitably. Now, lower launch costs will soon begin to open up business opportunities further out in space for even lower startup costs.
Currently, Russia and China are the world’s only providers of human space launch. Anyone else who wants to send researchers to space has to either buy a ride with them or develop their own capability. Come 2017, NASA will certify SpaceX and Boeing to launch people to the ISS, as well as a to new generation of mass-produced, inflatable space stations built by another U.S. company, Bigalow Aerospace. These players will enter this new, low cost, human commercial spaceflight industry at the ground floor and start refining their products and building consumer confidence. They will latch on to and lead that market early on world-wide…bringing anyone along for the ride that they can legally do business with them.
Some countries think that they have priorities that make it necessary for them to isolate their populations from these and upcoming technology industries that will build the new world economy. Countries that work and play well with the modern world will get to participate, those who don’t won’t.
I hope that an era of peace through common interests in space will result as increasingly more areas of the world start to see a rich future in the bounty of space.