Even as NASA moves ahead with its $100 billion plan to return to the moon, it's also making room for the private sector to get in on the ground floor, according to one of the agency's most vocal advocates for commercial space ventures.
"I'm quite optimistic that privately funded science missions are going to be a wave of the future," said Pete Worden, director of NASA's Ames Research Center. "Probably some of the first ones will be astronomy-related."
The prospects for private enterprise on the moon — ranging from astronomical telescopes to gee-whiz television to medical isotopes and fusion fuel — were listed during a weekend session at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Worden and other panelists said that for the foreseeable future, the chief driver of lunar exploration will still have to be NASA's plan to start human settlement of the moon by 2020. "Fundamentally, the goal of the mission is to move humanity beyond low Earth orbit," said Paul Spudis, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory.
But there should be opportunities for private profits along the way, he said.
"The first thing that anyone's going to make money off of, from the moon, is probably going to be information of some kind," he said. That could take the form of interactive television, virtual-reality tours or remote control of lunar probes, leading to "a huge entertainment/educational market that will develop around the lunar return," Spudis said.
Worden touted the idea of lunar surface observatories: "There is already a reasonable investment that's been made by a private group for putting telescopes on the moon for scientific purposes, much in the way that private investors have built many of the large telescopes in the world," he said.
That group is the International Lunar Observatory Association, which is still being organized by Space Age Publishing's Steve Durst. The concept calls for sending a 10-foot-high (3-meter-high) probe, equipped with a radio dish antenna as well as communication and power-generating equipment, to the lunar surface. In a telephone interview, Durst told MSNBC.com that the likeliest site would be Malapert Mountain near the lunar south pole.
Based on two feasibility studies conducted by California-based SpaceDev, the mission could be done for $50 million, with a target date in the 2010 time frame, Durst said. A "founders' meeting" for potential funders is being planned for this November, he said.
Durst said astrophysical institutes have voiced interest in the idea, and compared the venture to the telescope village that has sprung up on Hawaii's Mauna Kea mountain. "First there was one observatory, and once that was tested to be highly efficient, every nation wanted to have a telescope up there," he said.
As the pace of NASA's plans accelerates, Durst hopes the International Lunar Observatory will serve as a relay for communications traffic between Earth and the moon. "We're looking at commercializing that capability," he told MSNBC.com.
Once humans start arriving on the moon, the commercial possibilities should accelerate rapidly, said Harrison Schmitt, who was the last human to set foot on the moon as an astronaut on the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. After retiring from the astronaut corps, Schmitt served one term in the U.S. Senate and is now chairman of the NASA Advisory Council.
Schmitt told reporters at the AAAS meeting that the current moon initiative "has a lot more legs" than NASA's past plans for going back to the moon — in part because it enjoys the support of Congress as well as the White House. "The question is sustainability," he said.
"The sooner you can get your workers and support personnel and settlers, the better," he said. "That would lower your cost of extracting lunar resources, particularly those that you're going to bring back to Earth. So there's a very strong commercial bias toward having settlements begin almost immediately."
Schmitt, who was trained as a geologist, is a longtime advocate of lunar helium-3 as a potential fuel for future fusion reactors. That particular isotope of helium appears to be abundant on the moon, and would be more suited to clean power generation than the deuterium-tritium reactions planned for the first generation of commercial fusion reactors.
Of course, harnessing fusion power is still decades down the road, but Schmitt said helium-3 could come in handy even earlier for producing positron-emitting isotopes. Such isotopes have come into wide use for diagnostic purposes in medical PET scanners.
"We think that's probably the first business opportunity to come from this kind of investment," he said.
Schmitt said that, based on his experience, it won't be all work and no play for helium-3 miners and other lunar settlers. "The settlers are going to have a delightful time on the moon," he said.
Bounding along on the lunar surface, in gravity one-sixth of Earth's, is much like cross-country skiing, he told reporters. A single toe-push could send you swooshing through the air for several yards. In fact, cross-country skiing would serve as great training for future lunar astronauts, Schmitt said.
"That is the way to move easily and rapidly across the surface of the moon," he said.
But is that trip really necessary? Many of the tasks planned for lunar exploration could be handled by robots — and indeed, all the panelists agreed that robots would have to serve as pathfinders for human excursions. But they also said humans would eventually want to make the trip, not only to service the robots but also to conduct the kind of exploration that only a brain-size supercomputer can handle.
"It's something that robots don't do," Schmitt said.