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Back to the lunar future?

An artist's conception from 1978 shows a processing plant for lunar soil.

Is this week's revelation that water ice is more prevalent on the moon than scientists expected a "game-changer" for future spaceflight, as some experts think? Actually, the rules of the game for going beyond Earth orbit haven't changed - but the latest findings could bring new attention to options in the old playbooks.

The publication of three studies in Science about ice on the moon, plus yet another study about buried water ice on Mars, comes at an interesting time. More than five years after the White House set a goal of sending humans back to the moon by 2020, an independent panel chaired by retired aerospace executive Norman Augustine is wrapping up a full report that takes a second look at all the options for human spaceflight. (A summary report was sent to the White House earlier this month.)

At the same time, NASA is on the verge of taking two significant steps in its renewed moon effort: On Oct. 9, the LCROSS probe is due to slam into a crater near the lunar south pole, a dark pit that could contain usable reservoirs of ice. Later next month, the space agency will go ahead with a test launch of its prototype Ares I-X moon rocket.

For all these reasons, the back-to-the-moon plan - which was turning into a case of "been there, done that 40 years ago" - is starting to look sexy again.

"If we have water, we have the core elements needed to support life," Rick Tumlinson, co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, said in a statement issued after the latest moon-ice reports. "H2O is a magic formula: We can drink it, raise crops with it, or even break it down for oxygen to breathe. We can even recombine the hydrogen and oxygen to make rocket propellant. Confirming the widespread existence of moonwater means we have a nearby oasis in space around which we can build the true human communities beyond Earth. There will be flowers on the moon in our lifetimes."

Second thoughts?

You might think the latest research is sparking second thoughts among the members of the Augustine panel, formally known as the Review of Human Space Flight Plans Committee. But that's not necessarily so: It turns out that panel members were given a confidential briefing on the research while they were working on their report.

"The research we heard about was at a very early stage of development," Charles Kennel, a panel member and chairman of the National Academies Space Studies Board, told me in an e-mail exchange. "It certainly has exciting implications, if true, but it is way too early to base any planning for human spaceflight on it, in my view."

Another member of the panel, XCOR Aerospace CEO Jeff Greason, said the findings were "incredibly important." At the very least, the options for exploiting that lunar ice needed to be investigated further, he said.

"The real question has been, it's hard to know how serious to get about planning for the economic exploitation of lunar resources," he told me, "because No. 1, we haven't done it, and No. 2, nobody's sure there's enough to worry about. Now the preponderance of evidence is that there's enough to worry about."

The moon is not literally an oasis, of course. The most optimistic estimates put the water content of lunar soil at one part per 1,000 - which is drier than the Sahara Desert. According to Brown University's Carle Pieters, the lead researcher behind one of the Science studies, you'd need to process a baseball diamond's worth of dirt to get a drink of water.

But if you could turn the processing of lunar dirt over to robots, like a space-age Sorcerer's Apprentice, eventually the machines would build up enough water for drinking and irrigation, enough oxygen for breathing, and enough hydrogen for fuel. If nothing else, the moon could serve as a low-gravity fueling station for deep-space journeys headed for elsewhere.

"I would hope that an outgrowth of whatever direction national policymakers take NASA in would include developing a transportation system such that reaching the lunar surface is economically sensible," said Greason, who emphasized he was speaking merely for himself rather than the committee.

Moon first, or Mars first?

You might think the "Moon First" option - the option that NASA is now basically pursuing - should remain the favored path. But that's not necessarily so, either: Greason emphasized that the panel didn't see the choices facing NASA as sticking with the International Space Station vs. landing on the moon vs. landing on Mars vs. going to other places in space.

"When we started, we were thinking about it like that," he said, "and the menu of things was pretty much, there's ISS, there's the moon, there are lower-gravity bodies, Lagrange points, near-Earth asteroids, the Martian moons, and then there's Mars. What do we do? As we worked on the problem, it became clear that ISS had value, that it was likely going to be an enterprise that it made sense to carry on at least for a little while.

"Now it's not a 'versus,'" he said. "It's 'we're going to do ISS, and then what? Why are we doing this?' It's our view that the organizing theme is that we're embarking upon the work of becoming a multiplanet species. Mars is a key destination for that, but we're not ready to do it right now."

There'll always be a moon vs. Mars rivalry, because both destinations have their pluses and minuses. Robert Zubrin, a rocket scientist who is president of the Mars Society, said "there are discoveries waiting to be made" on both worlds. But he argues that the Red Planet should be the main focus because it offers so many more resources - and so many more possibilities for addressing the big questions about life's origins and humanity's future.

Zubrin said the options being presented to the White House are fundamentally flawed because they don't set an ambitious goal for the next decade - the kind of goal that President John Kennedy set back in 1961. "We could be on Mars by the end of the next decade," Zubrin said.

This week's revelations about the discovery of nearly pure water ice close to the surface at Mars' northern midlatitudes reinforces Zubrin's opinion. "It makes a settlement on Mars sustainable, because you don't have to bring resources from Earth," he said.

Tumlinson, however, sees things differently. The moon is close enough to make the perfect test bed for the technologies required for Martian settlement, he told me. And knowing that there more water ice than expected on the moon could make for an easier sell.

"The next planetary destination obviously should be the moon," he said. "The moon is a harsher mistress than Mars. If we can learn to make it there, we'll make it anywhere."

First, take one small step

The news about ice on the moon, and on Mars, highlight the need for technologies aimed at water extraction and purification - technologies that would be useful virtually anywhere we could land in the solar system (even Mercury!), and perhaps useful here on Earth as well.

One unorthodox extraction technique calls for "nuking" the moon with microwaves from lunar orbit, which would turn embedded ice into water vapor. The water would be collected when it refreezes at the surface.

NASA is working on other methods for pulling resources out of lunar soil, and next month, teams will vie for prizes in a contest for moon-digging robots.

Schemes for processing materials from the moon have been kicking around for decades, as illustrated by this concept from 1978. Maybe it's time to blend those 30-year-old dreams with some 21st-century innovation. Developing new technologies for water extraction would fit right in with a step-by-step "flexible path" to deep space - an option that got a sympathetic hearing from Greason and his fellow panel members.

"The whole question of 'do we do this, or that, or the other thing' is a false choice," he said. "The only question is, 'What order do you do these things in?'"

There's one other question, however: "What can we afford to do?" The key decision facing the Obama administration has to do with how much NASA's budget could be boosted to fund future exploration. Just today, the Government Accountability Office released a report saying that NASA's current plan for future spaceflight was underfunded and lacked a "solid business case."

The Augustine panel estimated the annual cost of a solid exploration program at $3 billion per year. If sufficient funding can't be found for NASA's ambitious goals in space, America "should accept the disappointment of setting lesser goals," the panel said.

Is it realistic to expect a $3 billion boost in the space budget? Can NASA make a strong business case for going beyond Earth orbit? Maybe that's where this week's revelations could make a difference. But don't expect the money to flow easily, particularly if the space effort takes a business-as-usual approach.

On Thursday, The Orlando Sentinel quoted an unnamed NASA official as saying that some of the agency's top managers were "unfortunately caught up in the fantasy" that the space agency would get the extra $3 billion. Administration officials were said to consider that kind of increase "highly unlikely."

What do you think? Are this week's revelations about water a big deal? Do they make going to the moon (or Mars) more attractive? Register your opinion about that on our Newsvine discussion board - and feel free to join the Cosmic Log discussion by leaving a comment below.

Update for 3 a.m. ET Sept. 26: It so happens that NASA is looking for a few good ideas for future prizes aimed at promoting "significant advances in technologies of interest to NASA and the nation." I call dibs on a competition for extracting water from simulated lunar dirt. (Actually, there was once a contest for extracting oxygen from simulated lunar regolith, so it's not a completely original idea. Although that particular prize is no longer being offered, researchers are stillworking on the oxygen-extraction challenge.)

Do you have ideas for future prizes? Discuss them here if you like, then pitch them to NASA.

More about the moon:

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