The Cheat Sheet

Apollo 11, Chandrayaan-2 and the lunar economy

Venky Vembu | Updated on July 17, 2019 Published on July 17, 2019

I see you’re moonstruck.

Yes, and for two good reasons.

What might they be?

For starters, this week marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, which culminated in the first landing of humans on the moon. NASA is observing a series of events to remember that “one small step for a man” moment.

Yes, but was it really a “giant leap for mankind”?

You bet. The moon mission may have been undertaken at the height of the Cold War rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union to establish dominance in space, but 50 years later, taking a civilisational view of time and knowledge, that mission expanded the horizons for how mankind understands its place in the universe.

Hmm. And what’s the second reason you’re moonstruck?

Nearer home, there was to have been another ‘moonshot’ event, but that’s been put off owing to a technical glitch.

Sad about the Chandrayaan-2 mission.

Again, taking a civilisational view of time, a small delay won’t matter much. The learnings from the mission, whenever it takes off, will accrue to all of mankind.

What is the mission about?

At one level, it is a technology demonstrator: it will showcase Indian scientists’ capability to soft-land a device on the lunar surface and to operate a robotic rover on it. Additionally, it will study lunar topography and minerology, and the atmosphere of the moon. An orbiter will prepare 3D maps of the moon’s surface, and a radar will scope the terrain, particularly the polar region, for water. That last bit of information will help a future lunar base proposed by the NASA-run Artemis programme to tap the water.

With the idea of colonising the moon?

Well, some would say ‘expand the frontiers for human habitation’.

Are you serious?

It’s not just science fiction fantasy. In the 17th century, John Wilkins, a priest who later turned his mind to space travel, wrote scientific treatises on ‘sky voyages’ and on human settlements on the moon. His 1638 book Discovery of a New World was sub-titled ‘A Discourse tending to Prove that ’tis probable there may be another habitable World in the Moon’.

Ah, a man who peered into the future.

Since then, a number of studies have advanced the case for “mining the moon” and using it as a military base or as a human colony. Writing in 1989 in American Scientist, geologist Donald Burt noted that although the moon was “depleted in volatile materials”, it was suited for mining and processing minerals for a number of reasons: its proximity to earth, its “relatively shallow gravity well”, its richness in certain raw materials (such as oxygen in rocks), and its suitability as a base for operations and scientific inquiry.

Looks like he’s thought this through.

That’s not all. The Moon Miners’ Manifesto, the official publication of the Moon Society, which “seeks to inspire and involve people” in advancing civilian settlements on the moon, has advanced many studies on “establishing… a lunar economy … to support permanent… settlements.” Others have made the case for “moon tourism”.

How would that work?

Sci-fi writer Andy Weir has in his book Artemis worked out the economics of lunar tourism. By his estimation, a two-week trip to the moon would cost around $70,000. Competition in the space industry will drive down prices to the point where middle-class people can afford it, he reckons.

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Published on July 17, 2019
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