Human enterprise advances by way of risky endeavors, followed by spreading the benefits of those endeavors that succeed, which, in turn, enables further endeavors. Call this the economy or a complex system or whatever suits, but recognize that enterprise emerges from the interplay of entrepreneurs, scientists, companies, artists, civil society, consumers, and governments. Fixating on one project, one vision, one organisation, or one leader will derail enterprise; hence, the pitfall of Apollo as exemplar and icon.

There are millions of space enthusiasts, from the technical hardcore to rabid lay enthusiasts to people who think it’s cool that Klingon is a language. Arguments within this community often fixate on one project, one vision, one organisation, or one leader: Moon vs. Mars, Science vs. Settlement, In Situ vs. Imported. These are arguments over false choices, and are part of our long Apollo hangover. These arguments do not advance human enterprise.

Think of enterprise as a system that makes choices, not in the sense of choosing between A, B, C, … , but in the sense of making A, B, C, … possible and then choosing mixes of them that, in turn, make other choices possible. This is an evolving system, not the unfolding of a singular plan. This is how humanity has advanced, and will.

A Story about Making Choices

Suppose the Moon proves an excellent source of materials from which to craft solar-power complexes, factories, and space-habitats. For example, maybe endeavors over the next decade confirm that, by using mass drivers and/or skyhooks, the Moon beats out any asteroidal source of raw materials for use near Earth. Great, but by itself, making lunar resource extraction the right choice won’t make lunar settlement the right choice.

© SaturnianBlue, Kerbal Forums, 2 Sept. 2017

Across terrestrial industry, robots are replacing human labour. Some of the setup and maintenance of lunar mining and industry might require direct human labour, but, after construction and shakeout, remote monitoring will comprise most of the human involvement. Only a fraction of this will require near-real-time support from lunar orbit – a brief time lag from Earth or a cislunar habitat will suffice for most of it.

This is a familiar part of the story of enterprise. Whalers and oilrig workers haven’t taken their families to sea, they’ve cycled to and fro between home and their resource extraction jobs. Nothing about robotics or the economics of maintaining humans on the Moon suggests long-term mining or industrial settlements on the Moon.

Paul Bunyan & Blue
Paul Bunyan: Made redundant on Earth, so too in Space
@ Teacher Created Materials, 2014

The same holds for lunar science. Most scientists will remain on Earth while a few visit lunar orbit, probably attached to automated factories, where they can direct robot armies and examine samples hoisted up from the surface along with all the industrial feedstock.

However, lunar-sourced materials will enable a settlement choice.

Complicated final assembly, prototyping of new products and techniques, and research (scientific and industrial) will warrant high-valued and long-term human labour at facilities in cislunar space. This would benefit from family, retail, and community. Further, such cislunar settlement would occur whether the enabling materials were sourced from the Moon or asteroids.

Utilizing lunar resources means that a business case has been made in favour of lunar-versus-terrestrial and lunar-versus-asteroidal. This isn’t Apollo, it’s part of an economy, and it comes with the scale that includes cheaply transporting humans between Earth, cislunar habitats, and the occasional stint in lunar orbit or on the lunar surface.

Would these potential endeavors at the Moon benefit endeavors at Mars? Those mass drivers and skyhooks might come in handy. Then, there’s the electricity grid.

The fourteen-Earth-day lunar night hampers the use of solar power produced on the surface. The hundreds-to-thousands of mini-nuclear plants needed to exploit the Moon are likely a poor approach to scale economies. Does that mean one or two big nukes and lots of wires? That would be as silly as a country without a legacy phone system stringing wires all over the place rather than just going straight to cellular. Instead, lunar industry could choose laser-power-beaming from orbital solar to power everything from a big mine to a little robot prospector.

An electricity grid utilizing power beaming is the sort of choice that enterprising humans would make … in a vacuum … and on a planetoid lacking countries that might object to orbiting laser platforms.

Such an electricity grid might also be a good choice for Mars – granted, not a vacuum, but pretty thin. Finding the laser frequency and matched-photovoltaic that’s least bothered by Martian dust may take some work, but it should still beat out surface solar and nukes-and-wires.

Wait a minute, an electricity grid at Mars? That sounds like a lot of stuff at Mars. Mars is a long way away. What about the transport costs? In Situ or Imported?

Delta V Map
Delta V Map, @imgur []

Once you get to Earth orbit, you’re halfway to anywhere in the Solar System.    

                                                       R. Heinlein

With regard to the Moon and Mars, once you’re in Earth orbit you’re closer than halfway there … so long as we’re talking about freight, not people.

Take a solar-power complex built in lunar orbit, strap on a cluster of VASIMR engines, add 50 tonnes of argon propellant, and send the whole thing on a slow cruise to Mars-Phobos L4/5. Now, you’ve made the means – taken the choice – to start worthwhile enterprise at Mars, beginning by utilizing Phobos.

Was that last bit In Situ or Imported? The solar complex was made of lunar materials, the argon most likely came from Earth’s atmosphere, and the purpose was at Mars. The answer is: Enterprise is driven by marginal costs, not philosophy.


VASIMR System Illustration
©Ad Astra Rocket Company 2012
[VASIMR is used here as an example of high-thrust ion/plasma propulsion.]

In this story, there’s a cislunar industry making solar-power complexes that’s Heinlein-close to Mars-Phobos. All this Earth-Moon activity will have loosened the tyranny of the rocket equation; at the least, plasma propulsion schemes like VASIMR, hopped up via power beaming, will have replaced chemical propulsion for Earth-Moon transport. Finally, the performance benefits of argon over any lunar-sourced plasma feedstock may more than cover the cost of lofting argon from Earth, even if the tyranny still reigns to low Earth orbit.

The particulars of the story may be revealed as spot-on or fanciful, but the theme is grounded in our history: Endeavors produce a system of choices based on efficient use (a.k.a., lowest marginal costs). The system progresses, evolving by endeavors that expand choice and exploit choices.

This is about scale and the infrastructure that comes with scale. This is about the interplay of declining marginal costs and expanding technical choices. This is enterprise.

So … this means Moon before Mars, right? Not necessarily.

There’s plenty of enabling work to do before a business case for lunar resources can be made, and much of that enabling work is Moon-Mars agnostic, and, for that matter, Science-Settlement agnostic. Skyhooks, mass drivers, power beaming, high-thrust plasma engines, microgravity photovoltaic production, resource surveys, … a huge list of endeavors and resultant choices that can apply to the Moon, Mars, Phobos, and asteroids. Shifting the topic to people: rotating architectures to understand our physiology at 0.17g can be put to the same use at 0.38g. Much of this can be done in Earth orbit. Much might be done in lunar orbit. Some might be done on the Moon’s surface.

Once a business case is made for the Moon, science and settlement cases are made for Mars. That’s what scale economies and the resultant infrastructure imply when two destinations are Heinlein-close.

Finding extinct or extant Martian life and then studying it, or disproving Martian life, will require many scientists, many robots, the support personnel for both, and many years at Mars. Science at Mars means settlement, settlement that can be permanent if the precursor 0.38g physiology study has shown that human Martians can be permanent.

Suppose the raw-materials business case for the Moon can’t be made. Maybe all that enabling work has shown asteroid mining to be superior to lunar mining. As far as Mars is concerned, that may just mean that the first solar-power complex at Mars is made from Phobos.

The Moral of the Story

Arguing over false choices – false because they proceed from one vision, one government, one person – delays the future. No single entity knows the one true path outward into the solar system because there is no one true path. The path our enterprise will find begins with letting go of false idols to one vision, one government, one person.

False Idols
False Idols: Apollo and his Program
© Creative Commons and NASA, respectively

Apollo was a theatre of the Cold War that closed in 1972. We’ve misplaced space. It’s high time to remember how humanity expands. We’ll make our future through our enterprise.