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No Longer Science Fiction: Establishing a Base on the Moon

Allison Preston • DATE: October 9, 2017

Categories:  Faculty and Press Release

Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences Professor Clive Neal is on a mission to return humans to the Moon. Neal serves as the Chairperson of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG) which works with NASA by providing scientific, technical, commercial, and operational support for lunar exploration.

Neal has helped organize and will be attending the LEAG’s 2017 Annual Meeting on October 10-12 at the Universities Space Research Association Headquarters in Columbia, Maryland. Scientists, engineers, private sector company representatives, and the U.S. Government will be in attendance, including NASA officials. Representatives from international space agencies will give updates on the programs of Japan, Canada, China, Korea, and the European Space Agency.

The main item on the agenda is the establishment of a collaborative public-private partnership for exploration of the Moon and its resources. The resources are the key to private sector involvement and a new area of job growth for the economy.

“It is to understand the resource potential,” says Neal. “We want to bring the Moon Clive Nealinto our economic sphere of influence so we can use the materials there to build and sustain a permanent Moon base.”

In 2006, the LEAG was tasked to develop a comprehensive Lunar Exploration Roadmap that would lead to permanent human habitation.

“We were tasked by the NASA Advisory Council to formulate this road map,” says Neal. “It took four years to put together.”

The main focus of the roadmap was to clarify how utilizing the Moon and its resources can enable commercial on-ramps and establish a sustainable space exploration program through the creation of wealth. The report was well received after being presented at NASA Headquarters in 2010.

In 2011, LEAG developed an implementation plan that focused on the resources. Neal states that experts know ice deposits exist in some craters at the poles of the Moon. The first step in the implementation plan consists of sending robotic “prospectors” to the surface of the Moon to understand the resource abundance, form, and extractability.

“We have orbital data and some sample data to show there are volatile deposits on the Moon, including oxygen and water. You crack that and you have rocket fuel, you have your basic needs and a commodity.”

If resources are found and it is determined they can be extracted and refined, phase two of the plan could be put into effect: creating several pilot production plants before choosing the best location for the Moonbase. A fueling station in orbit around the Moon could be supplied by lunar resources, paving the way for sustainable and cost-effective human space exploration, specifically to Mars. Currently, launching a Mars exploration from Earth is incredibly costly and there are many barriers holding researchers back.

“If we can launch from Earth, 90 percent of the fuel is gone, so you have ten percent of the fuel to go to Mars and come back again,” says Neal. “If you could refuel in lunar orbit and place a water sheath around the capsule for radiation protection in lunar orbit, there is a much higher probability for missions to Mars to be successful”.

An integral part of this plan is the involvement of the private sector. Therefore, in order to develop interaction with and integration of the private sector with scientists, engineers, and government entities that are focused on space exploration, LEAG established the Commercial Advisory Board (CAB) in 2015. So far, over 23 companies around the world have expressed interest in the venture, including Airbus, Blue Origin, SpaceX, Lockheed-Martin, and Boeing. New companies, such as Moon Express and Astrobotic are also part of the CAB.

The plan widens the scope of human exploration and research in the Solar System, leading to new scientific discoveries and international collaborations.

The findings of next week’s meeting will be used to influence future action that could bring the U.S. closer to another lunar landing and sending humans farther afield – in a way that, unlike the Apollo program, will be sustainable because of lunar resources and private sector involvement.

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