Thursday, December 21, 2006

Mining the moon for all it’s worth

It's one of the curious characteristics of space exploration that the usual stringent hurdles for science news stories are nowhere to be seen. Whereas normally science reporters, enthusing breathlessly about new insights into, say, the origin of the universe, face an editor's dismissive "why do we care?", with space stories it is enough that someone did something or other up in space – hit a gold ball, say, or flew a shuttle mission without blowing up. True, if the story involves an unmanned spacecraft doing something like landing on a comet, then there might be some sales work to be done. But if there's a human inside, it doesn't much matter what he's up to – just stick it on the page.

That principle even extends to stuff that hasn't actually been done, but "will" be. We're going to send people to Mars! We're going to build a moon base! Yes, it's true that we've not even managed to finish off a useless piece of manned space junk floating inanely in Earth orbit, but look, we've learnt from our mistakes. (What we've learnt, it seems, is simply to make the claims bolder.) When something is going to be done in space, all critical faculties vanish. We're going to grow crystals there, or plants – and no matter whether that's really going to tell us anything worthwhile. And now the latest fad for which the media seems determined to fall hook, line and sinker is mining the moon for helium-3.

Helium-3, you see, is a wonderful clean fuel that will power our planet through nuclear fusion. Just a shuttle-load will power the USA for a year. And it's just waiting up there in the lunar soil for us to go and collect it.

Well actually, it isn't – we'd have to strip-mine vast areas of the moon to get at it. And while discussions of remote oil resources on Earth routinely have to run the gauntlet of hard-headed economical cost-benefit analysis, no one seems to care very much whether there is any justification for thinking that sending trucks to the moon to pick up this 'fuel' is really going to save anyone any money. All you have to do is talk about lunar helium-3 as a "cash crop".

And on top of that, there's the small difficulty that no one has ever produced energy from nuclear fusion in a commercially viable and sustainable way, and that even the most optimistic estimates put that goal 50 years distant. There's a good chance that it might not happen before 2100 (although making technological projections that far ahead is a bit pointless anyway).

The point is, of course, that these bogus utilitarian rationales are routinely trotted out in defence of a programme of human space exploration that is at root ideological. It's fine to believe that there is an intrinsic value in sending humans to other worlds (I happen to disagree, at least in the present state of affairs in space travel); but let's at least be honest about it. The magic word "resources" was invoked the last time I questioned the value of manned spaceflight (see here and here). But as I'd expected, when it came down to it what that meant was stuff like silicon – as though we are currently facing a silicon shortage here on our rocky planet.

So please – no more helium-3 as the justification for a moon base. That’s truly grasping at straws.


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