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Mining the moon a real possibility: former astronaut

If former astronaut Dr. Harrison "Jack" Schmitt has his way, the moon could one day be home to a Sudbury in the sky, an extraterrestrial Timmins, or a Red Lake of lunar regolith.
Known as "the Blue Marble," this photograph was taken by Dr. Harrison "Jack" Schmitt during his voyage to the moon in 1972. Results from that mission have led to the belief that Earth's energy needs could be met by the moon.

If former astronaut Dr. Harrison "Jack" Schmitt has his way, the moon could one day be home to a Sudbury in the sky, an extraterrestrial Timmins, or a Red Lake of lunar regolith.

While such ideas may seem distant and fantastical, the man who once bunny-hopped his way across the lunar surface is confident that the economic case can be made for mining settlements, operations, and so-called "company towns" on the moon.

In fact, Schmitt says the concept of interstellar colonization is not only possible, but necessary to feed humanity's energy needs here on Earth and in space exploration.

"We know now that we can live on the moon, live independently of the Earth, and there are the resources there to do that," said Schmitt to attendees of the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada's Student-Industry Mineral Exploration Workshop at the Science North INCO Cavern on May 15.

"It's probably time that we seriously consider not only going back to the moon but to see if we meant that we wanted to leave the cradle we call the Earth."

Few people are as qualified to speculate on the suitability of mining the moon as Schmitt, who was the lunar module pilot on the final lunar mission Apollo 17 in 1972. He is one of 12 people to walk on the moon and the only geoscientist to ever do so. This legacy is a lasting one: due to the lack of erosion, his lunar footprints will stay in recognizable form for a million years.

These days, the former United States senator chairs the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Advisory Council. He also serves as adjunct professor and research consultant at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he studies the feasibility of using a rare atomic isotope known as helium-3 as fuel from the moon.

It's in this capacity that he's been making the case for mining operations on the moon, where helium-3 is much more abundant than on Earth.

While various engineering problems have yet to make it a reality, using helium-3 in nuclear fusion would result in no radioactive waste while producing considerable power.

According to Schmitt's estimates, a 1,000-megawatt fusion power plant would require no more than 75 kilograms of helium-3 per year, which would be the equivalent of US$280 million of steam coal.

"That's a tremendous amount of energy and a small amount of helium-3."

To acquire 100 kilograms of helium-3, workers would have to extract and process two square kilometres of lunar dirt, or regolith, to a depth of three metres.

To make operations economically feasible, launch costs to return the material to Earth would have to be $3,000 per kilogram, a factor of 20 lower than the costs at the time of Apollo 17. While this number seems daunting, Schmitt says many technologies have become considerably cheaper since that time, and private-sector involvement should further reduce costs.

Other costs, however, are much more daunting. Schmitt estimates that merely demonstrating the commercial viability of helium-3 fusion would require $5 billion, with another $5 billion required to recreate the proper class of heavy-lift boosters.

Another $2.5 billion would be needed to develop habitats and processing facilities for lunar settlements capable of annually producing 100 kilograms of helium-3.

Semi-automated mining robots will likely need to be part of the solution, Schmitt adds, as they will be "critical" to keeping down operational costs. Humans will still be needed to oversee operations and maintenance, however, meaning that a small operation could use a moon-mining crew of four, with two groups alternating on two shifts per day.

With these kinds of costs, global governments will likely be left out of the equation. Indeed, few governments have expressed an interest in the potential of lunar helium-3 fusion, with the exception of China.

As such, the only way such a project could become a reality is through support from the private sector, he says.

Regardless of such problems, Schmitt infuses the matter with a sense of urgency, saying that starting work on the helium-3 project as early as 2010 could translate to a manned mission to Mars by 2025.

Such lofty goals could have been achieved long ago with the right political will, said Schmitt, who lambasted the Nixon administration's decision to mothball further Apollo missions.

"History will show it was a major mistake, and others are coming to that conclusion."