Science and Exploration

Moon, Mars, or Asteroids, Which is the Best Destination for Solar System Development?

By Keith Cowing
June 19, 2013
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Moon, Mars, or Asteroids, Which is the Best Destination for Solar System Development?
Lunar Development
Dennis Wingo

By Dennis Wingo: This is a 5,000 word blog post.  I ask you who read to read all of this so that you will get the gestalt that is being conveyed.  This may be the first chapter of a forthcoming book on the subject of the economic development of the solar system. Consider it a sneak peek.

The Moon!, no  Mars!, no Asteroids!   Here we are in the second decade of the 21st century and in the NASA, space advocacy, and commercial space worlds one of these three destinations are being touted (largely to the exclusion of others) for their value to science,  human exploration, and economic development, but which one of them is the most valuable, the most deserving, of our attention?  This argument is taking place today in the vacuum of space policy that we currently live in without any unifying principles or policy to inform our decisions.  Without a guiding policy and sense of purpose that encompasses more than narrow interests and singular destinations it is exceedingly likely that the human exploration and development of the solar system will continue to be an expensive and futile exercise.  We must develop a firm moral, technological, and fiscal foundation for this outward move that will attract capital investment, spur technology development, and encourage innovation in a manner that people can understand, believe in, and thus financially support.

Policy, What Policy?

There is no coherent policy within the American government today (which is more than just NASA) and this is something that we must change.  In 2005 the Defense Department’s spurred an excellent effort to support the development of a Space Power Theory that would provided the intellectual underpinning of a coherent policy encompassing and integrating space into the larger realm of our national economic and security fabric.  This multivolume set of essays was a strong step in this direction but its publishing was delayed and has as much as possible been ignored since its publication.  However, it is there and is worthy of discussion and integration into our national space policy.

We did have a national policy as enunciated by Dr. John Marburger in his memorable 2006 Goddard Memorial speech but that was cast away as quickly as the entire Constellation implementation plan (and the VSE before it).  NASA’s current strategy of sacrificing everything to a few flagship science missions and a behemoth recreation of a Saturn V class heavy lifter is one that creates large targets for budget cutters.  Indeed the National Academies has a public comment period open at this time and one of the questions is whether or not the nation should have a human spaceflight program.  The current NASA plan is not based upon sound policy considerations.  Bluntly, the asteroid mission was chosen as NASA did not have the money to pay for an Altair class lunar lander under the Constellation program, and with up to seven heavy lift launches per mission (the last NASA Mars Design Reference Mission), Mars is simply unaffordable the NASA way with a major shift in national priorities.

Most if not all of NASA’s plans today are based upon an ad hoc collection of scientific exploration for the sake of science and whatever architecture they can cobble together with human spaceflight funding scraps congress is willing to fund.  The current NASA administrator declares that Mars is his goal but there are no funds to support the idea nor is a rationale provided other than “we want to go”.  NASA recently has adopted the retrieval of an asteroid as a first step in exploration whereupon congress declares it dead on arrival and a faction attempts to pass a bill mandating lunar exploration.  This does not a policy make.  A sound national policy would provide the rationale for exploration in general which would give our lawmakers a moral foundation whereby to  reallocate national financial priorities to provide more funding for space.  Additionally, the policy would incentivize and enable private enterprise to take steps on their own without relying on the national purse.



As stated before, in the government world Mars is hopelessly underfunded for the architecture that NASA wants.  NASA is also unwilling to consider alternate architectures that do not require a massive heavy lift launch vehicle.  In the commercial world there is no real policy guidance but there is hope.  There are those, like Elon Musk, Inspiration Mars,  Mars One and Buzz Aldrin who are in one form or another focused on Mars and its eventual colonization.  This is good in that while it is not a policy, there is an aspiration that humans should colonize Mars.  However, with this aspiration there needs to be a means to sustain such a colony and little thought has been given to that problem.  The most obvious approach of direct supply from the Earth is extremely expensive and time limited (due to the two year gap between launch windows) and the requirement for heavy lift, even if you have a fully reusable launch vehicle from the Earth.  The cycling Earth/Mars spacecraft advocated by Dr. Buzz Aldrin makes a lot of sense but lamentably there is little move to adopt it as an architectural centerpiece by anyone.  Any sustainable architecture for human exploration and/or colonization must go beyond throw away vehicles and throw away plans and there is little evidence of this being considered.


There has been a lot of recent activity on this front.  Again NASA’s plan is woefully incomplete and underfunded while also requiring the heavy lift launch vehicle.  The recent change to bringing an asteroid back has many meritorious aspects but the NASA administrator has already killed most of them with recent statements.  With much fanfare a commercial splash was made last year by a company theoretically backed by several billionaires called Planetary Resources.  Their idea is to go grab asteroids and haul them back to Earth orbit for exploitation.  An interim plan calls for them to gain experience and provide a service to humanity by building small satellites carrying telescopes that can find Near Earth Objects (NEOs) that could harm the Earth.  Another effort formed basically in response to the Planetary Resources announcement came from another group called Deep Space Industries (DSI).  DSI has an even more ambitious plan to go and mine asteroids In Situ.  They begin by flying inexpensive nano satellites from the Earth to go there and characterize the ones that they are interested in.  However, in both cases there seems to be a significant gap between step 1 and step 2 that is not well illustrated or costed.  The ideas are great but those gaps….


NASA still has a love/hate/hate relationship with the Moon and since the president’s unfortunate choice of words “been there and done that” that destination has been deemphasized by the agency.  There is a lot of interest (most of it outside of the U.S.) from government agencies and some activity from the commercial realm.  First off as most people know there is the Google Lunar X Prize.  This effort provides a $15-$25m prize for the first commercial landing on the Moon.  The second is a new group called Golden Spike, led by former NASA administrator for Science Dr. Allen Stern.  There have been other commercial groups that have come on gone over the years as well, with varying business plans (grandiose or not) on how to make money at or on the Moon.  The most serious efforts today are still those by governments, such as China who seeks to put a lander on the Moon in 2013.  Though the Chinese are working in their normal methodical way to accomplish their goals that they claim to lead to a human landing, there is little indication that from a policy perspective, their efforts extend beyond science and one upping the Americans.  Europe has many meetings about lunar development, and one study that was never published but that I was allowed to see, was pretty remarkable in terms of what Europe, if it was going to do anything, well articulated their reasons for doing so and not just in terms of science.  None of the government plans that I have seen or read or viewed online for the Moon recently have a purpose beyond playing scientist on the Moon.

Developing a Policy for All Destinations

Policies are developed to provide guidance to our legislative and executive, based on human aspiration, to provide a sense of purpose and goals for the benefit of the nation and its people.  For example the westward expansion of the United States was a formal economic, political, and security policy that was implemented over a century by many successive administrations and congresses supported by the people to enable the growth of the nation.  The post WWII policy of containment was implemented  by both military and economic means against the Soviet Union over decades as a means to provide greater security for the nation.  The post WWII infrastructure development of the Interstate highway system, the national airport infrastructure, and waterway development was developed to foster commerce and enable further economic growth.  The American interstate highway system was put in place over thirty years and fifty seven years later is still growing.  These policies had purposes and a goals that fit within the larger context of providing for economic development as well as national security.

Our early space policy had a mostly strategic security purpose and goal, to beat the Russians to the Moon as a competitive alternative to war in a nuclear age.  After that it was to develop a reusable space transportation system who’s stated purpose was to lower costs and thus open the space frontier to new applications. However, the Shuttle’s development was finally funded when the United States Air Force desired design changes were implemented, bringing the purpose back to national security. When the International Space Station was finally pushed forward to construction justified with a strategic security purpose to tie a post Soviet world to the west and employ scientists and engineers that might otherwise work for others on weapons of mass destruction.  These were concrete purposes with goals that could be accomplished but with the national security focus rather than its value to economic growth. Thus American space policy has been programmatic rather than a core value for economic growth and a long term national sense of purpose.

In the renewed era of exploration that came with the Bush administration’s announcement of the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) in 2005 there was finally an articulation of a long term policy to guide that exploration that tied space to its larger role in contributing to economic development by incorporating the solar system into our economic sphere.  However, as NASA unfolded their interpretation of the VSE it transformed into the Mars science program with a touch and go visit to the Moon on the way rather than an essential part of the national fabric.  This was best explained by Dr. John Marburger in his Goddard Symposium speech in 2008 where he expanded on statements from his 2006 speech:

While “the significance of the Moon and other intermediate destinations” is to some extent “to serve as steppingstones to that goal,” that is not the whole story, and the part that is missing is the lesson of all the activity in Low Earth Orbit. What are we going to do with those stepping stones once we have planted flags on Mars and beyond? I read in these points a narrowing, not an expansion, of the vision of space exploration. They ignore the very likely possibility that operations on the Moon “and other intermediate destinations” will “serve national and international interests” other than science, but including science as an important objective. Our current experience with space, dramatically portrayed by the existence today of a commercial space industry, is that it is useful in ways not imagined even by the early visionaries.

Dr. Marburger was referring to a set of policy points developed at a Stanford event that he had just attended.  These points were:

“- It is time to go beyond LEO with people as explorers. The purpose of sustained human exploration is to go to Mars and beyond. The significance of the Moon and other intermediate destinations is to serve as steppingstones on the path to that goal.”

“- Human space exploration is undertaken to serve national and international interests. It provides important opportunities to advance science, but science is not the primary motivation.”

“- Sustained human exploration requires enhanced international collaboration and offers the United States an opportunity for global leadership.”

Contrast this with the succinct Marburger statement of American space policy from his 2006 Goddard speech:

As I see it, questions about the vision boil down to whether we want to incorporate the Solar System in our economic sphere, or not. Our national policy, declared by President Bush and endorsed by Congress last December in the NASA authorization act, affirms that, “The fundamental goal of this vision is to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program.” So at least for now the question has been decided in the affirmative.

The Marburger point is what are we going to do when we get to these places, indeed what is our purpose for doing this?  Marburger states indirectly says in another part of the 2208 speech that unless we make these larger connections all we will do is litter the solar system with monuments to our futility.  In a policy sense the answer is that science alone has never garnered that critical mass of support that led to sustainable funding and thus policies that are built around science they are unlikely to be adopted.  Other than the very real threat of asteroid impacts there are no direct national security connotations to this exploration either other than as a subsidy to the national aerospace infrastructure, which also has been an unconvincing argument and thus no sustainable funding. We must go beyond the term “exploration”.  Exploration carries with it connotations of impermanence, of a transient visitation of these destinations, without larger purpose.   It goes to something a wag once said about Dr. Carl Sagan’s approach to space, which was effectively “look but don’t touch”.

Interestingly almost all of the commercial and quasi commercial aspirations for the Moon, Mars, and Asteroids developed by interested citizen groups/companies/foundations are keyed toward economic development and colonization, the same rationale that gained the support of the government and the people sustained for over a century of growth.  However, these grassroots aspirations have been a very disjointed affair, only looking at their favored destination.  Is there a way to tie the destinations together into a cohesive policy  for long term economic growth and national prosperity (and world prosperity by extension)?   Other than Marburger and Bush in recent times, no one in government has been willing to take this step of leadership and proclaim this as a purpose for the nation.  At the end of the day, if we as interested citizens can come up with a policy and sense of purpose in this realm we follow in the footsteps of those in our history like Fulton, Whitney, Huntington and others who gain popular financial and ultimately political support for our vision.

American History as a Guide

In American history there are analogs to the limited flags and footprints explorations vs an integrated approach that leads to settlement.  Every school child knows about Lewis and Clark’s expedition from the Mississippi to the Oregon coast.  Very few know that this was one in just a series of explorations funded by congress and carried out by the army.  Here is an excerpt from the book “Empire Express” the story of the intercontinental railroad, from U.S. Army Lieutenant Zebulon Pike’s expedition into the southern portion of the Louisiana purchase, and for whom Pike’s peak is named…

“In various places there were tracts of many leagues, where the wind had thrown up sand in all the fanciful forms of the ocean’s rolling wave, and on which not a spear of vegetable matter existed”  Pike’s visions of sand dunes, pathless wastes, and sterile soils were reported, widely read, and faithfully believed by geographers.  The myth became innocently embellished by subsequent visitors, especially those in the party of Major Stephen H. Long, who traversed the whole area in 1820.  It was reported to be an unfit residence for any but a nomad population…forever to remain the unmolested haunt of the native hunter, the bison, and the jackal.”

The area described is encompassed by the states of Missouri, Kansas, and Colorado.  There is a huge difference in viewpoint when you are merely scouting out an area versus taking the steps to develop the new territories.  Pike was right in 1806, but of course by the time the transcontinental railroad was built through this same area 60 years later the world had changed.  The development of the transcontinental railroad for Colorado enabled the prairie and mountain states to reach their potential just as it was the railroad infrastructure that transformed California’s San Joaquin valley from a desert to the nation’s fruit basket and vegetable garden.

Today the same type of negative stereotypes that were in evidence in the early 1800′s abounds today for space. Then it was skepticism about steam power, railroads, balloons and aeronauts.  Today it is the “impossibility” of the economic development of the solar system.  The difference is that then we went forward anyway as the potential benefits to society far outweighed the risks.  The same is true today about space.  There are no miracles that need to occur to successfully develop the Moon, Mars, or the entirety of the asteroid belt.  What is needed is will, the will to look beyond the objections and the naysayers to take and overcome the obstacles that this development entails.  If it succeeds we have moved humanity into a completely new level of intellectual, technological, and spiritual development.  Without it we face a future that looks increasingly dark, with governments chipping away at liberty under the pretense of providing safety until we once again enter an era of almost universal slavery, which was the lot of mankind before the age of exploration, enlightenment, and industrialization.

An Integrated Approach To Exploration, Development, and Settlement 

It is my strong opinion that the singular destination approach or even multiple destinations not integrated with the others in a strategic manner based upon economic and human development is a recipe for ultimate failure.  Mars is only sustainable by itself at enormous expense, one unlikely to be favored by governments or private interests with the problems the world faces providing for 9 billion people by 2050.  Asteroid mining has little chance at profit without an robust, active inner solar system infrastructure to support it.  Lunar mining and development also has no long term purpose outside of feeding the maw of the terrestrial economy as the resources there are ultimately limited just as those of the Earth are.  It is time to unabashedly advocate for the expansion of mankind into the inner solar system for the purpose of Exploration, Development, and Settlement (the EDS policy).

With the EDS policy the Moon, Mars, asteroids and even free space become part of a greater whole of the economic development of the solar system for the good of ourselves and all mankind.  Thus the EDS policy has a fundamental moral aspect to it in that it is presented as an alternative to the current seeming direction of the world toward war as we fight over the resources of our single planet.  This war is already underway in the economic sense with the increasingly fierce competition for energy and other resources between China, India, Europe, and Japan.

We live in a global civilization of over 7 billion people, which will expand to over 9 billion before plateauing in mid century.  While American politicians are not paying attention to what this means, the rest of the world is noticing.  GDP growth and increasing global resource demand is addressed in a report, Iron Ore Outlook 2050, commissioned for the Indian government.[1]  The GDP of the major powers (U.S. Europe, China, India, Japan) is forecast to rise from $48 trillion in 2010 to $149 trillion by 2050.  The report’s substance is that with this massive increase in global GDP, an intensifying scramble for metal resources is inevitable.

If the trend of resource consumption demand increase continues unabated, there are three likely potential outcomes.  The first is collapse, forecast by the Limits to Growth school of thought.  The second, and more likely scenario is fierce national economic competition leading to wars over diminishing resources.  The third, and most desirable, is to increase the global resource base by the economic and industrial development of the inner solar system.  Thus by this alternative that lessens tensions by expanding our planetary resource base we have the moral foundation for the development of the inner solar system.  How does the Moon, Mars, and Asteroids fit into this gestalt?  That is the question.

The EDS Moon

In the EDS policy we play upon the strengths of the three principal destinations and add free space as well.  We begin with the Moon first simply because it is three days away from us and has trillions of dollars worth of resources in iron, aluminum, titanium, thorium, uranium, silicon, oxygen, water, and the fragments of billions of asteroids that have puckered its surface over the last four billion years.  The current science based missions are wholly inadequate to do more than scratch the surface of quantifying the resource base of the Moon.   Almost all of our current remote sensing data on the Moon is calibrated against the ground truth of the Apollo missions.  This leaves vast room for interpretation of remote sensing data.  It took over a decade for the preliminary yet to many of us definitive detection of the water resources from Clementine and Lunar Prospector to be validated by the current generation of missions.  Thus we need to immediately begin a concerted campaign of wheels on the ground robotic prospectors going to the locations of water and concentrated resources of thorium, titanium, asteroid fragments and other remotely sensed resources of the Moon.

This turns the Moon and a polar orbit around it into the manufacturing center of the inner solar system.  Single stage to orbit is trivial on the moon having been demonstrated by NASA in 1969.  A study that we did indicated that the descent stage of the NASA proposed Altair lander could, if refueled from lunar water, would be able to lift 25 tons of load into lunar orbit and still have enough fuel to return to the surface.  The vehicle used, if based on the same RL-10′s of the Altair could have any shape, including a square flat plate with engines on the corners to take up large payloads manufactured on the Moon, such as habitation modules, tanks for fuel, tanks for water storage, and for rotating systems for an Aldrin cycler.  After a modicum of infrastructure is set up this would be far easier to do than launching everything from the Earth and putting it only a little more than half way out of the 11.2 km/sec gravity well.  Expensive gear like electronics, computers, life support systems and the like could be delivered to lunar orbit and integrated into these systems.

Thus we have the enabling factor for the true exploitation of the asteroids and the settlement of Mars, which are true interplanetary space ships.  It is stupid to try and build such vehicles on the Earth and loft them as they are intrinsically limited by the fairings of launch vehicles and even NASA’s design reference missions required as many as eight billion dollar heavy lift launches, which are 80% fuel for climbing out of the depths of our gravity well besides the costs of the payloads.  There is not one thing that we truly lack in technology to do this other than maybe thorium reactors.  We begin by not needing them by landing at the lunar north pole where the sun shines almost 100% of the time.  With vehicles such as this we now have the means for the next steps.

EDS Mars

Mars comes next in this scenario as we now have the means with the lunar constructed space ships to colonize Mars in a sustainable manner.  This means sending five to ten people at a time to begin life there.  A critical technology that must be developed for Mars is nuclear power.  Sunlight is only 60% as bright on Mars as it is on the Earth and Mars rotates like the Earth, further diminishing the value of solar power.  An advanced civilization on Mars is likely to need 10-50 kilowatts per person per day in order to live beyond mere existence on Mars.  Designers for the most part gloss over this need but it is critical.  The resources of thorium on the Moon are very interesting and there are five concentrations in craters there as indicated on this map from Dr. Paul Spudis.  Thorium reactors can be an export from the Moon to provide megawatts of power for space ships and to be delivered to Mars to provide power on the surface there.

With plentiful nuclear power the economy of Mars can begin to take shape by exploiting the resources of that planet which are far greater than the resources of the Moon.  These resources will mostly be used indigenously to build structures, build farms, develop resources, and form the foundation of an advanced industrial economy for the third home of mankind.  For this economy to flourish as well as to provide resources to the Earth, the near Earth asteroids as well as those beyond Mars must begin to be exploited.  This is where the Moon and Mars work together to enable the development of these vast resources.

EDS Asteroids

With true Aldrin cyclers for Mars in operation the shipyards in lunar orbit turn their sights to developing mining craft for the asteroids.  Due to the simple physics of the orbits of the Earth and asteroids you have two choices.  You either visit one for a short period of time and return to the Earth with a wait of two years before you can do your next visit, or you do a two year trip to the asteroid.  It makes little sense to spend enormous sums of money to visit an asteroid for the first time and a short stay and expect to make a profit.  This may be possible for an extinct comet for water, but these are rare and generally take a lot more energy to reach and return from, raising costs.  A two year mission makes a lot of sense but you can’t just take a spam in the can type of spacecraft to go out there and do this complex operation.  The alternative approach pushed by some to bring these objects back to Earth orbit is extremely expensive, time consuming, and again requires a lot of launches from the Earth to be able to efficiently exploit these resources.

A far better approach would be to build specific fully reusable space ships at the lunar shipyards specifically designed and outfitted to this task and take them to the desired asteroids.  Again building these on the Earth and launching them from that gravity well is foolish, only possible in instances where you are doing the flags and footprints and don’t care about follow up.  It is extremely important to have these specially designed spacecraft as they can very effectively deal with the long stay times and have large tanks that can bring back vast stores of water and other valuable quantities.  At first this water is for the Moon as its water resources are very constrained.  However, after that supply chain is developed this water can be brought to geosynchronous orbit or even to low orbit, which will fundamentally change the economics of Earth launch.  As the water flow increases, prices for commerce decrease to the Moon, Mars, and the Earth, which starts a further virtuous cycle of economic growth.  This effects and enables the development of free space platforms up to and including O’Neil type free space colonies.

The Gestalt

 ge·stalt: An organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts.

This short missive brings together the gestalt for the economic development of the inner solar system.  It is not a question of the Moon, Mars, or the Asteroids, indeed to argue for or against one to the exclusion of the others is to miss the point!  It is all of the above or we are just wasting our time and we might as well start the wars early and get them over with.  This is slightly tongue in cheek but what direction do we want to go for the future of mankind?  There is a way out of the dark future that many see coming toward us.  The economic development of space is a strong contender for that path.  Even if the future is not darkened by war, we will have 9 billion souls on the Earth soon and we want all of our brothers and sisters of the Earth to live good lives, not lives steeped in poverty.  There are those that think that our age is one of excess, destined to exhaust itself soon unless we dial back civilization to something that can be operated with solar panels and wind turbines.  It is simply not possible to operate a planetary civilization of 9 billion plus people with low energy multiple sources and thus we face a decision, backward or forward?

There are those that will say what is written here is the impossible dream of the dreamer.  As a technologist that has worked this issue for twenty five years now I can say with absolute certainty that the above is achievable with our level of technology today.  The question is not should we do this, the question is how do we enable this to be done?  The goal is a prosperous 21st century and beyond for our human family and to extend that family’s reach to begin the long march to the stars.  NASA’s Kepler has revealed literally thousands of candidate worlds out there, a thought that should amaze each and every one of us and make us look forward to the future, not dread it.  The future is before us, ready for us.  It is time to make policies and plans that will bring this about and I can think of no greater legacy to leave mankind than for the United States of America and her citizens to lead this march.  We still have a destiny if we will just lift up our eyes, and ask as Bobby Kennedy once did.. “Why Not?”

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.