About Schmitt: Return to the Moon

No matter what the subject, one has to admire a book written by an astronaut and former US senator, illustrated with photos of the author at work on the Moon. When the subject is one as potentially important to the future of our civilization as the energy resources geologist Harrison (“Jack”) Schmitt sees buried in the lunar surface, along with our future in space, it becomes all the more daunting to take issue with it. Unfortunately Schmitt’s potentially inspiring commercial justification in Return to the Moon: Exploration, Enterprise, and Energy in the Human Settlement of Space rests on a shaky foundation.

With NASA now
planning
a lunar return
and
several other
countries planning missions, the time is certainly ripe for a book
titled “Return to the Moon”. In fact, last November also saw the release of
Rick Tumlinson’s
collection of essays
from experts on the subject, also titled
Return to the Moon, and the Space Frontier Foundation has been
running regular Return
to the Moon conferences
.

Schmitt’s book acknowledges that context but sets out in a unique
direction, arguing that the Moon will provide a critical contribution
to our civilization’s energy needs, and the lunar return discussed
is primarily one of industry and commerce, rather than grand
national programs.
The argument for industrial use of our celestial neighbor hinges
on the utility of helium-3 fusion. However, that technology and the science
behind it is dealt with in a perfunctory 4 pages in this book;
Schmitt leaves the main argument to scientific papers from the
University of Wisconsin
Fusion technology Institute
that has been promoting it.

Helium-3 fusion, while having the advantage of lower radiation levels,
is considerably harder than deuterium-tritium (D-T) fusion:
the extra proton in helium means the ideal fusion temperature for
He3-D mixtures is over four times as large. An alternative
hydrogen-boron reaction would require almost 10 times the D-T
temperature. That makes the traditional approaches to fusion reactors,
creating very hot and dense plasmas, essentially impractical for
He3 fusion. Non-traditional inertial electrostatic confinement (for example,

“Farnsworth fusor”
) technology gets around the high temperature problem by
essentially shooting the nuclei directly at one another in a
steady-state fashion. In principle any kind of fusion is possible
with such a design. However, in practice
the maximum power output obtained so far is 1 Watt – you would
need a hundred of them just to power a light bulb!

So that leaves a huge and unknown technology gap in scaling things
a factor of 1 billion or so to power plant size.
Schmitt lightly skips over this problem with the note that
“much engineering research lies ahead” and then bases an economic
analysis on the assumption that such a plant would have to compete
with fossil-fuel plants; we know roughly the numbers there. This
does provide real constraints on the costs of retrieval of He3
from the Moon, so it’s a useful analysis. But there’s still the fundamental
question of whether He3 fusion could ever be economically
practical.

Schmitt doesn’t let those questions slow him down; cost estimates
for the “much engineering research” piece are folded into capital
cost estimates for building up to 15 fusion plants, building and launching
(and staffing) 15 lunar mining settlements, and operational costs
for the whole system to reach the conclusion that it could, after
the 15th set of facilities was completed, be close to competitive
with electric energy from coal. That’s not a bad accomplishment, but
it rests on a lot of assumptions of unstated but likely very high
uncertainty.

Ironically, the best reason for replacing coal, the threat of
global warming from atmospheric CO2 release, is given short shrift
as an “international political issue” in Schmitt’s introductory chapter
on our energy future. In this and in a bias toward non-governmental
solutions, Schmitt’s text unfortunately betrays the caution
of an incompletely recovered politician.

Organizational approaches are covered in detail in chapter 8, where
Schmitt compares models ranging from all-government
to various public/private partnerships, to an all-private
approach, analyzing each model according to over two
dozen financial, managerial, and external criteria. After giving
each a 1 to 10 rating, he multiplies by another subjective
weighting factor and adds them all up. Somehow, the all-private model
wins every time. The text surrounding these numbers suggests
that, despite what the numbers say, several of the public-private
partnership approaches make a great deal of sense. This ranges
from the Intelsat multilateral model to simply encouraging government
funding of the necessary research, development, and testing, and passing
technology on to private industry to earn a profit.

Schmitt’s discussion of lessons from Apollo is almost reverential,
including a proposal for a “Saturn VI” heavy-lift rocket,
to lower launch costs. It seems unlikely that the Apollo conditions can
be duplicated, but he does have an interesting argument in favor of
in-house engineering talent and having a large pool of
young engineers. This and the letters of chapter 10 are perhaps
too bluntly put to have an impact
on NASA directly, but could certainly help inspire organizational virtues
in a private venture, so NASA’s more recent mistakes aren’t repeated.

There is much that is good here. The book covers some ideas in
detail, including the lunar geology issues for helium-3 recovery.
Designs for mining equipment, the idea of finding
markets first in space, and only later on Earth, and the proposal
to make the miners permanent settlers, rather than just temporary
visitors are all interesting concepts developed here.
The author has included copious citations for more in-depth reading.

Much of the infrastructure Schmitt calls for could be applied
to any other commercial utilization of the Moon, for example to help
develop solar power satellites or lunar solar power facilities, to
provide lunar oxygen (or hydrogen) for in-space use, for lunar tourism,
and so forth. Schmitt believes the He3 approach provides easier
access to capital markets due to lower start-up costs, so less
government involvement may be needed than for those other commercial
justifications for a lunar return. However, the status
of He3 fusion itself
seems sufficiently uncertain that relying on private equity to make it
happen could still be a very slow process, at least once
development reaches the point of billion-dollar space missions.

This vision for a new day in lunar exploration is very different from
what we have been hearing from NASA, even in recent years when a human
lunar return has been on the table. There is considerable evidence
we have an urgent need for new energy sources. The possibility of
exploitation of the Moon for human benefit has hardly crossed public
consciousness yet, but it’s something that we will increasingly be turning
to as humanity reaches limits here on Earth. We should all be grateful
Dr. Schmitt has helped here to get that ball rolling.

2 thoughts on “About Schmitt: Return to the Moon”

  1. Hi

    AP

    Couldn’t resist tweaking the title to allude to that Jack Nicholson movie. Change back if you don’t like it.

    Dave

  2. There are three companies pursuing hydrogen-boron plasma toroid fusion, a form of aneutronic fusion , Paul Koloc, Prometheus II, Eric Lerner, Focus Fusion and Clint Seward of Electron Power Systems http://www.electronpowersystems.com/

    Vincent Page (a technology officer at GE!!) gave a presentation  at the 05 6th symposium on current trends in international fusion research , which high lights the need to fully fund three different approaches to P-B11 fusion (Below Is an excerpt).  
    He quotes costs and time to development of P-B11 Fusion as tens of million $, and years verses the many decades and ten Billion plus $ projected for ITER and other “Big” science efforts:

    “for larger plant sizes
    Time to small-scale Cost to achieve net if the small-scale
    Concept Description net energy production energy concept works:
    Koloc Spherical Plasma: 10 years(time frame), $25 million (cost), 80%(chance of success)
    Field Reversed Configuration: 8 years $75 million 60%
    Plasma Focus: 6 years $18 million 80%

    Desirable Fusion Reactor Qualities
    * Research & development is also needed in
    the area of computing power.
    * Many fusion researchers of necessity still
    use MHD theory to validate their designs.
    * MHD theory assumes perfect diamagnetism
    and perfect conductance.
    * These qualities may not always exist in the
    real world, particularly during continuous operation.
    * More computing power is needed to allow use of a more realistic validation theory
    such as the Vlasov equations.

    • ORNL is in the process of adding some impressive computing power.
    • Researchers now need to develop more realistic validation methods up to the

    limits of the available computing power.
    * Governments need to fund these efforts.”

    I feel in light of the recent findings of neutrons, x-rays, and gamma rays in lightening, that these threads need to be brought together in an article.

    You may have seen my efforts with my “Manhattan Project article,here at Sci-scoop or other discussion forums , like:

    http://www.scienceforums.com/earth-science/3665-a-new-manhattan-project-clean-energy.html

    It also got published on the Open Source Energy Network but rejected on Slashdot. The New Energy News will soon run an article on these companies efforts toward aneutronic fusion in there next issue.

    About a year ago, I came across EPS while researching nano-tech and efficient home design. I started a correspondence Clint Seward, Eric Learner, and Paul Kolac, sending them science news links which I felt were either supportive or contradictory to their work. I also asked them to critique each other’s approaches. I have posted these emails to numerous physics and science forums. Discussion groups, science journalists, and other academics, trying to foster discussion, attention, and hopefully some concessus on the validity of these proposed technologies.
    My efforts have born some fruit. Clint and Joe Dwyer at FIT have been in consultation on Clint’s current charge transport theory for cloud to ground lightening.
    I have had several replies from editors, producers, and journalists expressing interest. From organizations as varied as PBS, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, New Energy News, the Guardian (U.K), and the San Francisco Chronicle. However, none of this professional interest has resulted in a story yet.

    I have been responding to all of the articles that filter in via my Google alerts on “fusion power”. The most recent was the “Happy News” article by Kris Metaverso.
    http://www.happynews.com/news/112220…ependently.htm

    This post is a plea to the science writers among you to craft a story covering aneutronic fusion, the P-B11 efforts, Eric’s high temperatures and x-ray source project, Clint’s lightening theories, and DOD review, and Paul’s review by GE. The minimal cost and time frame for even the possibility of this leap forward seems criminal not to pursue. If you read my Manhattan article, you may have noticed that I am not a writer. I am a landscape designer and technology gadfly wondering why this technology has never been put in the public eye.
    My hope is that someone, more skilled, would step up to give a shout out about these technologies. Please contact me for copies of my correspondence with the principles, interesting replies and criticisms from physics discussion forums and academic physicists who have replied to my queries.

    Thanks for any help

    Erich J. Knight
    shengar@aol.com

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