The Race to Develop the Moon

For science, profit, and pride, China, the U.S., and private companies are hunting for resources on the lunar surface.

“The moon is hot again,” Jack Burns, the director of the nasa-funded Network for Exploration and Space Science, told me. NESS’s headquarters are at the University of Colorado Boulder, which has educated nineteen astronauts.

Burns told me that advances in engineering could turn the moon into a way station for launching rockets and satellites farther into the solar system, to Mars and beyond. (The weak gravity on the moon dramatically eases launches.) Lunar construction projects now look feasible. “Down the hall, we have a telerobotics lab,” Burns said. “You could print components of habitats, of telescopes. You use the lunar regolith”—the dust of the moon—“as your printing material. You could print the wrench you need to fix something.” Fifteen years ago, the moon was believed to be a dry rock; now we know that there’s water there. Both private industry and national agencies regard the mining of water and precious materials as something that’s not too far off. There’s space tourism, too, though the quiet consensus among scientists seems to be that the idea is goofy and impractical.

NASA would like to establish a permanent presence on the moon, using reusable rockets and landers. The agency is working on the largest, strongest, fastest—of course—rocket yet, but it plans to purchase other equipment, including rockets and landers, off the shelf, from commercial companies. Bob Jacobs, a spokesperson for nasa, told me, “Eighty-five per cent of NASA’s budget is for commercial contracts. We build what only we can build; the other services we look to purchase from approved venders.”

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