The commercialization and potential colonization of space are popular discussion topics among public and private interests alike; interest and attention surrounding these objectives have grown as technological innovations in space travel receive growing media attention. Establishing a permanent human presence on the Moon has been a dream of both scientists and the general public—now, recent developments are making the prospect of Moon colonization more realistic.
A private Japanese space corporation announced in December that it was successful in securing $90.2 million to fund two missions to the Moon between 2019 and 2020.
The $90.2 million grant, provided by an impressive array of Japanese companies including Network Corporation of Japan, Development Bank of Japan, Tokyo Broadcasting System, and Konika Minolta, is the largest Series A funding ever raised toward the private commercialization of space—which means eventual for-profit ventures into space by private corporations. For example, private research agencies in the future could win government contracts to launch research or manned exploratory missions into space. The company, ispace, explains why its focus has been directed into efforts to colonize the Moon:
“By taking advantage of lunar water resources, we can develop the space infrastructure needed to enrich our daily lives on earth—as well as expand our living sphere into space. Also, by making the Earth and Moon one system, a new economy with space infrastructure at its core will support human life, making sustainability a reality. This result is our ultimate goal, and our search for water on the Moon is the first step to achieving that goal.”
Although not yet a household name, ispace is making inroads amongst the commercial space industry. Ispace is currently a top contender for Google’s coveted Lunar XPrize, and is the only Japanese company participating in the competition.
“ispace operates team HAKUTO, which is the only member from Japan to participate in Google Lunar XPRIZE. au × HAKUTO MOON CHALLENGE project gather talent with diverse backgrounds: venture, university, and pro bono help to develop the lunar exploration rover robots. We're aiming to be the world's first private exploration company by utilizing all our resources to take the Google Lunar XPRIZE.”
It’s all about the water.
The first mission, dubbed Mission 1, will send a lander to orbit the Moon for observational purposes in the first quarter of 2019.
“The first mission will be the first privately-led Japanese test mission to inject the lander into a lunar orbit and relay lunar data to the Earth. It’s a critical mission to test data-gathering technology and Earth–Moon transport service technology.”
During Mission 2, scheduled for the end of 2020, the lander will touch down on the Moon and deploy a series of rovers that will begin mapping and conducting experiments on the lunar surface.
“The second mission will put Japan's first lander on the moon, deploying the rover to be driven on the lunar surface. This serves as a test mission to transport payloads to the Moon and send lunar surface data back to Earth. The objective is to test data-gathering technology and Earth–Moon transport service technology, much like the first mission.”
While ispace has so far only secured funding for the first two missions, which it hopes to complete by 2021, a total of ten missions are planned through 2022. Missions 3 through 9 will ambitiously attempt to construct take-off and landing platforms for Earth-Moon transport, with an emphasis on locating water deposits at the lunar poles. A study released in August 2017 revealed that surface rocks on the Moon, known as regolith, contain substantial amounts of water. In addition to being essential for sustaining human habitation, water can be split into liquid hydrogen and oxygen to be used in rockets—because it has much less gravity than Earth, using the Moon as a fueling station for future Mars missions will save enormous amounts of resources. Missions 3 through 9 will also see increases in the frequency of Earth-Moon trips, primarily to transport scientific instruments and data collecting tools necessary for a future human colony.
“The next seven missions will involve constructing the Earth-Moon transportation platform, centering on polar water exploration. From this point, we will increase the frequency of lunar landings and rover expeditions to transport customer payloads and send back data upon request.”
Mission 10, slated for completion in 2022, builds upon the presumed successes of the previous nine missions. Assuming all goes exactly according to plan, which in the universe of space travel is hardly ever the case, ispace plans to begin installing the infrastructure necessary to begin the process of putting humans on the Moon for extended periods of time.
“Mission 10 and beyond will focus on building an industrial platform for steady lunar development. With our highly specialized landers and rovers, we can pioneer the discovery and development of lunar resources.”
Recently discovered lunar lava tubes, formed billions of years ago when there was active geology on the lunar surface, may also be promising locations to house future human settlers on the Moon.
Ispace predicts that with the assistance of its lunar exploration program, there could be as many as 1,000 permanent human settlers on the Moon by 2040 and an additional 10,000 visitors to the Moon every year. If ispace is successful in creating a reliable, cost-effective transportation network between the Earth and Moon, then lunar colonization and tourism, as well as missions deeper into the solar system, become a much more viable prospect than they currently are.
Ispace is not the only entity seeking to capitalize on human lunar colonization.
In December, President Donald Trump issued a directive to NASA to refocus its efforts on putting humans back on the Moon. This is a reversal from the policies of the Obama administration, which had its sights set on sending humans to Mars by the 2030s.
“This time, we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprints — we will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars, and perhaps someday, to many worlds beyond,” Trump said.
The necessity of human lunar colonization is well-established; however, Trump’s directive does not outline any specifics on how he plans on actually making his goal a reality. NASA has not been granted additional funding for these mission proposals, and projects like the Deep Space Gateway, a joint U.S.-Russia mission to construct a permanent space station orbiting the Moon and eventually a permanent human colony, with the long-term objective of using the Moon as a launchpad to send humans to Mars. The Deep Space Gateway mission aims to have a permanent colony orbiting the Moon by the mid-2020s. The space station will also serve as a fuel and supply station for exploratory missions into the most distant depths of our solar system. Space exploration has historically been a catalyst for cooperation within the international community.
It is unclear, given Trump’s proposals, how feasible this mission may now be. NASA currently lacks an administrator; the nomination of Trump’s pick has stalled, and the current acting head of NASA abruptly announced his resignation earlier this month. Since NASA has been laboring over how to get humans safely to Mars and back, it has not prioritized return trips to the Moon in recent years—a factor that may stymie Trump’s lunar ambitions.
Nevertheless, the race to commercialize space is thriving in the private sector. Since 2017, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has successfully tested a series of reusable rockets, and in early 2018 during a test of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, Musk sent his personal Tesla into space. Seated in the driver’s seat was a mannequin named Starman, which sent back pictures of his brief visit to space.
"I love the thought of a car drifting apparently endlessly through space and perhaps being discovered by an alien race millions of years in the future," Musk said in December.
Musk’s ambitious space-faring innovations have prompted him to promise to send humans to Mars by 2024. Last September, at the International Aeronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, which by no coincidence was the location of the Deep Space Gateway revelation, Musk told the crowd his company’s Big F***ing Rocket (BFR) will be capable of taking humans to Mars by 2024.
“It’s 2017, I mean, we should have a lunar base by now,” Musk said. “What the hell is going on?”
At the same conference, Australia announced that it will be launching its first space agency in the coming months. The creation of the down-under space agency is expected to create nearly 12,000 jobs and generate over $4 billion in economic growth.