The First Earthrise
Fifty years ago, three Apollo 8 astronauts became the first human beings to visit the moon. They didn’t land, but as they orbited, they took a photo that has become iconic: instead of the familiar vista of the Moon rising above the Earth, they saw the opposite: a moment that is known as “Earthrise.” For millennia, people have watched the Moon ascend into the night sky, a familiar and comforting sight. Now, for the first time ever, all of us saw something different—our home planet hovering above the lunar surface. This reversal of perspective captures the unique nature of our time, which might be called “the Earthrise Era.”
Today, decades after the last man walked on the moon in 1972, the American government—as well as other nations and private enterprise—has once again committed US prestige and dollars to lunar initiatives. However, much has changed in the ensuing half-century. One significant shift is that no one planned to stay on the moon during the Apollo missions, but just about everyone now assumes we will create long-term settlements there.
In addition, the region between the Earth and moon during Apollo was essentially empty, except for a few Earth-orbiting satellites. Now, cislunar space is filling up and will become more crowded over time. As satellites shrink in size and reusability drives down launch costs, the satellite industry segment is leading the way for so-called “NewSpace” to become a dominant force in the global economy. As space tourism gathers momentum, with entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Sir Richard Branson touting the benefit of seeing the Earth from space (“the Overview Effect”), Low Earth Orbit may soon be a simple extension of life on the Earth’s surface—a vacation destination for thousands of people.
NASA announced plans for a return to the Moon, including a lunar space station that will provide a “gateway” to the rest of the solar system. Entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos have also stated their intention to play a role in cislunar expansion.
A number of companies, space agencies, and government administrations are coming together to engage in the development of a robust commercial activity within the Earth/Moon system. For example, executives and engineers from major aerospace companies that form the Cislunar Development Alliance are meeting at the upcoming SpaceCom Conference in Houston to discuss critical mission issues such as heavy lift capabilities, space habitats, and access to extraterrestrial water.
The Moon as Suburb
Can we envision a future when companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX have offices 240,000 miles from Earth, while NASA and ESA have established bases, and hundreds, or even thousands, of people call the Moon “home?”
A number of experts think so.
For example, Jason Crusan, director of the Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) Division at NASA and Speaker at SpaceCom 2018 says:
“NASA will be lead architect and integrator of the Gateway, a lunar outpost in orbit around the Moon. The Gateway will provide NASA with a strategic presence and critical infrastructure in lunar orbit and enable human missions to the lunar surface…We will support a new era of exploration on the Moon and translate that experience toward human missions to Mars.”
George Sowers, an aerospace executive for decades and now a professor at the Colorado School of Mines, sees the use of space resources as key to developing the cislunar economy because “you can’t bring everything from Earth.” Moreover, “there is water everywhere in space, and if you have water, you have propellant. Water is the ‘oil of space.’” While at the United Launch Alliance (ULA), he initiated a study called “Cislunar 1000.” An article about the study stated:
“United Launch Alliance (ULA) President and CEO Tory Bruno has provided a new overview of his company’s role in a proposed ‘Econosphere’ in space. Although it will take decades to fully realize its potential, ULA hardware is set to provide the key elements via its CisLunar 1000 roadmap, allowing numerous commercial companies to come together to create a self-sustaining community of around 1,000 people in the space between the Earth and the Moon.”
Today, Sowers argues that sustainable development of the cislunar region must be economically viable and must “deliver value to the people of Earth.”
Most observers agree that a public/private partnership is the best way to open up Cislunar space. Crusan says:
“In support of Space Policy Directive 1, NASA will lead the human return to the Moon. The agency is working with U.S. industry to develop a range of capabilities to land progressively larger payloads, and eventually, humans on Earth’s nearest neighbor.”
Bernard Kutter of ULA agrees that a private industry/NASA partnership will pay big dividends for all concerned:
“In the near term,” he says, “cislunar private enterprise will seek partnerships with NASA. As respective sectors mature, private industry will grow the more promising market opportunities. We’ll see continued development of cislunar transportation to bring down the cost and enhance the capability to support market transportation needs.”
Regarding NASA, he says, “NASA is the ‘pointy end of the spear,’ leading humanity into the unknown, focused on exploration and enabling technology development where there is no clear commercial business case.”
Recently, NASA made good on its promise to support public/private lunar ventures by awarding contracts to Blue Origin to develop lunar lander technologies. Dependable landing technologies that can place large payloads on the Moon will be critical to cislunar development, so this is a big step forward. Other awards were made to ULA to further development of the technologies enabling propellant transfer in space as well as fully reusable and refuellable in-space stages, other essential ingredients of the cislunar economy.
Earthrise Will be the Norm
The first Earthrise startled the Apollo astronauts, as well as the millions of Earthlings watching their planet (and themselves) above the surface of our nearest celestial neighbor. For the 1,000, or 10,000, humans who may someday call the Moon their home, it will be the norm, a part of their everyday life. The Overview Effect will be a daily experience as they go about building a new life on a new world.
Jason Crusan, George Sowers, and Bernard Kutter will speak at SpaceCom – Space Commerce Conference and Exposition in Houston, Texas, on November 27 and 28. To hear them and other experts, and to hear presentations from NASA Centers, register at www.spacecomexpo.com.
By: Frank White
Author, The Overview effect; Space Exploration and Human Evolution