Expert Voices

A Walk on Future-Moon — July 20, 2044 (Op-Ed)

Commercial use of lunar polar volatiles provides an access point to a supply line of in-space propellant.
Commercial use of lunar polar volatiles provides an access point to a supply line of in-space propellant. (Image credit: James Vaughan)

We meet our guide, Pear Månsken, at the Company's No. 5 airlock. Pear's only instructions: Keep them in sight at all times and let them know immediately of any concerns. Beyond that we're free to roam. Stay safe and live. Or do something stupid and die. Not their problem. We've signed the waiver. This is the frontier.

It's July 20, 2044: 75 years to the Earth-day since Apollo 11 put moonboots on the ground. But that was way up, near the equator. Today, we're setting out at high lunar latitude, close to the pole. Where the cold and dark lies just steps away from the hot and bright. This is where the action is: A handful of companies and a few nations variously competing and cooperating on a mostly friendly quest, mostly for ancient ice. It's not for making margaritas. It's for rocket propellent and life support; what market futures analysts call Cosmic Consumable Commodities: "Triple C's." 

Related: Apollo 11's 50th Anniversary: Complete Coverage

Those first landings happened long ago, but it's still early days in lunar development. There's a lot of moon to go around. And a lot of businesses going to get it. Some, like Chevron, Maersk, Mitsubishi, Lockheed Martin and Siemens, have been well known for decades. A few, like Astrobotic, Moon Express, Masten, Orbit Beyond and the not-for-profit Draper Lab, have been quietly working since the moon-surge began, around 2018. Others, like Nyota ya Fedha, Lunapole and Polarvarg (for whom our chaperon, Pear, works) are well-capitalized startups. India’s Sampanna Candrudu, formerly part of the nation’s space agency, has now been reincarnated as a public corporation. Blue Origin partners with everyone whereas SpaceX and its sisters, Tesla and The Boring Company, prefer to work as a self-contained conglomerate. (Some would say: "cult.")

Co-located in a few lunar enterprise zones, most of these companies respect — and sometimes protect — one another. Way out here, 238,900 miles (384,470 kilometers) from Earth, with a very high cost of operation, it's difficult for authorities to patrol and enforce restrictions. Safety is in everyone's interests. Frontiers produce good citizens. Or dead ones. Hardly any in between. 

Your suit boots up in seconds. The electronics and helmet-immersive display actually came online in much less than a second, but the gas-mixture-and-atmospheric-pressure diagnostics take one complete loop to verify. The suit and a few of your tools checked in with "Moon Mama." Every smart object on Luna (except certain police and military) knows who, where and what every other one is; all are connected through the ubiquitous 8G awareness-net.  

Pear shoos us into one of Polarvarg's short-haul trans-landers. Small rocket-hoppers run like a shuttle-bus service here. The worksites are widely scattered. There's not that much risk of damage to neighbors' personnel or property, if things go south. The moon is a palace of robots; many fewer people live here than science fiction writers and space advocates of bygone days expected. So, most nations and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are taking a mostly hands-off, "laissez-faire" approach. 

The United States Space Guard looks after the interests of American flagged vehicles and facilities. China's military-industrial monolith keeps to its indecipherable, but so far, serene, self. And the GC (Gendarmerie Cosmos) tends to the emergency needs of European Union company vessels. Outer space is proving to be the quintessentially asymmetric battlespace. The "Mutually Assured Paralysis" of cyberwarfare has, so far, proven a highly effective peacekeeper. A fully armed Deep Space Force — equipped with overwhelming firepower to intimidate bad actors by ensuring, in advance, their total destruction — has proved too costly a solution to a problem that hasn't yet developed. Of course, it someday might.

Where, exactly, Luna fits in humanity's story is still unwritten. Some on Earth worry that, without a tightly preconceived legal framework, unfair distribution of the moon's resources is inevitable. (It is.) Others counter that there's no incentive to develop resources that cannot be owned free and clear. (There isn't.) A few are concerned that moon workers could become easy targets for exploitation. But right now, it's moon-boom times and hardly anyone is complaining.

The corporations have seen that ethical behavior tends to enrich their investments. And it keeps them off the homepages of news sites. Fair treatment of labor (which is mostly robotic anyway), deference to international norms of the mining industry, respect for historical sites (e.g., Apollo and Lunokhod), and basic environmental awareness all turn out to be good corporate marketing strategies, the storyboards of slick stock prospectuses.  

Because the risks are so gloomy — and the potential benefits so sunny — everyone on the moon is playing, more or less, on the same team. But there will, almost inevitably, come a time when they aren't. Then, solar system civilization will have lots of ethical dragons to slay. We have time to think about some of these issues as we drop from the hopper to continue on foot.

Digging for paydirt

Back in the Apollo days, our easy ramble around these moon rocks would have been a lot more arduous and dangerous, with just primitive paper maps and no space-based positioning system. Digging samples was all manual labor then. No robots around to help. Just simple tongs, scoops and rakes. The mightiest machine was a Black & Decker cordless electric hammer-drill. With a lot of effort, astronauts could bore up to 10 feet (3 meters) down through the compacted surface dust called regolith. 

To ice-mine the moon, you need much heftier tech. The deep frozen water is rock-hard and often rock-bound. You are there to find out just how hard it'll be to free up that paydirt at a new site. Before you arrived, Polarvarg survey drones, carrying imaging spectrometers and radar, flagged the site as promising. 

Then, a small army of Company rovers explored the nearby "cold traps." They found some tiny particles of ice lying on the surface, like dusty snow. More turned up, buried about half a meter down, in larger, purer crystals, like gravelly hailstones. And some appeared in much larger, deeper blocks — harder to get to but much more rewarding. By tradition and law, a human (that's you) must come to verify the find on-site, so he or she can attest to it later, should there be a territorial challenge. Despite all your high-tech gear, you are really just a simple scratch-ass prospector, looking to stake a claim on a parcel of moon.

But you're also here to do some new science. About half of it is "economic geology." That, historically, has been to understand where certain rock aggregates form in order to fast-track commercial quarrying. Aside from the 1970s Apollo data set, and some rover work on Mars, we've had only one planet to study in detail. Your work on how the moon made its minerals will help mining companies to locate ore bodies on Earth. 

And, of course, here on Luna itself: Nearly everywhere you look, you can find titanium and aluminum, for building space structures. Mature companies like Made In Space and Tethers Unlimited, which started in LEO (low Earth orbit), are here on the surface drawing feedstocks for their space-based flexible fabricators. There's also plenty of silicon for circuitry — especially photovoltaic solar collectors (though small nuclear reactors provide local power to most lunar worksites). 

All those craters punched into the crust conveniently reveal differentiated metals. Essential for small electronics and large power systems, local concentrations of rare-earth elements abound. The moon is a miner's paradise, and it's of vital strategic international trade importance to the nations and transnational corporations that dig and refine it.

Related: Moon Mining Could Actually Work, with the Right Approach

Power politics

The biggest player is China. The moon's gentle light has long signified aspiration and the promise of abundance in several Asian cultures. With a long-range view — free from the frequent course changes that buffet democratic societies — the Chinese Communist Party government has carefully, over decades, woven lunar development into its identity. China's effects on the activities of other nations and corporations working in space have been less adverse than some Western military planners had feared, but more disruptive than many internationalists had hoped.

Next year (2045), the People's Republic of China celebrates its 100th  anniversary. The state-backed Chinese Academy of Space Technology Corporation is very close to completing two large solar-power satellites, fabricated from mostly lunar materials. Each will downlink a steady stream of up to 500 megawatts of electricity, harvested above Earth's atmosphere, from high orbit, clear of weather and nighttime darkness. The power comes down via low-density microwaves to large receiving antennas in China's countryside. It would have been more efficient to send energy down by laser, but China — for now — seems to respect international agreements crafted to prevent directed-energy weapons in space.

These big satellites are just the next step in a program China began 30 years ago, to beam growing quantities of energy over ever-increasing vertical distances. If "the 500s" prove out, China will immediately begin work on a pair of much larger solar-energy satellites, each 10 times more powerful. Neither will be so much a gargantuan spacecraft as a constellation of several hundred thousand very small ones. Each subunit a clone of the last, all built mostly of materials from the moon, by an army of robotic fabricators. Certain industries scale magnificently in space: the ones that don't need people.

It’s a lossy proposition: Converting sunlight to electricity, then back to electromagnetic waves for the downlink, then back to electricity is not very efficient. Chinese government economists are well aware that it will take many decades to fully recoup construction costs. But they are investing in future generations. They are not accountable to impatient shareholders. And they are focused far beyond the moon. 

Roadhouse high

Some space moguls are focused squarely on Earth: In lower orbits, with grand views of the planet below, a number of high-end boutique hotels have sprung up. "Blown up" would be more accurate; most of these are very large inflated structures. But don't think lightweight "balloons" or "blimps." Their skins are actually much tougher than the metal hulls of traditional spacecraft. These expanded envelopes are built by sandwiching strong, lightweight synthetic fabrics tightly together. Layering with different densities protects against micrometeors and human-made space junk. Sewn into this hardy hide are impressively large windows. You'll get to look through them, in a few days, as you change vehicles on your way back to Earth.

Bigelow Aerospace (BA) is the dominant — but not the only — company to offer rentable "space in space." The nightly rack rates are, well, astronomical. And there's no such thing as a "walk-in." But there's a sufficient population of well-heeled leisure guests and B2B travelers to make a business. And lodging modules are not BA's only offering. You can find variously sized BA blow-ups popping up wherever pressurized volumes are needed. These elegant edifices come up from Earth tightly packed, in the large payload fairings of heavy-lift launchers. But they run on Triple C's from the moon. 

Drumming up business

Back here on the lunar surface, that affable dude in the purple-striped moon suit, working a few meters to the west of us, is Seok Wolgwang Choi. An American of Korean heritage, he encourages English speakers to call him "Sammy." He talks and moonwalks with an easygoing manner. But that bright orange bag over his shoulder reading "Danger: Explosives" looks more than a little ominous. 

On Earth, geophysicists employed by mining companies thump the ground, reading the resulting sound waves to map what lies beneath. Astronauts on Apollo missions 14 and 16 did a bit of that. They emplaced mortars to fire rounds into the nearby terrain. And they deployed seismometers to capture the resulting moon wiggles. On Apollo 17, Harrison "Jack" Schmitt — the only geologist to walk the lunar terrain during Apollo — went farther. Jack, and his commander Gene Cernan, placed explosive charges in the regolith a few kilometers from a geophone array at their landing site. The igniters were set for several days; the guys had long since left the surface by the time the explosions were triggered. 

More than half a century later, Sammy, too, likes making the moon go boom. His hazardous but lucrative career is about blowing stuff up in the name of "Lunar Active Seismic Tomography." He revels in leaving LASTing lunar impressions, mostly because the company cuts him in for profit-sharing on the find.

But you and Sammy are also out here to do some pure, not-for-profit science. Understanding the moon's evolution reveals the grand story of the solar system's formation. As you select rock samples, with the help of a keen-eyed geology team on Earth peering through your suit-cams, you are again moonwalking in the footsteps of giants:

Before Apollo, just about everyone thought all those shady holes seen from Earth had been built by volcanoes. By the time John Young and Charlie Duke left behind Apollo 16's Lunar Module lower stage, in April of 1972, most scientists were rapidly realizing that the surface of the moon is mostly about impacts.

The moon itself appears to be the child of a gargantuan crash between a Mars-size protoplanet and the early Earth. Fathoming the implications of that event, astrophysicists realized that the planets we see today are not the first ones this solar system has had (except, perhaps, giant Jupiter). Nor do the planets now orbit where they originally formed. This revolutionary recognition arose directly from studies of the moon rocks hand-picked, packed and shipped home by 12 people between July 1969 and December 1972.

Related: Lunar Legacy: 45 Apollo Moon Mission Photos

Well suited

They made it look easy. It was not easy. On the downlinked slow-scan video stream, you see the Apollo moonwalkers bouncing merrily around in gravity only 16% that of Earth. But, listen closely and you'll hear them breathing pretty hard at times. Swaddled in layers of nylon, neoprene, aluminized Mylar, Dacron, Kapton, Teflon-coated fabric — and pumped with air pressure — each guy was fighting the suit with every move.

Each Apollo A7L "moon suit" — called the Extra-Vehicular Mobility Unit, or EMU — was rated for 30 trips outside. None got more than three. Apollo was a spare-no-expense program before the eyes of the world. Risks to the astronauts were minimized at astronomical costs. With President Kennedy's directive to "return him safely to the Earth" ringing in every program manager's ears, everything was expendable, except the crew.

But you and I, working our industrial jobs here on Future Moon, need a suit capable of hundreds of excursions before refurb or retirement. We need to go outside often — even if just to check, or fix, the machines that do most of the work. So, our suits have shape-memory materials on the inside for comfort and haptic feedback "pulsers" in the fingertips for touch. And self-healing polymer layers guarding against tool punctures and micrometeoroids. Look closely at your suit's outside layer. It's a patchwork of panels, each hosting a network of tiny wires. That's your electrodynamic dust armor. It periodically sparks away clingy motes of lunar soil. Or tries to. Dust is a constant headache here on the moon. 

Btw. It's time for a new acronym, isn't it? EVA — "extravehicular activity" — has served for people exiting and reentering capsules, shuttles, stations and movable modules. But what shall we call a stroll outside a permanent habitat on a planetary surface? I nominate simply: "a stroll outside." People are really living in space now — on the moon, around asteroids, in growing settlements in a plethora of orbits. I say: If you have a gravity vector, it's a "walk." If you don't, it's a "float" or a "fly." If the atmosphere is thicker than Earth's, it's a "swim." See? Easy!

We climb onto a "flatbed" to save some steps. A direct descendant of Apollo's Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV), our ride is basically just wheel motors and a big battery with a platform and a bit of open truss work to keep items (including humans) on board. Every other need — including navigation and video — is already built into our moon suits.

Well connected

Apollo moonwalkers could look down at their chest-mounted Remote-Control Units and easily see small square "flags" — status indicators — warning if oxygen, carbon dioxide, water, pressure or vent conditions drifted out of normal operating ranges. Comfy, here, in our 2044 lunar couture, we see mini-gauges floating before our eyes on the HUD (heads-up display). 

But suit health is the least of our inputs. We find ourselves immersed in a serious expanse of augmented reality. Active mapping with locators, task checklists, action prompts, graphical instructions; these all rotate, prioritized for our sensory consumption by the AI agents our Company bosses have trained to help us live our best space lives.

Essential to that life: your psychological health. Extended stays in sterile monochromatic environments demand colorful, life-affirming cues. So, you brought the Earth with you to the moon. All those task-oriented cues share your sight and sound field with social messaging, and with a bit of art from time to time. 

The claustrophobic confines of a helmet are emotionally expanded by well-designed AR, the harsh landscape outside softened by the occasional visual or auditory reminder of your lush homeworld. You find it's comforting — indeed, vital — to travel with live avatars of friends and family. They pop up from time to time, and you're always glad to interact with them, despite the 2.5-second delay time to and from Earth. On the barren, insensitive moon, you find you frequently want to phone a friend.

And you'll have local friends here too: human and robotic. The "Buddy Team" approach — pair bonding — is wired deeply within us. It's the secret sauce of humanity's success. Watching the paired Apollo crews in action, you could see it immediately. They could improvise on the fly, clear each other's cables, be one another's eyes. 

You call up a video clip from 1971 — one of Apollo 15's sorties. Projected on your HUD: The sloped flank of Spur Crater. Dave Scott is using tongs to lift rock sample No. 15415 up from the lunar regolith. He's saying to Jim Irwin: "OK, babe; open the bag," which, of course, Irwin has already started doing. That chunk of anorthosite will come to be known as the Genesis Rock — a window 4.1 billion years back, a geologic time capsule from just after the moon's origin.

Tantalizing fusion

For all that long stretch since its formation, the moon has never had much of an atmosphere. Nor much of a magnetic field. So, whatever particles the sun threw at Luna tended to stick to the fine-grained surface. 

Some of that residue has been helium-3 (He-3), implanted by the solar wind. A bit more helium-3 has been deposited here by cosmic rays from deep space. It's a tantalizing substance: two protons and a neutron, the only stable isotope that contains more protons than neutrons, besides simple hydrogen itself. 

In the bad old Cold War days, when the nations of Earth had more than 70,000 active nuclear weapons pointed at each other's cities, helium-3 was a headache. It would build up as tritium decayed in the stored warhead, actually reducing its explosive effectiveness. Missile maintainers would siphon off the He-3 to be sold for medical imaging and other peaceful uses. 

But helium-3 can be put to work in a fusion reactor, liberating high levels of energy, without throwing off radioactive byproducts. At least in theory.

Neil Armstrong inadvertently collected the first sample of lunar helium-3 in 1969 — about 25 parts per billion of the soil he scooped up to fill out one collection box. Other Apollo missions brought some back as well. But the potential for power generation by helium-3 fusion wasn't realized until researchers at the University of Wisconsin put the clues together in 1985.  

Like water ice, helium-3 survives in greater abundance in the shadows. Here on Future Moon, prospectors have found concentrations up to three times greater than the Apollo samples in the deep, dark zones of polar craters, coincidentally where most water ice is mined. Getting both He-3 and H2O out requires heating the soil up. So, it makes sense to harvest both in these unique polar locations, where spots in nearly constant sunlight at 257 degrees Fahrenheit (125 degrees Celsius) lie adjacent to practically permanent shade at minus 274 F (minus 170 C).

The north pole of the moon turns out to be a slightly easier place to work, because more of the high ground is illuminated, more of the time. And it's easier to negotiate the gentler northern topography down into the mining sites. 

But the economics of helium-3 fusion don't appear to be as bright as the idea.  Concentrator-bots must sift through more than 100 tons of lunar soil to yield a single gram of helium-3. It takes more than 100,000 times that quantity to operate a 1-gigawatt reactor for a year. The power that comes out is worth about $175 million (mid-21st century value). So you need to run your reactor for more than 25 years to pay off its cost. 

These reactors are so expensive because helium-3 doesn't really like to fuse with itself, which is the "cleanest," least radioactive process. Getting He-3/He-3 fusion to work requires immensely high plasma temperatures, achieved by smashing atoms together extremely fast. It takes a supermassive, highly precise machine. And, although helium-3 itself isn't radioactive, no one has shown that significant secondary radiation breeding will not compromise safety over time.

There are richer sources of helium-3 in the atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn. But that's a long way to go. Someday, fusion-driven rockets might use some of their own helium-3 payload to push the rest inward to Human-space and outward to the Deep System.

For now, helium-3 remains a provocative potential fuel in search of a practical way to burn. Still, it is poetic to imagine the fusion fire of our primal star giving its offspring (us) a means to ignite local fusion power for our own sustenance, and carrying that fire into places the sun does not reach.

Related: Superfast Spacecraft Propulsion Concepts (Images)

Back to the ice mines

We've rolled upslope to the rim of Haworth Crater. Looking through her spotting scope, Janelle Oladele, director of Ops at the rock-ice extraction site, is speaking: "Alexa, bring the west thermal group online." (A lot of lunar AI is named Alexa because, well, Blue Origin, which was started by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.) We watch her array of parabolic mirrors, set along the peaks, focus sunlight down into the shadows. As the beams converge, they dazzlingly light up a few square meters of the crater floor for the first time in three billion years.

We realize they've slewed the long way around to avoid cooking a pod of extractor-bots and a pair of human overseers stationed nearby. We the people — and they the machines — are essentially a single organism now, extending life into lifelessness. A way for intelligence to populate the universe — a mission begun on the grasslands of East Africa about 2 million years ago.

Back in 2016, United Launch Alliance (ULA) posted a standing offer of $1,360 per lb. ($3,000 per kilogram to any individual or company who could deliver hydrogen and oxygen made from the moon to LEO (low Earth orbit). It was a "cash-on-the-barrelhead" proposition for Lunar Triple C's, made by the most experienced rocket company on Earth at a time when no on-orbit propellant transfer machines existed.

ULA's bid jump-started an industry — one based on using material from space to get around and build things in space. It is much cheaper to get mass "up" off the moon than from "down" the deep gravity well of Earth. 

Still, getting off the moon does require rockets or electromagnetic launchers. Civilization in the inner solar system is forming from the moon, but is not, for the most part, being built on the moon. Nor on the surfaces of Mars or Venus. Dream of terraforming all you want, but physics, economics and human needs will drive us into free orbits between Earth and moon for a very long time to come.

A self-coordinated phalanx of bots is swarming in just behind the beam as it tracks southwest. They fade beneath a growing bank of fog in front of them, and a cloud of dust behind. We thank Director Oladele for letting us watch the parade. Now it's off to a waiting hopper for the bounce back to town.

Home, home in the moon

Town, it turns out, is mostly underground. The same exposed conditions that allowed the moon to accumulate helium-3 leave humans naked to the killing, cancerous effects of solar energetic particles (SEPs) and galactic cosmic rays (GCRs). When you're out moonwalking, you're a sitting duck for the first energetic protons following a very large solar flare, which can travel at nearly the speed of light. But it takes at least 20 hours for the most dangerous bulk of a coronal mass ejection (CME) to reach the Earth-moon system. And most CMEs are not directed toward us. So, we can usually count on some warning.

A meter or so of dirt piled on top of your habitat keeps you safe. It matters most for long-contract dwellers who build up cumulative doses over time. They've taken to saying they live "in" the moon, not "on" it. Gopher-bots, built by the SpaceX-spawned Boring Company, have been worming their way between landing/launching zones, residential towns and processing plants, creating networks of transport and storage tunnels. Small "hidey holes" are dug (or mounded) at every worksite: If the solar flux suddenly jumps, humans can shelter-in-place.

Related: Anatomy of Sun Storms & Solar Flares (Infographic)

Pear points out a long ridge as the hopper climbs to clear it; a lava tube lies beneath its hump. Built, in the moon's hot youth, by flowing magma, these hollow structures offer intrinsically shielded open spaces, and naturally occurring access through "skylights" where bubbles or meteoroids have popped open the surface. Apollo 15 explored Hadley Rille — probably a lava tube with a collapsed roof — whose floor was more than a kilometer wide, with walls up to 1,000 feet (300 m) high. Many large lunar lava tubes have been surveyed. Temperatures inside them are much more even than out on the surface. Someday people may live comfortably in them. But, here in 2044, we still seem a long way from a human population explosion on the moon.

You'll probably sleep well back at Company quarters tonight, once you've had a shower and a drink. Both are possible, courtesy of that ice you saw liberated today. 

Looking around the bar, you realize miners haven't changed much in centuries. Smudges of soot go along with the job, no matter how disconnected and suit-protected one tries to be. Moon dust is nasty stuff. Not as toxic as Mars' dust, but dirty, abrasive and pervasive. And always that specific odor: Apollo astronauts likened it to spent gunpowder. This place even smells like a frontier town.

The dark side

The "Wild West," pioneering mentality of this moon rush can't last. Someday — perhaps soon — there will tougher questions to answer: 

  • The first time a dead tourist's family sues the spaceship line that brought him there, which justice system will adjudicate? 
  • If a rogue nation — or a private mercenary army — destroys a competitor's ice refinery, whose retaliatory force will respond? And who makes sure that response will be proportional?
  • Will children born here on Luna be afforded the citizenship rights of their parents? Would they even be physically capable of living on any higher-gravity world? 
  • As genetic and genomic engineering grows ever more powerful, what ethics will apply to human or animal testing performed in, say, a lunar company town?
  • For that matter, what if a bug born in a bio-lab on Luna turns out to be virulent on Earth?
  • As every military planner knows, you take the high ground as soon as you can: Who's in charge of the moon-based ability to throw or purposefully divert big rocks around the sky? 
  • When does a defense system against asteroids become an offensive weapon? 
  • Who decides when the risk of diverting an asteroid close to Earth, in order to mine it, outweighs the benefit?

A long, long time from now — when civilization on the moon has become fully self-sustaining — residents may wish to claim sovereignty over that world's resources. If, say, a solar-power satellite serving Earth is made of lunar materials, do the daughters of the moon workers who built it get stock in the Earth-based utility company that profits from it? Old contracts and treaties may be torn up in the process. Hot, cold or social disinformation wars may be fought. Given our human history, all of those are likely.

The bright side

You're going home. For all but a very few people, "home" still means "Earth." Like the Apollo teams, 75 years ago, you caught a lift to LLO (low lunar orbit) aboard a high hopper. You  transfer to an OTA (orbital transfer vehicle). Unlike Apollo, the OTA will drop you at one of those flying flophouses with the big windows in low Earth orbit. You're not waiting around on Luna for an Aldrin Cycler, the cheaper way to travel. But you're also not jumping a "starship-class" luxury direct liner, which is rated for direct travel between all worlds. 

You drop from the High Hyatt Hotel in a dedicated atmospheric transfer vehicle (ATV). Some of that lunar ice is still with you: Your ATV is fully refueled with propellent mined on the moon. 

Safely slowing down on powered descent, you get set to touch down on dirt that's full of life — unlike the lunar regolith. Some call our old world by its old name, "Terra," which means "land." By far the best planet for tens of kiloparsecs in any direction. Though the price declines with each launch, it still costs a bundle to get you to and from the moon. You wrestle with justifying your journey. While you were off ego-tripping through the cosmos, how were you helping Earth? 

Your excursion was mostly — but not entirely — carbon-neutral. You launched on engines burning cold methane, "cryo-CH4." Once you got to low Earth orbit, however, lunar hydrogen and oxygen — and free sunlight — took you everywhere else. Had you gone deep into the solar system, you'd probably have been on nukes (nuclear electrical or nuclear thermal propulsion). 

The old idea that Earth must deal with an ever-increasing population by shipping billions of us off-planet to colonize elsewhere will not, and cannot, work. But opening the resources of space can, in time, unburden Earth of much of the industrial impact of humanity. As Bezos, and Gerard O'Neill before him, (and Ehricke before him, and Tsiolkovsky before him) suggested: Move heavy tech off-planet, get better habitat on-planet. 

Sadly, the only other way to ensure our species' success seems to require cultivating a cancerous body of increasingly restrictive rules, with ever more ironclad enforcement. Hardly anybody, outside of a few authoritarians with badly damaged personalities, wants that.

There is one additional emerging cause for hope: "the population plateau." Beginning in the second half of the 20th  century, some nations have seen their populations peak and begin to recede. This trend correlates with the spread of certain nonmilitary technologies. As this permeates worldwide, it reverses the human population burst, which began with the rise of agriculture and the unintended terraforming of planet Earth. Machine proliferation on farms means we don't have to breed as many human farmhands. Birth rates continue to decline in Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia. The U.S., Canada and even China are tiptoeing toward population stability.

Though technology implies increased energy use, cleaner ways to get that power are emerging.  Some of the most promising — solar satellites and like fusion power — correlate with space development.

Beyond tech, the empowerment of women is vitally important for maintaining a healthy civilization. Advanced education, self-determination, wage equality, child care: It is not, of course, necessary to go to space to do these. But, thanks to social networks of (mostly) female and non-binary engineers, most space industries have baked a responsibility to fulfill each of these requirements into their companies' cultures. And the mass of these exerts a beneficial gravitational pull on societies in general.

There's a grand virtuous cycle at work here: A maturing space-based infrastructure to lighten the burden on Earth's biosphere also happens to further open the solar system's resources. It looks like while offloading stress from our home planet, we get opportunities in the rest of space for very little additional investment. Starting with Triple C's from the moon, we can go anywhere. 

Follow the author @DavidSkyBrody. Follow us @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at:

David Sky Brody

Dave Brody has been a writer and Executive Producer at since January 2000. He created and hosted space science video for Starry Night astronomy software, Orion Telescopes and TV. A career space documentarian and journalist, Brody was the Supervising Producer of the long running Inside Space news magazine television program on SYFY. Follow Dave on Twitter @DavidSkyBrody.