What Role Will NASA Play In Developing ISRU On The Moon?

Space agencies will play a vital role in the developing space economy, especially in the beginning. But what will the part of the biggest of all space agencies be when considering how space resources, especially those on the Moon, are accessed? NASA has a plan for that as it does for so many other things – and this article will dig into a slideshow that describes that plan in detail.

Originally presented at the Committee on Space Research’s (COSPAR’s) 2022 meeting in Athens by NASA managers and subject matter experts from the Johnson Space Center and Glenn Research Center, the presentation showed how NASA plans to integrate itself development efforts into the broad efforts being made bits commercial and international partners. As repeatedly pointed out throughout the presentation, the organization’s primary focus is to develop an infrastructure to create sustainable commodities in space.

There are two main ways that NASA appears to be approaching that goal. First, they want to develop further technologies enabling commercial partners to access private funding to create the commodities themselves. Second, they want to create the necessary infrastructure so that those commercial businesses can thrive without worrying about building the whole economic infrastructure, including such basics as roads and water supply systems, from scratch.

UT video explaining the concept of in-situ resource utilization.

As with much NASA work of late, this discussion focused primarily on the Moon. In particular, it discussed how the Artemis missions could be leveraged to set up the infrastructure necessary for even the most essential resource extraction. That would mean collecting bulk regolith, the composition of which varies depending on the location on the lunar surface and processing it into something usable.

The PowerPoint describes a dual path system, one focusing on an oxygen/metal production process and one focusing on ice mining. The oxygen/metal production process has been the focus of a lot of research as of late, and an equivalent system (MOXIE) was recently tested on Mars’s surface. So far, lunar equivalents have only been tested on Earth with regolith simulant, but they have proven successful.

Ice mining isn’t technically challenging, but there is a lack of data about where sufficient amounts of ice might be found. Plenty of speculation has focused on south polar ice caps that might hold water in their permanent shadows. Some missions in the near future, such as PRIME-1, hope to explore ice’s availability in those regions further. But for now, while the technology might be there, there is no guarantee that the resource itself is.

An interview with Diane Linne, one of the presentation’s authors and a NASA expert on ISRU.
Credit – NASA Video YouTube Channel

That is precisely the role NASA sees itself playing – derisking the efforts of collecting water, oxygen, and metals from the surface of the Moon to a point where commercial partners will come on board to support the development of the infrastructure themselves. Engaging those commercial partners early and often will be vital to getting their buy-in, but there still needs to be a “killer app” that can only be created on the Moon in order for its true commercial potential to take off. 

Alternatively, heavily polluting industries that might be frowned up on Earth could migrate to the barren wasteland of the lunar surface and not cause anywhere near the ecological destruction they do on our home planet. But for now, there still isn’t quite a driving force that will enable the virtuous cycle of economics to take effect. NASA’s efforts to lower the barriers to entry to space, and find that killer app, are realistically the only way it will ever start itself. And it’s clear the agency is now focused on lowering those barriers. This ISRU plan is just one step in that direction, but it’s clear now how it sees its role and hopes to continue to shape the future of humanity in space.

Learn More:
Sanders, Kleinhenz & Linne – NASA Plans for In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) Development, Demonstration, and Implementation
UT – What is ISRU, and How Will it Help Human Space Exploration?
UT – NASA Will Pay You to Retrieve Regolith and Rocks from the Moon
UT – Researchers Make Rocket Fuel Using Actual Regolith From the Moon

Lead Image:
An illustration of a Moon base that could be built using 3D printing and ISRU, In-Situ Resource Utilization. Credit: RegoLight, visualisation: Liquifer Systems Group, 2018

Andy Tomaswick

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