Over the years I’ve written several posts – and an ebook – about why I support returning to the moon over rushing off to Mars. The basic reason boils down to money. Setting up a lunar base/colony will be expensive, but then in a decade or two resources and new businesses will return the investment with interest. Setting up a Mars base/colony will be even more expensive, and hopefully billionaires on Earth keep funneling money into to. Because outside of genuine Mars rocks to be sold to museums and collectors and tchotchkes stamped “Made on Mars” there’s nothing on Mars that will be worth exporting.
These are all thoughts I’ve had for some time, but I started wondering what would be the first business to make money on the moon? If we can figure out the engineering challenges to beam energy from solar collectors around the moon to Earth, that’s untold billions in profits right there. But it will take a few decades to hammer the bugs out of the – mostly – autonomous mining, processing, manufacturing, and emplacing of the solar panels. What businesses could make money with the first return missions to the moon?
Outside of the money private companies will make sending rovers and government astronauts to the moon, the first money making ventures will be small. These will be genuine moon rocks bought by museums and collectors on Earth, shooting ads, or maybe some company will want to archive some data completely off-grid. None of these will pay for setting up a lunar base. They will just be exploring the ways to make money on the moon.
Probably the one business that will make the most money the quickest will be tourism. I had assumed that Phase I of a lunar base would just be a pure scientific outpost figuring out how to live on the moon, but Phase II of the base might include a hotel. But then I realized that a hotel at a scientific outpost probably isn’t that great. Yes, you’d be on the moon, but there wouldn’t be that much you could do. You could put on a spacesuit and go walk where … dozens of other people have walked in the area right around the base.
The solution would be to just skip the hotel – until there is enough infrastructure and population to support playing fields for lunar sports, for example – and go with a rover. Over the years there have been hundreds of ideas for improved lunar rovers. Instead of little golf carts like some of the Apollo missions had, these would be enclosed habitats that you would drive to some spot and then put on your spacesuit and walk around where no one has been before. Some of these rovers are also the rocket that lands you on the moon and lets you take off again. It’s a lot of extra weight to lug around, but it means if there’s an accident you don’t have to drive a hundred kilometers back to where you landed to take off again. Ideally, these rovers would dock with a space station in lunar orbit where they’d be refueled and sent back down. These would be ideal for scientists to explore new areas of the moon and for prospectors to find the resources to start building lunar industry. And they would be perfect for tourists. Instead of spending most of your time on the moon in a cramped room with a screen showing you camera views from around the base, you could spend your time in a cramped rover with a window with an ever changing view.
The moon contains untold riches and opportunities; it will just take time to develop them. Letting tourists take their own “small steps” may be the way to buy that time.