Racing to the Moon for a Terrestrial Super Fuel?
Albuquerque resident and Apollo astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt may have inspired an international race to unlock the possible power of lunar helium-3
An Albuquerque resident for more than 20 years, Harrison “Jack” Schmitt has one connection to the Moon that is his and only his. As an Apollo 17 astronaut, Schmitt was the last person to touch the lunar surface.
A generation later, NASA and the U.S. are determined not only to return to the Moon, but to stay, perhaps for good this time, and then eventually go on to Mars. In December, NASA laid out plans for a manned Moon-base to be established sometime post-2024.
Helping to guide NASA back to the Moon is, fittingly, the last human to set foot on its soil: Schmitt, who, by the way, is also a former U.S. senator (R-N.M., from 1976 to 1982). Last year the 71-year-old was picked to lead the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), the space agency’s pre-eminent civilian leadership arm. NAC was restructured in 2004 after President Bush declared his "Vision for Space Exploration," which in essence calls for a mission to the Moon to create a “stepping-stone” for launching manned flights to Mars.
Naming Schmitt to chair NAC is only natural; he’s been calling for man’s return to the Moon for the past three decades. He told a Senate committee in 2003 that a return to stay would be comparable "to the movement of our species out of Africa."
But at the same time, a handful of experts and observers say naming Schmitt to lead NAC, or what NASA calls “the Council,” is arguably, in these times, an ironic choice. One that has raised suspicions internationally.
The U.S. is not interested in the Red Planet alone, the experts claim. The U.S. is also racing to the Moon to monopolize a potential terrestrial super fuel--a fuel found almost exclusively within lunar soil and rock.
One of the more interesting finds of the Apollo missions was the discovery of lunar helium-3. Traces of the isotope were found in every sample of Moon soil collected. Some of those samples are housed at NASA’s Remote Storage Facility in White Sands.
What NASA may not have known at the time was that helium-3 was being studied as a possible fuel for nuclear fusion. Simply put, nuclear fusion is what powers the sun and stars. Theoretically, if it is ever harnessed here on Earth on a large scale, it could become a major power source.
Schmitt declined to comment for this article, but his desire to turn lunar helium-3 into something beyond remarkable is as clear as a full Moon on a cloudless night.
In 2003, when he was testifying in front of Senate members, Schmitt asked: What is the best way to pay for a trip back to the Moon? He answered his own question: lunar helium-3 and its emerging potential as the next great energy source.
“Extracting helium-3 from the Moon and returning it to Earth would, of course, be difficult, but the potential rewards could be staggering,” wrote Schmitt in an article for a 2004 issue of Popular Mechanics. “Helium-3 could help free the United States--and the world--from dependence on fossil fuels.”
Schmitt and his peers have postulated that just a few hundred pounds of lunar helium-3 would power a city of a million people for an entire year.
This past summer, a prominent Russian academic named Erik Galimov told the international press the U.S. had a hidden agenda within its Moon colonization plan. “(Colonizing the Moon first) will enable the U.S. to establish its control of the global energy market 20 years from now and put the rest of the world on its knees as hydrocarbons run out.”
Bruce Gagnon, the director of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, said naming Schmitt to lead NAC gives credence to conspiratorial theories such as Galimov’s.
Gagnon said lunar helium-3 overtures by other countries have convinced Schmitt, the White House and NASA to take action.
“These guys have been working for years to set this up and now they are moving quickly because they fear that other countries will get to these resources first,” said Gagnon in a recent interview with the Alibi from his office in Maine.
China, India, the European Space Agency, Russia and at least one Russian corporation also have stated missions of putting a manned base on the Moon sometime around 2020. Several of these missions have plans to research helium-3.
Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist of China's lunar program, has told China’s state-controlled press, “We will provide the most reliable report on helium-3 to mankind” and “whoever first conquers the moon will benefit first.”
In 1986, a team of fusion researchers at the University of Wisconsin (UW) used a small amount of Earth-based helium-3 to produce a fusion reaction, albeit a very small one.
Nonetheless, not long after this breakthrough, we “stumbled across each other,” states Schmitt in past news articles.
Almost immediately, Schmitt and the UW fusion team had two major hurdles. A commericial-sized nuclear fusion reactor that could generate electricity for hundreds of thousands is unproven and far from reality. Experts say the ability to harness fusion power for large cities is at least 50, possibly 100 years away.
What’s more, helium-3 exists only in small amounts on Earth. But it is believed by some researchers to be plentiful on the Moon. Solar winds emitted by the sun contain helium-3, but when they approach Earth, the globe's magnetic field deflects the winds. The Moon, on the other hand, has no magnetic field.
“After four-and-half-billion years, there should be large amounts of helium-3 on the moon,” said Dr. Gerald Kulcinski, director of UW’s Fusion Technology Institute. There are 10,000 metric tons alone, he claims, in the top three meters of the Mare Tranquillitatis, the lunar plain where current NAC-member Neil Armstrong landed Apollo 11's lunar module.
Kulcinski is a friend and partner of Schmitt’s. Together, they have pushed for the U.S. government to invest in helium-3 research. They’ve often been rejected.
“The Department of Energy told us, ‘We're never going back to the Moon. We can’t afford to,’” said Kulcinski.
But those days may soon be a distant memory. Kulcinski was also named to NAC last year, and is leading its Human Capital committee.
He says his and Schmitt's helium-3 research does not have influence over their duties to NASA.
“The NAC is purely an advisory council to Dr. (Michael) Griffin (head of NASA)," said Kulcinski. "It has very broad responsibilities dealing with science, exploration, human capital, education and operations to name a few. Our appointments to this advisory committee have nothing to do with our specific research interests.”
Sharing the Lunar Landscape
On the same day NASA laid out plans for building a base by 2024 near the Moon's south pole, the space agency quietly mentioned they will at least consider researching lunar helium-3.
That day NASA also released a 200-item list titled “Lunar Exploration Objectives.” The list was compiled during the previous year after NASA asked 1,000 persons from the international space community, “Why should we return to the Moon?”
Some ideas were offbeat, such as staging a “rally” across the Moon. Other ideas were far more complex and have a far greater purpose. Listed last under the "Lunar Resource Utilization" category, NASA said they may study lunar helium-3 for "fusion reactors on Earth" to "reduce Earth's reliance on fossil fuels."
NASA has extended a hand to other space-capable nations, saying the Moon base should be an international endeavor. Observers such as Gagnon, however, say NASA's cooperative stance may be a front as it races once again to reach the lunar surface first. Gagnon says Schmitt may have inspired this apparent race for lunar helium-3 with his opposing views on the Moon Treaty of 1979, which calls for all lunar resources to be equally shared by all nations. That treaty is sanctioned by the U.N.
In a 1998 op-ed for Space News, Schmitt wrote: "The mandate of an international regime would complicate private commercial efforts … The Moon Treaty is not needed to further the development and use of lunar resources for the benefit of humankind … including the extraction of lunar helium-3 for terrestrial fusion power."