July 28, 2009

Space + Mining = Sci Fi Natural Security

Today’s natural security movie is Moon, from director Duncan Jones. The natural security element of the movie lies only in its brief opening, which establishes the premise that main character Sam Bell (played masterfully by Sam Rockwell) is an astronaut on a three-year stint on the otherwise un-colonized moon working for a company called Lunar Industries. His job is to run the mining operation

that pulls helium-3 out of the moon’s surface and shuttles it back to Earth, where it provides the world with clean, abundant energy. As NASA describes this potential:

There may be an opportunity for lunar resources to play a role in the energy industry here on Earth. Power generation is a vast and growing market. Energy is a product that may legitimately be worth bringing back to the Earth's surface from the Moon. How will we do this? In 1989, a NASA report concluded that, for the energy needs of the next century, we need to consider two alternatives enabled by a lunar outpost: solar energy collected on the lunar surface and beamed back to Earth via microwaves, and the return to Earth of a light isotope of helium, He-3. Both of these options would largely avoid the biggest problems of energy generation here on Earth: pollution, acid rain, ozone generation, carbon dioxide production with its potential for global warming, and large operations with highly radioactive fuels.

Take that, fossil fuels.

Scientific American did a good post-movie summary of helium-3 as an energy source, thus answering the first obvious question in this scenario: how possible is this. But there is another question here: who holds this monopoly on lunar extraction of critical isotopes?

Sam Bell signs out of one video transmission, “Rock and roll. God bless America,” and there are other indications that Lunar Industries is a United States-based evil, nasty corporation. Whether it is solely American, a multinational corporation, or some other for-profit coalition of investors could make a big difference in how this clean energy venture is, in this fictitious future, affecting the global strategic environment and international relationships. As Wired has reported, China, India, Russia, and Europe all have designs on setting up camp on the moon some day. As other countries have done, India stated explicitly that minerals exploration – including for uranium – was a major goal of its 2008 unmanned launch to the lunar realm. The assertion of dominance in space is obviously no longer a strategic contest between just the United States and Soviets.

One New York Times reporter wrote in July 2009 that most probably in the near future, any country establishing an outpost on the moon “will, like the International Space Station, become a combined effort of multiple nations.” Will this hold if there is potential for a single private (or government) venture to supply the entire world with clean energy? Talk about cornering the market. It remains an area ripe for competition among all developed countries, and in addition to being one of the best sci-fi flicks I’ve seen in a long time, Moon serves as a good reminder that the security concerns surrounding natural resources are not bound to Earth alone.