Mining on the moon? That's sheer lunacy
When it comes to space, costs are in a different orbit, but China can't admit its grand dreams are more about national vanity than economics
Early yesterday morning China launched its latest venture into space: a Long March rocket carrying a lunar-lander complete with a robotic moon buggy known as Yutu or Jade Rabbit.
If the landing and the rover's deployment go as planned, the technological achievement will be considerable. Following last year's successful docking of a crewed vessel with an orbiting laboratory, China's latest launch places it firmly in the front rank of current space exploration, and prepares the ground for a planned manned moon mission some time within the next 10 years.
Less clear is the purpose of all this activity. Enthusiasts for China's space programme have waxed lyrical about the vast wealth to be generated mining rare and valuable elements on the moon. But even the most ardent exponent of extra-planetary mineral exploitation must realise the idea is lunacy.
Everything to do with space exploration is excruciatingly expensive. Even getting stuff to low earth orbit, a couple of hundred kilometres up, costs more than US$20,000 a kilogram. Going higher costs considerably more.
By the time you've flown something to the height of GPS satellites, 20,000 kilometres up, it is quite literally worth more than its weight in gold. And the moon is 380,000 kilometres away.
Whatever the science fiction fantasists believe, flying heavy mining equipment to the moon isn't feasible. Neither is bringing minerals back.
The United States' Apollo moon-landing programme of the 1960s and 1970s cost US$20.4 billion in the dollars of the day. In today's money that equates to around US$120 billion, or around US$20 billion for each manned landing.
In total, the Apollo missions returned just under 382 kilograms of moon rock to the earth. That means each one ounce lump of lunar rock cost US$9.78 million: 7,900 times as expensive as gold at today's elevated price.
True, bringing back moon rock was not the main purpose of the Apollo programme. And granted, China's lunar programme is considerably cheaper than America's in real terms. Even so, the economics of moon-mining will never make sense.
The cost of Beijing's space programme is shrouded in secrecy. Spokespeople have mentioned a figure of 40 billion yuan (US$6.6 billion) up to last year. But even though China has gone into space on the cheap by employing technologies originally developed by the US and the Soviet Union, and even though a dollar spent in China buys a lot more than a dollar spent internationally, that figure is certainly an understatement.
Even without a manned space programme, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or Nasa, plans to spend US$4 billion on space flight this year alone, with a further US$9 billion invested in technological development and scientific research.
But even if China is indeed going into space at the bargain basement prices officials claim, moon-mining still won't make economic sense.
The moon's crust is made largely of basalt, which is unrewarding stuff. Very hard and dense, basalt is the principal ingredient of the earth's oceanic crust, and exists in abundance on the earth's continents. Alas, it contains no minerals of significant economic value.
The rock which makes up the moon's highlands is marginally more interesting. It contains lots of titanium, for example. But titanium is plentiful on earth. The only possible reason anyone would want to mine titanium on the moon would be to build a spaceship in low gravity in order to fly somewhere else, and that's not going to be a feasible proposition at any time within the foreseeable future.
So if they were to be honest, China's space scientists and bureaucrats would admit the real driver of their space programme is national vanity, just as it was for the US and the Soviet Union. Their talk of mining the moon is lunacy.