As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the first moon landing, it is clear that humans have pulled back from space exploration and from science in general. NASA’s budget has steadily declined, dedicated scientists politically suppressed and much of the space program has calcified into a jobs program.
What can be done?
Toys! Theme parks!
There is a lot of interest these days in sending swarms of small robots to the moon. Perhaps inspired by ubiquitous remote piloted drones, why not remote operate a moon rover? And why can’t anybody drive one, with a game controller?
The Lunatix company is proposing to sell moon-rover-driving as a game. Earth bound computer games would be linked to the lander, and could purchase driving time. Kind of like consumer drones, except on the moon .
The lander might have a small science payload, but mainly it is dedicated to the commercial use. (There would be merchandise and other associated sales, as well.)
This seems relatively straightforward technically. There are some tricky bits, such as linking a consumer via the Internet to an uplink to the moon. Safely linking. Securely linking. (Hint: space communications are expensive and rare, and generally not connected to the public.)
I have no idea about the commercial case. Space projects are obscenely expensive, but getting cheaper. At something like 25 Euros per minute, it seems to me that driving time would be pretty damn expensive, at least for peasants like me. But who knows? My intuitions about business plans are often wrong.
Evan Ackerman points out that this purely commercial project raises legal questions. The moon is more or less under the jurisdiction of the United Nations, as defined by treaties among nations. There seems to be no specific framework for commercial exploitation of the moon, though there will surely need to be one soon.
Aside from the equity issues about sucking money out of the lunar commons (the moon is the common heritage of all human kind), there may be environmental and other regulatory issues.
I note that a company slogan is “Leave Your Mark on the Moon!” The users will leave behind tracks, indelible tracks, visible from Earth. This will surely have consequences.
How happy are we going to be when the moon is covered with tread marks? Do you want to see rude graffiti defacing the surface? How will we feel about a giant cola ad written in the dust? How will Earthly strongmen react to uncensored political messages, indelibly written on the moon?
The company proposal seems to wave its hands at the legal problems and doesn’t even list any legal issues under “Risks”. That may be optimistic.
In the end, it is quite possible that money will talk. As Ackerman puts it, despite his own misgivings, “If this is the best way to get robots to the moon, then so be it”.
“While there’s a small section in the Lunatix executive summary on “Legal Framework,” there are few specifics about whether or not the United Nations would approve something like this. Lunatix seems to suggest that its use case is covered under “the common interest of all mankind in the progress of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes,” but I’m not so sure. It may be that no framework exists yet (either for or against), and my gut reaction that commercializing the moon in this way somehow cheapens it is probably just me being old and grumpy. If this is the best way to get robots to the moon, then so be it.” (From Ackerman )
I have my doubts about this concept. We’ll see.
But the general idea that some kind of entertainment business might be one of the earliest commercial successes for space seems to be plausible. Many important technologies started out as entertainment, or were driven by markets for entertainment .
For example, the Internet was designed for military and scientific applications, but the earliest commercial successes were music theft, games, and pornography, which drove markets for servers, GPUs and broadband, among other things. Today’s cord cutters are simply taking advantage of the second and third generation of these technologies. And, just as the Internet has never been comfortable with the fact that it is a great mechanism for delivering pornography, space entertainment may not turn out quite as imagined.
- Evan Ackerman, How Much Would You Pay to Drive a Jumping Robot on the Moon?, in IEEE Spectrum – Automation. 2017. http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/space-robots/how-much-would-you-pay-to-drive-a-jumping-robot-on-the-moon
- Steven Johnson, Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, New York, Riverhead Books, 2016.
- Space Tech, Luniatix. Graz University of Technology Institute of Communication Networks and Satellite Communications, 2017. https://www.tugraz.at/fileadmin/user_upload/tugrazInternal/Studium/Studienangebot/Universitaere_Weiterbildung/SpaceTech/Fallstudienprojekt_ST14.pdf