A return to the moon for NASA may be a distant goal as the organization works to find a replacement for the Space Shuttle orbiter. But some scientists and investors see private space flight as both a path to the moon and a way to alleviate energy concerns at home.
Gerald Kulcinski, a nuclear engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin, explained to CNN that there is an abundance of a rare isotope of helium on the moon -- one which could provide fuel for nuclear power plants on earth. There is only a 30 kilogram supply of helium-3 on earth, and it costs $7,000 per gram. Kulcinski says that there are around one million tons of the element on the moon and scientists know where to find it. According to Wired in 2006, scientists have tested nuclear fusion using helium-3 on a small scale, but “experts say commercial-sized fusion reactors are at least 50 years away.”
According to the Newsy video, others envision the construction of lunar solar panels to meet the world's energy needs. ABC News reports that a Japanese group has received more attention for its lunar solar ring plan in the time since the March 11 disaster that damaged the Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant and sparked debates about the future of Japan's nuclear policy. However, even with funding, the corporation claims it could not begin construction for at least 20 years.
With ambitious plans like these gaining more attention, others see profits in lunar transportation and mining equipment. In the video, Moon Express co-founder Barney Pell explains that the moon is “very, very rich in resources,” including platinum. His company is building an unmanned lunar lander that may one day deliver robotic mining equipment to the lunar surface. CNET reports that a ride on Pell's lander will cost between $10 and $20 million. The Huffington Post's Saki Knafo and AJ Barbosa report that in addition to Moon Express, several other private companies are also working on developing spacecraft.
With the first successful orbit and recovery of a privately-owned spacecraft last December, and NASA's goal of privatizing spaceflight, the end of the Shuttle era doesn't necessarily spell the end for U.S. space exploration... but this time, it's less based on curiosity, and more on our energy addiction.