Former Apollo Astronaut and Senator Says Mining Helium on the Moon Could Solve The Global Energy Crisis

Back to the Moon?

Apollo 11. Former Apollo astronaut Harrison Schmitt thinks we should go back to the moon, this time to tap its reserves of helium-3.NASA

Former astronaut, Apollo moonwalker, geologist and former Senator Harrison Schmitt has a modest plan to solve the world's energy problems. All we need is $15 billion over 15 years and some fusion reactors that have yet to be invented. And we'll need a moon base.

Schmitt's idea isn't novel--he thinks the U.S. should go back to the moon, this time to mine the surface for helium-3, an isotope of helium that is rare on earth but relatively bountiful on the moon. The Russians have been talking about mining helium-3 from the moon for years, but they've never put forth a viable plan. Schmitt thinks his, all things considered, is pretty realistic.

So how does Schmitt's plan break down? We'll need $5 billion for a helium-3 fusion demonstration plant, because as of right now no such thing exists. We'll also need to invest $5 billion more in a heavy-lift rocket capable of launching regular moon missions, something akin to the Apollo-era Saturn V.

A moon base for mining the stuff would cost another $2.5 billion, and though Schmitt didn't really specify in his recent presentation to a petroleum conference, the other $2.5 billion could easily be chalked up to operating costs in an endeavor of this magnitude.

But it could pay for itself while developing critical spaceflight technologies and enabling a mission to Mars. Schmitt says a two-square-kilometer swath of lunar surface mined to a depth of roughly 10 feet would yield about 220 pounds of helium-3. That's enough to run a 1,000-megawatt reactor for a year, or $140 million in energy based on today's coal prices. Scale that up to several reactors, and you've got a moneymaking operation.

Why go to all this trouble? Helium-3 is abundant on the moon and produces little to no radioactive waste that must be cleaned up and stored. The reaction necessary would burn at a much hotter temperature than other fusion reactions, but the chance of environmental disaster via radioactive spill is virtually nil. Plus we would establish a permanent presence on the moon.

Throw in another $5 billion, and we might even be able to populate said moon base with a clone work force and some soothing, Kevin Spacey-esque AI.