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News / Brèves

Far-sighted Team Combined Fusion Power and Mining the Moon: Harrison Schmitt and Gerry Kulcinski

13 August 2014

(LPAC)—The Chinese program for the exploration and development of the Moon is closely tied to, and in significant part motivated by, the goal of mining the lunar surface for the rare isotope of helium-3, known to be an exceptional fuel for fusion power. This effort by China will be successful, because both projects—to secure the helium-3 fuel on the Moon, and to develop the fusion technology to realize its potential—are being pursued in tandem, as priority national programs. It was when space exploration and fusion energy research came together in the U.S., that the first proposals for mining helium on the Moon to power the Earth were made.

Early in the research in controlled thermonuclear fusion, scientists knew that the deuterium-helium-3 fusion reaction, producing charged particles rather than neutrons, would be superior, although harder to obtain, than the deuterium-tritium reaction then being used in experiments. To consider going to more advanced fusion fuels, Dr. Gerald Kulcinski, at the University of Wisconsin, convened a seminar in 1986 with colleagues to consider the options. One team member recalled that lunar samples returned by the Apollo astronauts and unmanned Soviet Luna landers, contained small amounts of the helium-3, so rare on Earth. Detailed examination of the samples concluded that more than a million tons of this potential fusion fuel lay on or near the surface of the Moon.

In 1986, the Kulcinski team began presenting papers at conferences to bring this proposal for lunar mining to the scientific community. In July 1987, EIR published its first article on mining helium-3 on the Moon, drawn largely from the Kulcinski group’s research. In 1989, the elder President Bush, on the 20th anniversary of the first lunar landing, announced a space exploration initiative, to go back to the Moon. This presented an opportunity to propose the lunar helium-3/fusion project to the space community. The Summer 1990 issue of 21st Century includes a cover story on "Mining the Moon to Power the Earth."

The Bush initiative was short-lived, however, as the Congress refused to fund a decades-long program, with a "price tag" that dwarfed Apollo. Meanwhile, Apollo 17 astronaut, and geologist, Harrison Schmitt, had been elected to the Senate in 1976, but six years later, due to a dirty tricks campaign, lost his reelection. In 1994, Schmitt was appointed an adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin, bringing together the perfect team—a lunar geologist and space explorer, and a team of fusion scientists.

The early 2004 announcement by Bush the younger of the Constellation program, to return to the Moon, "this time to stay," once again presented the opportunity for the Kulcinski/Schmitt team for conference presentations, media interviews, newspaper op-eds, and other high-profile coverage. These included a one-hour BBC documentary on the project, during which Kulcinski proposes that the Moon could be "the Persian Gulf of the 21st century," and Schmitt noted that while the mining of lunar helium-3 is "tough to do," in 15 years, we could "mine and bring back helium-3 and use it in fusion" power plants. Also in 2004, the father of China’s lunar program, Ouyang Ziyuan, laid out more detail of that country’s three-phase lunar exploration program. This spurred lunar exploration plans in Russia, Europe, India, and Japan to match the Chinese commitment.

In 2006, Harrison Schmitt published, "Return to the Moon" Exploration, Enterprise, and Energy in the Human Settlement of Space" (see Fall-Winter 2006 21st Century), which reiterated and added detail to the fusion/helium-3 initiative. Until President Obama’s cancellation of the Constellation program in 2010, returning to the Moon was the near-term goal of the United States.

Since China’s successful landing of Chang’e-3’s Yutu rover last December, again there is an opportunity to bring the U.S. space and fusion programs back to the future.

Marsha Freeman