At his fascinating Beyond Apollo blog at Wired, David S.F. Portree notes how in the 1980s, Cold War America began to consider the defense applications of the Moon and near-Earth asteroids.
In February 1977, James Arnold, a UCSD chemistry professor, had spoken with NASA Administrator Fletcher about making the exploitation of near-Earth space resources a major new focus for NASA. He subsequently summed up his thoughts in a detailed two-page letter to Fletcher. Three years later, Arnold became the first director of Calspace, which had its origins in California Governor Jerry Brown’s enthusiasm for technological development in his state.
Arnold’s deputy in 1983-1984, planetary scientist Stewart Nozette, organized the La Jolla workshop, which brought together 36 prominent scientists and engineers from aerospace companies, national laboratories, NASA centers, the Department of Defense, and defense think-tanks to weigh in on SDI’s potential use of moon and asteroid resources. Nozette also edited the workshop report, which Arnold submitted to Fletcher on 18 August 1983. A revised version of the workshop report was completed on 31 October 1983; this post is based upon the latter version.
In the late 1970s, NASA, aerospace companies, and universities expended a great deal of time and effort on planning large structures – for example, Solar Power Satellites – that would be assembled in space. Some of these plans relied on space resources. In the cover letter to the La Jolla workshop report, Nozette explained that these studies, though conducted “in an unfocused and low priority vein,” had laid the groundwork for SDI exploitation of moon and asteroid resources. The La Jolla workshop was, he added, the first to consider the defense implications of the 1970s concepts.
At the time of the La Jolla workshop, relatively little was known of near-Earth space resources. Five Lunar Orbiter spacecraft had imaged much of the moon at modest resolution and selected portions of it – most corresponding to potential Apollo landing sites – at higher resolution. NASA had landed Apollo astronauts at six sites between 1969 and 1972 and scientists had analyzed many of the more than 2400 geologic samples they collected. In addition, Apollo astronauts had surveyed the moon from lunar orbit using remote sensors. These provided low-resolution data on the composition of perhaps 10% of the lunar surface.
Scientists had hypothesized since 1961 that permanently shadowed craters at the lunar poles might contain ice deposited by comet impacts. The lunar poles, far from the “Apollo Zone” – the near-equatorial region where orbital mechanics dictated the Apollo Lunar Modules could land – nevertheless remained unexplored.