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In the 1960s we were disappointed to find that the moon is a pile of dust and rubble with no easily accessible valuable materials. Well, we kind of knew it before that, but we weren't sure. Anyway, this is why no one has gone back in 45 years or so.

I am wondering if the following scenario would be plausible, in the hypothesis we had actually found that the moon is made of something valuable, say gold:

  1. Accelerated exploration of the moon, with the purpose of accessing the valuable resource. (Problem: Would it have been feasible to profitably transport significant quantities valuable material such as gold from the moon to down to earth with 1960s/1970s technology? If not, would it have become feasible in the subsequent decades?)
  2. Collapse of the price of the resource on earth with (or in anticipation of) the first shipments with the resulting economic mayhem.
  3. Destabilization of the earth-moon system by shifting a significant amount of mass from the moon to the earth. (Problem: I suspect the mass transported would be negligible in any plausible scenario.)
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    $\begingroup$ There's actually an asteroid named 16 Psyche worth silly amounts of dollars due to its previous metal content, Nasa is sending a probe due to arrive in 2023 to investigate it en.wikipedia.org/wiki/16_Psyche, several other asteroids with world economy crashing compositions are known $\endgroup$ – Tom J Nowell Nov 9 at 2:55
  • $\begingroup$ @TomJNowell It only has a previous metal content after it's been mined. $\endgroup$ – CJ Dennis Nov 9 at 5:29
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    $\begingroup$ The reason we didn't go back to the Moon was not economic or the lack of valuable minerals, but that the political & military advantages of going to the Moon had pasted. The race to the Moon was about proving which political system had the technological, therefore, military, superiority. USA 1, USSR nil. Race over. $\endgroup$ – a4android Nov 9 at 7:51
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    $\begingroup$ I will go on a limb and say "Idiots thinking that they can get to it without the necessary technical knowledge and launching things in the air that come down upon you" $\endgroup$ – SJuan76 Nov 9 at 18:37
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Let's make a quick profitability analysis.

How much rock did the astronauts bring back from the Moon?

Between 1969 and 1972 six Apollo missions brought back 382 kilograms (842 pounds) of lunar rocks, core samples, pebbles, sand and dust from the lunar surface.

How much did the Apollo program cost?

The Apollo Program cost roughly 25.4 billion dollars, unadjusted. That makes the total Apollo Program cost 163 billion dollars inflation adjusted to 2008.

That means that those stones should be sold at 426 million dollars per kg just to break even with the costs. That would make it 426 thousand dollars per gram!

Gold costs much less than that. As I write this answer it costs 47 dollars per gram, even the research organic materials I used during my PhD for making OLEDs cost a mere 3 thousand dollars per gram.

There is no risk of collapsing the economy with any resource you bring back from the Moon because you will go bankrupt before even making a dent in the economy itself! Even if you reduce the costs of moon missions by a factor of 1000, it will still be uneconomical!

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  • $\begingroup$ And if there is a material that costs $500,000 per gram, human economy can't be using much of it, so a single trip bringing a few pounds from the moon would meet humankind's need for many years $\endgroup$ – Bald Bear Nov 8 at 16:43
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    $\begingroup$ You're assuming missions costs of moving the launch vehicle back and forth. That's not how mining would happen. We'd build a base, and shoot materials back at earth. Upfront costs would be high, but once constructed, practically free to move materials. Coasting is free. Catching it is the hard part. $\endgroup$ – Stephan Nov 8 at 20:19
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    $\begingroup$ Helium-3 is 40,000 dollars per ounce, gold is 1.5k. It's been 60y since 1960; nearly all of the moon's H3 is still there.... $\endgroup$ – Mazura Nov 8 at 22:08
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    $\begingroup$ I disagree with this answer. There's no reason to assume that space transport would remain exactly as efficient as the first time we ever tried to do it. It's like predicting that Bitcoin will fail because the IBM punched-card computers made in 1935 would use too much expensive electricity in the Bitcoin-mining calculations. We found that computers were valuable, so we made them more efficient. If we saw value in the moon, moon transport would gradually but surely become much, much more efficient. Eventually, unmanned flights of mostly cargo would be the norm. $\endgroup$ – cowlinator Nov 9 at 3:16
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    $\begingroup$ While I agree that the cost of importing minerals from the Moon would prohibitive, your economic analysis isn't entirely sound. You added the whole Apollo Project into the costing. This would be written off as a cost to the taxpayer. Effectively the cost should be per mission retrieving lunar material. It's still prohibitive. I concede my sketch analysis is only slight improvement over yours. It's only indicative that a more thorough economic analysis is really needed. Any cursory analysis shows it's unprofitable; that remains firmly unchanged. $\endgroup$ – a4android Nov 9 at 7:59
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Would it have been feasible to profitably transport significant quantities valuable material such as gold from the moon to down to earth with 1960s/1970s technology? If not, would it have become feasible in the subsequent decades?

Maybe. Gerard O'Neill (originator of the now-classic cylindrical space habitat design) proposed setting up a mass driver on the moon in order to provide enough material for his proposed giant lagrange point habitats which would have massed millions or billions of tonnes.

Quite how plausible the mass drive was in the 70s I'm not sure, but it wasn't entirely implausible. The problems of constructing and operating industry on the moon, on the other hand, may actually be insurmountable... moon dust is an absolute killer for mechanisms, seals and people.

You'd need to attach a rocket and guidance system to every payload the mass driver launches in order to inject it into a suitable return orbit, which may also require heat shielding if it is a direct-return-to-earth's-surface trajectory. That also raises some safety concerns, but hey! It was the 70s, people were more relaxed back then.

Collapse of the price of the resource on earth with (or in anticipation of) the first shipments with the resulting economic mayhem.

Maybe? The initial investment would have been substantially greater than the Apollo program. Unless the minerals were super valuable, useful and easy to acquire and return it would take a looooong time to recoup that upfront cost.

There's some scope for the operator to stockpile minerals at the moon side awaiting a favourable market, of course, depending on whether they can maintain a sufficient revenue stream to keep the operation running in the meantime.

Really though, I can't actually think of anything that would be worth mining, refining and sending back to earth. Gold would be singularly pointless... if it were found in sufficient volume to justify what might be a trillion-dollar operation, it would devalue existing gold stockpiles and gold just isn't useful enough for there to be a use for the surplus. Back in the 70s, I don't think there was anything that appeared to be scarce other than oil, and you won't find that on the moon. The only justification for O'Neill's mass driver operation was to construct space habitats, to further support human expansion into space... something also of dubious economic value, alas.

In Heinlein's novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, the inhabitants of the moon are effectively farmers (and support workers) and ship food back to an overpopulated Earth via a mass driver. Also dubious, but would at least be subject to a different set of economic pressures.

With a mature space presence, it might be worthwhile using materials mined on the moon to construct, fuel and power space-based infrastructure (eg. solar powersats which would have direct economic benefits for Earth. Still a very long shot, though.

Destabilization of the earth-moon system by shifting a significant amount of mass from the moon to the earth.

Haha, no. The moon weighs over 7x1022kg. If you could somehow ship a billion tonnes a year, even after a thousand years you'll have only removed less than a millionth of the moon's mass.

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  1. No it would not have been economic to export gold from the Moon in the 1960’s and 70’s on purely economic grounds. It might have become feasible in later decades but it is very hard to say because the primary reason for going to the Moon was political not economic and the financial risk would be huge. Gold is a very volatile currency and plans to make a profit at one level could easily be swamped by market sentiment swinging the gold price in the wrong direction at a bad time.
  2. The price of gold has always been very volatile (at least since the end of the gold standard) a few tons would not make much difference as ~3000tons is mined every year. What would matter is what people think might happen so the gold market might go down but I doubt there would be economic mayhem, although things might get worse in later years. NASA’s SLS and all the rest still pose no real problem, but When SpaceX’s Starship starts flying on a regular basis it would pose a serious risk to gold prices due to its anticipated very low cost and 50 ton landing capability.
  3. There is not the slightest chance that any human activity on the Moon in the foreseeable future would have any measurable effect on a body such as the Moon.

One other key point: I assume that the gold is just lying on the moon in smallish ingots waiting to be scooped up. If any sort of mining or refining is involved the all bets are off for a few decades at least and perhaps indefinitely depending on difficulty level.

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As other excellent answers said, there is no economic sense to move much material from moon to earth b/c the costs are astronomically high, and most of moon is made from stuff already available on Earth.

Even if moon has some kind of unobtanium that is worth shipping to Earth, it will be a tiny fraction of moon's mass, and will probably have no substitute on earth's surface.

I would like to propose an alternative scenario: using minerals and materials from Jupiter's moons to build flying cloud cities on Jupiter itself (if you need an economic reason for that, let's assume Jupiter has sentient lifeforms that are willing to teach us their advanced science)

Jupiter's upper atmosphere has no solid matter, so you need material to build human habitats. Getting stuff from Jupiter's moons will be cheaper than shipping it from Earth or Mars or asteroids. Cheapest way to get stuff from moon to Jupiter will be some kind of catapult or railgun (no need for fuel or oxidizer).

And I believe that short-sighted/cost-minimizing method of mining and launching will have catastrophic consequences in the long term. Railgun will alter moon's rotation. Single launch site is cheaper than several, single fixed direction of launch is again cheaper, and for a railgun, that direction will be along the surface (to support the lengthy rail). So "recoil" from each launch will spin the moon in opposite direction. Changes to spin will lead to increases tectonic activity. To avoid this, you would need two railguns on opposite sides of the moon, launching matching masses of stuff.

If you can launch straight up, you will always launch in direction opposite of moon's orbit, so you will increase speed of the moon relative to Jupiter, so moon's orbit will widen, and it will eventually fly off into space.

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It would not have been profitable for the reasons listed--but the valuable part is that people would keep trying. You would have had hundreds of companies trying to do what SpaceX is just now doing--but decades ago. Just the thought of all that gold would have driven people nuts. We'd probably be decades ahead in certain parts of our space program simply because there was gold to be had.

The value of gold is it's rarity though and if they had brought back enough volume they could effect that--at some point countries would just stop trading in gold and start using something else... Even now the value of gold as a currency backing commodity is questionable--it's only real value in backing currency is rarity and we can interduce an artificial rarity though digital means so gold may already be completely unnecessary.

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