By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Gov. Neil Abercrombie will sign a bill today intended to make the Big Island a center for companies and space agencies working to make the moon habitable, a feat long left to the realm of science fiction but coming closer to reality.
The legislation authorizes the creation of a research park, overseen by the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems, that will develop and test technology needed to allow people to live on the lunar surface, at least temporarily.
That includes figuring out how to make the most out of the moon’s resources, a focus of a NASA program that will return to the island next month for additional testing.
The goal of the RESOLVE program, which PISCES participates in, is to create oxygen and rocket fuel by melting moon rocks.
Previous tests in 2008 and 2010 were successful, and the tests that will occur in late July on the slopes of Mauna Kea will be its last, said John Hamilton, PISCES deputy director.
A mission to the moon with the technology would be next, possibly as early as 2014, he said.
But making such a hostile environment people friendly goes beyond creating oxygen or fuel.
Waste needs to be managed, food needs to be grown, water needs to be extracted — all of which without the reliance of supplies from Earth.
That’s where the research park comes in.
The idea is that private business and government space programs from all nations can work there together to develop and test the space age technology needed to colonize the moon.
“We have the opportunity to establish the premier surface system testing site in the world,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton and Christian Andersen, PISCES operations manager, said the island is the perfect testing ground because it is made of the same material as the moon, basalt rock, and is conveniently located between most of the world’s space-faring nations.
Dan Rasky, a senior NASA scientist, agreed.
“It has a very lunar like terrain,” he said.
Rasky said NASA will be involved with the research park, but it remains to be seen whether it will have an office there.
The research park will also take advantage of the expanding private space industry.
Rasky, who is also the director of NASA’s emerging commercial space office, said that is key, noting that private-public partnerships is the space agency’s “new mode of operation.”
“NASA is in a transitionary period at this time,” he said, later adding, that it needs to “find ways to make its money go further.”
When humans return to the moon, it will likely be done with a private rocket.
Companies are already competing to send a robot to the moon in 2015 to win $30 million in prizes through Google’s Lunar X program.
Additionally, SpaceX, which recently successfully docked a rocket with the International Space Station, also anticipates having a rocket capable of carrying large payloads to the moon by 2017, Rasky said.
“Once you can get significant payloads on the lunar surface … then you can be looking seriously at the first robotic capabilities on the moon in those time frames,” he said.
Optimistically, Rasky said, people could be making long trips on the lunar surface within two to five years after that.
Hamilton said PISCES hopes to begin signing contracts with companies and space agencies in August to locate at the research park, possibly to be established at the W.H. Shipman Industrial Park outside Hilo.
For that to happen, PISCES will need to set up a board of directors, as required by the bill.
It is currently ran through the University of Hawaii at Hilo but will be transferred to the state Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism.
PISCES will also have its own director.
Hamilton and Andersen said they expect plenty of partners, noting that the idea for the research park came from participants at PISCES’ conference in November.
The state will initially fund the research park with $1.9 million in general obligation bonds for capital improvements and $500,000 for a year’s worth of operating costs.
Hamilton has said the goal is to be self-sustaining afterward.
Andersen said the research park will be a boon for Hilo in terms of jobs, adding that PISCES wants to be able to train as many local workers as possible to fill them.
Additionally, the PISCES administrators said the technology developed at the research park, which will have to be 100 percent renewable, could also have applications on Earth.
“In space, you have to use everything,” Hamilton said.
“In a way, we are thinking we are going to make what we are doing here better,” he added.
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.