MAD in Space


MAD in Space


The concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) poses the greatest threat to the development of permanent human settlement on the Moon. This is so because Space is the ultimate high ground and any settlement / base on the Moon would first and foremost be a military installation. As a result, “Mutually Assured Destruction In Space” (MADIS) and the principle of asset denial will shape America’s, China’s and other advisories' and allies' strategic approach to developing the Moon and other celestial bodies for permanent human occupancy. Why this is the case is simple. While in-Space activities may take place in vacuum, they do not take place in a vacuum from a Nation’s economic, political or strategic objectives in the 5th Industrial Revolution. And in the 5th Industrial Revolution that is the Space Economy, one cannot be a Global Power if they are not a Space Power.

Introduction - The $3.7 Trillion Dollar Moon Base

In a recent conversation MilkyWayEconomy (MWE) was asked to justify its estimates for how much a 1000 person Moon base would cost. MWE put the lower end of the estimate for a 1000 person Moon base to be $3.7 Trillion US Dollars. Our initial cost assumptions are based on the program cost to build a Gerald A Ford Class nuclear aircraft carrier; which cost ~$37B US Dollars. As when one thinks about it a Moon base is really no different than a nuclear powered submarine or aircraft carrier. We opted not to go the nuclear power submarine route, as while practical and already basically designed to be air and “vacuum” tight, emotionally who in the Navy (Yes, Navy, not Space Force. But that's a conversation for later) would want to be locked into a, slightly larger than a 20x sized school bus, tin can for an 18 month or more tour of duty?

A note about 18 Month Space Tours of Duty - The late Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov logged 437 continuous days (14 months) in orbit aboard Russia's Mir space station between 1994 and 1995. This is currently the longest time a human has been in Space. Part of crunching the numbers for how much a Moon base costs to build, staff and maintain was determining how long each construction worker, maintenance tech, HVAC guy/gal and/or Guardian would be on base. This includes 3D printers and those who maintain them. In order to maximize the return on investment per dollar, per launch and other operational costs, the duration of an ideal Moon tour of duty should be 18 months. Granted after the initial 18 months, the Service Man / Woman or Contractor may never do another active duty Space tour for a variety of physical, mental, emotional, morale and cultural reasons. And yes, the duration of a Moon base tour of duty could be less than 18 months. However, that substantially alters (increases) the sunk cost of construction, maintenance and staffing of a Moon base.

Another major factor influencing the costs of constructing a Moon base isn’t just the lack of construction infrastructure in orbit or on the Moon. Even if one were to build a “shipyard” in orbit, then the question arises of, “Where do the raw materials to build come from?”. Getting an aircraft carrier’s worth of building materials into orbit, even if SpaceX’s Starship was available, would increase the costs exponentially. The next best option then is to build on the lunar surface, leveraging regolith (Moon dirt) as the basic building material for lunar construction. This approach also requires a series of technologies and equipment (think 3D printing that can operate in the temperature extremes of the Moon) to be discovered, engineered, tested and deployed.

Regardless of the above considerations, the real factor influencing the costs of constructing a Moon base isn’t the aforementioned technology and building science hurdles, but something far more difficult. Inflation. Even if fully funded with $3.7 Trillion Dollars, a 1000 person lunar base would take two plus decades to design and build (Note: there is no EPA on the Moon (yet) so that saves a decade or two of costs and expenses). During which time, inflation could vary from 8% to (perhaps) as high as 15%, per annum. Meaning by the time the project concluded in its 20th year, the actual costs of building a Moon base would have risen 160% to 300%. And we all know government contracts always come in years ahead of schedule and under the budget.

Drop A Rock On It

Inflation aside, the real driver of cost for a lunar base would be that of starting over from scratch. Why would we have to start over from scratch? Simple. Some adversary would definitely drop a rock on it.

Yes, it might not be a literal rock (though we shouldn’t rule that out). More likely a guide missile or an orbot™ equipped with a good ole fashion gatling gun or an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter's M230 chain gun.

DYK: (Courtesy of Jason Premo) The M230 Chain Gun is the "Area Weapon System" on the Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopter uses a 2 hp electric motor to fire 30 mm linkless ammunition at a rate of ~600 rounds per minute, with a 1200 round capacity. Giving the gunner ~ 2 minutes of continuous fire power. The Apache's M230 chain gun fires 30mm rounds at about 805 m/s. Kinetic energy (KE) is given by the formula KE = 0.5 * m * v^2, where 'm' is mass and 'v' is velocity. For these calculations, we will assume an average round mass of 0.395 kg (based on data about a typical M789 round). Plugging in these numbers, we get: KE = 0.5 * 0.395 kg * (805 m/s)^2 = 127,513 Joules. This is roughly equivalent to the energy of a 1-ton car moving at 24 m/s (approx 86.4 km/h)... but contained in something as big as your hand.

Now, what about the force experienced on the target? The force the target experiences is: F = 0.395 kg * -805,000 m/s² = -318,475 Newtons. That's the equivalent of the weight of about 32.5 metric tonnes (32,500 kilograms) but concentrated in an area slightly bigger than a quarter.

⚠️ Nerd Nit-Picky Disclaimer: Please note that Jason’s calculations are highly simplified and do not account for a variety of real-world factors, such as air resistance, the non-instantaneous transfer of momentum, material deformations, and other factors when firing on Earth, in 1G atmosphere. And they definitely do not account for firing in orbit, on a target on the lunar surface, from a platform that has to account for Newton's third law of motion. Nor does it take into account that with 1/6th the gravity of Earth, the “effective” range of a M230 Chain Gun (made of Rhenium-Tungsten alloy, firing rounds constructed of Hafnium, Tantalum and Carbon alloy for Space) could easily be 11,000 yards (6 miles) or more on the lunar surface. But you should follow him on LinkedIn for more cool nerd facts.

Under the auspices of asset denial MilkyWayEconomy can see a future where, when a Moon base is 80% to 90% completed, an adversary decides to strategically drop a proverbial rock on it. Granted that “rock” may just be 1200+ rounds from an M230 Chain Gun, which even if only impacting the lunar structure at 1/10th the force and power of a terrestrial based target (~3.25 metric tonnes of force, per quarter sized area of surface) would probably cause explosive decompression and plenty of collateral damage. Even at the reduced impact force, the political, psychological and moral cost of such a rock throwing attack would serve to set back the settlement by decades; while dramatically increasing the costs.

Mutually Assured Destruction In Space (MADIS)

Beyond calculating the simple dollar figure of building humanity’s third Space outpost (#1 ISS, #2 China’s Tiangong space station) and first Moon base, how do we account for the madness of MADIS? This accounting is where the economics of Space get a little nuanced. To that end, here are the three questions that should be considered when framing up the economic framework for planning Moon bases:

  • If China beat the US to the Moon, would Space Doctrine permit the USA to allow China to build a functioning lunar base?
  • Is China winning the Space Race 2.0?
  • What if a “frenemy”, such as India, is first to establish a moon base?

Yes, with a price tag of $3.7T it does seem far-fetched to postulate that India (or some other emerging Space faring country like Nigeria, Kenya or Tanzania) could marshall the resources to establish a base on the Moon. However, in the case of India in particular, over the next decade India could theoretically reach the Moon and construct a 50 person lunar base for about as much as it cost for SpaceX to “successfully” launch one Starship.


At the end of the day MADIS is really an insurance question. As the question is, “What is the replacement cost of a Moon base?” Being that Space Force is self-insured by Taxpayers, the next question is, “Given the theory of MADIS, how does Space Force sell a $6T Moon base to taxpayers already struggling with the rising costs of rent, milk, eggs, health insurance and daycare?” Stay tuned, as MilkyWayEconomy calculates the social costs and probability of that outcome.



About the Authors

George S. Pullen and Samson Williams are founders of Milky Way Economy, a Washington, DC based think tank who specialize in understanding the economic foundations of the Fifth Industrial Revolution and the Space Economy. In addition to writing, researching and being investors in 5th Industrial Revolution companies, Samson and George are adjunct professors at the University of New Hampshire School of Law and instructors at Columbia University in NYC. Additionally, George is a Marine (former) and guest lecturer at the National Defense University.