Wilbur Ross Talks Deregulation, “Hundreds of Feet of Solid Ice” on Moon

The interview with Ross starts out well enough, with the Commerce secretary talking about simplifying government regulations to spur commercial space developing. Then it veers off into lunar geology, which the secretary appears to have a far lesser grasp of. Vanity Fair did a bit of fact checking on his claim.

Ross said that the White House hopes to “turn the moon into a kind of gas station for outer space,” which it will do by using “the dark surfaces that you see when you look up at the moon, [which] are actually hundreds of feet of solid ice”; “break[ing] the ice down into hydrogen and oxygen,” and “us[ing] those as the fuel propellant.” The only problem? According to Dr. Kevin Peter Hickerson, nuclear physicist and Surely You’re Joking host, Ross is ostensibly talking out of his ass.

“Hundreds of feet of solid ice? That’s not even remotely true,” Hickerson told me, noting that the patches Ross referred to are actually ancient lava flows. “Yes, there is water on the moon, but it’s not pure ice, it’s about 0.1 percent of the mass and locked up in rock.” He added that, while there is ice on the moon’s poles, “and we can possibly extract water and make fuel from that . . . it’s not the cost-effective venture he’s suggesting.” Perhaps, Hickerson noted, Ross was referring to the “sci-fi fuel of the future” called Helium-3 that does exist on the moon, but that scientists haven’t figured out how to use yet. “Maybe someone mentioned that to [Ross] and he got confused,” Hickerson posited.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Wow, the US is such a third world nation with an ignorant press and leaders inferior to their task. How sad it is to read so much more sense on the comment sections of Space News, Parabolic Arc, and the others. Just listen to those guys in the video and compare them to the levels the amateurs operate at. We all disagree on a lot of things, yet just about anyone on this forum has a modicum of background knowledge as to the capabilities and limitations of the field. Spiritually they (the men in the video) lean in a good direction (in my opinion at least), but their level of brute force ignorance is staggering. I have no doubts that their ignorance carries over to other important subjects such as the nature of armed conflict and armed forces, how things are made, how things are transported. I’d love to dial in when their talking about their core competencies. I’m sure they exist, I’d just love to see them operate when they’re in a comfortable subject matter to gage how they behave when dealing with problem sets they have some experience and knowledge in. I listen to these two and shake in my boots thinking … And these are the guys sorta on my side of this issue.

  • James

    Not a 3rd world nation thats a human problem it seems. The people that get promoted up are just like the men and women at the top. They get there by doing whats popular. So they do what people do. They support and raise up people that think, act, and look like them. It’s a basic human trait.

    I have seen this all the time. The people at the top get to be those who sound like they know what they are talking about but are ignorant about the real way things are done.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Most of management in the US at some point in their climb had to interface with a production floor, or process that was closely tied to negative feedback from a process that was tied to the real world. The American concept of going to college and skipping the production floor is a huge mistake. Not having a production floor to train on is in my opinion very third world.

  • therealdmt

    This is disheartening

  • Not Invented Here

    I don’t see a big problem here, he’s the Commerce Secretary, not head of NASA. His knowledge of space is no more or less than your average Americans (or citizens of any other country), which is not a lot. He probably got a quick briefing on this, and got things mixed up, no big deal.

    Amateurs like us have more knowledge because we spent more time on it, I think it’s probably a good thing that Mr. Commerce Secretary is not spending his time on SpaceNews comment sections…

  • Cincy

    The so-called “scientist” who corrected the Secretary is more wrong than Ross is.

    I think Ross was referring not to the dark maria of the Moon (“lava flows”), but the permanently dark craters near the poles. His only mistake is an overly optimistic estimate of their thickness (more like meters to tens of meters, rather than “hundreds of feet of solid ice”).

    As for “talking out of his ass”, the amounts of water at the poles is much greater than 0.1 percent, as Hickerson has it — LCROSS indicated 5-10 wt.% at its impact site, two orders of magnitude higher than the so-called “scientific” estimate. Other locales near the poles may have even greater concentrations. And whether its extraction is “cost-effective” or not is something about which Hickerson is completely and utterly clueless. Maybe someone mentioned that to the good “scientist” and he got confused.

  • windbourne

    Makes sense in light of our situation.

  • Paul451

    I think Ross was referring not to the dark maria of the Moon (“lava flows”), but the permanently dark craters near the poles.


    Ross said: “the dark surfaces that you see when you look up at the moon, [which] are actually hundreds of feet of solid ice”

  • Jeff2Space

    I think eventually extracting water from the lunar regolith in quantity will happen. But, I don’t think it will be cheaper than just launching H2, O2, and H20 from earth anytime soon. The Apollo missions found that the lunar dust (created by millennia of impacts by meteors) is extremely abrasive due to lack of wind and water erosion. Anyone who thinks that we can just launch some “aerospace grade” lightweight processing equipment to extract this water is fooling themselves. Witness the deterioration of the aluminum wheels on the US Mars rovers. And that is on a planet that does have significant erosion.

  • DJN
  • Douglas Messier

    Read the article again. The story refers to the distribution of water on the moon. In other words, the water might not be confined to shaded areas in the polar regions.

    There’s nothing in the story about hundreds of feet of solid ice lying beneath the surface. And the article says the water might not be easily accessible.

  • Douglas Messier

    What Paul451 said.

  • Cincy

    I know what he said — I am saying that I think he misspoke. He confused the polar dark crater floors with the dark maria of the moon.

    But Hickerson, the “expert”, is as wrong as Ross is. And he has less of an excuse. But because he expresses the contempt of the expert, he is lauded.

  • Paul451

    That’s why it would be nice to have a major missions to look. Amount, composition, surface features, etc. Surely a more interesting target than yet another Mars rover?

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    …and 24 hours later those hundreds of feet of solid ice vanished in a mirage of OH – trying to think of a good anagram of idiot – how about “Wilbur Ross”.

  • windbourne

    supposedly, SX is getting ready to send a mission to the moon for putting cellular signals on it. I believe that it is at the southern, so perfect for doing this.

    But so much supposition on all of the moon’s resources, when we have just had a few steps on it and nothing of note. Worse, we are wanting to put man on the poles and yet, not a single mission has landed there.

    What a waste of time.

  • Michael Halpern

    Basically only economically useful for getting off the moon which means you need another reason to be there in the first place