Heinlein's The Man Who Sold the Moon "lunar diamonds?"

I was just reminiscing how much I enjoyed reading that as a young teenaged boy. But when I remembered the part where the tycoon gets a bag of diamonds fron the astronaut who made the inaugural trip, I had to pull up short.

In 1949 (the year Heinlein wrote the novella), shouldn’t he have known better than to suggest that carbon could be found in abundance on the moon?

I was going to say that the diamonds were sent to the Moon by Harriman, so he could later try to sneak them out, and get “caught” by the press - thus effectively leaking a story about “diamonds on the Moon!” - but you’re right, the astronaut then brings out the real jewels he found on the Moon. I’m not sure what was known about the Moon’s composition in the late 1940s though.

I am having a little trouble finding a good figure, but the Moon’s albedo is about .12, which (IIRC) is not out of range for graphite particles of a given grain size. So it was not out of the question that the visible surface of the Moon was covered in carbon.

Why wouldn’t there be carbon on the Moon? There’s carbon everywhere.

Would it be in the form of diamonds? Eh, probably not: There’s no known mechanism to form them on the Moon. But there could still be some unknown mechanism.

They don’t necessarily have to have been formed*in situ*

Now or in the past. I believe there were volcanoes on the Moon, once, long ago, so perhaps the conditions for diamond-formation existed too.

No, the truly implausible thing about that Heinlein story is that diamonds are not nearly valuable enough to make a moonshot profitable. Of course, this was the '50s, when it still appeared at least conceivable that a successful moonshot could be cheap enough to be a private-sector project.

I can’t pull out specific examples from my sieve of a mind, but the notion that the Moon (or the asteroids or the rest of the Solar System) was full of stuff worth mining was endemic in SF well into the 1950s. Wait, here’s one. Clifford Simak’s Empire casually mentions the fact that oil was easily available on all the outer planets.

If a couple of boy scouts can slap a new coat of paint and hotrod the engine on a surplus mail rocket and head for the moon, then all sorts of things would be economical to mine on the moon. If it’s really cheap to reach the moon, and really cheap to scoop up diamonds and uranium and helium-3 there, then lunar mining is incredibly profitable.

But it turns out that rockets aren’t as simple and inexpensive to operate as 1940s science fiction regularly assumed. It turns out that the energies needed to reach the moon are quite high, and the energy sources available in 2016 are not orders of magnitude greater than what was available in 1949. Back then you could just posit a nuclear rocket that was ten times as energetic as any chemical rocket. It turns out that real-world nuclear rockets have a lot of problems that have not been solved, even in the far future world of 2016. And so we’re stuck with the same old “put a bunch of volatile chemicals in a pile and light it off” method that they used back in WWII for the V2s.

And so getting to the moon requires are really really really big pile of chemicals, which makes it really really really expensive, and there’s no sign of that changing any time soon, which means that even if the moon were covered in diamonds and uranium with lakes of light sweet crude it wouldn’t be profitable to mine the moon. Invent a safe nuclear rocket that can be built by boyscouts in the back yard and the equation would change. But since that’s not going to happen, it could never work. And it turns out that the moon isn’t covered with diamonds and uranium.

Harriman was using every sort out of shady financial scheme* to get interest in lunar travel in the anticipation that some unanticipated application would make it all worthwhile. In that context the diamonds were just part of a “pump and dump” scheme to create interest in lunar mining stocks - he wasn’t expecting the diamonds alone to pay for the trip.

  • of the top of my head, he was defrauding stamp collectors, encouraging children to send him their spare change, and getting money from anticommunists (with fake stories about the Soviets painting the Moon with a Hammer and Sickle) and from the equivalent of Coca-cola (with fake stories of the equivalent of 7Up painting the Moon with their logo).

Heinlein in the 50s wasn’t all that concerned about the science. He – like most sf authors and fans – were perfectly willing to throw the science of the window if it got in the way of the story. “Accuracy” as nice, but not as important as the story.

Heinlein did this elsewhere. “The Green Hills of Earth” postulated a Venus that was wildly inaccurate at the time it was written.

So it the story demanded it, the Moon had diamonds. Story is far more important than obsessing on “accuracy.”

Not a comment on this particular story, but in story telling as a whole. I agree with what you say here.

However, if you only have a meh story, you better then be damn sure to get the details right. In other words, If I’m not lost in the story, I will be nitpicking details.

The moon may have had volcanoes, but it doesn’t have the plate tectonics or same deep structure that drove terrestrial diamond development.

On the other end of the scale, there’s Niven. At the time he wrote his story “The Coldest Place” (one of the first of what became known as the Known Space stories), it was consistent with the best scientific information then known. In between when he sold it and when it was published, there came a new discovery that completely invalidated it. He frantically called up the publisher, and said that they’d have to retract the story. The publisher said “Who cares, it’s still a good story”.

Indeed. All fiction, but especially speculative fiction, requires the willing suspension of disbelief. Part of the author’s task is to make that as easy as possible for the reader.

Industrial grade diamonds are not especially valuable, and in fact, it is generally cheaper to produce them synthetically to controlled quality than to use naturally formed diamonds. Gem-quality diamonds are only valuable because of their relative scarcity and the marketing of diamonds as being the jewel of choice for engagement and anniversary rings, for which you can thank the De Beers Group; even if the Moon had a large source of readily extractable diamonds it would do nothing but push the price down dramatically. Uranium is not in short supply, to the point that it is more cost effective to use processed [SUP]235[/SUP]U fuel through a once-through cycle rather than to reprocess for reuse, leaving >95% of the remaining fissile energy unused. If and when uranium availability becomes a problem, reprocessing “spent” nuclear fuel or using it in full burnup reactors would almost certainly be cheaper for terrestrial energy production than any extraction from space resources.

[SUP]3[/SUP]He mining of the Moon is the biggest farce, though. For one, we are still decades away from even controlled D-T fusion power production. D-[SUP]3[/SUP]He fusion has Lawson criteria of 16 (the product of required temperature, plasma density, and confinement time to achieve fusion) and a power factor of 26.4 (the ratio of fusion power output to power losses within the plasma) compared to D-T fusion, any presumption based upon the utility of 3He is speculative at best. Commercially, [SUP]3[/SUP]He costs on the order of US$1000/liter; pricey, certainly, but hardly worth going to the Moon, sifting through hundreds of tons of regolith (concentration of [SUP]3[/SUP]He is about 1 part in 200 million), and then returning the material safely to Earth. Even if D-[SUP]3[/SUP]He nuclear fusion power production becomes feasible it will likely be easier to produce [SUP]3[/SUP]He via neutron bombardment to produce tritium and allowing it to decay in to [SUP]3[/SUP]He. Lunar mining of [SUP]3[/SUP]He is the solar powered satellites of the 21st century; a seeming justification for space exploration that actually makes no technical or fiscal sense whatsoever.

Give the difficulties of operating on the lunar surface environment even assuming technomagically trivial transportation (see NASA/TM—2005-213610/REV1 The Effects of Lunar Dust on EVA Systems During the Apollo Missions, James Gaier, April 2007) it makes little sense to mine any materials on the Moon. Even for in-situ utilization for space exploration and sustainable industrial presence it makes far more sense to extract resources from Near Earth Asteroids rather than trying to establish and maintain a presence on the Moon.


Arthur C. Clarke did something similar in one of his early lunar-exploration stories, but the gimmick in that was

a glowing-gas-release test in the very, very thin atmosphere which, due to a concealed stencil in the release valve, showed the corporate logo across a huge part of the Moon for everyone back on Earth to see.

As did Isaac Asimov in "Buy Jupiter " where Jupiter’s atmosphere was ionised to provide an advertising billboard for an alien race. They kept the rings of Saturn in reserve for the next bidder

Of course, it is always possible that another planet’s unique geology (if the word can apply to a planet other than Earth) might produce mineral formations never before seen here, and as gemstones even more valuable than the finest diamonds.

Possibly, but not the Moon, we already have a pretty good idea of its geology and composition.

Yes, of course in real life diamonds are not particularly rare and can by synthesized pretty cheaply. In real life even if the moon were covered in gem quality diamonds that you could shovel up by the pail-full it still wouldn’t make sense to mine diamonds on the moon. And even if you could get to the moon for nearly free in a rocket that doesn’t cost much more than a used Cessna, it still wouldn’t make much sense, because it would just collapse the diamond market. I still want synthetic diamonds cheap enough to get a diamond coffee table sometime before I retire though.

And agreed, He-3 is just silly, even if the moon really were covered with lakes of the stuff (which it isn’t), and space travel was really cheap (which it isn’t) it still wouldn’t make sense to mine it, even if we really did have economical fusion reactors (which we don’t).