Is it finally time for a permanent base on the moon?
The upcoming Artemis mission is NASA's initial step to create a lunar outpost—but are we really ready to establish long-term bases beyond Earth?
From cities in the sky to robot butlers, futuristic visions fill the history of PopSci. In the Are we there yet? column we check in on progress towards our most ambitious promises. Read the series and explore all our 150th anniversary coverage here.
Lately, all eyes are turned towards the moon. NASA has another launch attempt tentatively scheduled next week for the highly-anticipated Artemis 1 uncrewed mission to orbit Earth’s satellite, one of the first steps to set up an outpost on the lunar surface. But humans—and science fiction writers—have long imagined a moon base, one that would be a fixture of future deep space exploration. About five years before Sputnik and 17 years before the Apollo missions, the chairman of the British Interplanetary Society, Arthur C. Clarke, penned a story for the 1952 April issue of Popular Science describing what he thought a settlement on the moon could look like. Clarke, who would go on to write 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, envisioned novel off-Earth systems, including spacesuits that would “resemble suits of armor,” glass-domed hydroponic farms, water mining and oxygen extraction for fuel, igloo-shaped huts, and even railways.
“The human race is remarkably fortunate in having so near at hand a full-sized world with which to experiment,” Clarke wrote. “Before we aim at the planets, we will have had a chance of perfecting our techniques on our satellite.”
Since Clarke’s detailed moon base musings, PopSci has frequently covered the latest prospects in lunar stations, yet the last time anyone even set foot on the moon was December 1972. Despite past false starts, like the Constellation Program in the early 2000s, NASA’s Artemis program aims to change moon base calculus. This time, experts say that the air—and attitude—surrounding NASA’s latest bid for the moon is charged with a different kind of determination.
“You can talk to anyone in the [space] community,” says Adrienne Dove, a planetary scientist at the University of Central Florida. “You can talk to the folks who have been around for 50 years, or the new folks, but it just feels real this time.” Dove’s optimism doesn’t just come from the Artemis 1 rocket poised for liftoff at Kennedy Space Center. She sees myriad differentiating factors this time, including the collaboration between private companies and NASA, the growing international support for the space governance framework, the Artemis Accords, and the competition from rival nations like China and Russia to stake out a lunar presence. Perhaps one of the biggest arguments from moon base supporters is the need for a stepping stone to send humans even deeper into space. “We want to learn how to live on the moon so we can go to Mars,” Dove says.
[Related: How Tiangong station will make China a force in the space race]
Mark Vande Hei, a NASA astronaut who returned to Earth in March 2022 after spending a US record-breaking 355 consecutive days on the International Space Station (ISS), underscores the opportunity. “We’ve got this planetary object, the moon, not too far away. And we can buy down the huge risk of going to Mars by learning how to live for long durations on another planetary object that’s relatively close.”
Ever since Sputnik made its debut as the first artificial satellite in 1957, the Soviet Union deployed several short-lived space stations; NASA’s Apollo Missions enabled humans to walk on the moon; NASA’s space shuttle fleet (now retired) flew 135 missions; the ISS has been orbiting the Earth for more than two decades; more than 4,500 artificial satellites now sweep through the sky; and a series of private companies, like SpaceX and Blue Origin, have begun launching rockets and delivering payloads into space.
But no moon base.
That’s because exploring the moon is not like exploring the Earth. Besides being 240,000 miles away on a trajectory that requires slicing through dense atmosphere while escaping our planet’s gravitational grip, and then traversing the vacuum of space, once on the moon, daily temperatures range between 250°F during the day and -208°F at night. Although there may be water in the form of ice, it will have to be mined and extracted to be useful. The oxygen deprived atmosphere is so thin it can’t shield human inhabitants from meteor impacts of all sizes or solar radiation. There’s no source of food. Plus, lunar soil, or regolith, is so fine, sharp, and electrostatically charged, it not only clogs machinery and lungs but can also cut through clothes and flesh.
“It’s a very hostile environment,” says Dove, whose specialty is lunar dust. She’s currently working on multiple lunar missions, like Commercial Lunar Payload Services or CLPS, which will deploy robotic landers to explore the moon in advance of humans arriving on the future crewed Artemis missions. While Dove acknowledges the habitability challenges, she’s quick to cite a range of solutions, starting with the initial tent-pitching location: the moon’s south pole. “That region seems to be rich with resources in terms of ice, which can be used as water or as fuel,” Dove says. Plus, there’s abundant sunlight on mountain peaks, where solar panels could be stationed. She adds that “there might be some rare earth elements that can be really useful.” Rare earth elements—there are 17 metals in that category—are, well, rare on Earth, yet they’re essential to electronics manufacturing. Finding them on the moon would be a boon.
A PopSci story in July 1985 detailed elaborate plans proposed by various space visionaries to colonize the moon and make use of its resources. Among the potential technologies were laboratory and habitat modules, a factory to extract water and oxygen for subsistence and fuel, and mining operations for raw moon minerals—a precious resource that could come in handy and provide income for settlers. While NASA may provide the needed boost to get a moon base going, it’s the promise of an off-world gold rush for these rare, potentially precious elements that could solidify and expand it.
“My hope is that this is just the beginning of a commercial venture on the Moon,” Vande Hei says. He’s looking forward to seeing how businesses will find ways to be profitable by making use of resources on the moon. “At some point, we’ve got to be able to travel and not rely on the logistics chain starting from Earth,” Vande Hei adds, taking the long view. “We’ve got to be able to travel places and use the resources.”
[Related: Space tourism is on the rise. Can NASA keep up with it?]
And space is lucrative. In 2020, the global space industry generated roughly $370 billion in revenues, a figure based mostly on building rockets and satellites, along with the supporting hardware and software. Morgan Stanley, the US investment bank, estimates that the industry could generate $1 trillion in revenue in less than two decades, a growth rate predicted to be driven in no small part by the US military’s new Space Command branch. But those rising numbers mostly reflect economic activity in Earth’s orbit and what it might take to get set up on the moon—but they do not reflect the potential to begin converting the moon into an economic powerhouse. What happens next is anyone’s guess. The big dollar signs are one reason, no doubt, that the tech moguls behind private ventures like SpaceX and Blue Origin are investing heavily in space now.
The progress towards deeper space travel—and potential long-term human colonization on the moon or beyond—begs for larger ethical and moral conversations. “It’s a little bit Wild West-y,” says Dove. Although the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and the more recent Artemis Accords strive “to create a safe and transparent environment which facilitates exploration, science, and commercial activities for all of humanity to enjoy,” according to NASA’s website, there are no rules or regulations, for instance, to govern activities like mining or extracting from the moon valuable rare earth elements for private profit. “There’s a number of people looking at the policy implications and figuring out how we start putting in place policies and ethics rules before all of this happens,” Dove adds. But, if the moon does not cough up its own version of unobtanium—the priceless element mined in the film Avatar—or if regulations are too draconian, it will be difficult for a nascent moon-economy to sustain itself before larger and more promising planetary outposts, like Mars, come to fruition and utilize its resources. After all, the building and sustainability costs and effort have been leading obstacles of establishing a moon base ever since the Apollo program spurred interest in more concrete plans.
Dove’s not really worried that private companies will pull out of the space sector—there’s little doubt they will find a way to profit. Rather, she views politics as the moon base program’s chief vulnerability. “Politics always concerns me with any of these big endeavors,” she adds. Not only domestic politics but international politics will be at play. “We see that with the ISS.”
As a retired military officer who was living on the ISS with Russian cosmonauts when Russia invaded Ukraine, Vande Hei also worries about international conflicts derailing space programs. “If we have a world war in Europe, if we’re just struggling to exist [on Earth], exploring space is not going to be at the top of the priority list.” But he also sees a bright side. He views international competition—or a moon base race—as a healthy way to create a sense of urgency. Vande Hei estimates that “a moon base is something we could do within [this] generation.”
Dove also sees the opportunities that laboratory facilities on the moon could open up for future space research—including her own. “The moon is very interesting in terms of understanding the history of Earth,” she says. “I would love to go do science on the moon.”