“You are here to help humanity become a spacefaring species.”
So said the opening line of a brochure for a workshop that took place in August 2014. It was a meeting of some of the greatest scientists and professionals in the space business and beyond, including gene editing maverick George Church and Peter Diamandis from the XPrize Foundation. The workshop’s goal: to explore and develop low-cost options for building a human settlement on the moon.
“You are here to make this moonshot a reality,” said the brochure.
NASA astrobiologist Chris McKay helped organize the meeting, and then he edited a special issue in the journal New Space to publish the papers that came out of the workshop. Those papers just came online this morning, and Popular Science had exclusive pre-publication access. Together, the 9 papers help to build momentum for an idea that’s growing throughout the planetary science and commercial space communities. The details differ between papers, they all say roughly the same thing: that we can set up a permanent, inhabited base on the moon, soon, and without breaking the bank.
Of course, this isn’t the first time scientists have talked about returning to the moon.
“The reason all the previous plans for going back to the moon have failed is that they’re just way too expensive,” says McKay. “The space program is living in a delusion of unlimited budgets, which traces back to Apollo.”
The Apollo program that put the first men on the moon would have cost $150 billion by today’s standards. For reference, NASA’s entire budget for the year of 2016 is $19.3 billion.
“The space program is living in a delusion of unlimited budgets, which traces back to Apollo.”
The New Space papers, by contrast, conclude that we could set up a small lunar base for $10 billion or less, and we could do it by 2022.
“The big takeaway,” says McKay, “is that new technologies, some of which have nothing to do with space–like self-driving cars and waste-recycling toilets–are going to be incredibly useful in space, and are driving down the cost of a moon base to the point where it might be easy to do.”
Why go back to the moon?
Currently, NASA has no plans to send humans back to the moon–instead it’s focusing on getting to Mars in the 2030s. But McKay and others think we can’t possibly go hiking on Mars if we don’t first learn to camp in our own backyard.
“My interest is not the moon. To me the moon is as dull as a ball of concrete,” says the astrobiologist. “But we’re not going to have a research base on Mars until we can learn how to do it on the Moon first. The moon provides a blueprint to Mars.”
A lunar base would provide a valuable opportunity to test out new propulsion systems, habitats, communications, and life support systems before astronauts bring them to Mars–a 9-month trip away, versus just a few days to the moon.
The trouble is, NASA tends to think it can only afford to go to either the moon, or Mars. If McKay and his colleagues are right, we can afford to do both–it just takes a new way of thinking about it.
“The moon provides a blueprint to Mars.”
There are other reasons to go back. We’ve explored only a tiny portion of the lunar surface, and a permanent base would certainly fuel some interesting science.
Plus, everyone else is doing it. China, Russia, and the European Space Agency have all expressed interest in setting up a base on the moon. Instead of getting left behind, cooperating with other nations on building a lunar station would lower NASA’s costs, much like in building the International Space Station.
Private space companies are also ready and raring to go back to the moon. Many hope to extract water from the moon and split it into hydrogen and oxygen–i.e. rocket fuel–that can be used to top off the gas tanks of spacecraft headed for Mars. Lunar tourism could also become a hot market.
“And if private industry goes, NASA’s going to go just to establish the rule of law,” says McKay. “The fastest way to get NASA to the moon is to get other people to go.”
How do we do it?
The exact strategy for building a lunar base differs depending on who you ask.
Many of the proposals start with robotic exploration to scope out the perfect site for a permanent dwelling. “MoonCats” (like a Bobcat, but adapted for lunar excavation) could then level the terrain for landing pads and the habitat, suggests one paper, while other robots set up solar power panels.
After the habitat modules arrive, robotic “Lunar Surface Mules” could help set them up so they’ll be ready when the humans arrive.
Human occupation of the moon would likely begin slowly, with a few short stays by a small crew. The missions would get longer and larger over time, until you have a permanently occupied station, much like the International Space Station. Eventually the station could evolve into a complex, multi-use settlement with hundreds of people, and their children, living there permanently.
Some teams imagine the lunar station as a scientific base, while others picture it evolving into something more commercial.
“Some of the possible export options include: water from the permanently shadowed craters, precious metals from asteroid impact sites, and even [helium-3] that could fuel a pollution-free terrestrial civilization for many centuries,” writes one team. “As transportation to and from the Moon becomes more frequent and cheaper, the lunar tourism mark should begin to emerge and could become a significant source of income in the future.”
What technologies do we need to survive?
At a basic level, we already know how to survive on the Moon, because humans have been living on the International Space Station for years.
“PLSS technologies have been proved in space for the past 14 years on the International Space Station,” writes one group, referring to the life support system that recycles the water on the space station and balances out the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. “[W]e have access to sufficient life support technologies to support implementation of the first human settlement on the Moon today.”
With those essentials taken care of, the team estimates that at today’s launch prices, SpaceX could deliver the rest of the food and essential supplies for a crew of 10 for $350 million or less per year.
“Self-driving cars and waste-recycling toilets are driving down the cost of a moon base to the point where it might be easy to do.”
Other technologies could be adapted to lower the costs of a moon base. Virtual reality, for example, could aid in the planning efforts.
3D printing could replace small components that break on the lunar station, shaving down launch costs.
The era of NASA’s spinoff technologies may be coming to an end. Instead of developing highly specialized (and expensive) technologies for spaceflight that later turn out to be everyday products, everyday products could be adapted for spaceflight, says McKay. “One of my favorites is the Gates Foundation’s Reinvent the Toilet Challenge.” The program encourages new ways to clean human waste and recycle it into energy, clean water, and nutrients that could be used in farming.
“NASA could spend billions developing a space-rated toilet,” says McKay, “or we could just buy the blue toilet developed by the Gates Foundation.”
Next generation technologies
Many of the proposals for an affordable moon base rely on technologies that don’t quite exist yet. But neither are they far from reality.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket should be able to carry small payloads to the moon for a pretty good price, but it’ll take a heavier rocket–such as the Falcon Heavy, set to debut later this year–to carry larger payloads, like lunar habitats, to the moon. Other strategies involve refueling rockets in orbit–a technique that’s as yet untested.
Bigelow Aerospace’s inflatable habitat is a top contender for future moon lodgings. These flexible living modules could be folded up to fit in a rocket’s cargo bay, then expand like a pop-up tent on the lunar surface. The company plans to launch a test version of the habitat to the International Space Station this year. However, the larger, pill-shaped “BA-330” modules won’t launch until 2018. And since Bigelow is mainly focused on using these habitats to set up commercial space stations in Earth orbit, the design might have to be adapted to operate on the moon, where radiation levels are considerably higher.
Where should we live on the moon?
There are four fundamental things to consider when choosing real estate on the moon, according to one paper: power availability; communications; proximity to resources; and surface mobility.
The sun will likely be the primary source of power for future lunar stations. Trouble is, most places on the moon have “nights” that are 354 hours (about 15 days) long. That’s a long time to rely on battery power. By comparison, the poles receive much more sunlight, with nights lasting closer to 100 hours (4 days). So the first lunar station will probably have to be at one of the poles.
Communications would be easier from the moon’s near-side, which constantly faces Earth, compared to the poles, but a relay station on the moon or in orbit should provide a reliable connection.
And it’s lucky the poles receive so much sunlight, because they’re also expected to contain large amounts of frozen water in their deep, dark craters. That water could be extracted to provide water and oxygen to the lunar station, or to turn into rocket fuel for a profit.
“The cost is getting so low, maybe we don’t even need to think of NASA doing it.”
And although the lunar north and the south poles receive similar amounts of light, the north pole came out ahead of the south in this survey because it has a smoother terrain that’s easier to travel across.
In particular, the paper singles out the rim of Peary crater as being the top spot to develop a low-cost lunar station. Radar and remote sensing indicate it may contain water or other hydrogen-bearing molecules, and it has a relatively smooth floor, making it easier for robots to roll through its icy depths to extract resources.
Some upcoming missions–including NASA’s Lunar Flashlight and IceCube aim to map the distribution of water on the moon, which could help to further refine the lunar real estate options.
How much would it cost?
Overall the consensus in these papers is that NASA could build a lunar base for $10 billion, with upkeep costs of about $2 billion or less per year, which is about as much as NASA puts toward the International Space Station every year. These are estimates that, with a little rearranging, could fit inside NASA’s current budget.
And NASA wouldn’t have to foot the bill alone.
“The cost is getting so low, maybe we don’t even need to think of NASA doing it,” says McKay. “It could be a private company.”
A study from last year estimated that if water exists in large deposits on the moon, a base could pay for itself, generating $40 billion in rocket propellant per year.
What’s more, such a base could potentially be up and running within the next decade.
Actually making it happen will certainly take longer than that, requiring political changes and technological developments. But McKay thinks the psychological barrier is the most significant.
“The biggest obstacle is getting everybody together, and getting a vision of a low-cost base as the starting point. If people think it’s going to kill the budget, that just stops the conversation and brainstorming. If we can change the mindset, that starts the conversation and gets people thinking about how to make it a reality.”