A Permanent Moon Base is Coming
Original Article Published 12/3/2016)
“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.”
John F. Kennedy (Moon Speech - Rice Stadium)
When I was growing up during the era of the space race, I clearly remember how it felt at the time that we were heading towards a revolution in space exploration. The film, 2001 – A Space Odyssey, neatly captured that vision...of an orbiting space station that you could take a domestic flight up to (courtesy of Pam Am – there was even an Airfix model of the craft) and then a shuttle from it on towards the moon base. And this is really what we believed was just around the corner back then, but subsequent history, since those heady days of the 70s, had other ideas.
A base on the moon rapidly became the stuff of dreams, the cost too great to be practical. As that dream and other crewed space exploration crashed around it, it wasn't long before some claimed that the moon landings were fake. But of course, there will always be a few who prefer to believe in conspiracies, rather than the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Regardless of the chequered past of human space exploration, we do now, at last, seem to be heading towards a new dawn.
Private space companies like SpaceX are blazing a path here with their reusable Falcon 9 rocket, but it’s their Falcon Heavy, set to launch towards the end of this year, that could be a real game-changer. This new rocket, with its ability to lift far heavier payloads, could be used to get habitation modules, and other important elements of a permanent base, to the moon.
Another area of rapid development that could have major implications for a permanent base, is within the realm of 3D printing. NASA has already been trialling a printer on the International Space Station, to print out spare parts and even tools. And this approach can be scaled up.
The European Space Agency is currently working with private companies, to explore the use of a building printing on the moon, using lunar raw materials. This approach would have major cost-saving implications. Also, made from lunar soil, the structures would provide the inhabitants with natural thermal and radiation protection.
Additionally, NASA is exploring autonomous building options, including using robotics as part of that solution. The Jet Propulsion Lab is currently developing the ATHLETE (All-Terrain Hex-Limbed Extra-Terrestrial Explorer) robot, designed to work for ten years straight on the surface of the moon. Capable of carrying out to 450kg, ATHLETE is intended as a general-purpose robot, designed to deal with the tricky lunar terrain. ATHLETE robots can also be docked together to carry far heavier payloads.
But why build a moon base at all, beyond the reason, because we can?
One of the recent discoveries on the moon is the potentially large amount of water frozen around the polar regions (believed to have been caused by comet impacts). Water is significant for both producing breathable air, but also can quite literally be turned into rocket fuel, and it is this that is one of the key reasons for having a base on the moon at all. With NASA's ambitions raised to Mars for a crewed mission, if fuel could be generated on the moon, this would hugely reduce the cost of that very expensive trip.
Getting water into orbit, a heavy dead weight, even with the new generation of large rockets currently in development, is extremely costly. If we could mine the water on the moon, this could hugely reduce the cost of crewed missions to the other planets in our solar system and even their moons
Also, there is something on the moon that quite literally is worth more than gold…Helium-3. Unlike Earth which enjoys protection with its magnetic field, the moon is bombarded with Helium-3 by the solar wind. These deposits have built up, and it has been proposed, could be mined as a safe fuel for fusion power, although not everyone is convinced.
However, maybe it’s the human aspect that is the key reason for seriously considering a moon base. Famously the Apollo astronauts on the surface of the moon, could raise their gauntleted hands and with their thumbs, block out the view of Earth, hanging before them like a beautiful blue marble in the void of space. All human history, disappearing behind a digit…and that can’t but help give one a profound perspective about our place in the universe. And right there, with the moon as a stepping stone, which can help us leave the cradle of our birth, to venture out among the stars, is maybe the most important reason for having a moon base at all.
Image credits: ESA/Foster + Partners