We go to the moon! With modern technology, it actually wouldn’t be that costly because of robots, 3D printing, and SpaceX.
“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.