How Close Are We to Building a Moon Base?
The moon is the closest celestial body to Earth. Humans have been gazing up at it for our entire existence, finally landing on its surface in the 1960s. We’ve walked on the moon, carried out science experiments on the moon, we’ve even driven a car, hit golf balls and briefly grew cotton on the moon. So, the obvious next question is, when are we going to start living on the moon? For decades pop culture has been teasing us with lunar colonies, military bases, space hotels and more, but in order to populate the moon, or other planets, we may need to start small. So, how close are we to a lunar base? Now, let’s first clear up what we mean when we say “lunar base.” We’re not talking about a bustling, domed metropolis. We’re talking about, an outpost, a lab, a lunar habitat where scientists, or possibly rich tourists, can live and work for an extended period of time, maybe something similar to the 6 month average stay of an astronaut on the ISS. For the first time in human history we are going to the Moon not to go and come back, but we are trying to go to the Moon and stay there, hence we need to have a Moon base, like a base where we could live through science, through operations with maybe six astronauts altogether. Only twelve people have ever set foot on the moon, the last being Eugene Cernan and Jack Schmitt during Apollo 17 way back in 1972. Since then we’ve accomplished many amazing things in space, from landing a rover on Mars to a breathtaking flyby of Pluto. But we haven’t sent anyone back to the moon…yet. I think what we’re going to see is a big ramping up of interest in lunar exploration, both in orbit and at the surface, internationally, from national agencies and governments, but also from the private sector and from commercial entities. This interest is going to be driven by science, by engineering, by technology development, by preparing for future exploration, by understanding the resources that we find locally at the Moon, and how we can use those things to prepare us for what we do later… You see, setting up a base on the moon may be key to, not only understanding our past, but to jumpstarting our future. We can study the impact craters and geology to help us better understand the formation of our solar system. We can set up radio telescopes on the far side which would be shielded from Earth’s electromagnetic interference, which would enable us to better study the big bang. And we can use a moon base as a testing ground for an eventual space colony. Because, right now, we have no data on the health of astronauts living on another astronomical body for months at a time. And maybe most importantly, we can discover how efficiently we can be on another world, since we won’t be able to ship all of our supplies. So if we as a species want to go beyond, if we want to live in space, if we want to work elsewhere in the solar system, then the way we do that is we go to the Moon, and we learn to live and work for prolonged periods of time away from the Earth using the resources that we find locally. One possible important resource might be newly confirmed lunar ice, which scientists think we could use to create rocket fuel. We could extract the ice, isolate the oxygen and hydrogen, and manufacture fuel on the moon, meaning lunar visitors wouldn’t be bogged down with the extra weight of return fuel. Another resource is the regolith, which some space agencies think may be the key to building a moon base. Well, if you wanted to build a moon base, the sort of obvious thing is you’d want to use lunar regolith as your basic building material, because there’s lots of it. If you have to import your construction materials from Earth, it’s just a ridiculously expensive thing to do, you know? So you need to develop the capacity to turn regolith into something useful, and there’s been a lot of proposals. What we should do is something completely different, that is we have to ship to the moon a 3D printer and the 3D printer, using the dust that is already on the Moon, so the Moon regolith, would build completely automatically using the sunlight endlessly available on the Moon surface, by baking layer after layer the Moon base in a completely automatic manner. Others think we could start shipping modules to the moon piece by piece, similar to how we’ve built space stations in low earth orbit. Or we could just dig an underground bunker, tunneling under the regolith. But whichever plan we go with, there needs to be thick walls between the people inside and the harmful environment outside. The Moon can be very hot during the daytime and very cold at night, so you need to be able to moderate those temperatures so that astronauts can live in a comfortable environment. You’re also exposed to radiation that comes from the Sun and from deep space, and so you need to find ways of reducing the radiation that astronauts are exposed to. A base on the moon would look basically like a very large hill from the outside. And the reason for that is there’s quite a bit of radiation on the surface of the moon…For your radiation shielding you need about five or six meters, about 15 to 20 feet. And you’ve got to pile that on top of your modules, which are probably a good 10 feet. So you’ve got basically a hill 30 or 40 feet tall. The inside, particularly for early bases, is probably very much like the inside of the International Space Station. Lots of wires and laptops and metal and storage units and stuff like that…. But of course this very large hill will need to be top of the line, equipped and set up with everything needed to maintain a lunar crew. The major thing you’re going to need is, of course, to be able to get there, to get back, to be able to enable astronauts to survive, to be able to work in a comfortable environment that is safe, but then also to have the facilities that are needed for research and for transport around the lunar surface. In particular, power is going to be a major aspect of any infrastructure. Well, the stuff you need before you build a moon base is very similar to what you need for anything else in space. The first, most important thing is you have to be able to breathe. So that means you need a pressure vessel, and it means you need an atmosphere that has enough oxygen and enough other stuff so the oxygen doesn’t turn into an inferno. You need food. Of course, the food needs a lot of water, because you need water to grow crops You’re going to have to have massive resupply from Earth or you’re going to have to figure out how to get water out of the lunar soil. Yes, a lunar base does seem futuristic and sci-fi, but we’re already working on all the things required down here on Earth. We’re 3D printing building blocks using materials that simulate lunar regolith. Scientists are planning missions to further study lunar ice in order to better prepare for extraction. There are groundbreaking greenhouses around the world proving agriculture can flourish inside. And with the rise of private space companies, the cost of sending supplies or people to the moon might be on its way down, especially if Elon Musk’s “Big Falcon Rocket” comes to fruition. This is the rocket that is hoping to send a Japanese billionaire to the moon and one day carry some of the first Mars explorers. So, then what is stopping us? First of all, in my opinion more than a technical aspect or a technical issue, more than that is a political issue. What we need to solve is we need to get all the political need and will to do a mission of this proportion. We need to have not just Europe, not just the United States, but certainly Europe, certainly the United States, Russia, India, China, Japan, Canada all working in a mission of this proportion. I think the fundamental reason there’s not a base on the moon today is there’s not enough interest to justify the right resources necessary. So, all we have to do is convince the governments of the world to work together and put up billions of dollars in order to advance our understanding of our solar system and ensure that living off Earth could be a viable option. Oh, and make sure the base is usable, safe, has enough power, water, food, heat and oxygen. Seems easy enough. So, how close are we to a moon base? The way things are steady state, we’re not particularly close to a moon base. People have ideas, but there’s no funded project that says, “And when we’re done, we’re going to have built a moon base.” It just doesn’t exist at the moment. However, we’ve got these really incredible vehicles coming online from SpaceX, or at least we hope they’re going to come online within not too terribly long. If those vehicles become available, and they meet something resembling what industry rumor and SpaceX says they might meet, then you could easily see serious progress on a lunar base in five or ten years. So my hope is that within 10 or so years from now, we would be having the first human missions returning to the lunar surface. So once we’ve done that, we can start to build up the capabilities that we would need, and so my expectation is that a base at the lunar surface, based on current planning, would become possible during the mid to end point of the 2030s. That’s when I would expect it to happen. To state how close we are is very difficult for me at the moment. What I can say is that what we need to have, again, I’m saying this many times because this is really the missing bit at the moment. We need to have the will of many political entities in the world to decide to go and build a Moon base. In my opinion, we are certainly not talking about hundreds of years, we are talking about few decades to get a functioning Moon base on the Moon surface. Great, where do I sign up? If this episode piqued your interest on lunar travel, you should check out our Apollo series. It covers each Apollo mission, from the tragic to the triumphant. Check out the complete series playlist. Thanks for watching and don’t forget to share, subscribe and comment.