By JURICA DUJMOVIC a COLUMNIST for The Market Watch
The price for getting there has dropped sharply, and even a total project price tag of as little as $35 billion is downright cheap.
What if I told you there’s no reason we couldn’t set up a small base on the moon by 2022 without breaking the bank?
Reaching the moon would cost about $10 billion — estimates range from $7 billion and $13 billion — with an additional $28 billion to $52 billion being spent on the construction of base-related structures. That is considerably less than a previous price of $100 billion-plus when technology was less advanced and more expensive. To put that cost in perspective, one U.S. aircraft carrier has a price of $13 billion.
Some of the greatest scientists and professionals in the space business already have a plan. NASA’s Chris McKay, an astrobiologist, wrote about it in a special issue of the New Space journal, published just a few weeks ago.
Before we get into the details, let’s ask ourselves: Why the moon? Although scientists (and NASA) don’t find it all that exciting, the moon is a great starting point for further exploration. Furthermore, building a lunar base would provide us with the real-world experience that may prove invaluable for future projects on other planets like Mars, which NASA plans to reach by 2030. The main reason the return to the moon isn’t a part of NASA’s plan is because it was rejected by the Obama administration.
NASA’s leaders say they can afford only one or the other: the moon or Mars. If McKay and his colleagues are correct, though, the U.S. government might be able to pull off both trips. All it takes is a change of perspective and ingenuity.
“The big takeaway,” McKay says in a Popular Science issue written by Sarah Fecht, “is that new technologies, some of which have nothing to do with space — such as 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.”
The document outlines a series of innovations — already existing and in development — that work together toward the common goal of building the first permanent lunar base.
One such innovation is the proposed use of virtual reality during the preparation and planning phase. A lunar VR environment enriched with real-world scientific data would be used as a simulation in which the 3D-printed structures could be modeled and tested against the thermic and environmental factors present on the moon’s surface. This would provide scientists and engineers with vital information necessary to solve structural problems before they happen for real. 3D printing would also considerably reduce the repair and replacement costs on the lunar base, because small components could be easily replaced on-site.
To bring robots, supplies, astronauts and habitats, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets and the upcoming model Falcon Heavy would be used. Speaking of habitats, a modified, radiation-resistant version of Bigelow Aerospace’s inflatable habitat seems the most probable candidate for the role. Those habitats could be packed into rockets’ cargo bay and expanded after reaching their destination.
The first station would probably be built on the outer rim of one of the moon’s North Pole craters. The poles receive much more sunlight than the rest of the moon (nights there can last up to 15 days), so solar-powered equipment will get enough light to function properly. Furthermore, all that energy could provide power for robots that would excavate large amounts of ice detected within the craters.
Water gathered that way could then be used for life support, as well as for providing oxygen, or it could be processed into rocket fuel, which would be sold or stored for refueling space crafts. An original study presumes that the government would both fund all this development and buy the resulting fuel after the depots were established, and acknowledges that all of this rests on this and other assumptions. Needless to say, the establishment of a market for fuel in lunar space is crucial for the sustainable existence of the entire lunar operation.
After rockets bring in supplies and gear, and robots unpack the habitats and establish the perimeter for mining operations, astronauts would start arriving. Here’s how the process is envisioned in the document: “Just imagine a small lunar base at one of the lunar poles operated by NASA or an international consortium and modeled according to the U.S. Antarctic Station at the South Pole. The crew of about 10 people would consist of a mixture of staff and field scientists. Personnel rotations might be three times a year. The main activity would be supporting field research selected by peer-reviewed proposals. Graduate students doing fieldwork for their thesis research would dominate the activity. No one lives at the base permanently but there is always a crew present. The base is heavily supported by autonomous and remotely operated robotic devices.”
It continues: “The activities at this moon base would be focusing on science, as is the case in the Antarctic. It could provide an official U.S. government presence on the moon, and its motivation would be rooted in U.S. national policy — again as are the U.S. Antarctic bases. A lunar base would provide a range of technologies and programmatic precedents supporting a long-term NASA research base on Mars.”
If NASA takes these arguments to heart, affordable lunar bases may be a step toward the first permanent lunar settlements. From then on, anything could happen. In time, the moon could be terraformed, and hundreds of years from now, an entirely new human society may evolve, unfettered by issues we face on Earth.
If this sounds like sci-fi, remember that not a long time ago, 90% of modern technology belonged to that category. What do you think about colonizing the moon? Please let me know in the comment section below.