WE COULD BE LIVING ON THE MOON IN 10 YEARS OR LESS
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.
Caitlin Kearney 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 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. "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.
A lunar VR environment, incorporating the data sets knowledge bases, could be a powerful tool for prospecting, operational scenario development, and refinement of designs from various teams. A further integration of real world engineering software for thermal environmental testing, structures, CAD/CAM, additive manufacturing and 3D printing could be a template for building a Tony Stark style (the VR environment from the first Iron Man movie) prototyping environment that could greatly advance the design of a lunar development as well identifying and solving some of the problems before we get there. 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.
Ryan Bradley 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.