NASA moon base plans go back in space history

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All eyes are on the moon lately. NASA has tentatively scheduled another launch attempt next week for the highly anticipated Artemis 1 unmanned mission to orbit the Earth satellite, one of the first steps toward establishing an outpost on the lunar surface. But people — and science fiction writers — have long envisioned a lunar base, one that would be an integral part of future space exploration. Some five years before Sputnik and 17 years before the Apollo missions, British Interplanetary Society Chairman Arthur C. Clarke wrote a story for the April 1952 issue popular science He described what he thought a settlement on the moon might look like. Clarke who would continue writing 2001: A Space Odyssey In 1968, novel extraterrestrial systems were envisioned, including space suits “armor-like”, glass-domed hydroponic farms, water extraction and oxygen generation for fuel, igloo-shaped huts, and even railroads.

“The human race is remarkably fortunate to have a full-sized world so close at hand to experiment with,” Clarke wrote. “Before targeting the planets, we had an opportunity to perfect our techniques on our satellite.”

Since Clarke’s detailed deliberations on the moon base, PopSci has often covered himself the latest perspectives in lunar stations, yet the last time anyone set foot on the moon was December 1972. Despite previous false starts, such as the Constellation Program in the early 2000s, NASA’s Artemis program aims to improve the calculation of the lunar base change. This time around, experts say the air — and attitude — surrounding NASA’s latest bid for the moon is filled with a different kind of determination.

“You can talk to anyone in town [space] community,” says Adrienne Dove, a planetary scientist at the University of Central Florida. “You can talk to the people who have been with us for 50 years or you can talk to the new people, but this time it just feels real.” Dove’s optimism doesn’t just come from the Artemis 1 rocket launched at the Kennedy Space Center launch is ready. She sees myriad differentiating factors this time around, including collaboration between private companies and NASA, growing international support for the space governance framework, the Artemis Accords, and competition from rival nations like China and Russia to stake a lunar presence. Perhaps one of the biggest arguments made by lunar base proponents is the need for a springboard to send humans even deeper into space. “We want to learn how to live on the moon so we can go to Mars,” says Dove.

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[Related: How Tiangong station will make China a force in the space race]

Mark Vande Hei, a NASA astronaut who returned to Earth in March 2022 after spending 355 consecutive days on the International Space Station (ISS), which broke a US record, highlights the occasion. “We haven’t got that planetary object, the moon, too far away. And we can buy off the enormous risk of going to Mars by learning how to live on another planetary object that is relatively close for a long time.”

Since Sputnik debuted as the first artificial satellite in 1957, the Soviet Union has deployed several short-lived space stations; NASA’s Apollo missions allowed humans to walk on the moon; NASA’s fleet of space shuttles (now retired) flew 135 missions; the ISS has been orbiting the earth for more than two decades; more than 4,500 artificial satellites are now sweeping the sky; and a number of private companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin have begun launching rockets and launching payloads into space.

But no moon base.

Because exploring the moon is not like exploring the earth. Aside from being 240,000 miles away on a trajectory that requires slicing through the dense atmosphere while escaping our planet’s gravity, and then traversing the vacuum of space once on the moon, those lie Daytime temperatures between 250°F during the day and -208°F at night. Although water can exist in the form of ice, it must be mined and extracted to be useful. The oxygen-poor atmosphere is so thin that it cannot protect human residents from meteorite impacts of all sizes or solar radiation. There is no food source. Also, lunar soil, or regolith, is so fine, sharp-edged, and electrostatically charged that it not only clogs machines and lungs, but can also cut through clothing and flesh.

“It’s a very hostile environment,” says Dove, whose specialty is moondust. She is currently working on several lunar missions, such as Commercial Lunar Payload Services or CLPS, which will use robotic landers to explore the moon before humans arrive on the future manned Artemis missions. While acknowledging the challenges of habitability, Dove is quick to name a series of solutions, beginning with the original campground: the moon’s south pole. “This region appears to be rich in ice resources that can be used as water or as fuel,” says Dove. Also, there is plenty of sunlight on mountain tops where solar panels could be sited. She adds that “there might be some rare earth elements that can be really useful.” Rare earth elements – there are 17 metals in this category – are, well, rare on earth, but they are essential to electronics manufacturing. Finding her on the moon would be a blessing.

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A PopSci History in July 1985 detailed plans proposed by various space visionaries to colonize the moon and exploit its resources. Potential technologies included laboratory and habitat modules, a factory to extract water and oxygen for subsistence and fuel, and mining operations for raw moon minerals – a valuable resource that could prove useful and generate income for settlers. While NASA can provide the boost needed to get a lunar base off the ground, it’s the promise of an off-world gold rush for these rare, potentially valuable elements that could solidify and expand them.

“I hope this is just the beginning of a commercial venture on the moon,” says Vande Hei. He looks forward to seeing how companies will find ways to be profitable through the use of resources on the moon. “At some point we need to be able to travel and no longer rely on the logistics chain that starts from Earth,” adds Vande Hei in the long term. “We need to be able to travel places and use the resources.”

[Related: Space tourism is on the rise. Can NASA keep up with it?]

And space is lucrative. In 2020, the global space industry generated approximately $370 billion in revenue, a number based primarily on the construction of rockets and satellites and the hardware and software that support them. Morgan Stanley, the US investment bank, estimates that the industry could generate $1 trillion in revenue in less than two decades, a growth rate predicted in no small part to be driven by the new Space Command branch of the US is driven by the military. But those rising numbers mostly reflect economic activity in Earth orbit and what it might take to land on the moon — but they don’t reflect the potential of turning the moon into an economic powerhouse. One can only guess what happens next. The big dollar signs are undoubtedly a reason the tech moguls behind private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are now investing heavily in space.

Progress toward deeper spaceflight – and possible long-term human colonization on the moon or beyond – calls for larger ethical and moral conversations. “It’s a bit Wild West-y,” says Dove. Although the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the more recent Artemis Accords strive to “provide a safe and transparent environment conducive to facilitating exploration, science, and commercial activity for all mankind,” according to NASA’s website, there are no rules or regulations, for example, to regulate activities such as mining or extracting valuable rare earth elements from the moon for private profit. “There are a number of people looking at the policy implications and figuring out how we start putting policies and ethics in place before all of this happens,” adds Dove. But if the moon isn’t spewing out its own version of unobtanium — the priceless element mined in the film avatar— or if regulations are too draconian, an emerging lunar economy will find it difficult to sustain itself before larger and more promising planetary outposts like Mars come to fruition and capitalize on its resources. After all, the cost and hassle of construction and sustainability have been the main obstacles to establishing a lunar base since the Apollo program sparked interest in more concrete plans.

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Dove isn’t really concerned that private companies will exit the space sector — there’s little doubt they’ll find a way to capitalize on it. Rather, she sees politics as the biggest weakness of the lunar base program. “Politics is always on my mind with all these big ventures,” she adds. Not only domestic politics, but also international politics will be involved. “We see that at the ISS.”

As a retired military officer who was living on the ISS with Russian cosmonauts when Russia invaded Ukraine, Vande Hei also worries about international conflicts that derail space programs. “If we have a world war in Europe, if we are just fighting to survive [on Earth], space exploration will not be high on the list of priorities.” But he also sees a bright side. He sees international competition — or a lunar base race — as a healthy way to create a sense of urgency. Vande Hei estimates that “a lunar base is something we could do in there [this] Generation.”

Dove also sees the possibilities that laboratory facilities on the moon could open up for future space exploration — including her own. “The moon is very interesting for understanding Earth’s history,” she says. “I would like to do science on the moon.”

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