It seems to me….
“Retain the vision for space exploration. If we turn our backs on the vision again, we’re going to have to live in a secondary position in human space flight for the rest of the century.” ~ Buzz Aldrin.
Humanity’s future is in space. For eons, humans have looked to the stars, our drive for exploration fueled by the presence of our looming, unavoidable Moon. One day, bases all across the solar system may be erected for scientific advancement, profitability, and the survival of our species. But it all has to start somewhere. We are fortunate to have such a pristine stepping stone as the Moon for our endeavor into that final frontier. What better place to begin that quest than on our very own Moon?
The only problem, the Moon is extremely inhospitable; Mars only slightly less so. Daytime temperatures on the lunar surface exceed 100° Celsius, nighttime temperatures can dip as far as -180° Celsius. Still, we MUST go, and as quickly as possible if we are to survive as a species. Having an entire species confined to one planet is simply asking for humanity’s annihilation.
Unfortunately, it might already be too late; our best opportunity was back in the 1970s. No human (and most likely no one else) has set foot on the Moon since the Apollo 17 manned mission to the Moon in December 1972 despite having developed all the necessary technical expertise to do so. Shortsighted politicians always distrustful of science and technology terminated one of the most beneficial programs in history, one whose investments still continue to pay dividends.
The probability of resurrecting any meaningful manned exploration program remains extremely low as long as extremist conservative neo-fascists whose only mantra seems to be “Cut taxes. Cut taxes. Cut…” remain in control of Congress. Optimistically, our nation will replace most current members – both liberal and conservative – with progressives able to once again get our nation moving and to repair the substantial damage and decay past members have caused.
Hopefully, recent bestselling novels such as The Martian and Artemis, though not totally scientifically accurate, will rekindle interest in manned space exploration. Maybe in the intervening years since our last trip to the moon, we have learned at least one important lesson: when we return this time, it is not just for a visit – it is to permanently stay.
Admittedly, space exploration IS expensive but the last thing that should be done is take money to support healthcare and humanitarian efforts from NASA’s budget: money spent on the program serves as an investment in our future. NASA is not our budget problem; it is a grossly overfunded military. The value of NASA’s research far outweighs the financial drain on the national budget. Historically NASA has always led scientific innovation throughout the rest of the world, NASA was conceived to push the boundaries of science and go where no man has gone before. NASA’s 18.4 billion-dollar budget accounts for a very small portion (0.5 percent) of the total National budget (for comparison, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is projected to cost 1.5 trillion dollars over its supposed 55-year lifespan or about 28 billion dollars a year).
Unfortunately, NASA’s current philosophical approach to manned space exploration remains firmly mired in the past and out-of-touch with current capabilities and expectations. Congressional budget requests for manned and unmanned research and development should be totally separate so the public could easily determine request and approval priorities. NASA does needs to retain management and funding control but relinquish hardware fabrication and mission operations to private enterprise. It should curtail current development of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft (MPCV) and turn over all associated development to Boeing or a space consortium. While some of Project Orion’s intended missions are arguably worthwhile, the vehicle remains only a scaled-up version of what has already been accomplished over fifty years ago. This obviously is a case of been there, done that. NASA needs to move out of its comfort zone and push the envelope – the essential reason for its creation.
Everyone agrees in principle with the basic need for manned space exploration but funding to do so has been continuously postponed. The basic premise of President Obama’s proposal to bypass the Moon and proceed directly to Mars was badly flawed on essentially every aspect of his proposal. A more realistic goal would be establishment of a permanent manned lunar scientific and manufacturing base providing a closer to Earth experience in which to develop the ability to establish an off-Earth ability to work and live in a hostile environment.
The Moon would be a valuable training and development ground not only for astronauts but also for the Earth-based operations and equipment required to support human spaceflight. Spaceflight engineers need to learn how to work on an extraterrestrial surface and the most logical location to do that is only three days away rather than Mars which is a minimum of six months distant.
Being able to reach the Moon in a matter of days allows for faster development and use of fewer resources. Light takes only 1.3 seconds to reach the Moon allowing near real-time communications and remote control of machines, something impossible on any other major astronomical body. The short travel time to the Moon would allow for a quick emergency supply of materials or in an urgent crew evacuation situation.
While primary emphasis should be on scientific research, it also would be useful in developing self-sustaining capabilities, construction of work and living areas from locally available resources, and production of materials useful in future further-distant exploration such as on Mars. The lunar soil can be a source of materials+minerals required to build rockets. There is water (ice) that could be converted into propulsion fuel through electrolysis (hydrogen, oxygen) allowing more economical smaller launch vehicles to use the Moon as a way-station en-route to other destinations. Being able to launch rockets assumes we are producing rockets and fueling them on the Moon itself. Using the Moon as a base platform can drastically reduce the costs and allow for greatly improved development efficiency.
Prior to any attempt to establish a permanent base on the Moon, numerous technological developments, advanced preparation and planning, and considerable resource pre-deployment would be required. Any attempt to establish a continuously staffed base or permanent settlement on the Moon must safely meet the challenges posed by the Moon’s surface environment.
Some basic decisions regarding establishment of a permanent base should probably be determined by the Moon itself; e.g., the initial base location.
Establishing a permanent base will require significant power and most proposals seem to assume all needs could be met by a nuclear reactor. While a reactor might be sufficient to meet initial needs, the weight of any reactor or system of reactors adequate to satisfy long-term needs would exceed reasonable launch capabilities. Many items would have to be pre-deployed and transport of other critical items would be a better use of available capacities. Photovoltaics provide a better solution.
The Sun shines on the Moon amply and predictably – but only half the time. The Moon’s equator is tilted only slightly by ~1.5 degrees to the orbit of the Earth around the Sun. Its orbital motion is such that some peaks near its poles are constantly facing the Sun resulting in some of its peaks being in continual sunlight and able to produce constant solar energy for a base stationed there or nearby. Otherwise, any base at another location would need to store photovoltaic energy, most likely using hydrogen, metals, and oxygen, for use during dark periods.
Solar cells could be derived from lunar silicon, a byproduct of oxygen extraction, or from lunar ilmenite which also has been shown to be photovoltaic. Conversion would not need to be extremely efficient if a simply obtained local material was used as the base semiconductor material. Electrical power derived from the Sun could conceivably even become the first major export to the Earth from the Moon.
Initial shelter for workers constructing permanent work and living accommodations probably would utilize the transport vehicles used to take them to the Moon. Safety concerns necessitate redundancy so when something fails or goes wrong, alternatives are available. Airlocks between shelters would provide emergency capabilities until repairs were completed. The quantity of items needing to be pre-deployed would result in multiple transport vehicles available for various other possible uses including fabrication and other functions.
Work/living areas should be placed underground to provide adequate protection from ionizing radiation. Unprocessed soil can serve as shielding against the diurnal temperature fluctuations and, more importantly, against radiation hazards unscreened by an atmosphere and un-deflected by a magnetic field. A compacted layer of lunar regolith at least 2 meters thick would need to be placed over permanent habitats. With shielding of this thickness, the colonists’ yearly exposure could be held to 5 rems per year if they spent no more than 20 percent of each Earth month on the surface. In order to provide an overall level of protection of no more than 5 rems per year even in the event of an extreme solar flare, such as occurred in February 1956, the depth of shielding would need to be doubled.
All equipment has to be electrically powered including backhoes and other heavy construction equipment. While an object’s weight on the Moon will be only 1/6 its weight on Earth, its mass remains the same. If an object’s mass on Earth is 60 Kgs, then its weight would be 600 Newtons but when taken to the Moon, it would have a weight of only 100 Newtons but its mass would still be 60 Kgs. An object might therefore be easier to move but workers familiar with an Earth weight/mass relationship might experience judgement difficulties. Backhoes to bury shelters can therefore be somewhat smaller than comparable equipment required on Earth.
Production of oxygen and nutritional needs, primarily food and water, will, at least initially, require continuous closed-loop recycling of all air and body wastes until sufficient production capability is available to supplement what has been transported from Earth. Recycling never can achieve 100 percent conversion efficiency but oxygen can be generated from aluminum, silicon, and other mineral extraction. The goal should be 100 percent recycling of all items within six months, otherwise the quantity of waste accumulation would become unmanageable.
There is an abundance of water’s chemical components: oxygen and hydrogen. Oxygen is the most abundant chemical element (45 percent by weight) in the lunar soils from which it may be extracted by various processes. In contrast, the concentration of hydrogen in lunar soil is very low but the total quantity available is nevertheless quite large and can be extracted by heating the soil to about 700ºC.
Human food requirements can be measured in terms of total energy, commonly measured in Food Calories which are equivalent to 4184 Joules of available energy. The requirements are also measured by a wide variety of specific nutrients in explicit amounts. Agriculture would require significant area availability even if most items were grown hydroponically. As initial priority must be given to expansion of work/living areas, nutritional needs would need to be met through closed-loop waste matter recycling.
Microbial bioreactors can be used to break down plant and human waste so that the primary inorganic nutrients (N, P, K, Ca, Mg, and S) are retained in a water-soluble form that can be directly returned to appropriate variety of biota but considerable development effort remains necessary to develop a totally satisfactory system. As of now, algal systems are photosynthetically efficient but an excess of indigestible cell wall material, nucleic acids, and chlorophyll make algae unpalatable for more than a few percent of daily calories. Systems might require a combination of other material, such as plankton or krill, in addition to algae; all of which will most likely require genetic modification. While some systems have been tested, this still primarily remains an area of research. Only a limited variety of food items would most likely be available satisfying only marginal taste preferences.
Most materials necessary for food production, including carbon and nitrogen, are available in large quantities from the lunar soil, although in very low concentrations. Permashadow regions are an excellent trap for volatiles (chemicals which would vaporize in space if exposed to sunlight), including water, carbon dioxide, methane, and ammonia. All other nutrients necessary to life are likewise present in the soil and pioneer settlers should be able to obtain these elements by heating the soil. Once provided with lunar water, carbon dioxide, oxygen, and nitrogen, plants should be able to extract nutrients directly from the lunar soil.
Aluminum and silicon are produced as byproducts of oxygen extraction from lunar soils and will most likely be used in shelters and other construction. Apollo 16 soil samples indicated a relative prevalence of aluminum (27 percent Al2O3, 5 percent FeO) which could be separated by vacuum distillation. Lunar regolith is primarily igneous silicates such as anorthosites and several processes are available for production of adequate quality silicon.
Aluminum can be fabricated into beams and other necessary construction materials could be made of glass; molten lunar soil could be cast into silicate sheets or spun into fiberglass which might have greater strength than similar products on Earth lacking water to interfere with polymer bonds. Partially distilled in a solar furnace, soil residue may take on the composition of a good cement, which when combined with locally produced water and the abundance of aggregate would become concrete.
Transporting items between the Earth and the Moon currently is dependent on chemical rockets that require hydrogen and oxygen. Hauling these propellants from Earth would be expensive and it would be more cost effective to produce them from the lunar soil. Forty tons of hydrogen, a reasonable estimate of the amount needed for all transportation from low Earth orbit for a year, could be obtained from just 30 m2 of soil mined to a depth of 1 m.
Rather than shipping items to the Moon directly from Earth’s surface, it probably would be less expensive over multi-missions to use a vehicle dedicated for this task to ferry items from Earth orbit to the Moon. Other potentially less expensive alternatives, such as railguns, could prove feasible for launching payloads from the lunar surface to lunar orbit and between lunar and Earth orbital transfer points. Chemical power will most likely remain the primary propellant from lunar orbit down to the lunar surface as well as to and from the Earth’s surface.
A considerable number of workers will be required to perform initial construction and setup. While anyone should be able to extend their stay, initial assignments probably should be limited to a maximum of six months as work will be physically hazardous and demanding. New and replacement workers along with additional equipment would need to arrive no less than every three months. As construction could proceed more quickly using multiple construction shifts, the number of workers that could be useful would only be limited by how quickly they could be transported and shelter provided. Some categories of workers; e.g., safety; would need to constantly be on duty.
Worker specialization categories would include at a minimum construction, medical/psychiatry, safety, communications, feeding, and power. Engineering and other categories also would be necessary. While more workers would be highly desirable, a minimum of twelve would be necessary to begin initial facility setup in anticipation of more arriving as quickly as possible.
Critical major component subsystems include:
- Shelter preparation and construction
- Waste matter recycling
- Oxygen and water purification and generation
- Nutritional provision
- Construction material production (aluminum, silicon…)
Comprehensive analysis of every detail is essential to establish a permanent functional base. Every item and function must be thoroughly tested until it achieves a 100 percent confidence level. Even with total redundancy and failure backup plans for every contingency, malfunctions will occur and must be anticipated.
Rather than formulating specific plans and specifications for the various mission categories, NASA should rely on strengthening and ensuring long-term competitiveness of private companies through centers similar to those in President Obama’s proposed National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI), possibly in conjunction with major research universities. Primary responsibility for mission objectives should be given to private companies and venture capitalists – it would be preferable for item delivery to be done by UPS or FedEx, feeding by Aramark or Centerplate, or sheltering by Holiday Inns or Best Western. As long as task completion is accomplished within project constraints, most details are immaterial.
NASA should consider utilizing the same process successfully used by ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) for technological advances. E.g., a “Grand Challenge” could be released for a waste recycling capability able to accept human wastes without substance rejection, able to provide sufficient nourishment for a minimum of fifty people, and able to fit within a container 50′-6″ to 60′-9″ in length, 9′-4″ to 9′-6″ wide, and 10′-10″ to 11′ high (a standard railway boxcar). The same process also would be effective for development of modules for construction material production and other component subsystems.
It was not the intent of this document to provide a detail analysis of how to establish a permanently-manned lunar base; other more comprehensive considerations are available from other sources including NASA, The Moon Society, and The Artemis Project. Anyone interested in specific plans should access those sources.
Mistakes will be made. Prior to moving on to Mars, it is best to begin our ventures into space closer to home. Only after learning from those mistakes should consideration be given to that next small step on our eventual path to the distant stars.
 Buzz Aldrin is an American engineer, former astronaut, and Command Pilot in the U.S. Air Force. As Lunar Module Pilot on the Apollo 11 mission, he and mission commander Neil Armstrong were the first two humans to land on the Moon.
 Weir, Andy. The Martian, Broadway Book, 2011.
 Weir, Andy. Artemis, Crown, 2017.
 The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was created on 1 October 1958 from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) which had been founded on 3 March 1915.
 Lewis, Robert H. Human Safety in the Lunar Environment, NASA, http://www.nss.org/settlement/nasa/spaceresvol4/human.html, 1992. This was originally part of a NASA report titled Space Settlements: Spreading Life Throughout The Solar System.
 Sargent Jr, John F. The Obama Administration’s Proposal to Establish a National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, Congressional Research Service, http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42625.pdf, 28 August 2012.
 Beyond Earth, https://www.nasa.gov/exploration/home/why_moon.html, 22 May 2011 (no longer being updated).