Is it Time for a Permanent Moon Base?
‘A manned base on the moon?’ appeared in the April 1952 issue of Popular Science.
Lately, all eyes are turned towards the moon. NASA has another launch attempt tentatively scheduled next week for the highly-anticipated Artemis 1 uncrewed mission to orbit Earth’s satellite, one of the first steps to set up an outpost on the lunar surface .
But humans—and science fiction writers—have long imagined a moon base, one that would be a fixture of future deep space exploration. About five years before Sputnik and 17 years before the Apollo missions, the chairman of the British Interplanetary Society, Arthur C. Clarke, penned a story for the 1952 April issue of Popular Science describing what he thought a settlement on the moon could look like. Clarke, who would go on to write 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, envisioned novel off-Earth systems, including spacesuits that would “resemble suits of armor,” glass-domed hydroponic farms, water mining and oxygen extraction for fuel, igloo-shaped huts, and even railways.
“The human race is remarkably fortunate in having so near at hand a full-sized world with which to experiment,” Clarke wrote. “Before we aim at the planets, we will have had a chance of perfecting our techniques on our satellite.”
Since Clarke’s detailed moon base musings, PopSci has frequently covered the latest prospects in lunar stations, yet the last time anyone even set foot on the moon was December 1972 . Despite past false starts, like the Constellation Program in the early 2000s, NASA’s Artemis program aims to change moon base calculus. This time, experts say that the air—and attitude—surrounding NASA’s latest bid for the moon is charged with a different kind of determination.
Ever since Sputnik made its debut as the first artificial satellite in 1957, the Soviet Union deployed several short-lived space stations; NASA’s Apollo Missions enabled humans to walk on the moon; NASA’s space shuttle fleet (now retired) flew 135 missions; the ISS has been orbiting the Earth for more than two decades; more than 4,500 artificial satellites now sweep through the sky; and a series of private companies, like SpaceX and Blue Origin, have begun launching rockets and delivering payloads into space.
Up to this point, we got all this cool stuff, but still no moon base.
That’s because exploring the moon is not like exploring the Earth. Besides being 240,000 miles away on a trajectory that requires slicing through dense atmosphere while escaping our planet’s gravitational grip, and then traversing the vacuum of space, once on the moon, daily temperatures range between 250°F during the day and -208°F at night. Although there may be water in the form of ice, it will have to be mined and extracted to be useful. The oxygen deprived atmosphere is so thin it can’t shield human inhabitants from meteor impacts of all sizes or solar radiation. There’s no source of food. Plus, lunar soil, or regolith, is so fine, sharp, and electrostatically charged, it not only clogs machinery and lungs but can also cut through clothes and flesh.
A PopSci story in July 1985 detailed elaborate plans proposed by various space visionaries to colonize the moon and make use of its resources. Among the potential technologies were laboratory and habitat modules, a factory to extract water and oxygen for subsistence and fuel, and mining operations for raw moon minerals—a precious resource that could come in handy and provide income for settlers. While NASA may provide the needed boost to get a moon base going, it’s the promise of an off-world gold rush for these rare, potentially precious elements that could solidify and expand it.
The progress towards deeper space travel—and potential long-term human colonization on the moon or beyond—begs for larger ethical and moral conversations. “It’s a little bit Wild West-y,” says Dove. Although the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and the more recent Artemis Accords strive “to create a safe and transparent environment which facilitates exploration, science, and commercial activities for all of humanity to enjoy,” according to NASA’s website, there are no rules or regulations, for instance, to govern activities like mining or extracting from the moon valuable rare earth elements for private profit. “There’s a number of people looking at the policy implications and figuring out how we start putting in place policies and ethics rules before all of this happens,” Dove adds. But, if the moon does not cough up its own version of unobtanium—the priceless element mined in the film Avatar—or if regulations are too draconian, it will be difficult for a nascent moon-economy to sustain itself before larger and more promising planetary outposts, like Mars, come to fruition and utilize its resources. After all, the building and sustainability costs and effort have been leading obstacles of establishing a moon base ever since the Apollo program spurred interest in more concrete plans.