The Moon landing was a giant leap. The next leap is staying there.

We know we can get there. Next step: live there. And after that? The cosmic equivalent of Everest base camp. How we plan on colonizing the Moon


 
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A rendering of Foster + Partners lunar outpost, near the Moon's south pole.

A rendering of Foster + Partners lunar outpost, near the Moon’s south pole.

When Apollo 17, the last manned mission to the Moon, left the lunar surface in December 1972, people on Earth seemed to check it off the cosmic to-do list. Been there, done that. The grey orb was dry and deadly, with freezing 14-day nights that dipped to –270° C and equally long days that reached a blood-boiling 100° C. Mars, meanwhile, was calling. Humanity’s interplanetary ambitions wandered elsewhere.

Then, in late 2009, scientists confirmed the existence of water and found evidence of water at the Moon’s southern pole. “Finding that stuff was a big deal,” says Paul Spudis, a Houston-based lunar scientist who has worked with NASA and the White House. “It showed us that a permanent habitation of the Moon was possible.”

Suddenly, the Moon was once again the solar system’s top travel destination—and, this time, the plan would be to stay. Stephen Hawking, Buzz Aldrin and European Space Agency (ESA) director Johann-Dietrich Wörner all threw their support behind colonizing the Moon. Japan and Russia both announced plans to build lunar colonies by 2030. And, late last year, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield said a Moon base, not Mars, should be humanity’s next giant leap. “There’s a public appetite for going to Mars right now in a big hurry,” he said, “but there’s no tech to make it safe enough and affordable.”

Only three days away, the Moon would be the perfect place to learn how to live in space. We already know we can get there. The new question is: can we stay?

Related: Chris Hadfield’s Maclean’s essay on space exploration: ‘What’s next?’

Humans have dreamed of doing just that ever since they realized that gleaming light in the sky, ever shifting from sliver to circle, was actually a rock floating in space. Before science brought us there, science fiction did. The second-century author Lucian’s True History, the earliest known piece of fiction to depict space travel, followed a group of sailors swept up to the Moon on an ocean whirlwind. More recently, the Big Three of science fiction—Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein—as well as H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and even Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, have taken turns imagining long-term life on the Moon.

In the 20th century, those fictional tales began to overlap with real ambitions. By 1961, the American military had envisioned two separate lunar bases: Horizon, a 12-soldier settlement predicted to open in 1966; and Lunex, an underground colony of 21 by 1968. Neither, of course, panned out. Then again, no earthlings knew then what we know today.

The discovery of lunar water is significant because it confirms the existence of a life-sustaining resource—one that costs a fortune to regularly ship to the ISS. Whether by coincidence, fate or divine providence, that water also happens to be located at the lunar poles. Unlike the Moon’s other, alternately hot-and-cold regions, the poles receive near-constant sunlight, which could power settlement through solar panels, and aren’t home to lethal weather patterns. “They remain a nice, toasty –50° C,” Spudis explains. “You can deal with that easily in space terms.” Consequently, Shackleton Crater, a 21-km-wide crater on the Moon’s southern pole fittingly named after the Antarctic explorer, became the de facto front-runner for lunar real estate.

Related: Read our annotated interview series with Canadian astronauts

But if water is all that’s there, why exactly would we go there? “I could give you a thousand scientific reasons why I want to go study the Moon: it’s interesting, there’s great science we can do, we could build a telescope,” Spudis says. “But that doesn’t really move people. They need to see some practical value to it.” The real worth of the Moon, Spudis contends, resides in its ability to transform our Earth-based space program into a space-based space program—that is, to turn the Moon into our gateway to the galaxy.

Because of the Earth’s gravitational pull, it is monumentally expensive to launch anything—spacecraft, humans, fuel—out of its orbit. The Moon, with one-sixth of Earth’s gravity, doesn’t have that problem. If humans can colonize the Moon and turn that all-important lunar water into propellant, Spudis says, we “solve the major stumbling block of getting significant mass and power to different places in space.” The colony would be the cosmic equivalent of Everest base camp, he adds, with one major difference: “The goal is not any particular destination; it’s all the destinations.”

Setting up that cosmic base camp in the first place would be a challenge. Simply shooting the necessary materials out of Earth’s orbit could cost hundreds of billions of dollars. That’s why Foster + Partners, a London-based international architecture firm working on Moon structures with the ESA, decided they wouldn’t send materials; they’d use what was already on the Moon: regolith, moon dust that could be cheaply used to provide protection the Apollo missions never needed. “The longest Apollo mission was three days,” says Xavier De Kestelier, the lead partner on the project. “It was an extended camping trip—albeit a very expensive one.”

(Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

(Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

With regolith as its building block, De Kestelier’s team devised a plan: First, send a lander—containing a cylindrical module, an inflatable dome and two robots—to the lunar surface. Upon landing, inflate the dome on one end of the horizontal cylinder and dispatch the robots. Then use the robots, equipped with 3D-printing heads, to gather regolith and print a layer—hollow and honeycombed, like a bird’s bone—on top of the inflated dome over the course of roughly three months. The final result would be a two-storey habitation that houses four people and uses its original cylinder, which would contain the life-support systems, as an airlock. It would be strong enough to fend off extreme temperatures, meteorites and solar and gamma radiation—constant threats given the Moon’s lack of atmosphere. “We wanted to give a global vision of what [a lunar habitation] could be—not just an artist’s impression, but something really imbedded within the science,” De Kestelier explains. “We made an effort to be as accurate as possible, but every part of a mission like that would still need so much research.”

The effect of low gravity on the human body is no exception. Experiences on the ISS indicate zero gravity’s repercussions—poor circulation, decreased bone density, weakened muscles—can be managed, but long-term consequences are still largely unknown.

Another great unknown: cost. A NASA-reviewed report, released in late July, optimistically suggests it could colonize the Moon for as little as $10 billion, provided it could partner with the ESA, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and others. When Spudis enlisted a NASA engineer to help him calculate the costs of his own plan, he arrived at $88 billion over 16 or more years. Author and The Atlantic contributing editor Gregg Easterbrook, an outspoken critic of space colonization, reckons the figure is likely to be much higher. With current technology, he says, it could cost hundreds of billions of dollars—perhaps a trillion—to establish a 100-person colony. “We’re talking about the entire United States federal budget,” he says. “At that point, you just laugh. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

Related: The rocket ship revolutionaries

Few of the most-cited motivations for a Moon base move Easterbrook. For the science, he says, send robots; for resources, tap Antarctica or the seabed first; for a Plan B, in the event we wreck our planet, “invest capital in reducing pollution rather than build cans floating in outer space.” “I hope that humanity exists long enough to begin colonization of other planets,” he continues, “but it has no relevance to your life or mine.”

Spudis, too, sees the bulk of Moon colonization as the purview of future generations. “I’m 62, and I’m near the end of my career,” he says. “I’ve got to leave something.” Doing that can be tough when the space community is a “sort of circular firing squad,” competing for funding and attention. “At some point—and I have to believe this, or I would quit tomorrow—logic will prevail,” he adds. “People will see that what’s holding us back is this model of having to launch everything from the bottom of the deepest gravity well in the solar system. To break that tyranny, that log jam, we’ve got to think differently.”

Get to know the great unknowable. Read Maclean’s special Space issue, on physical newsstands this week and on Next Issue, Apple Newsstand and Google Play.


 

The Moon landing was a giant leap. The next leap is staying there.

  1. We have the technology…..we don’t have the political will.

    Yet there it is…..the Knowledge Economyy…..laid out right in front of us.

    • Can we first focus on fixing the earth before deciding to messing up another world ;-) we have more people starving and food problems with nature on the verge of being wiped out! why go where there is nothing but dust and extreme conditions #notfeasable

      • the cost of $1 burger should be $1 in every parts of this world to solve the starving and famine

  2. Once we actually put a man on the moon and not Hollywood it, then we can start thinking about colonizing it. One step at a time.

  3. I agree with Emilyone, we do have the technology for going back to the Moon, and likely even staying there (or we would gain it there).

    And I also agree we don’t have the political will to go there.

    Beyond that though, we don’t have the political need like we did when we originally went to the Moon (i.e. the Cold War), nor do we have an economic need for anything on the Moon either.

    It’s a conundrum for Human SpaceFlight (HSF) supporters like myself, and it affects every destination beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO), including the asteroid belt and Mars.

    Though Congress is currently funding NASA to build a gigantic new rocket (the Space Launch System, or SLS) and a “Apollo on steroids” new spacecraft, Congress so far has refused to fund any missions or payloads for them, meaning that they are just being funded for political reasons (i.e. jobs in certain political districts). So that is a huge amount of money that is being wasted that could have gone towards getting us to some destination – which would include the Moon.

    The private sector doesn’t yet have a need to go to the Moon either, and so far most of the private efforts are focused on space stations in LEO (Bigelow), mining asteroids, or making humanity multi-planetary by setting up a colony on Mars (i.e. Elon Musk). But all of these efforts are still very early stage.

    So we are likely decades away from returning humans to the Moon. Not because of the technology, but because of money. Solve the money issue, and that makes every destination in space easier to get to.

    • If Columbus had waited for everything to be fixed in Europe , he’d still be waiting.

      Are you saying you can’t handle more than one thing at a time?

      • What are you talking about? Quote what I wrote that you are discussing, because you’re making no sense.

        • If you don’t recognize a need to go to the moon and Mars, there’s nothing I can do to help you .

          • Apparently you missed the part where I stated “for Human SpaceFlight (HSF) supporters like myself”…

        • ‘Beyond that though, we don’t have the political need like we did when we originally went to the Moon (i.e. the Cold War), nor do we have an economic need for anything on the Moon either.’

          Yeah we do. When does your support kick in?

          • Are you trying to educate, or are you trying to be “mysterious”?

            What is the need, who needs it, and what economic pain is being caused by it?

            And just so my motivations are clear, I want there to be some form of demand for expanding humanity out into space, but so far I have not seen it. To me that means that the cost of accessing and traveling through space is still too high. If you have other conclusions, state them – don’t miss the opportunity to address a large audience.

        • Many countries have space programs, not just the US….there is indeed a ‘space race’. The US is currentl hitchinng transport with the Russians

          You can mine Helium 3 on the moon….solve our energy problems

          Asteroid hits are kinda messy…..and Bruce Willis is getting on in years. We need an ‘exit’ doorr’

          What’s wrong with you……space travel is not in question. We’re discussing location

          • “there is indeed a ‘space race’”

            A race to where? At least with Apollo we self-designated the Moon as the goal, and as of today not even the Moon is part of any race.

            “The US is currentl hitchinng transport with the Russians”

            Already being solved – the Commercial Crew program.

            “You can mine Helium 3 on the moon”

            Fusion has not been perfected, so as of today there is not an economic demand big enough for Helium 3 to support government funding. But if that day comes, commercial companies can fund that.

            “Asteroid hits are kinda messy”

            Extinction is a potential issue, but it’s been how many millions of years since the last big one hit? Taxpayers need to be convinced that there is a current need for their money to protect the Earth, and U.S. Taxpayer won’t want to bear the entire burden, so it needs to be a global effort. Still, you can address this using robotic systems, so this doesn’t help the human side of space exploration.

            “space travel is not in question.”

            Preaching to the church/choir. However if you want to rely on U.S. Taxpayer money, the U.S. Taxpayer and the politicians they elect to spend their money have to be convinced, and so far nothing on your list is something that is needed today. Nothing personal about that, no one else has a better list either.

            Because of that, what I do is (in my own meager way) support those things that lower the cost to access and travel through space, since that will make it that much easier to go places without politicians getting involved. Plus helping to find consensus within the space community for a plan for when government money is available – although getting consensus about what the next step should be is like talking about whose religion is better, so I don’t pin my hopes on that happening soon.

        • We were the third nation in space so we already have a space program…..and we participate in the space programs of other countries, so there is no need to convince anyone of anything.

          As I suspected, you have no real interest in this subect …..you simply want to turn what was an interesting topic into another dreary lecture on taxes…..you’re Earl Cowan in disguise.

          Bye

          • “We were the third nation in space so we already have a space program…”

            The subject is the future, not the past.

            “…and we participate in the space programs of other countries, so there is no need to convince anyone of anything.”

            If taxpayer money is needed, then yes, constant convincing is needed. Where do you think NASA gets it’s money from?

            Maybe you’re not from the U.S., but here in the U.S. Congress decides what gets funded, not the President, and not NASA. And so far our Congress does not see a need to go to the Moon as part of some “space race”, fund NASA to get into the lunar He3 extraction business, nor to protect us from asteroids. If you have a problem with that take it up with the U.S. Congress.

            “…turn what was an interesting topic into another dreary lecture on taxes…”

            You’re naive if you think government funded money doesn’t come from taxpayers. You think it grows on trees?

            Now if you want to be free of the subject of taxes, then maybe you should do what Elon Musk is doing – building your own business to do things in space. I will cheer you on!

            “As I suspected, you have no real interest in this subect”

            I’m a realist. Dreaming is good, but if you want to turn dreams into reality then you have to be realist. The money from government and private sources is not enough to fund going anywhere beyond LEO for quite a while, at least not at the cost levels we have today.

            Reduce the cost to access space and more things becomes affordable. Only then will talk about going to the Moon or Mars be realistic…

          • “you’re on a Canadian website you dummy, so Congress is irrelevant”

            You’re the one that brought up a space race, and I’m sure you we’re implying that Canada was going to lead a space race to the Moon. Or were you implying Canada was going to join up with Russia…

            “Elon Musk btw is heavily subsidized by taxes.”

            Winning contracts for work to be performed is not a subsidy. Even someone from Canada should know that… ;-)

            BTW, you pretend to be a space supporter, yet here you are lambasting other space supporters. Not a consensus builder, and not very Canadian from what I’ve experienced.

        • There is a space race involving numerous countries…..everyone is trying to get to the moon, to Mars, to asteroids…..the US isn’t the only country involved….it’s even falling behind.

          Didn’t read anything about Musk eh?

          You’re not a ‘space supporter’…..you’re a mouth from the south

          We get a lot of them….so learn something…..Canadians are polite, we’re not meek.

          • “…everyone is trying to get to the moon, to Mars, to asteroids…”

            Well then they must be making pitiful progress, because it’s impossible to see any semblance of a race at all. How much has Canada committed?

            “…the US isn’t the only country involved….it’s even falling behind.”

            The U.S. is not in a race at all. If anything a space race would be a waste of money if it’s goals were not aligned with actual needs. For the U.S. we leveraged the Apollo program into new capabilities and technologies, but it cost a heck of a lot of money. Not sure any country, especially in these tight financial times, is willing to commit that much money to a goal that has not clear ROI.

            “Didn’t read anything about Musk eh?”

            I’ve been following SpaceX in detail for over seven years, so I am quite aware of what they are doing, and what they aren’t doing.

            “You’re not a ‘space supporter’”

            It’s fine to criticize one’s goals (i.e. Moon first, asteroids first, etc.), but criticizing one’s basic commitment is something else. Again I say that you are not interested in building consensus, nor in helping out the space community as a whole. Sad to say…

            “Canadians are polite, we’re not meek.”

            You may find this hard to believe, but I’ve met a large amount of Canadians over the years, and I would agree with that description. However for you, the first part certainly does not apply.

        • The ROI on space ventures is excellent in fact

          You could afford your OWN ride if you stopped wasting money invading other countries.

          You have no clue about any of this, dooya…..like most Americans you know nothing about the 7 billion other people on the planet.

          But then again, like most Americans, you don’t know where you are.

          • “The ROI on space ventures is excellent in fact”

            Please show examples. For instance, show what the ROI would be of staying on the Moon (i.e. the topic of this article).

            “You could afford your OWN ride if you stopped wasting money invading other countries.”

            Not sure what you’re talking about. The U.S. Government can invade countries and pay for building rockets – we’ve been doing that for decades. Apollo was during the Vietnam War.

            Interestingly, the ISS, which Canada is one of the partners, was only approved by the U.S. Congress because it would keep former USSR scientists from becoming belligerents against the U.S. and it’s allies.

            “…like most Americans you know nothing about the 7 billion other people on the planet.”

            If you look at a map, the U.S. is less isolated from the rest of the world than Canada is, and we both have the same capabilities to travel around the world, so I’m not sure where you see a Canadian advantage. It’s not like you’re Germany, which is in the middle of a whole lot of countries – your only land border is with us.

            So what is your point? Canadians vacation more outside of your country? I know of many “snowbirds” that roost in the U.S., so we must not be that bad. ;-)

            “But then again, like most Americans, you don’t know where you are.”

            I’m pretty sure I do. I just got back from a trip abroad…

          • “LOL yada yada yada…..”

            You seem to forget that it’s not just the two of us that can see this conversation, but literally the whole world (if they were so interested). So by dodging the chance to provide information that backs up your argument you miss the chance to influence others – and it may even show that you don’t have a supportable argument.

            For me, when someone asks me to back up my claims, I do. The information may not be enough to convince all, but at least I try. Otherwise, if you can’t back up what you say, you might has well be typing “yada yada yada…..” ;-)

        • LOL You’re a newbie. The ‘whole world’ [rolls eyes] knows my background and that that I don’t need to humour the lightweights on here.

          I also don’t need to make any argument, or ‘supportive’ statements…..we are already in space, an will continue to go forward.

          • “LOL You’re a newbie.”

            Hardly. And I have a lot of public discussion history in space related matters to back that up.

            “The ‘whole world’ [rolls eyes] knows my background…”

            Being “famous” in Canada does not equal the ‘whole world’. Sorry to break that to you. And since I’m active in a lot of space related forums, I’d remember if we’d ever been on the same topic.

            “…and that that I don’t need to humour the lightweights on here.”

            Which proves my point that you don’t want to educate and build consensus. For space related stuff at least, most people don’t really pay attention, so when they do stumble across a topic like this one, you could be helping them to come up to speed on what the issues are and what is at stake. Instead you choose to be elitist, and snivel at the people whose tax money would be needed to fund any government support space efforts. Not very smart.

            “..we are already in space, an will continue to go forward.”

            That statement shows how ignorant you are about the tenuous foothold we have in space. As of today our “permanent” foothold in space – the ISS – is slated to end it’s mission in 2024, and there are no funded replacements for it – unless you’re Chinese. So Canadians will be in the same situation as Americans – lots of knowledge and capabilities, but no where to go.

            So I wouldn’t be so sure about our immediate future in space…

  4. I didn’t even read this article – once you’d put in your first paragraph that “freezing nights went down to -270C” I switched off. You do, of course realise that -270C is just 3 degrees above absolute zero? Nothing in all space gets below 3K because of the microwave background radiation.

  5. It was 60 years ago when the political power wanted to reach the moon. It took a decade or so (1969) but what will our new humans want for their future? From 1969 to Dec 21, 2012 and beyond. Watch HSF over the next 60 years. The Mayan’s political agenda wasn’t build on money or politics. Nor will ours…

  6. I’m certainly no expert on the subject of space travel, but this article seems to be claiming (certainly many in the comments are) that we have the technology to set up a colony on the moon, but I don’t think that’s entirely true. From what I understand, we still haven’t solved the problem of low gravity affects on the human body. That seems like a really big hurdle to get over before we can set up for potential habitation, no?

  7. I was excited in 1969 when it was discovered the moon wasn’t green cheese and Neill Armstrong did his one step on it. And while I admire the spirit, it’s really all nonsense – although the moon is a good place to send Emily and I wouldn’t mind paying taxes just for that!

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