GOOD

The Case for an International Moon Base

A lunar base might sound like science fiction, but it’s time to give the idea a shot.

Image by Gregory H. Revera via Wikimedia Commons

Toward the end of 2015, officials from Russia’s space program announced plans to begin a series of lunar missions that would culminate in the creation of a manned moon base by 2030. To many, this project sounded absurd. To start with, although until recently Soyuz rockets were the only real game in town for moving men and large cargo shipments into space, Russia’s space program hasn’t visited the moon in decades—and it’s an absolute mess of corruption and failure. But more important, the last time moon bases showed up prominently in the news was when Newt Gingrich teased the idea of building an American lunar colony—and maybe future lunar state—during his 2012 primary campaign in a speech to Florida’s Space Coast (which had just witnessed the last flight of the American space shuttle). This idea was publicly shredded as an impractical, pandering joke. Many could believe a moon base might exist, say, by the end of the century, but Gingrich and Russia’s ambitions seemed preposterous in the here and now. Yet there’s actually a lot of global scientific support for building a manned lunar base in the near future, as well as a trove of data suggesting that we have the tech and could scramble together the cash for it.


Humanity has arguably had designs on the moon for centuries. And the idea of a moon base was certainly a fetish of science fiction by the early to mid-1900s. But thanks to recently declassified documents, we know that the first serious plans to create a moon base originated in 1959 (by no coincidence the year the USSR put the first manmade object on the moon) with the U.S. military’s “Project Horizon” proposal. A supreme manifestation of Cold War arms race paranoia, the plan was predicated on the idea that we had to beat the Soviets to the weaponization of space by creating a bombardment system on our nearest satellite. This wasn’t a wild idea floated in one meeting—there are over 400 pages of typewritten notes mapping out the details about how such a base would be plotted, constructed, and provisioned. Planners hoped they could begin the project by 1964 and have their base operational by 1969—the year we actually got around to putting a man on the moon. Horizon wasn’t an isolated uber-moon-shot proposal either. Within the next decade, academics and the U.S. Air Force had both toyed with moon-base projects as well.

A 1989 artist’s depiction of an inflatable module for a lunar base, via Wikimedia commons

It’s easy to brush off these early grabs at lunar real estate as manifestations of the same overambitious, ill-informed, paranoid impracticality that gave us duds like Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. But the idea of a moon base never died. Over the decades it was mulled over, repurposed, and refined from a terrifying militaristic dream into a scientific hope. Academics and idealists alike believe that a moon base could be a vital aid to deep-space exploration, allowing us to easily construct and launch craft from a low-gravity environment and giving us a station to test and habituate astronauts for long voyages, like those to Mars. A moon base would also allow us to run trials of the technology necessary for everything from asteroid mining to Martian colonization—both popular dreams in the mass consciousness—without moving too far from Earth. Beyond space exploration, a moon base would also be a boon to science, allowing us to better study things like cosmic rays, distorted on Earth by our atmosphere, or to set up arrays of ultrapowerful telescopes to yield fantastic images of the skies.

With these visions in mind, by 2006 NASA was openly talking about building a moon base by 2026. This idea, as well as most of the Bush-era Constellation space program, was eventually scuttled by the Obama administration, which refocused on exploring asteroids and going straight to Mars without stopping at the moon. But support for some kind of moon base persisted amongst Americans in the space industry, and in 2012, NASA started talking about creating a base in a stationary spot stationary spot on the far side of the moon. In December, Congress provisionally approved a $55 million budget for NASA to develop habitats for potential use on or around the moon and Mars.

Prototype for an inflated lunar habitat, via Wikimedia Commons

American space wonks aren’t alone in this decades-long obsession with moon bases. In 2014 the European Space Agency began studying technologies that could be used to build a lunar base. (Some of the ideas generated through this project, like a robotic 3D printer using moon dirt to create a habitat around a bladder-like internal scaffolding are, well … space-age, man.) The ESA has also expressed interest in collaborating with Russia on its moon ambitions—as had other nations like China, India, and Japan, in the past—and has helped the Russians scour the moon’s poles for water sources to aid in their plans. This potential cooperation, still floated even amidst deteriorating European Union-Russian relations over the past few years, shows the potential for building common ground and a basis for practical diplomacy within a moon base—an ostensibly purely scientific long-shot project.

You might think these are still dream projects—that the challenges of building in space and protecting astronauts from the risks of living without an atmosphere or magnetosphere would be incredibly costly. While official agencies have largely been mum on price estimates, independent analyses suggest these projects would cost a lot compared to annual individual national space program budgets—but not a lot in global terms. In a 2009 study, the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggested a lunar base would cost $35 billion to construct (sans the price of rockets, pre-planning, and design) and $7.35 billion a year to maintain. More recently, a July 2015 study by NexGen Space LLC, funded in part by NASA and reviewed by a number of independent experts, brought that construction number down to $10 billion.

1977 lunar base concept from NASA, via Wikimedia Commons

Under the NexGen plan—the current darling of space optimists—robotic construction could begin by 2021, with humans working at a fully operational base by 2031. Public-private partnerships and the advance of technologies like Elon Musk’s reusable rockets are key to the plan’s projected low costs. And NexGen seems to think that the station could pay for itself—not just in scientific and exploratory value, but via mining rare isotopes that are common on the moon, like helium-3, a potentially ideal fuel for fusion power projects, and perhaps eventually via lunar tourism and other simple rent-seeking ventures.

NexGen’s belief in the ability of a moon base to fund itself is a bit aspirational—especially as we haven’t really gotten a sense of the quantity or accessibility of isotopes on the moon, or established a great market for them on Earth. But even if it’s a little optimistic to buy into space wonks’ dreams of moon bases, at least we know there’s enough support for the idea that it has become theoretically viable—and, scientifically speaking, potentially pragmatic to valuable. But more than that, in terms of moon-shot cultural inspiration, a moon base is a more realizable and immediate goal than, say, the colonization of Mars. If we focus on a moon base first, not only could it (in the long term) aid Mars missions, but it could also instill the pride, excitement, and confidence to drive forward space exploration and boost the feasibility of colonizing other cosmic bodies. There’s a lot, in short, to be gained by setting up shop on the moon, even if it does turn out to be a cash suck for a couple of decades. We’ve wasted billions more as a species on much less useful things. So rather than balk at what seems like a sci-fi fantasy, let’s all get ready to advocate for a future of moon construction, and dream shamelessly of lunar vacations and homesteading in space.

Articles
NHM Vienna/Hans Reschreiter

Wealth inequality has been a hot topic of discussion as of late, but it's something that's occurred all throughout history. Class structure is a complicated issue, especially when you consider that haves and have nots have been in existence for over 4,000 years.

A study published in Science took a look at over 100 late Neolithic and early Bronze Age skeletons found in a burial site in southern Germany. The study "shed light on the complexity of social status, inheritance rules, and mobility during the Bronze Age." Partly by looking at their teeth and the artifacts they were buried with, researchers were able to discover that wealth inequality existed almost 4,000 years ago. "Our results reveal that individual households lasting several generations consisted of a high-status core family and unrelated low-status individuals, a social organization accompanied by patrilocality and female exogamy, and the stability of this system over 700 years," the study said.

Keep Reading Show less
Culture

Climate change means our future is uncertain, but in the meantime, it's telling us a lot about our past. The Earth's glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, but as the ice dwindles, ancient artifacts are being uncovered. The Secrets of the Ice project has been surveying the glaciers on Norway's highest mountains in Oppland since 2011. They have found a slew of treasures, frozen in time and ice, making glacier archeologists, as Lars Pilø, co-director of Secrets of the Ice, put it when talking to CNN, the "unlikely beneficiaries of global warming."

Instead of digging, glacier archeologists survey the areas of melting ice, seeing which artifacts have been revealed by the thaw. "It's a very different world from regular archaeological sites," Pilø told National Geographic. "It's really rewarding work.

Keep Reading Show less

When former Pittsburgh Steelers' center Mike Webster committed suicide in 2002, his death began to raise awareness of the brain damage experienced by NFL football players. A 2017 study found that 99% of deceased NFL players had a degenerative brain disease known as CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). Only one out of 111 former football players had no sign of CTE. It turns out, some of the risks of traumatic brain injury experienced by heavily padded adults playing at a professional level also exist for kids with developing brains playing at a recreational level. The dangers might not be as intense as what the adults go through, but it can have some major life-long consequences.

A new PSA put out by the Concussion Legacy Foundation raises awareness of the dangers of tackle football on developing brains, comparing it to smoking. "Tackle football is like smoking. The younger I start, the longer I am exposed to danger. You wouldn't let me smoke. When should I start tackling?" a child's voice can be heard saying in the PSA as a mother lights up a cigarette for her young son.

Keep Reading Show less
via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

On Tuesday morning, President Trump tweeted about some favorable economic numbers, claiming that annual household income is up, unemployment is low, and housing prices are high.

Now, just imagine how much better those numbers would be if the country wasn't mired in an economy-killing trade war with China, bleeding out trillion-dollar-a-year debts, and didn't suffer from chaotic leadership in the Oval Office?

At the end of tweet, came an odd sentence, "Impeach the Pres."

Keep Reading Show less
Politics

October is domestic violence awareness month and when most people think of domestic violence, they imagine mostly female victims. However, abuse of men happens as well – in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. But some are taking it upon themselves to change all that.

Keep Reading Show less
Culture