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Monday, May 18, 2009
Robots Could Build a Base on the Moon
Two ATHLETE robots joining twin habitat modules together
Establishing a permanent and continuously growing human presence on the surface of the Earth's moon could be a pivotal point in human cultural evolution. Humans could utilize the lunar regolith to produce oxygen for breathing and as a chemical component of water. Additionally 5 to 10 meters of lunar soil could be used to shield lunar habitats from the deleterious effect of cosmic radiation. If humans living at a lunar facility for several years can remain healthy and perhaps even reproduce under the Moon's 1/6 hypogravity environment then humanity will no longer have to confine its existence to the surface of the Earth, allowing us to expand human civilization to the Moon, Mars, and perhaps Mercury which should greatly enhance the survival of the human species in the solar system.
The moon also has some industrial potential since it requires at least 20 times less energy to launch a satellite into Earth's orbit from the lunar surface than from the Earth's surface. Satellites are at the core of the trillion dollartelecommunications industry. So if satellites could eventually be manufactured and launched from the lunar surface then lunar colonies could someday dominate the satellite manufacturing, satellite launching, and perhaps even the satellite repair industry. Tourism and even the burial of human ashes on the Moon could also be potential multi-billion dollar lunar industries in the future.
Unfortunately, NASA's next program, Constellation (a mission currently under review by the Obama administration), is not a lunar base program. Constellation is an Apollo-like sortie program which NASA argues could be a prelude to a lunar base program. Some now argue that a lunar base program should be scrapped altogether.
How difficult would it be to set up a lunar base?
It may be a lot simpler and cheaper than we imagine-- if we let remote controlled robots do all of the hard work even before humans arrive. Just one launch from NASA's future heavy lift vehicle, the Ares V, could place between 15 to 20 tonnes of payload on the lunar surface. So a fully functioning lunar facility capable of accommodating perhaps 10 astronauts at a time for a year or more would probably only require three or four launches of the Ares V-- excluding the manned launches required to bring the astronauts to the lunar surface. Of course the astronauts should be attempting to live off the land as much as possible by manufacturing their own oxygen from the lunar regolith. But the Ares V could launch another 20 tonnes of food and water if they ran short.
Humans require approximately 3 kg of water per day, 2.8 kg of oxygen per day and 1.8 kg of food per day: 2.8 tonnes of water, oxygen, and food for each individual on the moon annually. Obviously, if oxygen and water can be recycled to some degree then supplies would last longer. And if oxygen can be efficiently manufactured from the lunar regolith then oxygen wouldn't have to be imported from Earth at all and only the small hydrogen component of water (11%) would have to be shipped from Earth in order to manufacture H20 on the lunar surface.
To assemble these bases, NASA could use the emerging ATHLETE robot technology. The spider-like ATHLETE robots and other remote controlled vehicles could assemble and properly shield the lunar base with lunar soil. These robots could also travel practically all over the vast lunar surface, thousands of kilometers away from the manned lunar base, collecting rocks and soil samples from different regions of the moon and then returning those samples back to the lunar base for eventual export back to Earth for study.
Just a few billion dollars-- extra-- in annual funding for NASA could accelerate the development of the Ares V and the development of the lunar base and lunar transportation infrastructure so that humans might return to the moon as early as 2016. But this time not to visit, but to stay!