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Thursday, August 27, 2009
Colonizing the Moon
by Marcel F. Williams
The primary focus of NASA's-- manned space program-- should be the pioneering and colonization of the rest of the solar system. That means building the space transportation and habitat infrastructure that can get humans into space and settled into the rest of the solar system. That would also mean minimizing the use of terrestrial resources while maximizing the use of extraterrestrial resources in order for humans to survive in the New Frontier. But any significant deviation of our manned space program away from the primary goal of-- human colonization-- would be a waste of tax payer dollars, IMO. And it seems obvious that the first logical step in that pioneering and colonization effort should be our closest neighbor in space-- the Moon.
But we've been to the Moon already. So why return?
Sure 12 Americans briefly visited the lunar surface back in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17) but we never tried to live there or live off the land! And that's a big difference.
NASA needs to focus on sending lunar habitat modules to the lunar surface in order to build a permanent and continuously growing manned facility. Such a facility would have immediate scientific, commercial, and strategic benefits:
1. We'll finally discover if the Moon's 1/6 hypogravity environment is deleterious to human health over several months or even several years as is the case of the microgravity environment aboard a space station. If it does turn out the the Moon's low gravity is harmful to humans over the long run, we'll also be able to determine if exercise, wearing weighted back packs, and, or, supplying temporary artificial gravity via a small rotating centrifuges can mitigate or eliminate these deleterious effects. On the other hand, if the lunar hypogravity environment turns out not to be harmful to health and reproduction in humans and other animals then colonizing the heavier hypogravity environment of Mars should be a cinch.
2. We'll finally be able to see if we can economically extract oxygen for air, water manufacturing (with imported hydrogen), and rocket fuel from lunar rocks and dirt.
3. We'll finally be able to accurately determine how much lunar regolith is required appropriately protect humans from galactic and solar radiation.
4. We can finally build and test the first electric powered mass drivers on the lunar surface to see if we can export lunar material economically into lunar orbit or to L1, L2, L4, or L5. Lunar material cheaply transported into orbit could provide us with a cheap source of oxygen and radiation shielding for orbit space stations and interplanetary vehicles. Lunar manufactured aluminum transported into orbit by lunar mass drivers could also be used for rocket fuel and solar sail manufacturing.
5. We'll finally be able to see how well we can grow crops and raise animals on the Moon for food.
6. Telescopes placed on the lunar surface could revolutionize astronomy taking full advantage of the natural vacuum and the 14 days of lunar night while being able to be easily maintained by humans already living on the lunar surface.
Colonization, of course, does not preclude the exploration, commercialization, or industrialization of other worlds. In fact, it greatly enhances it!
Robots capable of traveling up to 10 kilometers per hour could be sent out to explore the Moon from the lunar base. If they averaged 5 kilometers per hour, they could travel 120 kilometers per day, 1200 kilometers in 10 days, more than half the circumference of the Moon in less than 50 days. They could explore regions, collect rocks and dirt, and then return the samples back to the base. Unmanned robotic sorties could land inside deep craters, collect rocks and soil, and then take off into L1 where an Orion could pick them up during a manned mission to the Moon to return the samples back to Earth. So a single lunar base doesn't preclude lunar exploration. Eventually, a lunar regolith shielded (via lunar mass drivers) L1 station could utilize reusable manned lunar landers that could explore various regions of the Moon while also transporting humans to lunar bases of Americans and other countries.
In the long run, lunar colonist might live under more spacious Earth-like environments under huge pressurized plastic domes, perhaps a few hundred meters in diameter, appropriately protected from radiation from an insulating layer of water and from micrometeorites by an outer of lunar regolith. Eventually, hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, chlorine and other useful agricultural and industrial chemicals could be imported far more cheaply from the asteroids or from the moons of Mars than from the Earth's surface. A large lunar population, mostly independent of terrestrial resources, might eventually generate revenue from wealthy tourist traveling to the Moon from the Earth, the burial of light weight and compact cremated human remains transported from Earth, the round trip of cremated remains returning to Earth sprinkled with Moon dust within a lunar urn manufactured from lunar materials, and perhaps the export of lunar uranium to Earth for the nuclear energy industry (I'll believe in lunar helium-3 mining when I see the first commercial fusion reactor on Earth).
However, satellite manufacturing and launching, might be the Lunarian's largest industry since it requires at least 20 times less energy to launch a satellite into Earth orbit from the Moon than from the Earth's surface. Additionally, fewer satellites may have to be launched from the Moon than from the Earth since they could be cheaply launched into high Earth orbits where only three networking satellites would be required rather than dozens of low Earth orbiting networking satellites. The Lunarians could therefore someday be at the core of the 100 billion dollar a year satellite telecommunications industry which could grow into a multi-trillion dollar a year industry within the next 20 or 30 years. Future historians may well ask why humans didn't reap the economic benefits of lunar industrialization by colonizing the Moon back in the 1970s or 1980s instead of waiting until the early 21st century.