Despite the huge success of science fiction movies at the box office, despite the fact that most people think humanity is destined for space travel, despite the fact that manned missions into space are considered the high points of human achievement, few people support the space program when it comes to spending money in Congress. The current recession is about to abort what many people consider our best chance to return to space as explorers since budget cuts killed off the Apollo program in 1972. Tuesday the NY Times ran “The Fight Over NASA’s Future” that summed up the current situation nicely.
Now, I would like to give my view of the problem. I just finished reading The Last Man on the Moon by Eugene Cernan and Don Davis, so Apollo 17 details are fresh in my mind. Cernan was the last astronaut to step off the Moon’s surface and his book also chronicles how the public quickly lost interest in the Moon missions right after Apollo 11. When going to the Moon was a space race with the Russians the public and Congress cheered. When it turned to science and geology they snoozed.
If Project Orion is going to duplicate Project Apollo then it is doomed to fail. And if you do not know what Orion and Ares are, that’s a bad sign in itself – read the NY Times link. Already NASA’s meager budget is coveted for other uses in these bleak economic times. If returning to the Moon is seen as a science mission it will lose to bean counters looking for other projects voters want more. Accountants were dissembling Project Apollo at the peak of it’s success. The only way to guarantee funding for manned missions to the Moon is to offer evidence that Al Qaeda has a stronghold there.
People who love the idea of humans conquering space are a tiny minority. Those few believe that mankind is destined to live in space and pursue a future mapped by science fictional dreams. The public will never pay for that dream if it’s only sold as science. It needs to be a great challenge, even a patriotic challenge, and in these high unemployment times maybe even a giant WPA program solution. For decades now space enthusiasts have tried sell space as a profitable enterprise, but that’s silly and I think the public can smell that. Creating a human civilization in space will create a giant off-Earth economy, but there will never be any real profits for Earthlings, not if we do complete cost accounting.
I have thought about this problem for decades, and the only way to start space civilization is by colonizing the Moon. That one fantastic accomplishment will be the critical mass to set off a space civilization explosion. The Catch-22 conundrum is the people of the Earth must pay the bill, and it will be enormous. Now, is there any incentive that will convince citizens of the United States and other countries to convince their leaders to spend that kind of money, year in and year out for decades?
The public and Congress has never wanted to give up on NASA and space exploration completely, so NASA has always had a small budget that it carefully managed to get the most bang for its bucks. The trouble with big manned exploratory projects is they require huge amounts of money committed across many future budgeting years. Some space enthusiasts considered the Shuttle a congressional boondoggle that kept us flying in low Earth orbits for far too long, and they cheered when President Bush broke the cycle by suggesting we take the Shuttle money and go back to the Moon. The idea was helped by the fact that China, India and Japan had turned their national gaze to Luna.
What Does Colonizing Mean?
Explorers are brave women and men who go places no one has gone before – but they go back home when they’re done exploring. Scientific missions are like our bases in Antarctica. Scientists go to live and work in distant lands for long periods but they eventually return home. Colonization is like the people on the Mayflower, they left with no intention of ever going home.
The trouble with colonizing the Moon is it will be very hard. Harder than anyone can imagine. Maybe even impossible. People need air, food, water and shelter just to minimally survive. A self-sufficient colony means that at some point the colonists can survive on their own without resupply from Earth. The Moon is essentially airless, but it’s rocks are full of oxygen. There’s a chance of ice being on the Moon. That’s more oxygen, and hydrogen. Something to drink and the basis of creating energy and rocket fuel. Then we need to look for carbon, nitrogen and all the other elements, and rebuild what we have here on Earth. No small task, and we have to face the fact that it might be impossible. It’s a fantastic challenge.
But look around you at everything you see that’s manufactured. Think of the mining, industry and manufacturing that went into those products. All those enterprises will have to be built on the Moon for colonization to work. Some people will point out that all nations trade with other nations and no nation lives completely self-sufficient. That’s true on Earth, but what if the Earth was hit by a giant comet and was destroyed? Wouldn’t you, and the future Lunar colonists, want the Moon colony to be able to carry on without Earth?
The most important value of a self-sufficient colony on the Moon and Mars is life insurance for our species. There might be huge number of intelligent beings in the universe, or we might be the only one. Either way, it would be a shame for us to go extinct.
How To Start A Colony?
Strangely enough, I wouldn’t start with manned missions returning to the Moon. I’d cover the Moon with robotic prospectors that would do a complete survey and tell us what minerals are available for use. Then I’d build mining and manufacturing robots. The first goal would be to build tunnels and construct safe underground habitats for men and women, plants and animals.
The robots would have to start processing the lunar regolith for oxygen. But where to store it? Could manufactured air be stored in underground tanks carved out of the rock by robots? Do they need to be lined? What ceramic material would make the best seal. Do the robots need to mine and build metal tanks? See what a fascinating challenge this becomes?
How do you make a light-bulb on the Moon? We can bring seeds from Earth, but they will need light to grow. Natural light on the Moon is weird, with days and nights lasting for weeks. Plants won’t like that, nor will they like the radiation. Colonists will have to build underground greenhouses. If we can do that we’ll have food and air purifiers. However, we have no idea if plants can live on the Moon. The lunar dust is not practical to use for plants as it is, so it must be processed into fertile organic soil. Everything is a challenge, and any one challenge might be a show-stopper.
This kind of work can be carried out by robots or people, but human labor will cost so much more. We could combine the two like scientific stations in Antarctica, but working on the Moon is devilishly hard. The dust is dangerous, and working in a spacesuit is painful. I think until the robots build safe shirt-sleeve environments for humans, robots should get all the work contracts.
This will serve many purposes. I think intelligent robots will be our co-colonists. Designing robots to construct a lunar colony will help evolve the science of robotics and that might lead to intelligent machines and AI. Now the spin-off affect of developing this technology will create an economic boom on Earth. It won’t directly pay for colonization, but it will be a nice gift.
The Basics of Lunar Life
Home sweet home on the Moon will be an underground city. An apartment could have several rooms cut out of rock with artificial lighting, heating and air conditioning, and a few creature comforts. In the early years it will be logical to have communal kitchens, toilets and washing arrangements for people and clothes. Everything will be recycled. Human waste will go into soil and food production. I expect flowers, plants, shrubs, vines and trees to be planted in the home apartments, along walkways and roadways, in offices and factories and walls everywhere should be covered in vines. Living on the Moon will be like living in a greenhouse jungle.
It might even be practical to have bees, worms and other insects living with us. Meat eaters will want rabbits and fish. Will it be practical to have cows, pigs, sheep and goats on the Moon? I don’t know. More research. What about pets, like dogs and cats? Can you imagine a rambunctious dog in 1/6th gravity? Or picture how high a cat could leap? Also, in such closed environments would be want dog poop and cat boxes?
Every ceiling will have to have artificial light that is maximized for human and plant comfort, and it will probably cycle in intensity to match night and day on Earth. Can you imagine shipping all these light bulbs from Earth? And we’d want to use a lighting source that produced the best frequency of light, that was the easiest to make, and that would last for decades. Even if you filled the Orion capsule plum full of LED lights, how many missions would it take to light even a small community? See how the problem grows?
If everything must come from Earth, and at a tremendous cost per pound, will scientific style missions ever be practical? Antarctic stations are practical because we can ship in supplies by the boatload or planeload. It will be much different re-supplying a lunar outpost by the capsule load.
We can spend billions on shipping light bulbs to the moon that will last so many years, or we can spend billions on how to build light bulbs on the Moon so colonists will always have them. It’s like the difference between giving someone a fish and teaching them how to fish.
Beyond the Basics
Once people have a place to stay, air, water and food, they might want more. Like clothes they didn’t come from Earth. Computers and televisions. Washing machines, dishes, brooms, vacuums, and so on. Or will they? General purpose robots might be better than many single purpose machines? But will that be practical? On the Moon it will be cheaper for a person to do something than a robot.
And what do people do once they move into their new Moon home? Robots and efficiency and the lack of resources for squandering will limit the need for some kinds of human work. Do we really want to recreate capitalism with McDonalds and Starbucks? Jobs and the space economy will be much different from Earth. The Moon will not want tourists unless they came bearing hundred of pounds of manufactured gifts to pay for their stay. Colonists will want talented people with great DNA that come to stay, rare elements and machines, and will resent freeloaders who come to gawk, but will accept them if they bring more than they take.
It’s one thing for Virgin Galactic to get people to pay $200,000 for what is essentially a Redstone Mercury flight, or for the Russians to get a handful of rich folk to fork over $20,000,000 for a Soyuz flight, but it’s a whole other thing to expect billionaires to shell out a significant part of their fortunes for what would be equivalent to a Saturn 5 flight. Tourism won’t be a big business on the Moon.
Robots will be common but limited to working on the most vital of jobs until manufacturing is up to speed to produce lots of robots. Probably for decades or longer, all robots will come from Earth and be dedicated to the dangerous surface jobs and mining. People will tend the plants and animals, make the food, clean the toilets, weave cloth, and pretty much do the work of homesteaders everywhere.
There will be industries that will be unique to the Moon that provide jobs for the colonists. Giant telescopes for all frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum can be built on the Moon. The Moon will be an astronomer’s paradise until large space habitats are built. We’ll build such large telescopes in space that we’ll be able to see other planets for light-years around and we might even discover signs of alien civilizations.
Once manufacturing develops on the Moon the next big industry will be to build space ships and develop new rocket propulsion system, including nuclear rockets. Inhabitants of the Moon will colonize Mars and build space habitats, and launch missions into deep space. Complex electronics and computer systems will probably still come from Earth. Rockets built on the Moon might be very simple system. Living on the Moon will teach simplicity and recycling. Everything will need to be bullet proof, long lasting and constructed with the least amount of resources.
What’s the Best Way to Start Now?
There are no talks of colonizing the Moon now. President Bush in 2004 created the idea of returning to the Moon by sacrificing the budget for the Shuttles. The idea is to send more people and stay longer, but it’s moving from exploring to building a scientific base station. I don’t know if the public will find that any more exciting than Gene Cernan tooling around the Moon gather rocks with Jack Schmidt. The fact that China, Japan and India want to do that too might convince voters to allow their Congressmen to throw NASA a bone, but I doubt it.
President elect Obama is trying to keep NASA in the business of flying people in space but so far hasn’t decided what’s the best way to do that. The Shuttles are destined to be decommissioned in 2010 and the next flight system, Orion won’t be ready until 2015. To pay for Orion and it’s launcher Ares, NASA had to scrap the Shuttle program. Obama is considered using other rockets rather than building the new Ares system, or keeping the Shuttles flying longer, meaning we stay in LEO and travel in circles for a few more years.
Personally, I think the money should go into manned and unmanned missions to the Moon and building simple cheap one-use rockets that are the best transportation system for getting us there. Ultimately, because of costs, only a limited number of rockets will fly to the Moon. We need to decide whether manned or robotic missions will do the most good towards colonizing the Moon. We might need some Maytag repairmen to take care of the robots, but I’m thinking we’ll get more done with our metal friends for decades.
Where to go next is space is as fractional as religion. You have the Reds, those wanting to go to Mars. The Whites, think the Moon is the next step. Then you have the Robots, people who believe space is only fit for machines. And after that you have all kinds of creative splinter groups. The NASA piece of the American budget pie is small, and travel beyond LEO is expensive, so only one space philosophy will ever get a shot at what they want. Of course, one splinter group, the Capitalists, want to commercialize space travel and get their own funding. I don’t think space tourism will fund Moon colonization or even space exploration.
My conclusions from this life-long study is colonizing the Moon is the foundation for mutating the human species into one that can live in space. If we can adapt to living on the Moon, we can make our science fictional dreams come true. Yes, I know the Reds claim Mars is the place to start because it has far more resources, but it’s location makes that a silly assertion. Obvious, I’m one of the Whites. I believe when we finally go to Mars, the crew will be launched from facilities and rockets that were built and controlled on the Moon.
If we only wanted to go to Mars once, a Zubrin style mission would be cheaper, but it’s really a very impractical long shot. We just don’t know if people can live three years away from Earth. The Moon is a far closer, safer and cheaper testing ground for setting up Antarctica style bases to see if humans can become spacemen. Zubrin had the right idea about living on the land, but we need to start that idea on the Moon and see what we can put together with lunar resources. I’m pretty sure the public doesn’t want to pay for plant the flag missions, at least not in this country.
We’re back to trying to find a reason the public will fund space exploration. Would the idea of colonizing the Moon be exciting enough? And would people want to leave Earth permanently and go live on the Moon? I’m too influenced by a lifetime of reading science fiction to be able to answer those questions. A sizeable portion of the public has loved the robotic missions on Mars. And Americans love the pioneering spirit. Homesteading the Moon might appeal to them enough to tell their representatives in Congress to vote for such plans.
In my “Science Fiction in My Lifetime” I gave colonizing the Moon by 2050 a 1 in 10 chance. And by that, I mainly meant committing to trying to colonize the Moon before 2050. If several nations on Earth started now, forty years would get us a long way towards building a self-sufficient colony on the Moon, but it might be a hundred year project, or longer. My uneducated hunch would be that we’d have to commit to spending between $10-20 billion a year for all those years. That’s not a large annual figure, but is it an amount the public will accept? Is it a goal they will stick with and stay interested in for all those years?
Colonizing the Moon is so much more than picking up rocks on the lunar surface. It could excite a million kids to create science fair projects and a million PhD dissertations. Maybe it could generate a million jobs. It will never pay for itself, but it’s like those Mastercard ads, creating a human civilization in space, priceless.