Moon colonization. The very idea whips up images of interconnected biodomes, hovercrafts cruising the pockmarked surface, and ships darting to Earth and back again. The moon is the only planetary object whose features can be seen without the aid of a telescope. It's also the closest object to our planet large enough for humans to inhabit. When considering long-term space exploration and living, building a moon colony seems like the next logical step. We have the technology to get there and the innovative thinking to be successful. But what are the benefits of a moon colony? Do the risks outweigh the gains? How is such an expensive undertaking feasible in uncertain economic climates? Will we build on the moon in the next decade, or will the dream of a moon colony continue to hang on the horizon, just out of reach?
Let's take a look at some of the pros -- and cons -- of colonizing the moon.
10: The Human Spirit of Exploration
Humans have been fascinated with the moon for millennia. From the discoveries of Aristotle and Galileo to modern science explorations, the moon has held profound mysteries and endless possibilities. In recent decades, the desire to tackle this new frontier, and to travel through the galaxy in search of sentient life, has prompted scientists and entrepreneurs alike to tackle head-on what many believe to be the first step in interstellar travel: a colony on the moon.
Many feel a moon outpost -- not a full-fledged colony -- will be built within the next 10 years. Human spirit alone, however, can't meet the considerable barriers that stand in the way. The costs associated with building a colony are prohibitive, but the private sector may be able to pay for what governments can't afford. Safety is a paramount concern, and state-of-the-art technologies -- including nanostructures -- are creating viable solutions for life in space. Although public attitude and the willingness to support expensive space programs waxes and wanes, the human desire to explore is constant.
That a moon colony would need to be self-sufficient is perhaps stating the obvious. When you're 238,855 miles (384,400 kilometers) away from Earth, you would want to have the upper hand when it comes to necessities like food and water.
Dehydrated food is one option. Although it's not the freshest, it's compact, comes in minimal packaging and stores for years. But is it a realistic expectation that colonists would be satisfied with such fare for months on end? If the taste factor alone isn't enough of a turnoff, limited choices may make it less than ideal. Hydroponic farming] is a smart alternative to freeze-dried space food. NASA has been experimenting with it for more than 20 years as a way to provide fresh fruits and vegetables for astronauts. It's efficient -- a must considering the limited supply of water -- and food would be fresh. Transportation costs would disappear. And there's another perk: Farming in space can also supplement another precious resource: oxygen.
When we believed that the moon was just a dusty mass, the lack of water was a huge argument against colonization. The weight alone would make transporting water from Earth prohibitively expensive. However, scientists have recently discovered approximately one billion gallons (3.8 billion liters) of water ice in one moon crater [source: Potter]. Conceivably, colonies built near ice deposits would have a natural supply of water. There would have to be purifying systems for removing toxins like mercury, as well as systems for reclaiming gray water. When melted and broken down into its components, water ice could also be used as fuel for rockets.
Why buy an around-the-world ticket when a few million dollars will take you to the moon? Entrepreneurs are banking on space as the next wave in travel. With the expectation that it will amount to billions of dollars in revenue, companies like Virgin, with its prototype space plane Virgin Galactic, are leading the way in private space travel. Space Adventures is developing what it hopes will be the first private lunar expedition. They anticipate ferrying thousands of travelers to the moon and eventually beyond. Hotel chains, such as Hilton Hotels, are looking into the feasibility of providing travelers with accommodations on the moon that feature all the comforts of home.
The moon has no atmosphere, but it does have an environment, however rocky and dusty it may be. Preservation is at the top of the list for some developers. Hans-Jurgen Rombaut, of the Rotterdam Academy of Architecture, is thinking of ways to keep travelers safe and minimize the impact of visitors to the moon. One idea is to restrict access to certain zones as a way to stave off "footprint pollution."
7: Scientific Accessibility
The International Space Station, rockets, satellites and probes have been collecting information about the moon and the solar system for years. So what are the potential benefits of placing a scientific research center on the moon?
The strongest argument is that the technology is here now. Billions of dollars have been invested into new technologies specifically designed for long-term surface excursions. NASA's Lunar Electric Rover (LER) will be pressurized to allow astronauts to work for up to 180 days. Astronauts can work inside the vehicle without spacesuits and don them when it's time to take a closer look at things like geological formations.
This leads to a second supporting argument for a moon colony. Advanced technology like the LER allows for human interaction with the moon's environment -- something that can't be done by satellite pictures or scientists living on a space station. An onsite research center would mean little delay in studying specimens. If more need to be collected, they can be found right outside the airlock. A lunar observatory would be like no other on Earth. The moon's slow rotation means that observations could be performed in the equivalent of several Earth days, and lack of development and pollution would mean less interference with observations.
When is comes to nanotechnology, what seems small is actually turning out to be huge. Measuring between 1 and 100 nanometers (think 100,000 times thinner than a human hair), these tiny structures are pushing the boundaries of what was once considered to be purely science fiction.
In the not-so-distant future, nanotechnology may be used to replicate food. Although it isn't clear how tasty it would be, it would most likely beat current freeze-dried fare. Food replication has economic perks as well, dramatically decreasing a colony's dependence on Earth for supplies. Not having to ship food from Earth means less cargo, lower fuel costs and, perhaps, much less packaging waste. Gone will be the days of individually wrapped cookies.
Nanotechnology may also be used to build structures that can resist the strains of space. Lighter than steel, they might prove to be the next wave in designing surface vehicles and spacecraft. Robotics is another area where nanotechnology is making a strong showing. The experts at NASA have set their sights on "self-healing" spaceships by the year 2030.
A lunar economy is about to take off from Earth. Businesses are already speculating on the financial windfalls to be made on the moon. Google has launched the Lunar X Prize, which will give $30 million dollars to the first privately funded business that can safely deliver a robot to the moon. Bigelow Aerospace, which hopes to provide commercial flights for business and government space agencies, is currently designing programs that would, among other things, lease commercial space in satellites and a moon colony. They're even developing their own astronaut training programs.
Nations are quickly coming to the conclusion that a commercialized space will relieve strained budgets, create research and manufacturing jobs in the private sector and pump money into the economy. The United States government, which significantly curtailed spending on space programs recently, proposed putting $6 billion toward the development of commercial spaceflight. These craft would be used to ferry astronauts and travelers to the moon and space stations as well as carry cargo.
4: Governing a Moon Colony
Anticipating the exploration of the galaxy, the United Nations formed the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) after the first space satellite was launched in 1959. The U.N. Outer Space Treaty declares the moon and other celestial bodies to be the "province of mankind." With the moon open to explorations by all nations, no one state can claim sovereignty.
To date, the Outer Space Treaty has been ratified by 975 countries. The scientific and economic potential of a colony wouldn't be controlled by one nation, tipping an already unbalanced scale. If the treaty were followed as agreed upon, there would be opportunity for all. Let's not forget the lessons of the International Space Station (ISS). If unity and cooperation can exist on a space station, we can be fairly confident that such harmony could be replicated on the moon.
3: Moon Outpost
Many scientists believe an outpost on the moon is the next phase of space travel and the first step in planetary colonization. Plans for an outpost where astronauts can live for months at a time are already under development by space programs in several nations. An ideal place to research and test technologies to determine what works (and what doesn't), an outpost could help reduce risks inherent in transporting astronauts to the moon's surface from Earth or space stations and back again. It could be a launching pad for future explorations to other planets.
An outpost would also provide an opportunity for nations to band together to share resources and knowledge. Every aspect of what's known in the varying fields of science would expand as boundaries are pushed, opening a new ]world of discovery.
2: Model for Future Colonies
Earth's environment is in trouble, with pollution and global warming threatening existence as we know it. Overpopulation will continue to tax resources. Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has repeatedly said that space colonization is the only solution to preserving the human species. While not strictly an experiment, a colony on the moon could be a model for colonies elsewhere in the galaxy.
Survivability, safety and sustainability are the paramount concerns for any colony in space. While biodomes and other structures on Earth can simulate life on the moon, there's no argument that firsthand experience fuels innovation. While those living in colonies are certainly not meant to be subjects of experimentation, what they experience and report back will improve technology, living and safety standards.
As always, expense and feasibility rear their ugly heads. Is it worth spending money on a moon colony with the hope that it could one day be a model for colonies on other planets? Naysayers think that plans for moon colonies should be scrapped altogether, maintaining that space stations are more feasible, economical and practical.
When it comes to renting or buying a home, location is everything. Why should a colony on the moon be any different? From Earth, a trip to the moon takes a little less than three days. Communication is quick, with just a 3-second lag time. The views are spectacular. One side is always facing Earth; the other side, the sun and stars. Temperature is another story. On the bright side of the moon, it can reach a sweltering 224 degrees Fahrenheit (107 degrees Celsius). The permanently shadowed side fairs little better, with temperatures dropping below an alarmingly cold -397 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Kelvin). While you might be spending most of your time indoors, there are still meteors to contend with. According to NASA, the moon is continually hit by flying chunks of ice and rock.
Despite the weather and meteors, a colony on the moon has a few things going for it. For starters, we've already been there and know the terrain. After years of study, we also know that there's nothing, aside from the dangers of freezing and asphyxiation, that poses an imminent threat. Craters and lack of atmosphere may hinder mobility, but the next generation of spacecraft, vehicles and support systems provide practical solutions to those issues. A moon colony would strengthen research and advancements across the fields of science, and it has the potential for expanding our knowledge and understanding of the universe.
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