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How do we populate the moon?

Welcome back to our series on the colonization of the solar system! Today we take a look at the next heavenly neighbor of the earth. Right, let's take a look at the moon!

We've probably all heard of it more than once in our lives, and even have some of their own thoughts on the subject. For space agencies around the world, futurists, and private aerospace companies, the idea of ​​colonizing the moon is not a question of "if," but of "when" and "how." For some, establishing a permanent human presence on the moon is a question of fate, for others it is a question of survival.

It is not surprising that there are plans for the erection of a human settlement before the moon landing and space race. In recent decades, many of these plans have been dedusted and updated due to plans for a renewed era of moon exploration. So what would it take to build a permanent human presence on the moon, when could this happen, and are we up to the challenge?

Even before proposals for lunar colonies were made, the idea that humanity lives on the moon was extensively researched in fiction, with examples dating back over a century. Moreover, there was considerable speculation already at the beginning of the 20th century that the moon could already be inhabited by native life forms (similar to how it was held by Mars).

Examples in Fiction:

Between the 40s and 60s The science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein wrote extensively about the first journeys and the later colonization of the moon. These included several short stories from the 1940s that describe how life in settlements would look like on "Luna" (the name frequently used by Heinlein to describe a colonized moon).

First Edition (1966). Picture credits: Wikipedia Commons / GP Putnam's sons

In 1966, Heinlein published the Hugo Prize-winning novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress which tells the story of the descendants of a Moon Penal Colony responsible for independence from Earth Heinlein received great recognition for the way he combined political commentary with topics such as space exploration, sustainability and artificial intelligence. In this work he coined the term "TANSTAAFL" – an abbreviation for "There is no such thing as" Free Lunch ".

In 1985, Heinlein published The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, where much of the book plays on a Free Luna after winning its battle for independence and includes characters from some of its previous works.

Lunar colonization was also explored in the fiction of the late and great Arthur C. Clarke. This included the short story Earthlight (1955), in which a settlement on the moon is in the midst of a war between Earth and an alliance between Mars and Venus. It followed A Fall of Moon Dust (1961), in which a moon ship full of tourists sinks into the moon dust sea.

Original cover from 1968. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons / Hutchinson (Great Britain) / New American Library (USA)

In 1968, Clarke collaborated with director Stanley Kubrick to produce the science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey which was part of the plot, takes place in an American lunar colony quarantined after an object of extraterrestrial origin was found nearby. Clarke was in the published in the same year novel version on it. A lunar colony is also mentioned in Clarke's Nebula and Hugo Award-winning novel Rendezvous with Rama (1973).

The great science fiction colleague Ursula K. Le Guin also mentioned in 1971 a lunar colony in her novel The Lathe of Heaven which was awarded the Locus Award in 1972 for best novel and was filmed twice ( 1980 and 2002). In an alternate reality, lunar bases are set up in 2002 and then attacked by a hostile Aldebaran alien species (which is benevolent in another reality).

In 1973, the late and great Isaac Asimov published the novel The Gods Self, where the third section takes place in a Moon settlement in the early 22nd century. The Lunatics (1988) by Kim Stanley Robinson (author of the trilogy Red Mars 2312 and Aurora ) focuses on a group of enslaved miners forced to work under the lunar surface, trigger a rebellion.

The 2017 published novel Artemis by Andy Weir. Credit: Amazon / Crown Publishing

The 1995 short story "Byrd Land Six" by Alastair Reynolds mentions a lunar colony whose economy revolves around the mining of helium-3. In 1998, Ben Bova Moonrise and Moonwar published two novels that focused on a lunar base founded by an American company that eventually revolted against the earth. These are part of his "Grand Tour" series, which deals with the colonization of the solar system.

In 2017, Andy Weir (author of The Martian ) published Artemis a novel that plays in a lunar city whose economy is based on lunar tourism. Particular attention is paid to the details of daily life on the moon, including descriptions of a nuclear power plant, an aluminum smelter and an oxygen production facility.


The earliest proven example of people living on the moon dates back to the 17th century and was made by Bishop John Wilkins. In his Discourse on a New World and Another Planet (1638), he predicted that one day people would learn to master flying and establish a lunar colony. However, detailed and scientifically sound proposals would only be available in the 20th century.

In 1901, HG Wells wrote The First Men on the Moon in which the history of the native Moon dwellers (Selenites) and includes elements of real science. In 1920, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (praised by many as the "Father of Astronautics and Rocketry") wrote the novel Outside the Earth . This novel tells the story of people who colonize the solar system and describes in detail what life in space would look like.

With the beginning of the space race in the 1950s, scientists and engineers proposed a number of concepts and designs and architects. In 1954, Arthur C. Clarke proposed the creation of a lunar base made up of inflatable modules covered with lunar dust for insulation. Communication with astronauts on the field would be via an inflatable radio mast.

Over time, a larger, permanent dome would be built based on an algae-based air purifier, a nuclear reactor of energy, and electromagnetic cannons to transport cargo and fuel to ships in space. Clarke would further investigate this proposal with his 1955 short story Earthlight

. In 1959, the US Army launched a study known as the Project Horizon which plans to build a fortress on the Moon in 1967. The plan envisaged a first landing, carried out in 1965 by two "soldier astronauts", followed by construction workers and cargo shipped shortly thereafter with iterations of the Saturn I missile.

In 1959, John S. Rinehart, then director of the Mine Research Laboratory at the Colorado School of Mines, proposed a lunar structure that could be "in a stationary ocean of dust [float]". This was an answer to the then widely held theory that there were Regolith oceans that were 1.5km deep on the Moon.

This concept was described in Rinehart's study "Basic Criteria for Moon Building" in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society in which he described a "floating base" consisting of a half-cylinder with one-half dome at both ends and a micrometeoroid shield above.

A lunar base as presented by NASA in the 1970s. Credit: NASA

In 1961, when President Kennedy announced the Apollo program, the US Air Force released a secret report based on the previous assessment of a US Army lunar base. Known as the Lunex Project, the plan envisaged a crew landing on the moon, which would eventually lead to an underground air base on the Moon in 1968.

In 1962, John DeNike (Program Manager for Advanced Programs at NASA) and Stanley Zahn (Technical Director of Lunar Basing Studies in the Space Department of the Martin Company) met and published a study entitled "Lunar Basing." Their concept envisioned a subterranean base on the Sea of ​​Tranquility, the future landing site of the Apollo 11 mission .

Like Clarke's proposal, this base would be based on nuclear reactors for electricity and an algae-based air filtration system. The base would consist of 30 space modules spread across seven residential areas, eight operational areas and 15 logistics areas. The entire base would be 1300 m² and could accommodate 21 crew members.

In the 1960s, NASA produced several studies promoting the creation of habitats inspired by the mission architecture of the Apollo program (notably the Saturn V missile and its derivatives). These plans included placing space station modules on the lunar surface and using existing designs and technologies to reduce costs and ensure reliability.

Building a lunar base could be easier if astronauts could harvest local materials for construction and life support in general. Credit: NASA / Pat Rawlings

In 1963, during the 13th process of the Moon and Planet Exploration Colloquium, William Sims created a study titled "Architecture of the Lunar Base". His design was to build a habitat under the wall of a impact crater with a landing pad for spacecraft nearby. The living space would be three stories high, with the higher level providing a window view of the surface.

These windows also let light into the habitat and are isolated for radiation protection with water tanks. The power should be provided by nuclear reactors while parts of the habitat should provide office space, workshops, laboratories, living areas and a farm to produce as much of the crew's food as possible.

Perhaps the most influential design of the Apollo era was the two-volume "Lunar Base Synthesis Study", conducted in 1971 by the aerospace company North American Rockwell. The study produced a concept for a series of lunar surface (LSB) bases derived from a related study for a rotating lunar station.

In recent years, several space agencies have made proposals for the construction of colonies on the moon. In 2006, Japan announced plans for a lunar base by 2030. Russia presented a similar proposal in 2007, which was to be built between 2027 and 2032. In 2007, Jim Burke of the International Space University in France suggested creating an ark by Lunar Noah to ensure that human civilization survives a catastrophic event.

Artistic representation of a 3D-printed moon base. Credit: ESA / Foster + Partners

In August 2014, NASA representatives met with industry leaders to discuss low-cost ways to build a lunar base in the polar regions by 2022. In 2015, NASA outlined a concept for moon cleansing. This would rely on robot workers (so-called Transformers) and heliostats to create a moon settlement around the southern polar region of the Moon.

In 2016 ESA boss Johann-Dietrich Wörner proposed the creation of an international village on the moon in front of the successor to the international space station. The creation of this village would be based on the same inter-agency partnerships as the ISS, as well as on partnerships between governments and private interests.


It goes without saying that creating a lunar colony would be a challenge to engage in a massive commitment to time, resources and energy. While the development of reusable rockets and other measures reduces the cost of single-launching, sending payloads to the moon is still a very costly undertaking – especially if several heavy-duty launches were required.

It's also about the many natural dangers emanating from life on a body like the moon. These include extreme temperatures where the sun-facing side has maximum values ​​of 117 ° C (242 ° F), while the dark side has lows of -43 ° C (-46 ° F). Much of the lunar surface is also exposed to meteoroids and micrometeoroids.

An artistic impression of a moon explosion – caused by the impact of a meteorite. Credit: NASA / Jennifer Harbaugh

The moon also has an atmosphere that is thin, it is virtually vacuum. This is one of the reasons why the moon goes through such extreme temperatures and why the surface is littered with shocks (ie there is no atmosphere in which meteors can burn). This also means that all settlements must be airtight, pressurized and isolated from the outside environment.

The absence of an atmosphere (as well as a magnetosphere) also means that the surface is exposed to far more radiation than we use here on Earth. These include solar radiation, which deteriorates significantly during a solar event, and cosmic rays.

Possible Methods:

Since the beginning of the space age, several proposals have been made as to how and where a lunar colony could be built. Where is of particular importance, as each settlement must provide some degree of protection from the elements. As the saying goes, the three most important considerations in real estate are: "location, location and location".

For this reason, several proposals have been made over the years for the establishment of lunar habitats at sites taking into account natural conditions protection and / or containment. The most popular is currently the South Pole Aitken Basin, a massive impact region around the strongly cratered South Pole region of the Moon.

  Moon elevation data shows the South Pole Aitken Basin. Photo credit: NASA / GSFC / University of Arizona
Moon elevation data shows the South Pole Aitken Basin. Credit: NASA / GSFC / University of Arizona

One of the main attractions of this region is the fact that it is permanently shaded, which means that it is exposed to more stable temperatures. In addition, several missions have confirmed the presence of water ice in the region, which could be harvested to produce anything from hydrogen (or hydrazine ) fuel and oxygen gas to drinking and irrigation water.

In addition, any attempt to colonize the moon requires the use of technologies such as additive manufacturing (also known as 3D printing), robotic workers, and telepresence. The base (or bases) must also be made and supplied as much as possible with local resources, a method known as In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU).

NASA and ESA have studied the concept for many years. Both have developed their own methods to convert regolith and other resources into useful materials. For example, since 2013, ESA has been working with Foster + Partners architects to design their International Moon Village.

Their proposed method of building this base is to place on the surface inflatable scaffolds which would then be covered with a concrete mold of regolith, magnesia and a binding salt. NASA has proposed a similar method in which robotic workers must use "sintered" regolith for 3D printing. This consists of melting the regolith by bombarding it with microwaves and then printing it out as molten ceramic.

Other ideas include building habitats in the ground and having an upper level that provides access to the surface and lets in natural light. There is even the suggestion to build lunar settlements in stable lava tubes, which would not only provide protection.

There is even a proposal for a Solenoid Moon base that offers its own radiation shield. Presented by civil engineer Marco Peroni at the 2017 AIAA Space and Astronautics Forum, this concept consists of transparent domes surrounded by a ring of high voltage cables. This torus would provide active magnetic shielding against radiation and would allow the construction of settlements anywhere on the surface.

The abundance of ice around the polar regions will provide settlers with a steady source of water for drinking, watering and even processing to produce fuel and breathable oxygen. A strict recycling regime is required to ensure that waste is kept to a minimum and most likely composting toilets are used instead of flush toilets.

These composting toilets could be combined with lunar regolith to create growing soil, which can then be irrigated with locally harvested water. This would be essential as the lunar colonists would have to grow much of their own food to reduce the number of shipments that would have to be regularly shipped from Earth.

Moonwater could also be used as a source of energy if the colonies are equipped with electrolysis batteries (in which water molecules are split into hydrogen and oxygen and the hydrogen is burned). Other sources of energy could be solar panels that are built around the edges of the crater and conduct electricity to the settlements in them.

Space-based solar energy could also supply settlements throughout the lunar landscape with plenty of energy. Nuclear reactors are another option, as are fusion reactors (tokamak reactors). This latter option is particularly attractive because there is abundant helium-3 (a fusion reactor power source) on the lunar surface.

Possible Benefits:

To be fair, having a colony on one of the celestial bodies in our solar system has some serious potential benefits. But a colony on the earth's nearest celestial body would be particularly advantageous. Not only would we be able to do research, gain resources, and take advantage of new technologies. A base on the moon would facilitate missions and colonization efforts on other planets and moons.

Simply put, a colony on The Moon could serve as a springboard to Mars, Venus, the asteroid belt, and beyond. An infrastructure on the surface of the Moon and in orbit that can refuel and repair spaceships that continue to penetrate the Solar System could save billions of the cost of space missions.

This is one of the reasons why NASA plans to build a space station in orbit of the Moon – the Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway (LOP-G), also known as. the Lunar Gateway, formerly known as Deep Space Gateway. This is one of the reasons why ESA wants to build its lunar village with international partners. Precisely for this reason, China and Russia are also considering their own outposts on the surface or in orbits.

Moon research would also be extremely lucrative. By studying the effects of low gravity on the human body, astronauts are better prepared for the effects of long-term space travel, missions to Mars, and other bodies where low G-values ​​are a reality. These studies could also pave the way for the establishment of colonies on these bodies.

The other side of the moon also offers serious opportunities for all types of astronomy. Because the moon is turned away from the earth, it is free of radio interference on the other side, making it an ideal location for radio telescopes. Since the moon has no atmosphere, optical telescope arrays – such as ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile – would also be trouble-free.

And then you have interferometers – like LIGO and the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) – that would be able to find gravitational waves and map black holes with greater efficiency. Geological studies could also be carried out that would reveal much more about the moon and the formation of the Earth-Moon system.

Artistic representation of Moon Base Alpha, SpaceX's planned lunar outpost, delivered by spaceship (also known as BFR). Credit: SpaceX

The abundance of resources on the moon, such as helium-3 and various precious and rare earth metals, could also enable an export economy. This would be supported by the fact that the Moon has a much lower escape velocity than Earth – 2.38 km / s (1.5 mps ) compared to 11.186 km / s (6.95 [19659072] mps ). This is because the Moon has a fraction of Earth's gravity (0.1654 g ), which means that launching payloads into space would be much cheaper.

But of course a moon economy without a moon would not be complete tourism. A surface colony and an infrastructure in orbit would make regular moon visits both cost effective and profitable. It's not hard to imagine that this could lead to the creation of all sorts of recreational activities – from resorts and casinos to museums to expeditions all over the surface.

With the right kind of commitment in terms of resources, money and work – not to mention seriously adventurous souls! – There could one day be something like Selenians (or as Heinlein called them "spinners").

Here in Universe Today we have written many articles about lunar colonization. Here's Paul Spudi's plan for a sustainable and affordable lunar base: why colonize the moon first? A stable lava tube could provide a potential human habitat on the moon, and the ESA is planning to build an international village … on the moon!

For more information, see our four-part series "Building a Moon Base":

For an insight into life and work on the moon, see What is Lunar Degradation? And under this is important! Students figure out how to make beer on the moon.

Astronomy Cast also has some nice episodes on the subject. Here is Episode 115: The Moon, Part 3: Return to the Moon.


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