With all the talk about a future Martian colony (and Elon Musk’s undying ambition to make us an interplanetary species), we’ve almost forgotten a much closer extraterrestrial destination—the moon.
Lunar colonies are hardly a new idea, but there has never actually been one outside of sci-fi. The ESA’s Moon Village scheme is looking to turn fiction into science. Scientists involved in the project believe that putting human boots on the moon and keeping them there is more than possible. We could be seeing several scientists, engineers, and technicians setting foot on lunar soil to live in a settlement by 2030, with up to 100 residents by 2040. That’s about the same timeframe during which the first manned mission to Mars could be taking off.
With the Earth-orbiting ISS being decommissioned in 2024, there had previously been talk of replacing it with a permanent lunar colony, which met with much buzzing among scientists at the recent European Planetary Science Conference, but reluctance among politicians for the absence of proof that significant industrial activity could emerge on the moon. ESA boss Jan Woerner argued that a colony on our satellite could be the evolution of teamwork in space.
Moon materials that could bring profits back to Earth include water, the volcanic rock basalt, and helium isotope helium-3. Basalt could be one of the raw materials used to 3D-print satellites, and launching these from the moon will cost a fraction of what it would it they take off from our planet. Helium-3, which could potentially power cleaner nuclear energy, is elusive on Earth but found everywhere on the moon. Water is the most valuable resource of all. H2O can be split into its hydrogen and oxygen components—which explode when they crash into each other—and turned into rocket fuel.
Lunar life may not be for everyone. Physicist Christiane Heinicke believes the psychological impact is similar to what she experienced after spending a year in NASA’s Hawaii Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) Mars simulation. If you couldn’t stand living with roommates in college, living in an extraterrestrial habitat might not be the best idea. You also never see anything remotely similar to Earth, just an endless rocky expanse.
"Being either inside the habitat or inside a suit means that you're never able to actually feel the moon or planet you're on,” Heinicke said. “You can't feel the wind (if there is any, like on Mars), you don't feel the Sun on your skin, and whatever you touch feels like the inside of your gloves."
For some Earthlings, that could be fascinating.