Finding Eden on the Moon

Article excerpt

At a time when world leaders see few compelling objectives for space exploration, here is one a colony on the Moon. The economic and scientific benefits would more than compensate for the up-front costs and time investment, argues a former dean of the International Space University.

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The small white dot on the right is the International Space Station flying over the surface of the Moon on April 15, 2010. According to Pelton, some experts think that the International Space Station could be a useful transit and dropoff point for building human settlements on the Moon.

In recent months, there has been a great deal of debate about the future of space activities. Those of the United States, in particular, have been highly uncertain since spring 2010, when President Obama called for the end of Project Constellation. He thought that this program, which would send several human missions to the Moon and would only develop a new launcher much like the 40-year-old Saturn V--i.e., Apollo on steroids--was too expensive. In short, this program seemed unlikely to achieve major new technical or scientific breakthroughs.

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A number of questions continue to be debated about the future of space programs around the world. What should we do with the International Space Station (ISS)? How soon can there realistically be commercial human space flight to low-Earth orbit, the ISS, and even private space habitats? What should the world's priorities in space be: improving global communications, enhancing national and international security, monitoring climate change, promoting scientific understanding, or exploring other worlds?

It is clearly appropriate to question the objectives of space enterprise and debate the many options. Should we return to the Moon? Or should we build a space colony to beam power back to Earth? Maybe we should go to Europa, or to an asteroid--perhaps one filled with platinum. And we always have Mars!

WHY WE SHOULD GO TO THE MOON

I believe strongly that we would generate major scientific and economic gains if we were to embark on creating an economically viable colony on the Moon. This would be achievable largely through lower-cost robotic missions that could, within a decade, create a livable environment on a lunar outpost, allowing humans to carry out a wide range of economically viable tasks. Let us call this future lunar colony Eden 1.

There are many reasons we should focus on the Moon, including the following:

* Communications. We have the technology today to establish an affordable, broadband system to communicate with astronauts on the Moon with only a few seconds' delay in transmission. It is much easier than attempting broadband communications with astronauts at a deep-space destination, such as Mars, where transmissions would be hugely expensive and suffer delays as long as 20 minutes (which could prove critical in emergency situations).

* Transportation costs. Landing a few human crews on the Moon to build a habitable colony would indeed be expensive. An earlier study, the Project Constellation, projected the costs to be near $100 billion. Sending robots to build a lunar colony, however, is a much more affordable proposition. Teams of robots could dig the lunar surface and build a permanent human habitat there for a fraction of the cost of a human construction crew.

"Smart" robots might first land on the Moon and build a radiation-hardened living environment. Robotic missions to create a permanent human habitat would push back a human return to the Moon by four years or more, but such a modest delay would help ensure that the inhabitants of a lunar colony would be able to stay longer and accomplish much more. Once the robots have completed the initial groundwork, people can move into this new living area and activate commercial projects that will ultimately make the investment of capital resources in lunar enterprise profitable. …