Is It possible to establish a human settlement on the Moon?
Since ancient times, people have been impressed by the Moon. In recent years, when science fiction movies are popular, many often wonder if it would be possible to live there.
So, can humans live there? Not just make it through, how about establishing a permanent, pleasant lifestyle in a lunar settlement that you can call “home”? Obviously, we want to set up labs there, and maybe even mining and production facilities. To put it bluntly, we think those are long overdue.
There are currently no cities there, but is it possible to build them there? Is there anything we could do to make the conditions on the Moon slightly more amenable to human habitation, we mean in a way, that maybe one day we call it home?
Let’s put it into perspective
Considering the circumstances in this field, we can say that the space race has already begun. Elon Musk recently stated that we could establish a self-sustaining city on Mars if we could just transport 1 million tons of cargo from Earth. Which is a lot, to be sure, but it’s not an unimaginably large amount. Assuming Elon can actually construct 1,000 rockets, each carrying 100 tons of cargo, we would only need to make ten trips.
A big problem is a trip to Mars, which lasts from six to nine months, and an even bigger obstacle is the fact that the opportunity to travel only opens every two years. To add insult to injury, each of those starships will have to make a multiyear round trip, meaning the entire endeavor will take decades. This equation can, of course, change. In the meantime, SpaceX may come up with an entirely new method and improved spaceships. If we stick to our current understanding, however, it will take many generations to construct that city on Mars.
How about the Moon, though? Of course, Elon Musk is psyched that NASA has chosen his new rocket to make history by successfully landing humans on it. But generally, he doesn’t seem all that enthusiastic about it. In our opinion, it could go in a good direction. If we need a million tons of materials to construct the Martian city, how much would we need for a lunar settlement? Because the Moon is so much smaller than Mars, and it is also much closer to the Earth, it’s easy to imagine that we wouldn’t need nearly as much equipment to get by. On the other hand, we don’t think that’s how it actually operates. So, it seems like 1,000,000 metric tons would suffice. That’s basically the same thing.
The Earth’s natural satellite, on the other hand, eliminates time-related complications. When compared to a round-trip mission to Mars, which would take four or five years, a trip to and from the Moon would only take four or five days. The distance is only 240,000 miles. A fleet of a thousand ships could finish the job in a couple of months, but again, not everything is as simple as it seems. There’s no way we could pack them all that quickly. It seems like a little bit of an exaggeration. Therefore, we could have 10 ships land 1000 times or 20 ships land 500 times instead of a thousand ships landing ten times. No matter how you look at it, we could get a million tons of material to the Moon in less time than it takes to make a single round trip to Mars.
Now, this is starting to make sense. However, this does not mean that Elon Musk is incorrect in his pursuit of Mars; the Moon certainly has its benefits, but it also likely has some significant drawbacks.
What are the conditions like on the Moon?
Initially, we must manage the moon’s wildly fluctuating temperatures. Lows of -280 degrees Fahrenheit (-175 degrees Celsius) are common overnight. And during the daytime, the mercury soars to a scorching 260°F (126°C). And a lunar day is roughly equivalent to 29 and a half Earth days. So we have long time periods of both day and night. This is problematic, especially during the day because the temperatures are very high, as it is common knowledge that computers overheat easily and cannot function properly in high temperatures.
This is not an issue on Mars. Generally speaking, the weather there on Mars is very cold, with the highest recorded temperature being only about 20 degrees Celsius (or 70 Fahrenheit) in a few locations at a few specific times. Therefore, we need very robust insulation if we are to establish a sustainable human presence on the Earth’s natural satellite.
It’s hard to imagine anything that would be both effective at keeping the heat out and practical enough to be used as a dome over the city so that everyone could look out into space. This dome, whatever it is made of, would have to be transported from Earth or created on the Moon. Whatever the case may be, it will be a tremendous challenge. Constructing a densely populated, low-lying city and covering it with lunar regolith is the more realistic option. That’s the dirt and pebbles and whatever else you find on the ground.
A habitat that will be protected from all adverse conditions can be built using a 3D printer controlled by a robot. An effective insulator is a thick layer of regolith. A binding agent could be added to the mixture to make a denser material akin to concrete. This barrier serves many purposes beyond just preventing the transfer of heat, such as shielding from meteorites and solar activity.
The atmosphere on Earth does all of this for us, but the Moon doesn’t provide any such assistance. There is a very thin layer of atmosphere. Nearly one hundred molecules per cubic centimeter make up the Moon’s exosphere. That’s a huge disparity when compared to Earth, where there are about a billion molecules in a cubic centimeter of space. And magnetic field plays a crucial role here. The magnetic core of Earth is so strong that it deflects the solar wind.
But the Moon doesn’t. The Moon’s atmosphere, even if we could make it denser, would still quickly dissipate due to the strong winds. Mars has the same issue, but it’s much better there. Similarly, Mars has a very thin atmosphere, though it is noticeably thicker than the moon’s. Mars also benefits from size and gravity. Maybe there’s a chance we can increase Mars’s atmospheric density at a rate greater than the Sun can remove it. While on the Earth’s natural satellite, such a scenario is unimaginable.
The gravity issue
And then there’s the issue of gravity. A weak force can’t hold an atmosphere together, and it might not even be able to hold our bodies together. Up there, the pull of gravity is only about half as strong as it is on Mars and only about 15% as strong as it is on Earth. What kind of impact does that have on people? This is extremely significant. It turns out that 437 days was the longest stretch of time ever spent in Earth’s orbit, so more or less zero gravity. This was accomplished by the Russian cosmonaut Valery Polyakov on the Mir space station between 1994 and 1995.
The reason he did it was to observe his physiological responses. To our knowledge, the effects of such prolonged exposure to microgravity were neither irreversible nor destructive. After his return to Earth, he reportedly did not experience any prolonged performance impairments. He lived for a long time after that and died in 2022 at the age of 80.
Therefore, the possibility of human settlement on the Moon is not completely out of the question. Keeping ourselves shielded from various elements is paramount, as is keeping an eye out for the long-term effects of low gravity on the human body.
On the other hand, unlike Mars, we won’t be obligated to spend a significant amount of time on the Moon. A trip to Mars requires at least two years of surface time, plus a year or more of travel time there and back. We can’t predict what effect it will have on a person, and once they’re inside, there’s no way out. In the case of the Earth’s natural satellite, we may not be able to say forever, but there appears to be no reason to doubt that humans could survive there for at least a year.
It’s possible that we could populate the city in waves. Work for a year, then take a year off, or something similar. Travel time is minimal, it only takes a couple of days. This allows for considerable leeway. How simple getting to the Moon is almost makes it funny. To travel the ocean in a boat takes us two weeks. Traveling to the Moon via a rocket from Earth takes about three days.
In the Star Trek movie First Contact, the captain of the Starship Enterprise, Picard, claims that there are more than 50 million people living on the Moon. It was predicted that this would take place in the year 2373. Is it possible that such a thing might occur in the next 300 years? Given the size of the Moon, which is approximately 15 million square miles (38 million square kilometers), we can comfortably house 50 million people, if not more. Asia has a total land area of about 44 million square kilometers and is home to about 5 billion people. But how do we go about doing that? At the very least, the availability of oxygen, water, food, and energy makes it seem doable.
What about oxygen?
It turns out that the moon’s surface is a rich source of oxygen. On average, there are 1.4 tons of minerals in 1 cubic meter of lunar regolith, with 630 oxygen being the most abundant. According to NASA, the average human requires about 800 grams of oxygen per day. A person could survive for about two years on 630 oxygen. And we can use electrolysis to get at that air we need so badly. There’s also enough water for us to function up there. Craters on the Moon likely hide water ice that is just waiting to be discovered. Asteroids would have carried it there, and the crater’s shadow would have kept it frozen solid. Regolith water extraction is possible as well.
If we bake the moon’s surface, we should be able to collect water vapor and turn it into a liquid. Then there’s the tried-and-true method that astronauts always fall back on: turning urine into drinkable water. Unfortunately, that’s the way things are out here in space, and astronauts have to deal with it. Plants are the next step. NASA has already discovered that their dried packaged foods lose nutritional value over time.
Even though we would be able to get enough food to sustain ourselves, we would be at risk of developing scurvy due to a lack of vitamins. And scurvy is a problem nobody on the Moon wants to have. In order to sustain our bodies over the long term, we must have access to growing plant food. NASA has already begun to investigate this question with its plant-cultivation experiments aboard the ISS. So far, they’ve been able to grow leafy vegetables fairly well, and that alone would provide enough food for all of us.
Technology is important
Moreover, there is technology that we would rely on. The ability to send and receive messages will be crucial, not just for the transmission of critical information but also for the maintenance of mental health. We need video calls, live streams, and other means to keep the people on the Moon feeling connected to Earth.
That’s where Starlink comes in. Starlink satellites will begin high-altitude orbital testing of SpaceX’s laser-based communication system. To see if we can get high bandwidth and low latency communication between Earth and space, the Starlink network and its new optical laser function will be tested during the Polaris Dawn spaceflight mission, which will send a Crew Dragon capsule carrying a crew into the highest ever Earth orbit. If this early test is successful, a Starlink constellation orbiting the Moon could soon be in contact with Earth’s network. Solar energy would be the obvious choice for the initial power source on the Earth’s natural satellite.
NASA is developing small nuclear reactors to serve as mobile power generating stations, and we could put them to the test. However, helium-3 might be something we could try to utilize in the distant future. This element has been detected in the lunar regolith. It is produced when the surface absorbs solar radiation. We know that the sun is just a big fusion reactor, and this helium-3 could hold the same amount of power. It doesn’t exist here because, fortunately, only a tiny fraction of the Sun’s radiation actually reaches Earth’s surface. However, we are fairly confident in the feasibility and efficiency of using helium-3 to fuel a power plant. We believe that 100 kilograms of helium-3 can power a small city for a year, and there is a lot of it up there.
So what do you think? Can we establish a human colony on the Moon? Is it actually a better colonizing candidate than Mars? It’s got some advantages that can’t be overlooked, so let us know your theories in the comments on Facebook or on Twitter.