Back to the Moon: The Birth of Self-Sustaining Outposts

A new space race is unfolding, driven by commerce and permanent bases on the Moon. To succeed, they’ll need to be self-sustaining.

Wilson da Silva
16 min readJan 10, 2021


One of the first photographs of Earthrise, seen by the three astronauts on the Apollo 8 mission, the first humans to circumnavigate the Moon [Credit: NASA]

WHEN SOPHIA Casanova was 10, her parents bought her a telescope, and she fell head over heels for all things space. She’d spend lazy summers in her hometown of Sydney, Australia, in the late 1990s revelling in the stars and watching the haunting phases of the serene, implacable Moon.

“That was the tipping point, really,” says the young Australian geologist, who’s now busily designing missions to prospect for — and eventually mine — water ice on the Moon and Mars. “It’s absolutely incredible to see through a telescope,” she says of the Moon, which she still views through a bigger, fancier telescope. “You see so much detail.”

When she started her doctorate in off-world resource extraction in 2017, space mining was considered science fiction. Now, she will have the pick of jobs in the booming space resources field around the world.

That’s partly because the U.S. space agency NASA has committed to return humans to the Moon in the 2020s under Project Artemis, building a permanent base there as a precursor to crewed missions to Mars in the 2030s. NASA is also partnering with Europe, Russia, Japan and Canada to build the Lunar Gateway, a space station in lunar orbit, and has commissioned nine private companies to develop landers that can deliver payloads to the Moon and back.

Meanwhile, the European Space Agency has announced plans to start mining the Moon for water and oxygen by 2025. China has sent three rovers to the Moon, including the first to land on the far side in 2019, and is preparing four more robotic missions that will return samples from the south pole (thought to be rich in ice) ahead of plans to land a mini-mining facility in 2027 that could be used to support a Chinese base in the 2030s.

But there’s also a boom underway in the global space industry in general, driven by the tumbling cost of launches coupled with burgeoning demand for broadband, navigation services, satellite observation and even tourism. It’s expanding at a compound annual growth rate 5.6% and is forecast to reach…