Growing up, my brother and I couldn’t get enough of Space: 1999, a mid-’70s series that hypnotized us with cool special effects, the crush-worthy Barbara Bain, who acted alongside her real-life husband Martin Landau, and its portrayal of the Moon as the main character in an action-packed 48-minute weekly episode. The premise of the show is bit far-fetched: an explosion at a moon base knocks the Moon out of Earth’s orbit and into a voyage to explore strange new worlds across the galaxy. The show was set a mere 15 years in the future.
It’s a reminder that in those post-Apollo years, we fully expected NASA or some international space force to be working on space bases in real life. More than four decades later, we’re still waiting for our Moonbase Alpha — though that’s not for a lack of interest. Ex-astronauts, entrepreneurial dreamers and short-lived sci-fi shows like Space: 1999 have kept alive the dream of a moon colony, and now, the confluence of technology, money, and political interest is pushing this idea out of the realm of sci-fi and closer to reality.
In my interviews with space scientists, industry officials, and futurists it appears that there’s an unofficial blueprint that is slowly shaping up for moon colonization. First, private space companies find ways to reduce the cost of launch. Right now, SpaceX says that it costs $62 million every time its Falcon 9 rocket is launched, while the more powerful Falcon Heavy costs an estimated $90 million per launch. Satellite companies and others wanting to get something in orbit get a discount for bulk purchases. SpaceX is bringing food and supplies to the International Space Station, it hopes to ferry U.S. astronauts by sometime in late 2019.
Then come fly-arounds and orbiting platforms. The Chinese plan to launch an Earth-orbiting space station by 2020, while NASA has asked private companies to develop a “Lunar Orbital Platform — Gateway” near the Moon by 2022. This could be NASA’s launch pad of sorts for future expeditions and settlements on both the Moon and Mars.
At the same time, private firms like Moon Express, as well as China, India and the European Space Agency are moving forward with robotic landers and rovers. The final step, supporters say, will be a permanent human presence on the surface. Maybe a government base first, followed by a private Moon resort.
NASA’s long-term involvement in the Moon is key to getting private companies to build on the lunar surface, according to Chris Lewicki, CEO of Planetary Resources, a Redmond, WA, based startup that plans to mine asteroids for rocket fuel and water.
“Government programs are like anchor tenants in a shopping mall,” Lewicki says about NASA and a future moonbase. “Without those big leaseholders, all smaller businesses don’t have a way to make a living. Without NASA it was hard to do itself.”
Some say all this could happen in the next 10 years. Others say it will take at least 20 years before both the technology for routine lunar launches is developed, and the cost comes down so that there’s actually consumer demand.
“Single-planet species don’t survive. Living off the planet is probably not a bad strategy for survival. Sooner or later it will be one of the motivations of having bases on the moon.”
And while the pace seems glacial, one Moon expert says likens it to the establishment of New World colonies, which didn’t happen overnight. “There’s a lag between discovery, exploration in detail, and exploitation,” says James W. Head III, a planetary scientist at Brown University who started his career at NASA selecting lunar landing sites for the Apollo missions.
So why go?
Supporters believe a moon colony will allow us to better understand how to reach farther out into the solar system. It also might be fun to visit for a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. The Moon is also a whole lot closer than Mars — it would take three days to get there, versus nine months — making it more of destination for lunar car campers than the hardcore astro-backpackers that would eventually reach Mars.
There’s also the idea of Moon mining.
Some Chinese and European researchers believe that the surface contains large quantities of helium-3, a rare element that could be used as a future energy source to fuel rockets traveling from Earth even further out to space. (The downside is that processing helium 3 into something useable takes an enormous amount of energy.) There’s also frozen water on the Moon’s polar regions: split it into hydrogen and oxygen via electrolysis and you have air to breathe — plus another rocket fuel source. That might be a long way off, but leaders of European and Chinese moon programs have said they have plans to explore it on upcoming lunar missions.
There’s another good case for colonies: our survival. James Head remembers what Apollo Cmdr. John Young, who flew in space during the Gemini, Apollo and shuttle programs, often told him when asked why humans should return to the Moon: “Single-planet species don’t survive,” Head remembers him saying. “Living off the planet is probably not a bad strategy for survival. Sooner or later it will be one of the motivations of having bases on the moon.”
How would a Moon economy work?
To make a moon base work, an economic foundation would be necessary. There’s already a growing “Low-Earth Orbit” economy (LEO for short) of U.S. companies that are putting satellites into space, servicing them and preparing to build places for people to live in work in Earth orbit.
The LEO economy numbers keep growing. Since 2000, more than 180 startup space ventures have attracted over $18.4 billion of investment, according to a May 2018 report by Bryce Space and Technology, an Alexandria, Virginia-based consulting firm. At $28 billion in valuation, SpaceX is the behemoth of the commercial space industry, and CEO Elon Musk wants to do it all: launch a constellation of Earth-orbiting satellites, send people around the Moon, and eventually establish a Mars base.
Musk has a history of missing deadlines, whether it’s delivery of the Tesla Model 3 or his ambitious space plans. But the frequency of SpaceX rocket launches — 28 since the beginning of 2017 — has made it one of the world’s most successful commercial space launch companies.
As it figures out how to use reusable rockets, SpaceX is driving down the cost of launches. That might open the door to a new set of zero-G pit-stops around the Earth and perhaps the Moon. These private rest stops would eventually replace the International Space Station, a $100 billion, 20-year-old NASA-funded mission that is now on its last legs. The White House says it wants someone else to run it after 2024 so that NASA can set its sights on putting people back on the Moon and Mars, although for now, Congress doesn’t agree.
The transition from a low-Earth economy to a moon economy is realistic, says Jeffrey Manber, CEO of Nanoracks, a Houston-based firm that operates its own laboratory space on the space station and launches tiny 10-inch square satellites, known as “cube-sats,” for commercial and university clients from ISS.
“We will have LEO hotels within five years and a decade from now you will see a growing infrastructure,” says Mander. “There will be hotels scattered throughout the frontier along with warehouses, fuel depots, then commercial modules or lunar colonies.”
“The key to having a Heinlein-esque future is that it has to get cheaper to get out of Earth’s gravity, once you do that, it all comes into place.”
Call Manber crazy, but many of the things he’s talking about are actually happening. Bigelow Aerospace, a space tech startup, built an inflatable astronaut work module on the space station in 2016 and plans to put one in orbit around the moon by 2022. The company is owned by Robert Bigelow, the billionaire founder of Budget Suites of America hotels, and an avowed believer in UFO visitations to Earth. Bigelow is one of several billionaires who are competing in the race for the Moon, including Jeff Bezos, with Blue Origin (Amazon founder), Musk, with SpaceX, and Richard Branson, with Virgin Galactic.
Their deep pockets and freedom from quarterly earnings returns are helping push technology forward in decadal leaps. They are building rockets that can get companies like Bigelow and Nanoracks off Earth and over to the Moon. Only NASA during the go-go Apollo years could match the burn rate of folks like Bezos, who said recently that he sells a billion dollars a year in Amazon stock to keep Blue Origin going.
Blue Origin is developing the Blue Moon lander, which could carry cargo to the lunar surface in preparation for a base and its own New Glenn rocket, which has a successful test in July.
How realistic are the colonies?
Getting the economics of rocket launching just right may be the tipping point for landing people — and things — on the Moon, according to Andy Weir. He wrote The Martian, a sci-fi novel about a stranded astronaut that became the blockbuster 2015 Matt Damon movie. As a follow-up, Weir wrote Artemis about a moon colony that was subject to a heist and extortion plan involving competing mining interests. Weir places Artemis in the 2080s. He believes a real-life moon base is possible.
“The key to having a Heinlein-esque future,” says Weir, referring to the 1950s era sci-fi author Robert Heinlein, “is that it has to get cheaper to get out of Earth’s gravity, once you do that, it all comes into place.”
Weir crunched the numbers to figure out what it would take to get well-heeled space tourists to take a $70,000 vacation at a Moon resort. His rough estimate is that the cost of a rocket launch has to drop from its current rate of $4,635 per kilogram (in 2015 dollars) to about $35 per kilogram. That’s a big drop, but it may not be as long as we think before the figures add up.
Once that problem is solved, Weir believes, the moon already has the natural resources available for building a city.
“Even in a world when you’ve driven the price to LEO down, you still need to use resources locally,” Weir said. “The early pioneers didn’t bring pallets of lumber to build their houses,” Weir said the Moon is extremely rich in exactly the things you need to build a Moon base, for example, anorthite rock, which covers vast areas of the lunar surface, can be separated into aluminum, oxygen, calcium, and silicon (used in glass).
But after all his research, Weir realized that the seafloor, the Earth’s polar regions, and the Sahara are all easier to colonize than the Moon. You have to bring breathable oxygen, protection against space radiation and all your own food and water, he points out.
“The problem is that you still don’t want to send humans to the moon,” Weir said. “You want to send robots. Humans are soft and squishy and they die. Robots are hard and nobody gets upset when they die.”
China’s already working on this. China plans to launch a lander and rover in December to the far side of the moon. The country’s leaders have also talked about putting astronauts on the Moon by 2036 while the White House says it wants NASA to return to the moon but without giving a firm commitment date.
Head, the planetary scientist who works with the Chinese, believes the Chinese government has the ultimate deep pockets needed for such an expensive technological enterprise. China’s space program doesn’t have to worry about justifying its expenses to Congress, like NASA does, or running out of company stock to sell to finance the money-losing space companies.
“For them, the ultimate goal is to have astronauts on the moon, and they are definitely moving in that direction,” Head said. “It’s possible they could get back to the Moon with humans before we do.”