Jan 30, 2012

The Difference Between a Lunar Base and Colony

Posted by in categories: existential risks, habitats, lifeboat, space, sustainability

Recently, Newt Gingrich made a speech indicating that, if elected, he would want 10% of NASA’s budget ($1.7 billion per year) set aside to fund large prizes incentivizing private industry to develop a permanent lunar base, a new propulsion method, and eventually establishing a martian base.

Commentators generally made fun of his speech with the most common phrase used being “grandiose”. Perhaps. But in 1996 the Human Lunar Return study estimated $2.5 billion from NASA to send and return a human crew to the Moon. That was before SpaceX was able to demonstrate significant reductions in launch costs. One government study indicated 1/3 of the cost compared to traditional acquisition methods. Two of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavies will be able to launch nearly as much payload as the Saturn V while doing so at 1/15th the cost of the same mass delivered by the Shuttle.

So, we may be at the place where a manned lunar base is within reach even if we were to direct only 10% of NASA’s budget to achieve it.

I’m not talking about going to Mars with the need for shielding but rather to make fast dashes to the Moon and have our astronauts live under Moon dirt (regolith) shielding while exploiting lunar ice for air, water, and hence food.

But the point of this post is this. If a small lunar base is within our reach, how much more would it take to achieve something that most of us realize would be the single most important step in ensuring the survival of the human species should a truly existential event strike Planet Earth. So I’m describing a small, self-sufficient colony. I would say that the difference between a base and a self-sufficient colony is fairly small. Small enough to make it worth our while to attempt to achieve.

So, what are the requirements for a self-sufficient colony? The most critical would be air, water, and food. But understand, oxygen and water can be produced from the 600 million metric meters of water ice estimated to exist at the north lunar pole. So there’s no shortage. And with recycling, the amount of daily required input could be pretty small — small enough to easily be within a day’s task for mining. But food also requires fertilizer. Fortunately for us, the LCROSS results showed that there is also methane and ammonia in the ice and the regolith contains other minerals such as phosphorus and potassium. So, the most critical components for a colony would already be present with a manned base at a lunar pole.

Besides this, the colony would also need protection from the vacuum and cosmic radiation — i.e. a sealed habitat. This should not be too difficult. For a base, options include inflatable habitats and using fuel tanks as durable, sealable compartments. Radiation protection is as simple as piling regolith over the structures or even digging trenches or caves into the sides of hills or craters. That’s fine for a base. But a self-sufficient colony requires that future colonists be able to construct their own habitats. This could be achieved in the intermediate term by simply caving out habitats, supporting them, and then inflating a liner. Many such liners could be delivered in a single 5,000 kg payload. In the long term, such liners could be produced as plastics from volatiles resulting from the production of water from lunar ice. Broken liners could be patched or even melted to produce new liners. Alternately, metals can be fairly easily produced from the regolith. Run a permanent magnet through the soil, extract iron, melt it using solar concentrating mirrors and then process the molten metal to sheets, wires, cast forms, etc. Glass could be made the same way along with fiberglass. Natural lighting could supplement electrical power by using aluminum mirrors and glass. Supplemental heat could be provided in a similar manner along with locally derived insulation.

Thin film solar panels can provide > 1,000 W/kg. So a 5,000 kg payload could provide a very large amount of onging power (if my math is correct, enough for perhaps 500 colonists). Excessive solar panels could be stored under ground and then used as needed thereby giving the colony decades of power. Eventually, a self-sustaining colony would need to produce its own power from silicon in the regolith. Storage of energy during the lunar night could be accomplished through the use of electrolysis of water to oxygen and hydrogen. These could then be recombined in a fuel cell to produce electricity and heat. Alternately, the colonists could simply travel every two weeks to the other side of the hill near the pole to another sunlit habitat.

Again, to buy the colony time to be able to develop the ability to produce its own space suits, many years’ worth of thin airproof liners to space suits could be delivered in a single 5,000 kg payload. Again, a self-sustaining colony would need to eventually produce their own. Between the use of fiberglass, metals, and locally produced plastic or silicon sealants, eventually the colony could produce their own. Of course plants could be grown to provide fibers for clothing.

To avoid day-long exposure to cosmic radiation while mining surface ice, mining could either be conducted underground or telerobotically. But regolith is very gritty and can wear out teleoperated mining equipment. But if a colony is able to produce its own metals and had machining equipment which could be used to produce more machining equipment, then the colony could stay ahead of equipment wearing out.

High-tech equipment (computer chips, cameras, and radio equipment) is certainly useful but I believe that there are ways around needing them. Still, in the interim, a single 5,000 kg payload delivery could provide centuries worth of computer chips, camera chips, and critical radio equipment components. For example, the Voyager craft have been exposed to 30+ years of 360 degree space radiation yet still work fine. So, an apple box worth of computer chips could last centuries. Eventually the colony would need to produce its own high-tech equipment. Perhaps they could use 1940’s technology such as vacuum tubes.

The Moon’s 1/6 gravity is probably not enough to prevent bone and muscle loss. Experiments on the international space station (ISS) show that an exercise program can do much to prevent bone loss. A recent study indicates that Fosamax prevents bone loss in astronauts. A 5,000 kg payload could give 83 million doses of Fosamax. Stored in a permanently shadowed area, it could provide for a very large number of future colonists. But also, a basic centrifuge or even a tether ball-like contraption could provide artificial gravity for colonists for part of the day. Trenches dug along its path could provide partial protection from cosmic rays. Alternately, space forums have discussed completely underground centrifuges using various ingenious approaches.

Of particular concern is how fetal children would develop given limited gravity. Studies of animals on the ISS indicates that this is a real concern. We don’t know enough about this issue. Perhaps pregnant women would need to spend significant amounts of time in a centrifuge perhaps in all trimesters.

I have started with the most essential requirements and have worked down. I propose that there are technologic solutions for each of the requirements but perhaps I have been unrealistic in one or more areas or perhaps have neglected to address an important requirement. Feel free to comment below.

For a truly self-sustaining colony, for humans, the Minimum Viable Population (MVP) is in the realm 1,000. I personally suspect that it is actually less than that but a solution here could be for a single payload delivery of frozen embryos for surrogate parenting to be frozen long-term in permanently shadowed areas. Although this may strike some as being unethical, these would only be needed in the event of a truly existential event on Planet Earth.

I envision the colony as not only securing the human species but a good representation of Earth’s entire biosphere. But discussing the details of that topic would extend this post much longer than it has already become. More on that later.


Comments — comments are now closed.

  • Khannea Suntzu on January 31, 2012 1:02 am

    A lunar moon colony is far easier than most people usually assume it is. It isn’t a price calculation — if the Earth would be devoured by a mindless and indestructible planetary organic grey goo in the next decades, we’d have a fairly nice comfortable lunar colony housing half a million (rich people and their kids) within a decade.

    Not doing Lunar colonization right now is a constraint based on (scarcity paradigm) x (lack of imagination). We need not just very good arguments — we’d also need a whole new economical system (one that invests in the long run) and a decissionmaking system that is not dependent on 50% of the electorate having an IQ under 100.

    The key problem is puberty. Humanity collectively is mentally stuck in the equivalent of puberty. Adolescents do not plan for the long term. Adolescents consume like crazy. Adolescents wholesale engage in (sociosexual) competition. Adolescents are often comparatively egocentric. That nicely paraphrases the problems of collective humanity at this stage.

  • Ed Minchau on January 31, 2012 2:26 am

    Khannea, the average IQ, by definition, is 100. It doesn’t matter what your population is, by definition half will have an IQ of less than 100. Are there any buildings or roads where you live? Are any older than 50 years old? Or more than 100 years old? Is that long term?

    Do you think about what you write?

  • Niklas Järvstråt on January 31, 2012 3:22 am

    That is exactly what needs to be done. And start right now, by making a terrestrial closed self-sufficiency demonstrator plant. And keep it running for a couple of years with volunteer “colonists” to demonstrate that it can be done, before sending it to the moon. The first real colonists will have enough unforeseen problems with vacuum and low gravity to want the life-support to fail because of glitches that could have been weeded out in a trial “moonbase”.

  • giorgio gaviarghi on January 31, 2012 4:59 am

    One of the main requirements, would be life support systems, air, water,and food.
    Food can be provided through aero or hydroponics systems , with inflatable units above ground. Human habitats below ground, shielding humans from radiations and temperature extremes.
    A proper straregy and city planning design can provide the basis for an underground terraforming habitat, where humans can live and work in shirtsleeve conditions. Such habitat can expand , in accordance with requirements. A feeder-cruiser , based on a cycler in earth to Moon trajectory, a lunar lander and an earth feeder would supply affordable transportation. Fuel (LOX) can be produced on the Moon.
    Technical challenges can easily be met, the real challenge is to develop a lunarsettlement business model, that would guarantee continuous expansion and jumpstart an extraterrestrial economy.
    There are several options (He3, tourism, vehicles overhaul. launch base etc) that must be studied and proposed to make of a Moon settlement a successful enterprise for private capital to invest.

  • Mark on January 31, 2012 6:34 am

    I think imagining that water can be easily collected from polar regions of the Moon and then transported to the location of a lunar base is an vast over simplification. As is much of what you have outlined. It is one thing to imagine building a based in caves, mining the surface, extracting water and other needed supplies, it is quite another thing to actually carry out such an endeavor in such a harsh environment.

    I think robotics is the key. Establish robotic systems that can build, repair and operate all the functions in a Moon Base, and with them test the systems needed for human survival and support, long before you think about building an enduring human base.

    Once established, a bases air, water, food and clothing can all be continuously /recycled using carefully designed biological systems. Hemp for fiber, mushrooms for food and waste material breakdown, fish for food and fertilizer, and so forth. Plants can convert CO2 into oxygen and help clean the air by removing pollutants and provide food. Properly selected livestock can produce all the fertilizer needed for the crops. Mycological, bacterial and plant (lichen) organisms can process regolith (basalt) into soil and other useful materials.

    Solar cell power is one alternative, but a rather bulky, expensive choice, requiring a large support structure and infrastructure to make it viable. It would be very vulnerable to even small meteor impacts and would be difficult to repair or replace. I believe it is wiser to have multiple sources of power rather than relying on a single technology/source. The new eCat technology looks promising, and there is plenty of hydrogen and nickel available on the moon to fuel them. There is also nuclear decay/heat generators like the one on the Curiosity rover, which put out power for many years. The downside to that is the radiation they produce and the fact that the materials for them are in short supply.

    The biggest challenge I believe to a sustainable base or colony on the moon is going to be the gravity. All of the species of plants, animals, mycelium and other biological entities we would need to take with us have spent millions of years adapting to function optimally in Earth gravity. There are indications that people and even bacteria grow and function very differently in micro gravity. We simply do not know if plants and animals can survive, let alone thrive, in the vastly reduced gravity of the Moon. Things that live in water probably can do okay, but that is just what I imagine, we need testing and hard science to determine what will and what won’t do well in reduced gravity before we start planning a base where growing food is required for human survival.

  • JohnHunt on January 31, 2012 8:10 am

    Millais, YES back to you! We need a terrestrial version for two reasons: 1) To work out the bugs before establishing the more expensive lunar version and 2) for it’s own sake because a terrestrial version could help secure the survival of the human species for years while hopefully any existential ecophage burns itself out.

    Doesn’t it seem that a terrestrial bunker is something right down the line of what the Lifeboat Foundation ought to be doing — like right now? Organizations such as the Mars Society have their field station where they have volunteers spend summers. The Lifeboat Foundation could partner with the Moon Society since it could serve the purposes of each organization. Such a joint project could also help the Moon Society adopt a survival of the human species as one of its goals.

    Launching such a project could also help in creating partners in the biologic community as collecting biologic stores at the terrestrial bunker would logically meet the goals of both terrestrial and lunar colonies.

    I would like to request that the Lifeboat Board and Executive Committee consider officially launching a terrestrial bunker specifically with a purpose of preparing for a lunar colony. Launching a real project could also gain the Lifeboat Foundation good press and hence fundraising and member recruitment opportunities.

  • Eric Hunting on January 31, 2012 8:38 am

    Why is there always an assumption of a costly manned program dependent upon government or oligarchs? Certainly, the ultimate objective is human settlement, but I don’t see this as a necessary or necessarily practical starting point. Indeed, this assumption immediately makes such a program inaccessible, and therefore irrelevant, to the larger society. For some years now I have been advocating an open global space program based on the premise of telerobotic pre-settlement specifically as a means to make this activity accessible and personally/commercially rewarding to a larger participating community.

    We are no longer in an age where it is sufficient for people to be cheerleading from outside the space center fence or to pretend they are vicariously supporting a space program by their general contribution to national productivity. No one buys that stuff anymore. If one cannot directly participate and see the benefits more directly then the usual Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon of space agency technology transfer, one has no reason to care. In telerobotics I see the potential for this kind of participation because, frankly, the suppression of the advance of space robotics in space agencies for the sake of the circular rationale of manned space activity has resulted in a general level of technology that really isn’t all that more advanced than the hobby robotics of kids in Japan and the current Maker community. And while there is a great amount of work that needs to be done, it is not work that, by and large, requires multi-billion-dollar facilities and an engineering elite to perform. There are a lot of problems that can be explored at the garage and university lab level. Indeed, that’s currently where most of the problems in robotics development are explored.

    Certainly, one still needs rocketry to get to space and this remains a stumbling block to broad participation. There is today an obsession in the space industry and space advocacy with CATS. But, again, this problem revolves around an assumption of manned spaceflight. We, in fact, already have CATS. We have–for quite some time–had the technical means for $1000 and less-per-kilogram launch capability. We simply haven’t had that in a context that works for manned space flight and conventional giant Faberge Egg payloads. With telerobotics we have the potential to radically reduce the inherent value of unit payloads by virtue of the means to build value on orbit/on site rather than launch it all at once.

    Launch costs are not high because there is some inherent flaw in the contemporary technology of launch systems. They are high because systems are engineered around an assumption of high payload values whose capital risks must be absolutely minimized. When you are shipping the Mona Lisa you aren’t very concerned about the MPG rating of the truck. And so it becomes impractical to develop low-cost low-reliability systems in the same manner of an ‘acceptable yield’ as is commonly used in industrial production. But base your program on a premise of telerobotically building value out there, unit payload values and criticality drops radically and the means to building viable facilities in space becomes much more tenable. This is the equation for feasibility and plausibility of space development that has long been overlooked.

    Ultimately, passenger spaceflight is necessary for the settlement of space. But we face a basic problem in that, regardless of the technology, passenger spaceflight may not be self-justified for a very long time and will most certainly not be in any near-term. This is not a technology problem. That is the delusion common to those obsessed with CATS. It is a logistics problem keyed to the operational economies of scale of spaceflight systems. A lot of transportation never achieves a small operational economy of scale at a tenable cost. It takes a regional population of millions to justify the existence of a single airport for conventional airliners. What then a Pan-Am Orion?

    The answer to this dilemma is demonstrated in history. I have long maintained that launch systems are more like trains than they are like planes. They have hugh minimum operational economies of scale and are engineered to link very specific destinations. If you understand this you see the historical parallel to the development of American frontier rail systems in the 19th century. These systems were not predicated on passenger traffic–because there were no destinations for passengers to go to! They were predicated on the access to natural resources to supply the established industries of the coasts. Passenger travel could never justify that infrastructure investment itself. It was subsidized by industrial transit. Comprehensive western settlement was keyed to the logistical support needs of the rail transit system predicated on resource exploitation.

    The problem for space transit is that it has yet to establish a plausible industrial potential that would justify the capital investment in infrastructure necessary to exploit it. And that’s largely because even ‘roughing it’ in space for the sake of exploration and assay is untenable in cost when relying on humans. You see, the basic error of the First Space Age was that governments were engaging in Mt. Everest climbs for the sake of geopolitical prestige and not Louis and Clarke expeditions of exploration and ASSAY upon which later capital speculation could be based. Government completely blew its logical role. Now that government has effectively bowed-out of space almost altogether it is up to academic science, commercial interests, and–yes–hobbyists to develop the lowest-cost practical means to that assay and initial infrastructure development. And that means robots. Unless the Singularity hits tomorrow, space development will remain keyed to industrial development and settlement will be keyed to the logistic points established for that industrial activity and _its_ transportation. It will be some time before we have developed the necessary facilities of scale in space to subsidize routine human travel for any reason.

    Thus I see current propositions of manned lunar bases as cart-before-horse. I see much more logic in the proposition of creating The Biggest Model Train Layout Ever–the kind you might eventually go live in.

  • JohnHunt on January 31, 2012 9:28 am

    > the real challenge is to develop a lunarsettlement business model, that would guarantee continuous expansion and jumpstart an extraterrestrial economy.

    Giorgio, I agree that the permanent opening of space requires an economically sustainable model. And, granted, more people living in space means more chances for survival should Earth’s ecosphere be lost. However time is of the essence. Scientists are even now researching what are the fundamental properties of self-replicating chemicals. I fear that they will openly publish their findings thereby speeding the day when someone (accidentally?) creates a chemical ecophage.

    So, we cannot afford to wait for the business model to emerge for a small lunar colony any more than we should wait for anything else which is important but not yet profitable (e.g. Apollo, Space Shuttle, Hubble, etc).

    Now, having said that, I’m going to turn around and largely disagree with myself. I think that a good business plan should be part of the plan for establishing a minimalist colony on the Moon for two reasons. 1) A financially sustainable model will help the colony grow and so add to the couldn’t’ve redundancy. 2) To get the plan funded through NASA (i.e. Congress) in austere times, showing how it will eventually pay for itself will help get it funded eventually. Fortunately I believe that a good business case can be made based upon the telerobotic exploitation of lunar ice to ship propellant to Earth orbit for sale to NASA, the DOD, comm says, and tourists.

  • JohnHunt on January 31, 2012 9:55 am

    Eric, your post is very logical and I think is a valuable contribution in both general concepts and several particulars. You may be suprised to learn that my Really Affordable Plan core Space Opening and Development (RAPSODy Plan) imagines exactly what you are talking about — a scaling up of a telerobotically-operated fleet of lunar ice extraction and processing equipment. I see the lunar base 10 years after being established as being 20 humans and 1,000 robots teleoperated from Earth. I see the economic role of the humans as producing bulky metal parts for new robots and trending to their repair. If tourists want to go to the Moon or of multimillionaires want to retire on the Moon or if someone figures out a non-Mining role for humans then so be it. But teleoperated robots are an inexpensive workforce.

    However, again, time is of the essence. We date not wait for cautious business investors to feel totally confident of the low risk of a lunar mining operation. So I see an appropriate role for NASA to do what the businesses world cannot do:
    1) Fund the development of a minimalist self-sufficient colony where there is no rate of return.
    2) Establish the initial infrastructure to lower the hurdle to investment.

  • GaryChurch on February 1, 2012 4:43 pm

    “Two of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavies will be able to launch nearly as much payload as the Saturn V while doing so at 1/15th the cost of the same mass delivered by the Shuttle.”

    Not really. You are on the right track John, except for relying on the space tourism business to get you Beyond Earth Orbit. You better take a look at the math again on soft landing payloads at the lunar poles where the water is. Or you can just take my word for it.

    There is no substitute for an HLV with hydrogen upper stages.

    Take a look at my Plowshare in Space article here if you get a chance.

  • Philip Metzger on February 1, 2012 8:30 pm

    Spudis and Lavoie recently published a study showing how we could implement a lunar base for less than the cost that NASA was being actually funded for Constellation.

    A copy of their first paper, which is published in Space Manufacturing 14, is here:

    And their (more detailed) AIAA Space 2011 paper is available here: