"We will carry out robotic exploration until 2015, in that year we will build the first permanently manned outpost and after that we will start colonising the Moon. How to go on from there? First of course, the exploitation of natural resources and energy. Then, from 2040 onwards, the building of Moon villages. By 2060 we will have a complete Moon capital. This can be achieved."
Wherever people work, accidents will happen. A Moon worker who broke his leg falling off a cliff receives an inflatable splint. The ambulance personnel examine the seriousness of the wound using a portable CAT scan and holographic displays in their helmets and inform the base.
Speaking is Dr. Bernard Foing, Project Scientist for ESA's Moon exploration satellite SMART-1, due to be launched at the end of 2002, and also chairman of the Lunar Explorers Society, LUNEX, founded last year.
Under Foing's guidance a step-by-step plan is being developed, in order to return to the Moon in twenty years time - and this time to stay there for good. Foing leans back. "We don't have any plans yet for the distant future. Let's think, 2070. Yes, then we will declare the Moon's independence!"
Laughter erupts from the Members of the Lunar Society. "No sir. We should do that a year earlier," is the reaction of Paul van Susante, the Dutch contact person for LUNEX. "Because in 2069 it will be exactly one hundred years since the first manned landing on the Moon and therefore perfectly timed. "The year is half-jokingly noted and has thus become an option for the future.
Back to the Moon!
"But seriously," Chairman Foing hastens to add after the previous joke, "when we founded our lunar society last year, during the Fourth International Conference on Exploration and Utilisation of the Moon (ICEUM4) in ESTEC (Noordwijk, The Netherlands), we compared the European plans for lunar exploration with the American, Japanese, Chinese and even Indian planned missions. We came to the conclusion that we should not only do scientific and technological investigations on the Moon, but should also look for means to exploit the Moon, in a way that would benefit everyone on Earth."
"For example, in large parts of India and Africa the rural population has no access to electrical power. Enormous sums of money would have to be spent to make electricity generation and distribution possible. On the Moon all the raw materials necessary to produce solar cells are present. Thus huge solar panels could be placed on or around the Moon. The electrical energy that is generated could be beamed to Earth using microwave lasers. Back on Earth, the energy would be captured and transformed into cheap electrical power."
On the dark side of the Moon astronomical observatories will be built. Astronomers can observe unhampered with their radio telescopes. Because the dark side is out of sight of the Earth, no signal from our planet, not radio, TV or even strong radar signals, will penetrate.
If something like this were possible, it would of course be more than welcome. Not another Moon mission with costs running into hundreds of billions like the Apollo project, but instead a project which in the long run would bring a return on investment. In other words: this time an investment that would pay off.
According to the International Lunar Society LUNEX there will be industry on the Moon in the near future. Large solar panels convert sunlight into electrical energy and from the soil valuable raw materials are extracted. The technician in the foreground is well protected by a stiff suit with movable joints.
EARTH WITHOUT THE MOON
Asimov's reasoning was not so far wrong. More and more scientists think that the Moon was responsible for the development of life on Earth. The Moon is much larger than any other satellite in our Solar System when compared to its own planet.
The Moon is the main cause of the oceanic tides; the influence of the Sun is only half as big. The tides had a decisive influence on the evolution of shellfish and other amphibious lifeforms. Because of the existence of tidal zones (banks and coastal areas that are exposed to air on ebb tide and are under water at flood tide) plants and animals had to develop in such a way that would allow them to survive on land as well as in water. The tides as we experience them now are a mere fraction of what they originally were. About 4.5 billion years ago an object larger than Mars collided with the Earth. The Moon originated from the ring of debris that orbited the Earth as a result of this collision. A billion years later the Moon still closely orbited the Earth. This proximity caused gigantic tides. These tidal forces caused the cores of both celestial bodies to heat up. The heating diminished only when the friction caused by the tides made the Earth rotate slower and at the same time pushed the Moon further away from Earth.
Some attributes of the Earth are very unusual and are thought to be caused by the long period of core heating. Contrary to other terrestrial planets like Venus or Mars, the Earth still has a molten core. The heat of the core causes volcanoes and makes continents drift. Continental drift produced isolated areas, where very different plant and animal species developed.
The flows in the core make our planet a very powerful magnet. The magnetic field extends a large distance from the Earth and protects life from the deadly eruptions of the Sun and the harmful cosmic radiation. Astronomers have shown that the Moon also keeps the Earth in check. If the inclination of the Earth's axis varied as much as that of the planet Mars, our climate would be soon be impossible to live in.
If it had not been for the Moon, it is possible that life on Earth would not be so diverse. One day the Moon could also solve the Earth's energy problem, we will then have much to thank this celestial body for.
The Members of LUNEX are not the only ones with Moon-storming ideas as is shown by the many other plans that have been made the last few years. Findings of the American Clementine satellite (1996) and the Moon explorer Lunar Prospector (1998), indicated the presence of water in the eternal darkness of the craters on the Moon's poles. Many think this water might be exploited for human consumption. If water could be extracted from the Moon, then it would save the great expense of having to transport it there (about 18000 Euro/litre).
Moon water may also be used as rocket fuel. Through electrolysis water can be split into hydrogen and oxygen which can subsequently be used to power rocket motors (like the Shuttle's main engines and large carrier rockets are now). The Moon can even be used as a platform for future missions to Mars and beyond.
Towards the end of the last century American spacecraft found indications for ice deposits in the eternal shadow of the Moon poles. It is in the neighbourhood of this ice that we find the first Moon-base. Solar energy melts the ice under the dome and the water forms a beautiful pond.
"The Moon is ideally suited to test technologies required for the exploration of Mercury, Mars, asteroids or the moons of the outer planets," says Michael Duke of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas, who is also the Chairman of the International Lunar Exploration Working Group (ILEWG). "Building and testing robot missions and creating the infrastructure necessary for human inhabitation of the Moon is much easier, by virtue of its much smaller gravity. Consider also the proximity of the Moon: only two days space travel as opposed to more than half a year to Mars!"
It will take only two days to travel to the Moon. Once industry has been established on the Moon, all kinds of flights and landings will take place. Tourists will also visit the Moon.
"It is precisely this proximity to the Moon which makes it invaluable," says Gerald Kulcinski of the Fusion Technology Institute of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA. "It is easy going back and forth hauling helium-3, the perfect fuel for future, third-generation nuclear fusion reactors. These reactors can run on helium-3 with hardly any radiation production. On Earth helium-3 is extremely expensive. In total there is no more than 200 kilograms. But on the Moon, where there is no atmosphere nor magnetosphere, it rains down constantly from the solar wind of charged particles. Moon soil samples taken back to Earth by the Apollo astronauts have revealed that the upper layer of the Moon soil contains at least a million tonnes of helium-3. One tonne of helium-3 delivers 10,000 Megawatt-years of energy, which is the same amount you would get from burning 130 million barrels of oil."
"One hundred tonnes of helium-3 is sufficient to satisfy the entire Earth's energy needs for a year. This amount can be stored in a space about five times the size of the current cargo bay of the Space Shuttle. Just five cargo spaceships the size of the current Space Shuttle, sent to the Moon would be sufficient. With current rocket techniques transportation will cost 5 billion dollars. But it would return with 300 billion dollars worth of energy. Initially a lot of money will have to be invested in the excavations on the Moon. But with an economic value of 3 million dollars per kilogram, helium-3 is much more valuable than gold, diamonds or even enriched uranium. I predict a helium rush to the Moon!"
Environmental pressure groups hearing about Kulcinski's plans reacted nervously to this vision of excavation and no doubt also pollution of the Moon. But, according to Kulcinski, the excavations can be levelled in a way that is invisible from Earth. Before the excavated soil is put back, all kinds of useful products will be extracted. Among these are, for example, oxygen, nitrogen, methane and hydrogen. All are valuable materials for the future Moon colonies.
An oxygen factory can produce two million tonnes of liquid oxygen per month. Oxygen is present in the Moon soil. This is excavated and extracted in the reactor-tower, the leftover soil is then put back.
LUNAR POWER"On Earth it is fruitless to search for a solution to the energy problem. Fossil fuels will run out, wind and solar energy will only cover a fraction of the energy needs. Power stations outside Earth would be a solution.", says David Criswell, director of the Institute for Space Systems Operations at the University of Houston and, as he calls himself, advocate for the use of the Moon as a power outlet. "For many years now, the Space science community has been contemplating enormous solar panels that will capture sunlight unhindered by the cloud cover. By why put power stations into orbit from Earth when you can build them much cheaper on the Moon? There you will find all the raw materials necessary for the production of solar cells. Since gravity is much lower on the Moon, the size of solar panels can be much larger than on Earth. The electrical energy that is generated from sunlight is radiated to Earth using microwave lasers. Back on Earth this radiation is captured by large antennae and is converted on the spot into electricity."
"Really," Criswell emphasises, "in fifty years time a Lunar Solar Power system (LSP) can generate so much energy that the entire world population will benefit from it."
No new technology is required for Criswell's 'Moon energy'. The trick, Criswell says, is in the chemical composition of the Moon soil. Moon rock contains silicon dioxide which is required to produce solar cells. It also contains sufficient iron and aluminium for the frames of the solar panels. And then there is Moon dust. This contains, besides the already mentioned materials, tiny glass nodules, which can be used to make glass fibre and ceramic material.
How much would such a 'Moon energy' system cost? "Around 150 billion dollars to return to the Moon and create power stations with a total generating capacity of 20 billion Watt," estimates Criswell. "That may be twice the amount spent on the Apollo project, but when the solar power stations run to full power, they will repay their costs many times over. On Earth the electricity may cost only one dollar cent per kilowatt-hour. Compared to the price of conventional power stations we will save a thousand billion dollars per year. The only thing needed to make the first step now is guts."
What would a future Moon city look like? Japanese building contractors and construction companies like Ohbayashi and Shimizu have already thought about this. Their designs were just models and drawings of underground complexes (to protect from micrometeorite hits and harmful cosmic radiation) or parks under glass domes. Nice to fantasise about but no more than that.
"I notice with all the Moon city designs that they are sited on large open plains," says the Brazilian artist and industrial designer Richard Seabra while looking at yet another artist's impression of a futuristic Moon city. "How do these designers think living in those cities will be? To me they appear very much like architectural monsters such as Brasilia. It's about time to think seriously about it and to involve architects in these plans."
Two 'Moon workers' of the future LUNOX (Lunar Oxygen) company confer in one of the sites where besides oxygen the elements iron, aluminium, magnesium and titanium are mined.
Seabra favours height differences, as much as possible, between the various buildings in a Moon city. "Everybody tends to forget that the Moon has just one-sixth of the Earth's gravity," explains Seabra. "Those who stay there for a longer time will be affected sooner or later by weakening of their muscles. This can partly be overcome by doing sports: there are fantastic possibilities for it on the Moon. But you can also maintain your muscle condition by keeping moving. Walking up and down the stairs is very good exercise, which is why I always incorporate height differences in my designs."
Bernard Foing and his associates enjoy this type of speculation. "From now on we will use all means possible to have everybody thinking about the future. We will stimulate educational projects about the Moon, like the Dutch digital learning environment 'The Universe' from the National Centre for School Improvement (APS) in Utrecht. We will also give guidance to young scientists who want to become involved in researching the Moon. LUNEX is open to everybody. When we return to the Moon it should not be as another prestigious project. We will go because we think that there really is a future in living and working on the Moon."
Since water is present on the Moon's poles most Moon bases will be built there. The Earth is always close to the horizon.
WHO WILL BECOME THE MOON's FIRST MILLIONAIRE?The plans of the Lunar Explorers Society sound fantastic. But broad public support is of course necessary. "First make it happen, I often hear people say," acknowledges David Gump, director of the American LunaCorp company, which has been involved in trying to set up Moon tourism since 1989. "But as soon as private companies send their first astronaut into space everybody will realise that space is no longer the exclusive domain of NASA or other space agencies."
Gump thinks Moon tourism will develop the same way travelling on Earth did: "First you had film stars that travelled in a DC-3. Now everybody travels by plane." Gump himself is cooperating with the Robotics Institute of the Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh to develop the LunaCorp Icebreaker. This robotic vehicle should land on the Moon's south pole to investigate the ice that was discovered by Clementine and the Lunar Prospector.
"The Icebreaker will be controlled from Earth, just like the Mars Pathfinder. If it functions well, we want to put some more robotic vehicles, equipped with videocameras, on other interesting places on the Moon. Those can then be operated from Earth by space enthusiasts. The rides of discovery made by these vehicles may be watched in planetaria, museums or even in showrooms of car dealers. This is how I will be trying to sell this to the general public. Will returning to the Moon ever earn money? As it is currently purely about investing money, for the time being not a penny can be earned on the Moon. When lecturing I sometimes joke that exploring the Moon can only make you a millionaire if you start off as a billionaire. But that is just the current situation and of course at some stage a turning point should be reached."
The American company LunaCorp and the Robotics Institute plan to land the robot vehicle Icebreaker on the Moon in 2003. (left) Icebreaker will search for ice in the Moon soil. (middle). LunaCorp also has plans for Moon vehicles that can be controlled by space enthusiasts from science museums and amusement parks on Earth.(right).
ILEWG/ESA: Exploration and utilisation of the moon; ESA SP-462, september 2000 (ISBN 92-9092-689-2)
Jim Wilson: Postcards from the moon; Popular Mechanics, juni 2000
Lunar Explorers Society
ESA Science: SMART-1
Scientists look to Moonbeams for Earth Energy
International Lunar Exploration Working Group
Moon phases, rise and set
"Moon method" in The Universe (National Centre for Schoolimprovement, The Netherlands)
Text: Carl Koppeschaar
Illustrations: Pat Rawlings/SAIC/NASA JSC -- Mark Dowman en Mike Stovall/Eagle Engineering, Inc./NASA JSC -- Clementine/BMDO/NSSDC -- LunaCorp/Robotics Institute
Latest update: 27-02-2001