On July 20, 1969, American astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon. Today, plans are in place for more expeditions to the moon – and possibly for a lunar colony. China aims to make a soft landing on the far side of the moon by 2019 – something the U.S. has never done. Russia plans to partner with China on future moon landings, and may already have completed designs for a lunar outpost. NASA scientists have published details on how we could establish a human colony on the Moon by 2020.
Will we colonize the Moon within your lifetime? If we do, will you be one of the people raising your hand to sign up? What sort of preparation would make you a more likely candidate for selection?
In honor of National Moon Day, July 20, let’s look at the history and future of humans on the Moon, and your chances of becoming a colonist.
Man’s Giant Leap
In 1961 President Kennedy appealed to Congress to commit to landing a man on the moon. At that time, the Soviet Union was outpacing us in the space race, and Cold War America was eager to keep up.
NASA scientists and engineers achieved the first unmanned Apollo mission by 1966. The first manned Apollo orbited Earth in 1968. Later that year, Apollo 8 took three astronauts to the dark side of the moon and back. In May, 1969, Apollo 10 circled the moon, in a practice run for the scheduled July landing mission.
On July 16, 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin Jr., and Michael Collins launched in Apollo 11. Armstrong, a 38-year-old civilian research pilot, commanded the mission. Apollo 11 achieved lunar orbit on July 19, and the following day, Armstrong and Aldrin headed for the Moon in the lunar landing module Eagle. Poor Collins had to stay behind in the command module. As soon as the astronauts touched down near the Sea of Tranquility, Armstrong radioed to Mission Control: “The Eagle has landed.” Later that day, the world heard Armstrong say: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” as he hopped onto the Moon’s surface.
Aldrin and Armstrong both walked on the Moon that day and slept in the lunar module on the Moon’s surface that night. On July 24, all three astronauts splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean.
For more on man’s first moon walk, see this article on History.com.
Practice Makes Perfect – the Moon before Mars
Right now NASA’s main focus is to put a human on Mars. However, before we can accomplish a mission of that magnitude, we have to “practice” on the Moon. As NASA astrobiologist Chris McKay said, "We're not going to have a research base on Mars until we can learn how to do it on the Moon first."
In 2014, leaders from the space research and business arenas met to explore low-cost options for building a human settlement on the Moon. Money matters, because NASA’s entire budget for 2017 is only $19.65 billion, and the Apollo 11 mission would have cost $150 billion by today's standards. Surprisingly, it’s new technology already in existence, like self-driving cars and waste-recycling toilets that will make the expedition feasible. The 2014 group estimated it could be accomplished for $10 billion.
According to the papers the group published, the hypothetical lunar base would house around 10 people for stays of up to a year at first. Within a decade the settlement could become self-sufficient and hold 100 people. Colonists would travel to the Moon on SpaceX's Falcon Heavy (due for its first launch this year). They’d need to bring a lot of equipment on the initial trip, but after that they could produce much of what they need with 3D printers!
The colonists would probably live in something similar to Bigelow Aeropsace's inflatable habitat, on the outer rim of one of the Moon's poles, which receive more sunlight than the rest of the surface. Sunlight would power much of their equipment. Robots could excavate ice detected within the craters, so the humans and their crops would have water. Crops would be fertilized with the help of the Blue Diversion Toilet, which recycles human waste into energy, clean water, and nutrients.
Other Plans for the Moon
The article entitled, 5 Plans to Colonize the Moon, says that lunar outposts are now common components of space planning. In 2014, China’s state newspaper reported that a lunar colony is in the works, citing Zhang Yuhua, deputy chief designer of the Chang’e 3 lunar mission. The European Space Agency (ESA) has a plan for a moon base with an autonomous robot that would shove its “printer nozzle” beneath the moon’s regolith, and mix magnesium oxide with the lunar soil to create a base building material that would eventually harden into stone. The robot could then push the mass up out of the surface, creating a kind of “lunar hobbit hole” that would be ready for human residence in 3 months.
The private sector is also exploring the feasibility and profitability of space expeditions, primarily for mining. Costs must still be brought under control before such ventures could provide return-on-investment.
Who Will Be the First Colonists?
NASA has an interesting website on human settlements in space. Space.com has also published a Guide for Living in a Moon Base.
The first colonists would be highly-trained and carefully-selected astronauts, scientists, and engineers. Eventually, space settlements will be home to ordinary people and families.
If you’re considering a career that could take you to the Moon, consider pursuing fields such as:
- Physics and Astro-Engineering – Transportation is the key to any space endeavor. Physicists and engineers will lead the charge into space, computing and designing affordable means to launch man and his equipment to the Moon.
- Astrobiology – Expertise is required to keep people alive in space, with air, water, food, and controlled temperatures. The first humans colonizing the Moon will need to maintain a suitable biosphere, with a sophisticated system of protecting and sustaining human life.
- Radiation – Cosmic rays and solar flares create lethal levels of radiation in space. Physicists specializing in radiation would be on-hand to protect space settlers by surrounding them with sufficient mass to absorb most incoming radiation. The material left over from processing lunar soil into oxygen and useful metals could be repurposed as radiation shields.
- Medicine – Once a viable habitat is in place, the colony’s top priority would be to keep the colonists healthy. Lunar doctors would need to be trained in complications due to radiation and weightlessness, in addition to standard human medical requirements.
- Geology and Mining – Our Moon has large amounts of silicon and metals, which could be mined to offset some of the costs of maintaining the lunar settlement. Since the cost of transporting materials to the Moon is “astronomical,” the colonists would need to utilize the natural resources already available to them there, including oxygen, which specialists could extract from the Moon’s natural materials.
- Solar power – Engineers with solar energy expertise would be among the first colonists, devising a system to power lunar base operations with energy from the Sun.
- Recycling – The settlement’s biosphere would need to continually recycle all oxygen, water, wastes, and other materials.
Enter NASA’s Contest
Could you and your friends design a space settlement? Every year NASA Ames Research Center conducts a contest in which students develop and submit their own space settlement designs. The contest is open to anyone up to 12th grade, competing as individuals, teams of 2-5, and teams of 6 or more.
Resource for Educators
If you’re an educator seeking to kindle your students’ imaginations and enhance your STEM lesson plans, check out this resource from NASA: an Educator Guide for a 6th grade Math lesson on Lunar Colonization Energy and Power. Additional links provide lesson plans for Elementary, Middle and High School levels.
Moon Munchies - Lunar Plant Growth Chamber (Grades K-4)
Moon Power - Energy and Power (Grades 1-5)
Packing Up for the Moon - Lunar Plant Growth Chamber (Grades 5-8)
Creating a Space Exploration Infrastructure - Transportation (Grade 7)
Space Transportation: Reshooting the Moon - Transportation (Grade 8)
Engineering Design for Human Exploration - Energy and Power (Grades 9-12)
Lunar Plant Growth Chamber (Grades 9-12)
NASA: Moving Cargo - Transportation (Grade 9)
Transportation and Space: Reuse and Recycle - Transportation (Grades 10-12)
Related Envision Career Exploration Programs
If you’re a student considering a career that could lead to space exploration, why not get a head start? Envision summer programs let you explore your field of interest – in the STEM careers and many others!