When can I live on the moon? Fiona McBride

Every civilisation that has ever existed on earth knew about the existence of the moon, long before any of us knew of any other civilisations and landmasses. So why aren’t we living there yet?

The biggest issue preventing ancient – or more modern – civilisations from settling on the moon is the difficulty associated with getting there. Despite millennia on earth, humans only made it to the moon in 1969, and we certainly didn’t get there in a boat. Indeed, travelling to and from the moon is still a significant barrier to colonisation: the Apollo moon mission cost an equivalent $107 billion in today’s money. However, massive advancements in aerospace technology have already reduced projected costs for getting humans to the moon, and shaved the time taken to get there down from three days to less than one day. So, if humanity decides to focus on advancing this technology and making it cheaper, we could be on regular flights to the moon in just a decade or two.

But getting there isn’t the only challenge to life on the moon: once we arrive, we have to survive. The moon has no atmosphere, so the fluffy blanket of air that keeps us on earth away from the majority of the sun’s deadly ultraviolet radiation and insulates us from the worst of the sun’s heat and the universe’s cold just isn’t there. This means a daily temperature range of -233 – 123 degrees centigrade, and killer sunburn during the hours of daylight. No atmosphere means no weather, but the moon still experiences frequent storms consisting of micrometeroids – tiny space rocks – that can be as large as golf balls. Earth’s atmosphere is also the ultimate reason that life exists on its lands and in its oceans: it provides oxygen. In order to survive on the moon in the longer term, we need to conquer all of these challenges. A smart way to do this might be to send robots and building materials ahead of the first human colony, so that the settlers could move into pre-built airtight pods providing oxygen and protection from the harshness of space. This isn’t so far beyond the current technological abilities: we already have lunar rovers capable of mapping out a suitable site for a moon settlement, and robots capable of construction, so the main challenge is again developing a cheap and efficient means of space travel to get these robots and building materials to the right place.

Even with more efficient space travel, taking all of the resources necessary for longer-term human survival with us from earth just isn’t sensible or economical. Evidence of ice has been found on the moon, and it has been hypothesised that there may be large amounts of water stored within its structure, however whether or not this is correct, and how to extract the water if it is there, need to be determined before any concrete plans for settlement are laid. Depending how much water there is, we either need to develop a means of splitting the H2O molecules to make pure oxygen, or find a way to extract the 40% oxygen from the sharp dust coating much of the moon’s surface. Additionally, surveys must be conducted to find out what other resources the moon has to offer – can we grow plants there? Is there something that could be used as fuel? Can we harness some of the heat from the active volcanoes as an energy source? Can we create some kind of atmosphere that will support tree growth, so we can recycle our air? This aspect of lunar colonization is probably the one we know least about at the moment, so we’re looking at a decade or two for those lunar surveys, plus some time to work out the chemistry involved – maybe thirty years total if humanity puts some thought towards it.

So what will it be like to live on the moon, if and when we eventually get there? Well, given the killer ultraviolet rays, the extreme temperatures, and the micrometeoroid storms, you’ll probably want to send most of your time inside whatever the robots have built. The transmission rate for messages between earth and the moon is around one second, so it’s likely you’ll have wifi up there to keep you entertained. In terms of employment, there’s plenty of potential for science in and out of the settlement buildings, as well as lunar geography and geology, and even space photography. The new settlement will also need doctors, although anyone in need of specialist treatment will probably need to be shipped back to earth. There also remains much to be discovered about the effects on the human body of living in a low-gravity environment; anyone moving to the moon must bear in mind that they will essentially be a test subject for this.

So, it seems that if we were to focus our collective scientific and creative minds on the subject, humans could be moving to the moon in as few as thirty years. But should we be putting energy into moving to the moon, instead of on limiting the damage we’re doing to our own planet? Space travel has led to the invention of a whole range of useful technologies – from CAT scanners and artificial limbs to Velcro – however if research and resources required to move us to the moon were instead dedicated to thirty years of increasing sustainability and promoting global development, perhaps staying on earth would become a more attractive option.

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