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Do we have the technology to go to the Moon now, and stay this time? I'm not talking about the political will or economic rationale for doing so, I just want to know if there are any unsolved (and difficult to solve) problems that would prevent us from doing so in the very near future. If you're hurting for a cap on spending, let's say a state or company consortium were willing to invest a trillion dollars every decade for 3 decades into the project, about the cost of an Iraq war or two.

I've recently asked a question about lunar space elevators, and it appears that they would be quite viable. If that's the case, a persuasive argument could be made that the first power to colonize the moon would get a decisive lead in access to space by colonizing the moon and using its physical resources for the infrastructure build-out needed to lay claim to the rest of the solar system.

EDIT: To clarify the scope of the base, I'm thinking a facility that's as automated as possible, with a staff of as little as 100 people, designed to churn out refined materials from lunar ores for deploying vast solar panel fleets into space, and to use and maintain lunar space elevators for this purpose.

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    $\begingroup$ Let us continue this discussion in chat. $\endgroup$ – mg30rg Apr 4 '16 at 14:34
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    $\begingroup$ I read some weeks ago about ESA planing to set up a research base like the ISS on the moon within the next 20 years. But reading all this here lets me now doubt about the seriousity of that article. $\endgroup$ – Zaibis Apr 5 '16 at 9:50
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    $\begingroup$ Do you mean permanent as in "can be permanently manned", or in the stricter "largely self-sufficient" sense? The first case would necessarily be "sure", since we can send manned landers to Moon, so worst-case scenario, we could just keep sending more and more landers to maintain a "permanent" presence (since you ignored the economic aspect, this would fit your question IMO :P). The second case is a lot more interesting :) But still, leaving the economic aspect out of it is a huge mistake - that's what drives all of progress, really, and what tells you where your effort is best utilized. $\endgroup$ – Luaan Apr 5 '16 at 12:27
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    $\begingroup$ @Luaan, I think "can be permanently manned" will do for the purposes of this question. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Apr 5 '16 at 13:11
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    $\begingroup$ But which government would rather go peacefully to the Moon instead of making another Iraq war or two? $\endgroup$ – Hagen von Eitzen Apr 6 '16 at 15:11

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No, not yet but we are getting there. The technologies required to achieve a permanent moon colony are in reach but even with effectively infinite investment, the problems to be solved are hard.

A number of problems have yet to be solved, namely, shelter construction, cheap high capacity lift capabilities, low gravity manufacturing, low gravity refining and there are probably many others. Without these basic facilities/capabilities, a lasting colony on any extraterrestrial body won't be possible without heavy resource infusions from Earth. Developing the automation so a robot can do them will also be tricky if for no other reason than developing advanced robots is hard and the inability to directly test the behavior of a low-g industrial robot while on Earth.

Shelter Construction

The field of robotics is advancing quickly and the ESA is working on a project to build Lunarville. They expect something in 2024. Granted, large investments would hurry this research along but as of this writing, we still don't have an automated way to build a shelter on the moon.

Cheap Lift Capacity

SpaceX's Falcon Heavy is coming in 2016. If this proves economical and reliable then getting lots of material/equipment/supplies to the moon shouldn't be too difficult.

Low gravity refining/smelting

The composition of the Moon is similar to Earth, so there's plenty of oxygen, iron and aluminum to be had. The problem is how to refine those materials into something useful for manufacturing. It looks like it's possible to smelt lunar mare materials based on this paper but the actual implementation will be complicated. (It took thousands of years to get iron smelting right on earth because it's hard. Modern science makes it easier but it's still hard.) New smelting equipment will need to be designed, tested, lifted and installed. 3D printing of new smelting equipment on the moon will greatly reduce the cycle time required for improving existing equipment.

Low gravity manufacturing

Whether this is harder or not will depend on the manufacturing technique in question. I expect that normal machining operations will perform much as they do on Earth with the exception that extra care will need to be taken to prevent metal chips from popping into places they shouldn't go.

Also, extreme care will need to be taken in regards to particulates control. The reduced gravity of the moon means that larger particles will stay aloft for longer.

Energy Generation

Solar cells are going to be heavy. Let's do a molten salt energy storage system heated by large field of Mylar solar reflectors instead. Mylar doesn't weigh much for the surface area and in a hard vacuum, shouldn't tarnish much, if at all. Both solar cells and molten salt energy storage are in production/development now.

Economic Discussion

If a lunar colony is to survive, it will need to generate an economy. Whether this is based on resource extraction or high tech manufacturing or a mix of both will depend on the specific technology available and which of the above problems are solved first. With a thriving economy, it won't be difficult to get volunteers/victims to move out to the colony to try to strike it rich. As each new batch of miners/engineers arrive, they make the lunar economy grow and increase demand for goods and services. People need: shelter, food, tools, mining/energy production. Shelter is address above, food is a solved problem (IMO), tool development will require smelting and machining of metals. Involvement in any of these basic industries generates value that an employer/buyer would be willing to pay for. As long as there's money to be made and a stable economic environment, a self-sustaining lunar colony is doable. It'll take a long time because economies take a long time to build but it's definitely doable.

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    $\begingroup$ Since - according to the question - cost/cost effctivity wasn't part of the problem - OP is willing to give trillions of dollars to the cause - you can just forget points containing "cheap" and "effective" from that answer. - That is why my answer differs from yours. $\endgroup$ – mg30rg Apr 4 '16 at 15:06
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    $\begingroup$ @mg30rg I respectfully disagree. Cheap is good! $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Apr 4 '16 at 15:23
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    $\begingroup$ @SerbanTanasa The question was about if it is possible today from a high budget, so I think "Soon enough it will be possible from a lower one." Is not an exact answer to your original question. $\endgroup$ – mg30rg Apr 4 '16 at 15:32
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    $\begingroup$ At the proposed cost the OP suggested, $100b/year, you theoretically could get hundreds of launches/year even with existing rockets. The F9H potentially would let you get 5-10x as much stuff up per year; but unless you need to lift single items to massive to fit on a Delta/Titan/Ariane/Proton/etc launch costs are unlikely to be the limiting factor. (In the real world, I'd be curious how expanding production facilities vs economies of scale would affect booster costs if running a >1 launch/day operational tempo; but even with the F9H it'd still be a huge unknown.) $\endgroup$ – Dan Neely Apr 4 '16 at 20:41
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    $\begingroup$ "food is a solved problem" - I think that's a bit of a stretch actually. It's not particularly harder than the other problems you mention, but it's still hard. You'd have to implement a system that recycles a large percentage of all water and oxygen in order for it to be viable. Not by any means impossible, but the closest we've been to it was Biosphere 2, which was far, far bigger than it needed to be and (after a much publicised false start) worked only moderately well. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Apr 5 '16 at 8:57
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The Apollo program cost 25.4 billion US dollars. In today's money, that's about 150 billion dollars. So if you are willing to spend trillions of dollars, it is absolutely doable.

Some problems would need solving though:

  • Radiation. The Moon lacks atmosphere and magnetic poles, so the surface radiation is very heavy. This issue could be solved by building underground.
  • Low gravity. Prolonged exposure to low gravity would have - practically yet unknown - effects on the health of the crew. (Most likely osteoporosis and circulatory disorders, but - since prolonged exposure to low gravity can not be tested withing Earth circumstances we don't yet know it.)
  • Oxygen supply. There is no evidence that there is enough bound oxygen on the Moon to supply a colony. (If they could only find a huge crater filled with ice...) Some of the oxygen could be recycled, but it wouldn't be a 100% efficient process.
  • Water supply. (See above.)
  • Energy supply. (See above.) Theoretically there are two ways to solve the energy needs; atom-reactors (we don't have working fusion reactors yet) or solar panels, and each of them has their own caveats. With no atmosphere the surface of Luna is constantly bombarded with dust and tiny stones rendering the solar panels inoperable, and atom-reactors are huge, heavy equipment operating on huge, heavy fuel cells which has to be transported from Earth for a literally astronomical price.
  • Food supply. (See above.) Okay, food could be produced in aeroponic gardens (hydroponics are no option since every gram of water takes thousands of dollars to be transported there).
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    $\begingroup$ Using Apollo mission is not a good metric. Most of that cost was research and development. Most of those problems are already solved. The costs are "only" in getting enough stuff into space. youtube.com/watch?v=iXG9voQnw0E $\endgroup$ – Euphoric Apr 4 '16 at 14:46
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    $\begingroup$ "There is no evidence that there is enough bound Oxigen on the Moon to supply a colony. (If they could only found a huge crater filled with ice...)" news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8544635.stm $\endgroup$ – ceejayoz Apr 4 '16 at 19:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Lacklub I think the keyword here is "heavy". In moon-gravity "earthworks" should be ways easier. $\endgroup$ – mg30rg Apr 4 '16 at 20:37
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    $\begingroup$ There's plenty of oxygen in the soil - it's the biggest part of "crust" and "soil", just like on Earth. Hydrogen is another matter entirely, though - and you're not going to get water without hydrogen. Better get good at recycling :D Nuclear fuel is actually great at energy density, compared to all non-local alternatives - 1g of nuclear fuel has about as much energy as 3 tons of coal (and that's ignoring you would have to get the free oxygen to burn the coal, another 10 tons), which is about 1 MW per day. The only viable alternative is solar power right now. $\endgroup$ – Luaan Apr 5 '16 at 12:42
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    $\begingroup$ Plus one for having the shortest answer that says, yes we can make moon bases that, "can be permanently manned." $\endgroup$ – Mazura Apr 5 '16 at 21:03
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In terms of feasibility, one of the issues in the Apollo program of the 1960's was the issue of where to go and what to do next. Designs for a lunar base were under detailed study by NASA and its contractors (indeed the US Army Corps of Engineers had studies a military base on the Moon in the 1950's as part of Project Horizon), and part of the charm of the movie "2001, a Space Odyssey" is that the giant moon base, space station and deep space exploration of Jupiter were all based on then current NASA studies, and all judged feasible by NASA given funding and political support.

enter image description here

So the short answer is "yes", this is possible given 1960 era technology.

The big sticking point is that even now, there is no effective means of creating and running a closed life support system. With current technology, it seems possible to recycle about 80% of the air, water and food, and "topping up" the inevitable losses through imports from Earth or perhaps the asteroids and NEO's. Colonists or astronauts working in such a space will have to be constantly on alert for the system crashing as it exceeds certain parameters.

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  • $\begingroup$ NASA does have plans for a closed-loop life support system. It has NOT been tested extensively and it has some short-comings (who wants to only eat algae for the rest of their lives & it has too much protein and not enough fat). $\endgroup$ – Jim2B Apr 5 '16 at 15:24
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    $\begingroup$ Which is why I am saying we are only have the ability to close 80% of the loop $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Apr 5 '16 at 18:24
  • $\begingroup$ Regarding US Army Corps of Engineers had studies a military base on the Moon in the 1950's as part of Project Horizon: What military advantage could a Moon base give (provided that the US is the only country with a military Moon base) ? $\endgroup$ – DP_ Apr 6 '16 at 7:37
  • $\begingroup$ The short answer is actually "none", but this wasn't apparent when the studies were started. The massive price tag killed the project more than the actual lack of utility. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Apr 6 '16 at 16:04
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ESA PLANNING TO BUILD AN INTERNATIONAL VILLAGE… ON THE MOON!

This is the title for an article in Universe Today. It's not a fantasy speculation. ESA is proposing this to other big Space Agencies (such as NASA) to make a permanent colony on the moon.

Model of International Moon Base

The idea is to take advantage of 3D printing technology to cover (using Moon dirt) the base domes. Several scientists from the agency have come forward to explain what are the difficulties and how are they to be solved. I don't think it will hold 100 people (perhaps a dozen) and the population certainly won't be permanent since lack of sufficient gravity among other issues are hazardous to the human body.

In any case this is not that far from the model you put forward. It already plans to use moon resources and although hardly independent from Earth is probably self sustainable for periods of months. What you suggest is a matter of scale more than a matter of technology (although take in consideration the humane aspects of leaving people on the moon for very prolonged periods of time).

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  • $\begingroup$ Is ⅓ gravity really such a huge problem? Microgravity (which is much worse) on the ISS is apparently quite manageable. $\endgroup$ – Michael Apr 5 '16 at 12:47
  • $\begingroup$ @Michael gravity is a big problem for very prolonged stays (uk.businessinsider.com/…). Although most effects are resolved in a few weeks once they get back on Earth (assuming they have been in space for only a few months), others take years (loss of bone density may be severe). And we still have not study these subjects enough to be able to tell what might be permanent or not. Also: theverge.com/2016/3/1/11138102/… $\endgroup$ – armatita Apr 5 '16 at 12:58
  • $\begingroup$ You could have a rotating habitat ring underground for extra gravity. Unlike in space, you'd need power to overcome friction, and some serious bearings to support a moving part of a building. $\endgroup$ – Peter Cordes Apr 6 '16 at 2:02
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    $\begingroup$ @Peter Cordes In what axis? I'm not too sure what would happen in a carousel gravity together with a fixed vector (moon gravity). I think it would be a strange experience indeed. $\endgroup$ – armatita Apr 6 '16 at 7:11
  • $\begingroup$ @armatita: Rotating around a vertical axis, like merry-go-round. The gravity near the middle would mostly just be the moon's gravity, but at the outside the vector sum of gravity and centrifugal force could total earth gravity if it was big enough and fast enough. The rooms could be built with floors angled to match the gravity, as could any non-radial hallways. However, moving from the middle to the outside would be weird. Maybe an elevator that rotates its floor to match the local perceived gravity would be good. In maintenance tunnels you'd go from walking to climbing down a ladder. $\endgroup$ – Peter Cordes Apr 6 '16 at 15:13
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Conditionally "Yes"

A "yes" answer depends upon some assumptions:

  • Ignores the extensive engineering research & experimentation that still needs to be performed.
  • The colony requires some resources (mostly water) in situ (e.g. on Ceres or at the Lunar, Hermian, or Martian poles).

Technologically Speaking

By my definition, a permanent colony needs to self-sufficient for all of the high mass items that it might need to keep the colonists alive. The list of these items is

  1. Air
  2. Water
  3. Food
  4. Shielding
  5. Thermal control
  6. Power
  7. Communications
  8. Living space

Life Support
A working Closed-loop Ecological Life Support System should provide the colonists with all their physiological needs for air, water, & food.

Viable designs for a Closed-loop Ecological Life Support System (CELSS) have been around for years (at least since the '70s).

Closed-loop Ecological Life Support System (CELSS): Closed-loop Ecological Life Support System (CELSS)

The poor showing of the two "Biosphere" experiments is not representative of Humanity's state of knowledge in this area. However, it did show that fluctuations in in/output of various components (e.g. Oxygen) over short periods of time can have dire consequences. The smaller the environment, the more drastic the consequences. Biosphere 2 had trouble dealing with daily fluctuations in $O_2$ creation / $CO_2$ extraction!

This partially why the in situ resources are required. Until humanity finishes ironing out the complexities of closed-loop life support, the colony will require constant tweaking of its environment (add a little water here, take some $CO_2$ out there, etc.).

Shielding
The space environment is very hostile to human life. One of the things that makes it so hostile is the radiation. The biggest concern for colonists will be solar storms (coronal mass ejections & flares) which send much higher densities of protons sleeting through the Solar System. Other types of radiation are a concern (X-Ray, UV, "Cosmic Rays", etc.).

The best shielding against the solar wind will be a mass of low atomic mass nuclei between the colonists and they radiation. A resource that should be available at our colony is large quantities of water. Thanks to the hydrogen in that water, it makes for a very convenient radiation shield.

Put the colony in a Lunar (or Martian/Hermian) crater and covering it with a dome. The dome should be made of two layers sandwiching 32 feet of water. This will provide the same protection as the Earth's atmosphere. Incidentally, the mass of water, helps reduce the stresses on the dome since its weight counter-acts the interior pressure of the habitat. The other nice aspect of the water shield is that it provides a great thermal reservoir helping to regulate the temperature between day-night cycles (especially good for a Lunar colony).

But we'll need more than radiation shielding. We also need micrometeor shielding. The most effective system developed so far is known as a Whipple Shield.

How a Whipple Shield works Whipple Shield

NOTE:

  1. Micrometeor impacts the outer bumper.
  2. Impact creates shock waves through the impactor and the bumper.
  3. Shock wave vaporizes impactor.
  4. Hot plasma penetrates bumper but is "caught" by the second layer.

Power & Thermal Control
If at or nearer the Earth's orbit, then PV (photovoltaic) power generation is viable. Outside of Earth's orbit, it rapidly becomes impractical.

Otherwise, you'll need to use nuclear. Since we haven't mastered fusion power yet, the reactors will need fissionable reactor fuel. Until the colony establishes its own Uranium ore mining & refining infrastructure, the fuel will have to come from the Earth.

Power generation requires the ability to dump waste heat. If established on Mars, then the Martian atmosphere could aid in dumping waste heat. However, the Martian atmosphere is so thin that it should not be used as the primary means of dumping heat. I personally think that something similar to the closed-loop geothermal heating system would work quite well (run water through pipes buried in the Martian / Lunar / Hermian crust).

Dumping the waste heat is a requirement for either power generation system.

Communications
Either high gain & high frequency radio or use optical lasers to transmit data. Since the colony and the Earth will both be in predictable locations, aiming should not pose a problem.

Living Space
If we are able to use the concept proposed in the The Millennial Project: Colonizing the Galaxy in Eight Easy Steps of putting your colony in and around a "right sized" crater, then you can use the domed crater as your green space (recreation and plant growing). Regardless of where you establish your colony (Mercury's pole, Moon's pole, or Mars), the plants will require supplemental lighting. This can either be done with mirrors or by dedicated lighting fixtures.

If there isn't enough space under the dome, then living and working space can be made into tunnels around the domed crater.

Socio-economically speaking

Harvesting raw materials from space for shipping back to Earth is a losing proposition. The margins on raw materials are so low that extravagant costs incurred to harvest them will always (foreseeable future anyway) make them too expensive to use on Earth.

You will lose your shirt and everything else if you're planning to mine asteroids for precious metals. In fact the "shipping costs" associated with space travel make it very difficult for space created items to compete with terrestrial manufactured goods ... on Earth.

The most realistic place to use goods made in space, would be in space. In this environment, the terrestrial goods must pay the exorbitant shipping costs while space manufactured goods would pay less.

So in order to justify space infrastructure, we must have space infrastructure that needs our goods. It's a difficult Catch 22.

I only see a few ways around the Catch 22:

  1. Discovery that space can provide some unique and high profit item that cannot be created on Earth.
  2. Build space infrastructure to service the Earth's vast fleet of Geosynchronous satellites
  3. For our survival: to deflect an asteroid or evacuate some of the population

Of these,

  1. Could range from the highly improbable ("alien artifacts discovered on Mars!") to the reasonable ("only place to manufacture km length nanotubes is in zero-gravity")
  2. is boring.
  3. Many stories written about this. Perhaps one of the best scenarios that might come from this is the construction of two humongous (8,000,000 ton) Project Orion type craft for asteroid deflection. Asteroid misses us. We decide to use the ships to colonize instead.
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A permanent base on the Moon would be PERFECTLY feasible.

A permanent base for humans on the Moon, not so much.

To assume humans are needed to carry out activities is a fallacy.

Building a robotic base on the moon, allowing those machines to gather energy, recharge themselves, and then explore would be perfectly feasible, as ALL the technology to do this existed over 10yrs ago.

Flying robots out to the moon has been possible since the Russians sent their rovers.

We are good at making robots for Mars. The moon is closer and potentially easier to reach with a bouncing landing approach using armoured ballutes that jettison after landing.

Some machines could be pure energy collectors, scattered across the surface like gas stations, constantly building up stored solar power or thermally derived power to deliver it to rovers, using wireless charging, that explore the regions between the sources of power.

Mapping the moon for later mining would be automated, with the machines relaying their data to cheap orbiters, themselves both comms relay and Lunar Positioning System (LPS) providers. This would free up weight on the rovers otherwise used for bulky, heavy comms and navigation systems... for survey instrumentation instead.

Whoever puts a comms and LPS constellation of platforms into Lunar Orbit would be able to charge later explorers to use it via licensing and also save them the expense of Moon-Earth-Moon signal relaying and navigation on the lunar surface. This part of the operation could finance the exploration AND the provision of the network of scattered energy stations on the lunar surface, another source of future income.

Using a distributed network of compact, mass-produced identical energy stations on the lunar surface, built on Earth and scattered across the lunar surface, would also free up each rover from having to carry their own bulky solar panels or power sources. This would allow vast regions of the lunar surface to be surveyed and/or explored quickly and at low cost to any participating nation willing to utilize the provided network instead of going it alone, with its associated cost.

Using wireless charging, rovers might also charge each other, meaning rovers will be unlikely to suffer loss from unexpected losses of power due to unforeseen events, if their peers can 'carry energy' to them from some nearby recharging station. This behaviour can, of course, be automated.

Thus, this makes a lunar 'colony' of machines more likely, cheaper and faster to create than any human colony, with all its inherent and complex needs for air, protection, shelter and water.

All this, of course, with a view to later mining the moon by later automated systems.

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    $\begingroup$ Could you please elaborate on your answer? As of right now, it seems to be more of a comment than a full fledged response to the question, so I'd suggest fleshing it out by adding more specific details. Welcome to Worldbuilding David! $\endgroup$ – fi12 Apr 5 '16 at 1:13
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    $\begingroup$ We don't have any example of a self-sufficient robotic system, so I wouldn't say we have all the technology required. It may be feasible, but Earth-borne robots require a lot of baby-sitting and human maintenance. It may even be the cheapest variant, but we just don't know for sure, since we've never really succeeded with even an earthly system that actually does something (if you have any references to the contrary, you might want to add them to your answer :)). $\endgroup$ – Luaan Apr 5 '16 at 12:45
  • $\begingroup$ I suggest you look at the self-driving trucks used in open-cast mining in Australia. $\endgroup$ – David H Parry Apr 5 '16 at 16:16
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    $\begingroup$ Self-manufacturing robots aren't needed. We have factories on Earth and can fly them out to the moon and hard land them inside discardable ballutes to the surface. $\endgroup$ – David H Parry Apr 5 '16 at 16:19
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This is more of an issue of motivation and water than it is of technology.

This could be done, if there was a reason to do it. However, lunar water would be a huge plus which would make a great difference to the project. Water would be used for many things.

PROPELLANT

The dV to lift a payload into low Earth orbit is 9.3-10km/s. Assuming an exhaust velocity of 4.4km/s (typical for H2-O2 engines in a vacuum, rather high for a first stage but we'll stick with it for consistency) the initial mass / payload ratio from the rocket equation is

e^(10/4.4)=9.7:1

That is, a 970 tonne rocket (including hydrogen/oxygen propellant) can lift 100 tonnes into orbit. Note that "payload" here is used in the loosest possible terms, as it includes all the mass of the rocket tanks and engine, in additional to the useful payload (though infinite staging would reduce this to zero.)

A real rocket necesarily underperforms this. Taking Falcon Heavy (2 1/2 stage rocket using kerosene/oxygen) as a real world example:

Specific impulse 311 sec x 9.8 = 3047m/s exhaust velocity

calculated initial mass / payload ratio e^(10/3.047)=26.6:1

Actual initial mass / payload ratio 1463 tonnes / 53 tonnes =27.6:1

Getting to the moon from low earth orbit further impacts the mass/payload ratio.

For the following dV budgets we would have to apply a further mass / payload ratio, starting at low earth orbit, and assuming 4.4km/s effective exhaust velocity (H2/O2 engine)

Low Earth orbit to:

Lagrange points (where Earth and Lunar gravity are balanced) stopping and not merely flying through 3.43 to 3.97km/s > 2.18:1 to 2.47:1, depending on which point

Low Lunar Orbit 4.04km/s > 2.5:1

Lunar surface 5.93km/s > 3.85:1

It's clear why the Apollo missions left the command module in lunar orbit with the fuel to turn around and go home (a burn of only 1.31km/s) and sent a separate module down to the lunar surface.

Being able to make propellant on the moon would enable a lunar shuttle to meet an Earth supply ship, greatly reducing the amount of propellant required.

We can actually do even better. Apollo required only 3.05 to 3.25km/s (median 3.15, ratio 2.04:1) to achieve translunar injection, which in the case of Apollo meant a free-return figure 8 orbit round the back of the moon that would return to Earth without power if there was a failure (a trajectory decision that saved the lives of the crew of Apollo 13.) the lunar shuttle would have to chase after the supply ship, retrieve the payload and decelerate back to the moon surface.

In summary a vehicle to launch a given payload to the moon would be 3.85 times as heavy as a vehicle to launch the same payload to low earth orbit and would not return. With a lunar shuttle available that can be refueled on the moon and catch up to the earth vehicle, it would only need to be 2.04 times as heavy and would return to Earth on a free return trajectory.

Unfortunately, refining vast quantities of propellant on the lunar surface would require vast quantities of energy. Water ice deposits are most likely to exist in craters at the poles, and therefore have little access to solar energy. This would probably mean bringing a small nuclear reactor, similar to the ones used on submarines, to the moon to provide for the power needs.

CONSTRUCTION, COMFORT AND EXPERIMENTATION

So I've just shown that the International Space Station could be moved to the moon, if we could accept a 2-4 times increase in Earth launch weights, plus the costs and risks associated with more complicated missions. It's doable, but is it worth it?

To go to the moon, you really have to ask if there is anything that can be done there that can't be done on the international space station.

I don't see construction as a major issue. A decent survey would reveal caves and old lava tubes suitable for habitation, with stable temperatures. An inflatable habitat protected by such a natural shelter would be ideal. However we are going to want to build some kind of structure sooner or later. Water would be useful in mixing whatever form of concrete was suitable on the moon (it would most certainly be different to regular Earth concrete, which requires CO2 to cure.)

Water is a major factor in human comfort and experimentation. It can be used for recreation and bathing, as a working or heat transfer fluid in machinery and for chemistry. I don't see any practical need for it for growng of food (food can be brought from Earth if necessary) but surely a major reason for setting up a moon base would be to experiment with growing crops in an isolated system in low gravity.

Finally, I din't thnk we'll be looking to mine the moon just yet, if ever. The cost of transport is just too great.

In summary, I think the most pressing thing would be to undertake a (robot) survey of the moon, in particular of its water resources, and then try to develop existing technology around it.

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One matter of particular importance is the amount of fuel you would need to launch that sort of stuff to the moon. According to this, about 90% of a rocket's mass is fuel, which is an ironic issue, as that also means the hardest part about launching a rocket is lifting the fuel. We only need to lift a small payload, which should require a certain amount of fuel. But the fuel itself has weight, which means we now have to add more fuel to lift the fuel we just added, which means we now have to add more fuel to lift the fuel we just added.

Using that 90% estimate, this means that about nine times the payload is required in fuel to launch stuff into space. So consider the total mass of the outpost you want to put on the moon, multiply it by nine, and that's how much rocket fuel you need to gather.

The space elevator you mention is likely a more viable solution--assuming the elevator's existence is given--since having a heavy enough anchor at the top eliminates the rocket propulsion problem altogether (but obviously the elevator needs to be built on Earth). But consider also that if we are building the space elevator for this one purpose, it is no longer a more viable solution.

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  • $\begingroup$ This answer is irrelevant. The OP specifically asked that economic rationale not be taken into consideration. This post is entirely economic rationale. $\endgroup$ – Paddling Ghost Apr 5 '16 at 1:02
  • $\begingroup$ @PaddlingGhost This is true. Resource allocation is a matter of economics. I misread the OP as "money" instead of the broader picture. $\endgroup$ – Devsman Apr 5 '16 at 12:30
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    $\begingroup$ nine times might get you to low earth orbit if you burned hydrogen/oxygen and had a very efficient rocket. Falcon heavy does 27 times with kerosene /oxygen. To get to the moon, you need to multiply again by 4 (2 if you have a lunar shuttle to help you.) see my answer. $\endgroup$ – Level River St Apr 5 '16 at 18:05
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the first power to colonize the moon would get a decisive lead in access to space by colonizing the moon and using its physical resources

What physical resources?

Once, when I was once listening to the radio (probably Coast to Coast AM with Art Bell in the late 1990s), someone from NASA was a guest speaker (whose name I absolutely do not recall). He explained why there was no lunar colony. I can summarize the argument with these three words: What's the point?

The moon is a huge gravity source, which attracts asteroids that may smash into a lunar landing. The problem was anticipated to be more significant than on Earth because Earth has an atmosphere, which helps to burn up meteors.

Mars, on the other hard, provides some interesting possibilities. It has more gravity (helpful for humans), and has an atmosphere. At the time, there wasn't much knowledge of existing water on Mars. However, the atmosphere could be used to start a massive chemical reaction that could have a byproduct of so much water that oceans could be created. This just isn't feasible with the moon because of the lack of atmosphere.

So, for these two reasons (the lack of meteor protection, and the lack of water creatability), the moon's lack of atmosphere made the idea of a lunar space station undesirable. There was simply no compelling reason to place a settlement on the moon (which is why I summarized as "What's the point?"). Instead, a plan that would be just as worthwhile is the idea of a space station, which could move out of the way of an asteroid much more easily. And so, the International Space Station is what humanity actually did proceed to make.

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  • $\begingroup$ Well... aluminium oxide rockets, for example. There's plenty of economic incentives to colonise the Moon, and it would be helpful for building up the infrastructure to prepare for economic exploitation of space - it just isn't clear if it's worthwhile right now. This depends a lot on the reliability of automated systems (humans are very expensive in the long run) - in the best case, a seed colony would expand to be economically useful with no outside inputs apart from the initial investment. I think that's a bit optimistic with what we have right now, but it's certainly plausible. $\endgroup$ – Luaan Apr 5 '16 at 12:49
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    $\begingroup$ @TOOGAM - Martian atmosphere rates as industrial-grade vacuum on Earth. There are probably not enough volatiles on Mars to develop full-blown oceans, most having been lost though atmospheric escape. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Apr 5 '16 at 13:16
  • $\begingroup$ @SerbanTanasa : I ain't arguin' with ya' here. I was simply reporting what I heard. And if that wasn't sound science (then, or maybe just now that we know a bit more), I suspect the general technique might still have some use. Even if we can't get something the size of the Pacific Ocean or even the Indian Ocean, I would think that a Great Lake (e.g. Lake Michigan) would be useful (to start). Or even just a much smaller lake, suitable to sustain a couple of hundred people. I almost asked about the feasibility, but this WB question is really more focused on the lunar topic. $\endgroup$ – TOOGAM Apr 5 '16 at 17:14
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Through the gov. I would say not at all. Through private corps I would still say no. However that no for private corps changes to a yes overnight once there is a way to profit off of a moon base.

All the tech is available today. We need 1. Shelter. (Basicly a the same as the ISS but on the moon.)

  1. Energy. We could use solar, nuclear, etc.

  2. Food green house set up.

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This could totally be done.

The international space station is proof of our ability to sustain a long-term continuous presence in space. A moon base would be easier in some interesting ways. First to mind being gravity, rocks, and strangely, space.

The high cost of launch would be a concern. You want to minimize it but that's the primary thing keeping us from doing it. It's hella expensive to launch a kg of cargo to orbit.

Buut... at the investment levels stated, this is totally doable. Once investment is flowing and a commitment to the effort has been made I wouldn't be surprised to see a re-emergence of the harp/babylon projects for cheap launch of raw materials and supplies. (not people, unless you want to turn them to paste during launch, or build a really-really long launch tube with continuous or periodic acceleration... humm) http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20160317-the-man-who-tried-to-make-a-supergun-for-saddam-hussein?ocid=AsiaOne

Good news though is the recent ressurnence in investment in rocketry is already lowering the cargo launch price per KG. SpaceX's successful recovery of first stage rockets has improved launch turn-around dramatically. And a renewed interest in commercial satellites indicates that progress is really picking up. One awesome quote I heard from a rocketry expert at Google was: "Rockets are currently built by hand by people with PHDs. What do you think will happen when we start building them the way Toyota builds cars?" But cost is no object right? On to the moon base.

The base would probably be built underground for radiation and meteorite protection. (On earth our magnetosphere and atmosphere provide these protections, on the Moon we'd need to fall back on good old rock). Building in caves could also help by lending a structural foundation: Need to pressurize a cave? Blow up a big balloon in it and build an airlock around the door. Need a new room? Expand the cave or pressurize the adjoining one. The base would probably situated near the suspected water reserves in the bottoms of craters on the (south?) pole.

If you'd like me to really run with this project I'd probably try to massively over-provision power, water, and air to prevent system fragility (the most delicate part of the plan is the people, they're also the most versatile repair machines so we'll need to take good care of them). I'd try to build the base around a Thorium molten salt reactor with fully duplicate power supplied by solar. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molten_salt_reactor I'm sure we could figure out something to do with the extra power and in the event of catastrophic failure, solar power would provide the buffer needed to work out a return to redundancy. I'm not a fan of batteries so I might try out a solar generated artificial hydrocarbon + fuel cell scenario. The fuel will keep in big tanks better than in batteries anyway. I might also try to deploy some huge skylights connected with fiber optic for passive lighting underground. Earth day cycles could probably be faked by shunting light to solar collectors during the "night". (how cool is it to imagine the massive mirror physically flipping the day to night, which also generates the spare power which will keep everyone alive if the unthinkable happens)

I would build atmospheric life support around biological systems with mechanical backup. Lots, and lots of plant life (space is cheap remember? and water is pooled in the bottom of the crater). Added bonus is that the biological systems are good for recycling biomass and have some overlap with food production. I'd probably to deploy a lot of algae. I'd love some little cows too, but that's merely an aesthetic addition. http://oregonstate.edu/ua/ncs/archives/2015/jul/osu-researchers-discover-unicorn-–-seaweed-tastes-bacon

There'd be total recycling with periodic water and air true-ups to replace inevitable loss. I'm not entirely sure that we have the biological systems knowhow to do this right (I suspect we do, but it hasn't been tested) but your stipulated bottomless launch budget solves all problems. If we can't get it quite right we can re-supply from Earth (and if you need some extra drama you could couple an emergency with a shaking of faith from the earth-siders).

Not only could this sustain a hundred people it'd be a plan that once it took root could expand nicely.

Technological improvements which would could make matters easier: Robotics for manufacturing and repair (autonomous as much as possible) Space based resource mining smelting and manufacture Autonomous robotic mining and tunneling Materials science (better atmosphere containment, lighter radiation protection, awesome leak sealers) Of course rocketry and reduced cost space launch Improvements in closed loop biological systems

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