why lunar cities are still science fiction

Current plans for our return to the Moon seem a little too vague to be successful.

lunar hotel render

We’ve got big plans for the Moon. According to a recent special on NatGeo, it will all begin with our triumphant return to the lunar surface in 2020 as per the Constellation program. After a small lander gently touches down next to Shackleton crater at the Moon’s south pole, subsequent missions will start bringing the building blocks for a full blown base. By 2030, the completed outpost will start using new technologies to make itself fully self-sustaining, turning lunar regolith into air and water, and melting it down into solar panels in polar plateaus constantly bathed by sunlight.

But the real fun starts in 2040 when entrepreneurs and mining companies descend on our first little extraterrestrial foothold and create a self-sufficient economy by mining minerals, precious metals and serving space tourists. After 2050, what was once a small base becomes a sprawling lunar city with vast domes, hydroponic farms, hotels and mining quarries all powered by a maze of solar panels and quite possibly, small fusion reactors that will make it back to Earth to power our biggest metropolises. Yes, all that from NASA’s second small step for man.

I would like nothing better than to see this happen and hopefully, have some sort of role in building what would be our dress rehearsal for becoming a truly space faring species. Unfortunately, while the ideas for how to make a lunar city are on the right track, in reality they face two major problems that could prove to be too much to overcome. To build something on another world, even one just a quarter million miles away, requires a lot of money and a lot of commitment. It would be an immense project and considering that each flight of the two Ares rockets would cost billions of dollars and their cargo would be valued at billions more, we’re looking at a jaw-dropping price tag.

Not even the most determined and enthusiastic billionaires working together could afford to finance more than a small part of this undertaking and would need to rely on government to foot most of the bill. And that means that a lunar outpost could be instantly killed by an ambitious politico who wants to fan the flames of populist rage for personal gain. By scapegoating space exploration for the next big financial crisis or budget deficit to get a few more votes without offending corporate donors who get tax breaks and sweetheart contracts, he could easily doom our crucial first steps out of our cradle in his quest for power. In fact, by ignoring what major investments in science and technology can do for the economy, politicians might have already delivered a crippling blow to Constellation. According to the NASA Panel on Human Spaceflight, the agency won’t have enough money to reach the Moon in 2020 with the current budget.

And there are more problems. NASA’s projects are just as much about politics as they are about exploration, and something as high profile as a manned trip to another world is a chance for lawmakers to throw their weight around, directing projects to their territories so they can brag about the highly paid, glamorous jobs they bring in. Efficiency, scalability and sustainability don’t matter all that much. The goal is to get PR material while the going’s good. In effect, that tends to hold back NASA because instead of finding the best deals and pushing ahead, they have to follow the lawmakers’ selfish demands. Tight budgets also force the agency to use old technology rather than really push the envelope with spacecraft designs and propulsion methods that NASA has been trying to get off the ground for years, slowing the progress of our space faring technology.

This brings up back to an earlier point about Constellation. After tens of billions of dollars, we’ll end up making a technological step sideways at best, and back at worst. While trying to give today’s public a chance to relive the Apollo days may be a worthy political goal, it won’t help us explore space in cheap and efficient craft. Instead, NASA should finally act on the constant suggestions that it partners with private businesses like Bigelow Airspace and SpaceX to create much more cost-effective methods of getting to the Moon and back. The less money is spent per flight, the more flights can be done and the more efficient the spaceship can be, the more payload it could deliver to the lunar surface.

Ultimately, if we’re going to build a lunar city, we need the right tools for the job. And unless NASA gets the chance to develop the right partnerships with ambitious aerospace companies and enough cash to help fund their R&D departments, getting anything more than another flag planting mission off the ground will be rather unlikely in the foreseeable future.

# space // constellation / moon / nasa / space exploration

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