2 Bedrooms, 1 Bath, Nice View of Earth
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The week that NASA celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, a multidisciplinary conference on working and living beyond low-earth orbit convened in the colonial city of Savannah, Ga.
Whether the 300-some conference attendees considered the symbolism of meeting to plan the first outposts on the moon and Mars in one of the new world's first settlements is hard to know. They were, nonetheless, dealing with the same issue that bedevils tentative steps beyond the horizon in any age: sustainability.
While the weeklong SAE-sponsored International Conference on Environmental Systems served up sessions on everything from how to build a better space suit to doing the lunar laundry, most of these researchers were consumed with that big picture —that is, how best to create and then sustain viable long-term human habitats on the moon, Mars ... and beyond.
The researchers, many of them full-time NASA employees, are mostly motivated by science for science's sake. But they know that ultimately commerce will drive off-world habitation, either for the resources and opportunity such planetary outposts can offer or as way stations to the outer solar system.
Commercial exploitation of a barren rock isn't all that ludicrous. The moon is already beckoning those with an eye for helium 3, a rare isotope of the second element that could be strip-mined from the moon and shuttled back to Earth to fuel low-radiation, clean-burning fusion reactors. Because helium 3 is non-radioactive, its advocates see it as a greener nuclear energy alternative, producing less radioactive waste than conventional uranium reactors.
Still, taking advantage of all the moon has to offer will require scientists and entrepreneurs alike to overcome significant technical challenges.
The moon is hardly earthlike and offers a lion's share of logistical challenges beyond just residing more than 200,000 miles away. With a sixth of Earth's gravity, little or no water and only a fraction of an atmosphere, the moon offers no protection from a continual barrage of lethal cosmic radiation and micro-meteorites. Its powdery surface is made up of a dusty "regolith" devoid of organic nutrients.
So, it would hardly seem the kind of place to settle or to try and recreate Earth.
"The moon is utterly impractical for terraforming, unless you include large underground cities," said Paul Lowman, a geophysicist at NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center in Maryland. "Low gravity and temperatures will simply not permit establishment of an artificial atmosphere. And with no global magnetic field, galactic cosmic rays will not permit humans to stay on the surface for more than a few days."
Thus, future lunar explorers will have to learn to either live above the surface or underground, like ants.
The year 2020 remains the official date for NASA's next manned lunar touchdown. As part of the agency's new manned-spaceflight Constellation program, this first Altair lander will take only the most tentative of steps, spending but seven days at a yet-to-be-determined landing site at the either the lunar north or south pole.
Five years after that, NASA expects to have four-man crews rotating out of a long-duration lunar habitat every six months. The space agency has already awarded one of three contracts to design a minimum-functional lunar habitat to the University of Maryland's Space Systems Laboratory in College Park.
Thus far, the university's habitat proposals include a two-story "igloo" that would be used as an emergency or expansion shelter for a crew of eight; an inflatable cylindrical "Winnebago," suitable as a habitat for a 28-day mission; and a four-man foldable "pup tent" that would serve as a lunar lifeboat in case of a critical systems failure in a main habitat.