Reclaiming the Moon: Plans for a 21st Century Return

4 June 2002

By Leonard David
Senior Space Writer

DENVER, COLORADO -- Giving the Moon a makeover in the 21st century may mean speckling its inhospitable surface with welcome mats brought by colonists setting up townships.

Some envision erecting arrays of lunar science gear to probe the surrounding universe while others want to use the barren surface as backdrop for rest-in-peace cremations. Still there are those that caution about mauling the Moon, trashing its stark beauty through strip mining and off-Earth industrialization.

Whatever the case, it is likely the surface of our partner planet will see changes, and not just from scientists, entrepreneurs, factory owners, but also swooning lovers that crave honeymoons on the Moon. That is the majority view of lunar advocates that assembled here for the National Space Society's International Space Development Conference 2002, held May 23-27.

Return trajectory

These ambitious plans are being proposed by the membership of the Moon Society, an organization resolute in getting humanity on a return trajectory to that cratered, dusty world.

Among the group's top priorities: Creation of a spacefaring civilization that puts in place communities on the Moon, bolstered by a wish list promoting large-scale industrialization and private enterprise on the satellite.

Project LETO -- short for Lunar Exploration & Tourist Organization -- is the first major project for the Moon Society. On the agenda is building a full-scale simulation of an initial lunar exploration base. It will be marketed for outreach purposes, analog research, and as a tourist destination.

Then there's the Moon Society's flagstone venture, The Artemis Project, an effort ongoing since 1994 to design, fund, and deploy the first private lunar base for commerce and tourism.

Meanwhile, TransOrbital of La Jolla, California is working on its TrailBlazer lunar probe. The plan is for the probe to return high-definition video imagery of the lunar surface. For a fee a person's words and images can be etched onto an imperishable metal disk carried by the probe. When TrailBlazer is de-orbited and smacks into the lunar surface, your communiqué to the outside world will survive intact on impact within a time capsule.

Like-minded businessman, Jayme Findlay of Shawnee, Kansas is president of "Buried on the Moon" - a company dedicated to placing the cremated remains of 2,016 individuals on the Moon in 2005-2006. The cost is $100,000 per person.

"I believe in dreams. I think people should have dreams. And this is probably mine," Findlay said. "The idea for the customer is that it's a bit of immortality," he said.

No matter where on Earth, friends and relatives can look to the Moon and view their long lost, dearly departed. "Maybe someday they'll even be able to leave holographic flowers at the grave site, along with a note of remembrance," Findlay said.

Best foot forward

Blowing a warning whistle on these kind of lunar forecasts is Richard Steiner, a professor, conservation specialist, and associate director of the University of Alaska's marine advisory program, based in Anchorage.

Diving headlong into the lair of wannabe lunar colonists, Steiner said that the industrial development paradigm that's existed on Earth for some three centuries has been "utterly devastating". Imposing a George Bush senior idiom, the conservationist urged that a "kinder and gentler" approach to space is needed.

"We should put our best foot forward, not as greedy industrialists or empire builders or with militant intention, but rather with compassion, respect, humility and with genuine curiosity," Steiner said.

What about using lunar or other space resources to help an energy-impoverished Earth?

"Personally, and I think millions and millions of people on Earth see the Moon as a sacred icon and it should remain as such," Steiner said. "To turn the Moon into a quarry and strip mine…I think if you put this out to a global referendum, I would virtually predict that 80 percent to 90 percent of people on Earth would object to this idea," he said.

Dead-end Earth, unless

"If the Moon is owned by anybody…it's owned by everybody," Steiner argued. "Most of the people on this planet would object to the notion that the primary reason or even a reason to go to the Moon or into space is for resource extraction and exploitation. That's my political guess," he added.

There is virtually no way, Steiner said, that space resources can be applied in the near-term aggressively enough to reverse the course of biosphere destruction on our home planet.

The way to short-circuit the prospect of a dead-end Earth is to control population and consumption. "We need to start living within our means. We need to deal with this in the next 10 to 20 years. This is hugely serious," Steiner said.

Steiner proposed that Luna be designated as a United Nations World Heritage Site, reserved for peaceful scientific purposes. Akin to how the Antarctic environment is now preserved and protected, similar protocols and treaties should form "a new ethic and paradigm for space," he said.

As a first step, following the giant leap of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin: The Sea of Tranquility landing spot for Apollo 11 should be designated as the first protected site designated off-Earth, Steiner said.

Gravity of the situation

Despite the cautionary conviction of space ecologist Steiner, there are numbers of plans to tame and use the lunar wilderness.

Here on Earth, everyone looks for that special eatery with atmosphere.

But the Moon is void of a breathable atmosphere. And that's just fine for astronomers, said Paul van Susante, a graduate research assistant at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden.

Susante thinks it is feasible to build a lunar-based telescope with the same astronomical observing prowess as the Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST), now under development as a Hubble replacement.

Work on a Lunar South Pole Infrared Telescope (LSPIRT) was done by Susante partly at the European Space Research and Technology Center (ESTEC) in Noordwijk, The Netherlands, and at the Delft University of Technology.

Telescope farm

"One of the advantages of the Moon is that you can build a telescope center. You just don't build one telescope and leave it alone. You can evolve to a bigger complex," Susante told "Gravity is a very good thing if you have to do construction," he said.

Universe watching in the infrared from the Moon is extremely good, given lunar polar areas that are permanently shadowed. Those localities are some of the coldest places in the solar system. "This means that the surrounding infrared background radiation which disturbs the measurements is very low. The Moon's South Pole offers the best location to build such an observatory," Susante said.

LSPIRT's foundation would be put together and dug on-the-spot using robots and telepresence in a virtual reality environment.

Not only does the South Pole region feature permanently shadowed locales. Within the region is a small area that is almost constantly lit by the Sun. This sunny site is often called the "peak of eternal light". On the sun-drenched peak and amongst neighboring mountains, communications and energy supply stations would make it possible to install and operate the infrared scope in Shackleton Crater.

What Susante foresees is a "telescope farm" on the Moon. "You can expand, evolve, and change things as new techniques and technology become available," he said.

Fresh-squeezed air

Strong support for lunar colonization comes from Niklas Jarvstrat, a senior scientist at Volvo Aero Corporation, headquartered in Trollhättan, Sweden. He detailed the manufacturing facilities required for a lunar colony to survive without supplies from Earth.

Jarvstrat recently completed a NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) study on a small, self-sustainable Moon base. That work reviewed survival needs per person in the sense of food, oxygen, and clean water. Furthermore, learning how to get a firm foothold on the Moon will have potential impact on production chains here on Earth.

Once again, the Moon's South Pole offers a wealth of advantages as the site of choice for a human outpost. Heaps of sunlight…cold traps that likely contain water ice, or at least hydrogen. Those are distinct pluses for making a Moon base viable, Jarvstrat said.

"The air you need to breathe, you just have to squeeze it from the rocks," Jarvstrat said. There's no significant research that's needed to set up a Moon colony. "It's not just manufacturing what you need to eat. It's manufacturing what you need to manufacture what you need to eat,"

"We can do it. It's just expensive," Jarvstrat told the audience. There is water, or at least hydrogen. Raw materials are available for the picking and processing. And there are places flooded by near constant sunlight, he said.

"We can get there…at least 30 years ago we could, even if nobody has been there recently," Jarvstrat added. He noted that a consortium of 24 organizations from 13 countries have joined forces, searching for research funds to study the fabrication of the first Moon colony.

"The question is not if," Jarvstrat concluded. "The question is how soon and by who?"


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