|MadSci Network: Astronomy|
The beginnings of a lunar base could really be made quite quickly- within a decade, if there was enough will for it; the biological issues are well understood, and much of the large scale topography of the Moon is well understood. It would not be hard to adapt the shuttle stack to launch payloads to the Moon- after all, like the Saturn V, Shuttle places 100 tons in LEO on each trip (Orbiter). Redesign could lead to a small manned lander with third stage, instead of an orbiter.
Unmanned exploration of the Moon is on the move again -- with Lunar Prospector's discovery of water ice (6 billion tons or so) last year, while Applied Space Resources, a private enterprise, is seeking to mount a sample return mission within 3 years to look at means of mining the water ice for future industry. Japan, too, is in the picture with the Selene orbiter/lander/rover due in 2003/4.
It is probable that humans will return to the Moon on extended field
trips by 2010-15, with a fulltime base by 2020, as things stand now.
Why should they?
Firstly, probably, for scientific purposes- large optical and radio telescopes located on the lunar far-side would avoid light and radio noise from an increasingly congested Earth. A man-tended observatory might be an early candidate for a base; a second will undoubtedly be the extraction of lunar oxygen for life support and rocket fuel; 88% of the mass of high performance rocket propellants is oxygen, and, once traffic in Space reaches an appreciable volume, there will be an economic case for oxygen mining from the Moon.
Solar Power satellites are often proposed as a source of clean electric power for Earth in the next century- huge photovoltaic panels would convert solar energy to microwaves for beaming down to Earth. Land usage on earth would be 40 times less than for a terrestrial system. Use of lunar raw materials (silicon, iron, aluminium etc.) and lift off from the Moon's low gravity well would reduce the cost of Solar Power satellites 10-20 fold, rendering it a potential solution to the problem of energy without global warming.
The now accepted threat of impact from asteroids has stimulated various approaches to their deflection. One approach would be to use high power lasers; an advantage would be the rapid transmission of energy to the object- a nuclear missile could take months/years to catch the target. Another would be that a laser would not risk splitting the impactor into 2-3 large chunks, as would a nuclear blast. However, high power laser beams, in order to travel through long distances, are best placed above the Earth's atmosphere- again, the Moon looks a possibility as a suitable base.
The Japanese are already eyeing the Moon as a possible tourist location, and Shimizu construction company envisages that, given serious reductions in the cost of Space launches, hotels on the Moon could be possible in the 2020-2030 period.
The use of lunar raw materials for construction of free floating space settlements (O'Neill colonies/Islands) is perhaps the most radical ultimate use for a lunar base; such colonies, although futuristic, point the way to a new evolutionary future for Mankind, in which we disperse into Space as a cosmic civilization, thus transcending the risks of keeping all our eggs on one planetary basket. Asteroid Impacts, Ice Ages, extreme vulcanism or even emerging viruses all have the potential to destroy civilization here on Earth with the loss of billions of lives. An O'Neill type dispersed civilization would be immune to such threats, and would moreover in time seed human life and Mind out into the Galaxy at large.
Other inducements might well be the opportunity to build new communities and life styles away from the suffocating conformity and over-regulation of the world we seem to be moving towards. The Pilgrim Fathers perhaps are an early example of such motivations.
No other creature in the long history of life on Earth has this potential- it would appear that, in proposing an Evolutionary Cosmic Destiny for Humanity, we have at last found out what humanity is FOR.
A a very speculative time table, we might suggest:
return to the Moon for extended missions 2010-15
mantended Lunar base 2015-2020
Lunar industry for SPS/and other production- 2025---
Tourism 2030 ?
Colonization-- 2050 +
However, all depends on those elusive factors, political and cultural will- remember that from President Kennedy's Moon speech to actual landings only took 8 years!
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