Back To The Moon, 21st Century Style

Aug 19, 2003
How feasible are lunar colonies?

Growing up, my brother and I couldn’t get enough of Space: 1999, a mid-’70s series that hypnotized us with cool special effects, the crush-worthy Barbara Bain, who acted alongside her real-life husband Martin Landau, and its portrayal of the Moon as the main character in an action-packed 48-minute weekly episode. The premise of the show is bit far-fetched: an explosion at a moon base knocks the Moon out of Earth’s orbit and into a voyage to explore strange new worlds across the galaxy. The show was set a mere 15 years in the future.

It’s a reminder that in those post-Apollo years, we fully expected NASA or some international space force to be working on space bases in real life. More than four decades later, we’re still waiting for our Moonbase Alpha — though that’s not for a lack of interest. Ex-astronauts, entrepreneurial dreamers and short-lived sci-fi shows like Space: 1999 have kept alive the dream of a moon colony, and now, the confluence of technology, money, and political interest is pushing this idea out of the realm of sci-fi and closer to reality.

In my interviews with space scientists, industry officials, and futurists it appears that there’s an unofficial blueprint that is slowly shaping up for moon colonization. First, private space companies find ways to reduce the cost of launch. Right now, SpaceX says that it costs $62 million every time its Falcon 9 rocket is launched, while the more powerful Falcon Heavy costs an estimated $90 million per launch. Satellite companies and others wanting to get something in orbit get a discount for bulk purchases. SpaceX is bringing food and supplies to the International Space Station, it hopes to ferry U.S. astronauts by sometime in late 2019.

Then come fly-arounds and orbiting platforms. The Chinese plan to launch an Earth-orbiting space station by 2020, while NASA has asked private companies to develop a “Lunar Orbital Platform — Gateway” near the Moon by 2022. This could be NASA’s launch pad of sorts for future expeditions and settlements on both the Moon and Mars.

At the same time, private firms like Moon Express, as well as China, India and the European Space Agency are moving forward with robotic landers and rovers. The final step, supporters say, will be a permanent human presence on the surface. Maybe a government base first, followed by a private Moon resort.