Sep 27, 2012

From Lunar Return to the First Colony

Posted by in category: space

What would it take to go from a manned human return to the Moon to a self-sustaining colony?

When we look at modern society today, there is practically no city that is self-sufficient. Metals are produced in one part of the world, paper somewhere else, cell phones yet somewhere else. The list could go on.

But this situation exists because no city truly needs to be self-sufficient. People can purchase goods from wherever they can be produced at the best price and quality.

So, are there no places on Earth that are self-sufficient? Actually, there are.

Self-sufficient places tend to be rural and poor. For example, islanders have survived for many centuries hunting fish and gathering or growing basic food stuff.

But neither the examples of urban or rural settings are altogether helpful in determining what it would take to go from a manned lunar landing to the first self-sufficient colony. The reason is that the simple rural environment provides ready resources which are not available on the Moon. These six fundamental things are: air, water, food, protection from cosmic radiation, temperature control, and sufficient gravity.

So, what would it take to secure these on a self-sustaining basis? Would one need much of the technologies which modern civilization offers or could there be a small set of technologies which are sufficient and themselves could be replaced indefinitely?

The six fundamental things not easily available on the Moon can none-the-less be developed. For example, plants require carbon and nitrogen (among other things). Carbon and nitrogen is present in adequate amounts in the icy regolith of the lunar poles. But what would it take to get that? One cannot send a colonist out with a shovel because, in time, they would be exposed to too much radiation. So telerobotic mining equipment may be necessary. But then how could the various parts of a pretty sophisticated piece of equipment be produced in a self-sustaining way? Does one need a full civilization of tens of thousands of people in an integrated economy? Or, could creativity be used to create a telerobot that works adequately but which may be wire controlled. Before the advent of integrated circuits, engineers had to use their creativity to solve problems like these.

So, my appeal is that those with the technical know how need to figure out just what exactly is the lowest technologic way to achieve a self-sustaining off-Earth colony. If it can be figured out how to achieve these things with a relatively small colony, then we may be able to achieve he first self-sustaining colony within a relatively short while after humans return to the Moon.


Comments — comments are now closed.

  1. GaryChurch says:

    Hi John.
    3D printers could be used to build a carefully planned chemical processing facility out of a lunar alloy poured into sheets and ingots using solar concentrators. Mylar can focus enough energy to melt ore and weighs a few pounds when stretched over a several hundred foot frame. But the big need is of course lebensraum.

    My favorite method is to just drill a well like Bruce Willis in that really lousy sci-fi movie and light off an H-bomb. Dig a hole a couple miles down and a couple megatons should excavate a sports arena size cavern.

    So that would be my plan John. Send an expedition to one of the poles near a big ice deposit and immediately melt enough water to fill an inflatable swimming pool 14 feet deep over the living area. Then set up the drilling rig, take however long it takes to dig deep enough down and then light off the bomb. It may even be best to send several such expeditions in a rapid sequence. A radiation proof base with water and minerals to grow food and air at half a dozen locations in as many SLS missions. As soon as the smelters get going crank up the 3D printers and start putting together your chemical factory on the surface.

    Then robot excavators would be used to bring out the irradiated debri and within a year or so the colonists start moving in to the astrodome.
    This is all pretty much from when I was 4 years old.
    Beyond Tomorrow, (1965 illustrated with space art originated by Roy G. Scarfo) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dandridge_M._Cole

  2. GaryChurch says:

    Oh, nice post, welcome aboard the lifeboat.
    Regards, Gary

  3. My mistake, you have 3 other posts- I will have to look at those now.

  4. Allen Taylor says:

    Hi Gary,

    There is no need to do anything as drastic as lighting off a nuke to excavate a cavern on the Moon. Plenty of perfectly good caverns, already excavated and waiting for occupancy, exist. They are called lunar lava tubes. We know where many of these are. They are similar to lava tubes you can explore today in volcanically active places such as Hawaii, Washington and Oregon. For more information on this, check out the Web site of the Oregon L5 Society (www.oregonl5.org. Click on the LBRT link.

  5. Ray Wright says:

    An interesting article with thought in depth. The Earth II biosphere experment showed that a self-sustaining community can exist, but the CO2 kept rising and there were psychological problems with the six people in the place, so a bigger community is probably needed, say at least 100, and the CO2 problem needs to be solved, but this is a matter for experiment, on the Moon. Expansion will be possible, but limited by the availability of water, so need to start in a polar crater, and mine blocks of stone for radiation protection. Stone domes could be built, and there would be the voids underground available for living space, too. However, it is still too fiendishly expensive to get into space. Re-usable space transport is, surely, the first priority.

  6. Big D says:

    Useful thought, but I have no idea why you’re obsessing on the Moon. The logical place, with much better conditions and resources, is Mars. Duh. You’ll probably need to grab an asteroid too (or maybe Phobos and Diemos are already-made there for you).

  7. Allen Taylor says:

    Hi Ray,

    The reason CO2 built up in Biosphere II was because of something nobody anticipated. The structure of the habitat was made from concrete. The habitat was inhabited before the concrete had completely cured. Unbeknown to the experimenters, it was outgassing carbon dioxide. The plants in the hab would have been plenty to handle the CO2 exhaled by the six inhabitants and their livestock, but they were overwhelmed by what was coming out of the concrete. The lesson here is to be vigilant and flexible to handle the unanticipated.

  8. John Hunt says:

    In his blog, Transterrestrial Musings, Rand Simberg points out that the Space Studies Institute has been researching these issues for some time now. After Googling that…sure enough.

    “My mistake, you have 3 other posts…”

    Yes, but nothing recently. Beyond comments, perhaps I’ll be adding to the needed diversity that you have helped bring back. I feel that this blog has largely recovered.

    Allen, the problem is, “location, location, location”. Gary is right in that we need living space immediately next to the water. And Gary, remind me. How do you get rid of the radiation fallout within the sphere?

    Ray, Biosphere 2 doesn’t match our lunar scenario. They didn’t allow for input of water, carbon, and nitrogen like we would. They also didn’t allow for venting of the CO2 like we could (not that we would want to but we could if we needed to). Also, they didn’t allow for electrolysis of water or such. We wouldn’t limit ourselves so arbitrarily.

    “I have no idea why you’re obsessing on the Moon”

    Less expensive telerobotic prep and the potential for income (propellant from lunar ice”. You are right that Mars is a more habitable place but it may cost ten times more to set up a self-sustaining colony there. So, we should go for the low-hanging fruit first.

  9. ken anthony says:

    The moon is unlikely to be self sustaining anytime soon precisely because it is too easy to provide whatever is lacking from earth.

    Mars has to become self sustaining rapidly. That can happen with an understanding of an industrial ecology requiring about four dozen colonists. It’s actually possible for a single colonist to have all the training required but this is not necessary or even desired. They simply need to have overlapping skills. The cost per colonist also goes down if we send more than a handful at a time. I would propose a dozen on the first mission which would require at least two landers; followed by three dozen two years later on the next window. A single red dragon lander every 2yr. launch window is a low cost solution that provides all the support required to guaranty success but is not required.

    MarsOne has the right idea regarding use of existing technologies, but I would go further because their plan has a fatal flaw. It depends on life support from earth. The solution is gaslight technology which can be produced on mars.

    Steps to mars.

  10. Johnny Roger says:

    A very interesting question with applications beyond a Lunar Colony. I would give bonus-points for adding Von Neumann Machine properties to the technology set. Ideally such a colony wouldn’t just be self-sustaining but self-replicating. At least I assume we don’t plan to build one for it to sit and wait for the apocalypse. I guess self-replication would be implied anyway in a lot of the technologies we would be talking about, but it might still be good to make it explicit.

    In any case, I wouldn’t wait for this set of technologies to be finished, to start colonising. Do you think it wouldn’t be possible to have a viable plan for extraterrestrial colonisation and survival, without an absolutely 100% self-sustaining colony? I agree, the more self-sustaining the better. But, as Gary Church rightly pointed out, you probably want to send several (as many as possible) missions. If for no other reason than to increase the chances of survival. Equally importantly however, there are reasons, notably: economies of scale and specialisation, why precious few cities or societies, beyond the most primitive, on earth are self-sustaining. It is, apparently, more (cost-)efficient to have a number of large installations produce specialised resources, components or goods for as large a market as possible, instead of having the same number of smaller producers make either, all those specialised items in smaller numbers, or, one generalised, possibly/probably sub-optimal, product. Similarly, if you could set up a number of colonies, each one of them wouldn’t need to be strictly self-sustaining. They could have _some_ mutual dependence and have the efficiency benefits from specialisation and EoS. As long as the fraction of colonies needed for survival of the total number of colonies you could build is small enough it might even be more succesful than fewer, more expensive(?), less efficient(?), yet fully autarkic colonies.

    Obviously I didn’t do any actual calculations on this, but as a thought experiment, consider the following hypothetical. For investment X, you could build 5 fully self-sustaining colonies. With the same investment you could build 8 of which each requires 2 others, for specialised goods etc., to survive. All else being equal, in this case, the latter would actually have the better chance for survival.

    On the other hand, I’m probably underestimating the sheer costs from bulk-transports involved in setting up such (a) colon(y/ies). :-( Still, it might be interesting to keep in mind.

  11. The mining and habitat technology has to already exist or is not far off. To some this may sound like science fiction but if there were ever a reason to leave earth, I think we could do it. There would be so much red tape with international involvement but as a human effort. No problem.

  12. Eric Hunting says:

    I feel that what Mr. Hunt is touching on here is a long overlooked gold mine for space development because, when you seriously think about the proposition of space settlement, you must realize that you are talking about a spectrum of technology with radically disruptive impact on Earth. Learning to live well in space can transform civilization as we know it because what that essential proposition means is figuring out how to sustainably go from dirt, rocks, and sunlight to a western middle-class standard of living using highly automated tools on the scale of home appliances. Just about everything on Earth would change in the context of that kind of capability; lifestyle, economics, politics, you name it. If you need a good excuse to go to space, there it is. And yet we’ve spent decades obsessed with the relatively minor question of how to get there because the answers we got were unsatisfactory to our space fantasies. The proposition of space settlement will impact that question more than anything currently being done in rocketry today because CATS is not merely a technological problem but more a logistical one and the breakthroughs or the near future are more likely to come in terms of how rockets are MADE than how they work.

    But this is a proposition that goes beyond the matter of mere ISRU and fabrication technique to the question of lifestyle. We fanatics would put up with anything to go to space, but for mainstream society sub-duty in a junk-yard viewed through a kaleidoscope will not cut it. Subsistence is not enough. The objective must be to not just survive but thrive. Yet aside from the grandiose concepts of the ’77 Summer Study, all we have ever been shown of the space habitat is variations on the theme of the army base. Is it any wonder the public and Capital alike never seem to get it?

    I feel telerobotics is key to this both for its practical application but, even more importantly, for its accessibility to a potentially large global development community. Launch systems remain unaccessible to mainstream development because the scale of things is ridiculous. Robotics, however, is so accessible today that kids now commonly toy with technology in a hobby context just as sophisticated as anything space agencies employ short of the high-rel hardware. There is a vast overlooked and untapped vein of potential innovation with a global community of both hobbyists and pros poised to break it open. For this reason I have now, for a couple years, been proposing an open space program based on the goal of telerobotic outposts.

    But there also another similar untapped vein in that question of space lifestyle. Real space settlements will not–cannot–rely on the kinds of architecture that have typified space habitats to the present. The limitations imposed on a habitat by the limitations of launch technology are too great. And you cannot persist where your life depends on hardware you cannot produce. As others here have pointed out, we have some ready real estate to exploit through lava tubes and simple excavation, which is well suited to telerobotic work.

    But there’s another angle here. You see, what we’re talking about with such structures is large simple spacious clear-span enclosures outfit by retro-fit rather than the spacecraft-like tin cans in the desert of anachronistic outpost visions. And that’s a kind of structure where the exploration of design doesn’t need rocket scientists and space agency budgets. It is, again, something a vast community of people in architecture, interior and industrial design, and even the interested amateur can readily explore. Right now you could go to the Kansas City Subtropolis with a van full of Ikea furniture and realize a pretty close analog to what a real space settlement could be like.

    Thus I have been recently proposing the concept of a home-show of space. Something I call Space-At-Home to point out the fact that we are looking to publicly explore, though the known basic nature of habitat structures and likely spectrum of materials from ISRU, the possibilities of an attractive lifestyle in space. I recently referred to such a program as being like This Old House in a Colonial Williamsburg of the future. These things are, to me, overlooked goldmines for the potential cultivation of a new popular interest in space based on public participation. Such activity is how we could practically start to explore those questions Mr. Hunt is proposing.

  13. GaryChurch says:

    “Rand Simberg points out that the Space Studies Institute has been researching these issues for some time now.”

    Rand Simberg is the alpha troll of the private space goons. He is the king monkey crap slinger of them all and I am sad to see you giving him any mention at all.

  14. GaryChurch says:

    “Plenty of perfectly good caverns,“
    According to Dr. Paul Spudis, there are no known lava tube formations near any polar ice deposits. Good try.

    “The logical place, with much better conditions and resources, is Mars. Duh.”

    No solar, deep gravity well, no real protection from radiation; low grav icy moons are much better sites.

    “Re-usable space transport is, surely, the first priority.”

    Reusability is a myth. There is no cheap, space flight is inherently expensive.

  15. GaryChurch says:

    “How do you get rid of the radiation fallout within the sphere?” First you wait for a few months for it to cool down. Or actually harvest heat from it for steam power.
    H-bombs can actually be made fairly “clean” and robot excavators can carry the hottest debris to the surface where it can be put in a pyramid and also be used to generate some electricity.

  16. ken anthony says:

    People are Von Neumann Machines.

    »No solar, deep gravity well, no real protection from radiation

    Mars has plenty of solar. Gravity is a good thing. Radiation mitigation is trivial.

    »Reusability is a myth.

    Ha! This is self evidently false except under tightly regarded cases. Cases that are not absolute.

    »space flight is inherently expensive

    …and will probably remain so for quite some time, possibly forever. The good news is that cost is only one side of the equation. Return On Investment (ROI) is the other half. Some would point out there is no unobtainium export possible and therefore state, case closed. This is an ignorant argument clearly exposed by just a simple thought…

    Which is the bigger economy? One planet alone or a solar system filled with people? The resource that pays for any level of development, right now, is property ownership and that’s just the tip of the economic iceberg. One out in the solar system, many other marginal areas of economics become possible.

    See (http://planetplots.blogspot.com/2012/05/philosophy-of-life-in-space.html)

  17. GaryChurch says:

    “This is an ignorant argument clearly exposed by just a simple thought…”

    Uh huh. Your economics do not agree with basic physics. But since all is ignorance except for your all knowingness, you and your ROI are safe from reality.

  18. Bob Krone says:

    John, and commenters. A leading scholar on this subject is Dr. David Schrunk. See his, et al, book, The Moon: Resources, Future Development, and Settlement, Springer, 1989, 2nd Edition 2008. His article “Planet Moon Philosophy”, will be inTHE JOURNAL OF SPACE PHILOSOPHY, to be published online 15 Oct 2012. You can subscribe free at:

    Bob Krone, Provost, Kepler Space Institute

  19. ken anthony says:

    GaryChurch, did you even consider that basic thought?

    »Your economics do not agree with basic physics.

    Two separate subjects, but let me explain further. What you refer to as basic physics an economist would call barrier to entry. You are absolutely right that the barrier to entry is high and will probably remain so regardless of what some optimists are saying.

    In this case, that barrier to entry is the cost of transporting a starter colony to the surface of mars. While I disagree with the particulars, the ‘Space Settlement Initiative’ demonstrates that it could be financed today.

    Once you have that starter colony with enough people (as little as four dozen) and an industrial ecology designed for mars (which allows anything to be manufactured from martian resources) your economic model goes into a new state which has unlimited expansion potential. In a hundred years, all the good jobs may be on mars.

    The real problem is a can’t do attitude, not physics.

  20. GaryChurch says:

    “The real problem is.…“
    The real problem is our tax dollars being poured into spaceX shareholder pockets for building hobby rockets designed to carry billionauts to Low Earth Orbit playboy clubs.
    You are just another New Space infomercial hack blabbering about his companies false advertising claims.
    You and the rest of the Musk Worshipers will have to shut this site down like Once and Future Moon if you want to stop the B.S. flag from flying. You are all a bunch of crooks.

  21. ken anthony says:


    I happen to agree with you (in part, you covered a lot of ground and made quite a few false assumptions about me.)

    The government should not be picking winners and losers and should not spend taxpayer dollars as if they were their own. It’s theft and we should never tolerate it.

    Musk is no angel. But if you look at the Mars One plan you see that he is an enabler of others. Give me individual liberty or give me death. I mean it.

  22. “Give me individual liberty or give me death. I mean it.”

    You are free to step off the lifeboat and into the black anytime you want.

  23. JohnHunt says:

    “People are Von Neumann Machines”

    Best quote yet. Not only humorous but also profound.

    ““How do you get rid of the radiation fallout within the sphere?” First you wait for a few months for it to cool down”.

    Dr Krone, yes, I know about Dr Strunk and have recently purchased that book. I think highly of Dr Strunk.

    Obviously. My duh.

  24. Apart from Dr Shrunks book, there other good reads are Peter Eckarts “The Lunar Base Handbook”, Mark Prados http://www.permanent.com/, and obviously the moon society webpages.
    However, I’d like to comment on the 3D-printer idea, often put forward as the perfect solution to any manufacturing problems. If a 3D printer would be that easy to use for manufacturing “anything”, you would have one at your desk at work and several at home by now. The accuracy of any 3D printer is less than perfect, and certainly not good enough for manufacturing the spare parts for a 3D printer that would soon be needed if it was used extensively. And rather than shipping sets of spare 3D-printer parts from earth, I believe that incorporating more humans into a versatile small-scale production unit is by far a quicker, safer and more direct solution. By all means, ship a 3D printer as well, but a metal deposition welding unit could most of that at a fraction of the cost, weight and complexity of a 3D printer. And you’d get a human for the colony rather than a ton of metal in the cargo hold of the moon-bound shuttle.

  25. JohnHunt says:

    Niklas, I tend to agree with you. Clearly, we can’t be sending metal from Earth but should obtain that in situ on the lunar surface. After melting and separating the metal from the regolith, it can be cast and then processed. The imprecision of 3D printing means that things such as robotic joints might have a roughness which would make joints stick. Whereas a relatively simple lathe could produce smooth surfaces naturally. In order to get the equipment to the lunar surface, a lunar lander would need to be designed, tested, and launched. After a number of cargo landings, a human-rated version of the lander could deliver humans who could then intelligently work with the machining equipment. That would save a lot of development and testing work of telerobotic machining.