You roll out of bed and leap eight meters across your underground habitat. The greywater from your sink drains into a small greenhouse where your vegetables grow. After suiting up, you head through a transport chute to inspect the generator.
Outside, it’s pitch black – just as it’s been for the last 12 days. This isn’t some post-apocalyptic scenario; it’s just another day of life on the moon. And with the European Space Agency’s idea to establish a functioning “moon camp” by the 2020s, that day may be closer than we think.
Of course, living on the moon won’t be easy. The camp envisioned is not so much a village as an inhabited research base similar to those in places like Antarctica. But there are far greater obstacles to living on the moon than just cold weather. The biggest is cosmic radiation.
Unlike the Earth, the moon has no atmosphere and no magnetic field. A person on its surface can receive over 400 times the maximum safe dosage of heavy ion radiation, enough to be fatal within ten hours, even in a spacesuit. The first step would likely involve robots and 3D printers constructing covered habitats from lunar soil, or building shelters inside caves formed by lava tubes from the moon’s volcanic past. But what would the inhabitants live on?
Supplies would need to be transported from Earth at first. Growing plants requires greenhouse soil and air rich in carbon dioxide, a gas that’s rare on the moon, but could be synthesized from recycled materials. A water treatment plant could be supplied by ice mined from the polar regions using a specialized drill that can bore two meters beneath the lunar surface.
Friendly bacteria and viruses necessary to the human microbiome and immune system would also have to be imported or synthesized on site. And lunar inhabitants would have to exercise for hours a day to maintain bone and muscle mass. That’s because the moon’s gravity is just one-sixth that of the Earth, and the everyday strain of working against gravity is part of what keeps our bodies healthy.
It might seem strange to go to all this trouble to build a base on a dead rock we’ve already visited. But NASA’s Apollo missions only explored small portions of the moon. We’ve made many discoveries since then, such as ice near the poles and particles of solar wind gases that date back billions of years. They collectively show that the moon has much more to teach us about the history of our solar system.
A radio telescope on its far side could observe the cosmos, shielded from the Earth’s electromagnetic interference. And the lunar surface is rich in minerals, like silicon, aluminum, and magnesium, creating great economic potential for mining. But the biggest benefit of the moon camp may not lie on the moon but beyond it. With the nearest possibly habitable world light-years away, and the International Space Station to be retired in about a decade, a moon base would be our first foothold towards becoming an interplanetary species.
And proposals such as the Deep Space Gateway envision launching future missions from lunar orbit. The smaller gravitational pull would require less fuel to overcome, allowing for larger ships and more cargo. Meanwhile, the base on the surface could serve as a testing ground for future space operations, a refueling station, and a supply depot all in one.
With Europe, Russia, China, and the US expressing interest in the project, the moon camp may come to involve the space agencies of all major nations, as well as private companies. Within a few decades, the moon may be bustling with mining operations, research stations, and tourist routes alongside a construction yard under an orbiting space port. We may have already visited the moon, but now we’re closer than ever to making it part of humanity’s home.