Ever since mankind has had the capacity for abstract thought, people have been looking to the stars, wondering what could be out there.
The time may come when leaving this planet becomes necessary for the survival of our species, and that is exactly what was on the mind of American ex-president George W. Bush when he proposed in 2004 that people should return to the moon, but this time to stay. Lunar outposts have generated a considerable amount of debate, with some arguing that robots can perform the necessary tasks on the moon, and it is not necessary for people to inhabit its surface, (Lowman, 2008). This essay will explore the benefits and drawbacks of setting up communities for human habitation on the moon. While the logistics of inhabiting the moon are not yet worked out, settlement will become necessary for the survival of the human race.
To decrease the risk to human lives, robots can be used to explore the feasibility of lunar settlement. The technology has already been used to great success on Mars. “Given the stunning performance of American robots on Mars, this point of view is worth serious discussion” (Lowman, 2008). The robots can be used to set up the necessities for life on the moon, such as a way for people to breathe. This could be in the form of domes, or scientists may one day discover how to develop an atmosphere. Whatever the method, lunar settlement could solve the problem of the world’s food crises. As the human race continues to populate – and as the death toll decreases due to a growing global middle class that can gradually afford to eat – the world’s food supply will dwindle, and this makes lunar agriculture necessary.
However, as efficient as sending a robot building team to the moon may be, it does have one big downside. That downside is one that is common to any lunar mission: the price. According to an article in the New York Times, one NASA team with an interest in a robotic mission places the cost at 450 million dollars (Chang, 2010). Furthermore, although it is much cheaper to send robots into space than people due to the lack of a need for food or air, there are other complications. Robots are not nearly as proficient as human beings when it comes to making sudden repairs. For example, “When the Apollo 17 rover lost a fender – which might have terminated a robotic rover’s mission – astronauts Cernan and Schmitt managed a field repair and kept driving” (Lowman, 2008, p. 4), which just goes to show one of the dangers of a complex, entirely robotic mission. All it would take is one badly timed breakdown and the entire mission could be a waste, or require even more money wasted on sending up a repair robot (Howse, 1996). The money that would be spent on sending robots to the moon could easily be spent on more pressing issues on Earth. Even any food shortage problems could be solved via terrestrial means, by using the money to help put more of the Earth’s land to use for farming. A study by Auburn University reveals that 450 million dollars could be used to purchase enough irrigation systems to cover more than 350 thousand acres of land (Curtis and Tyson, 2008). Instead of spending all that money on a risky trip to the moon, it might be smarter to focus on solving the problems on Earth.
The question of whether the benefits would be worth the costs is a question that is central to any discussions of outer space. With all the problems the people on Earth currently face, it can seem irresponsible or even hedonistic to focus a huge amount of time, money, and resources on trips into space. Any arguments about the scientific merit of space exploration will eventually end up back at this issue, with the value of scientific work questioned. However, there is a much more important reason for colonizing the moon than any scientifically oriented one. In 1908 an object from space crashed into Siberia, and exploded with the power of a large hydrogen bomb (Hartmann, 2002). Many similar objects have crashed into both the Earth and the moon over the history of the planet, including a massive one that is thought to have killed the dinosaurs. Space can be a very dangerous place. As Lowman (2008) points out, “humanity is vulnerable as long as we are confined to one planet…uncontrollable external events may destroy our civilization, perhaps our species,” which should provide even the biggest critic of the sciences a reason to look into lunar colonization. In fact, with the survival of the human race at stake, a robotic construction mission to the moon becomes an incredibly cheap solution, due to how much closer the moon is than any other planet. The fact is, humanity has a very clear cut reason to expand to at least one other moon or planet, and any scientific benefits are merely a convenient bonus. Thus, cost should not be an issue when thinking about a lunar colonization project.
A second major reason for lunar colonization and one that may help offset any costs associated with the program is the wealth of resources that may be available on the moon. Although most of the moon remains unexplored, some possibly very valuable resources have already been discovered. Lowman (2008) describes one very important example:
Helium 3, an isotope extremely rare on Earth, exists in quantity in the lunar soil…helium 3 would be extremely valuable for fusion reactors because it does not make the reactor radioactive. A more practicable use of helium 3, being tested at the University of Wisconsin, is the production of short-lived medical isotopes. Such isotopes must now be manufactured in cyclotrons and quickly delivered before they decay. But Dr. Schmitt suggests that small helium 3 reactors could produce such isotopes at the hospital.
With the possibility of lunar resources being used in both clean energy production and the medical sciences, the importance of such resources becomes clear. Procuring large amounts of helium 3 could be very useful back on Earth, and could also help reduce the costs of a lunar colonisation effort. The most obvious way to reduce costs would simply be to sell resources to help fund the building of spacecraft and shelter on the moon. However, having access to a useful fuel source and medical material on the moon could mean less of those resources would need to be transported from Earth, which would further decrease costs. And of course, helium 3 is only one resource; there could be other useful minerals easily accessible after small scale mining.
Interestingly, the biggest argument against colonising the moon for resources is the same one used in defence of cheaply building shelter on the moon: the existence of robots. Although complex tasks such as building a shelter that can sustain human life might be beyond the capabilities of robotics at this time, mining is a much simpler task. In fact, the Japanese space agency already plans to send a dextrous, humanoid robot to the moon by 2020 (Chang, 2010). If a humanoid robot can be sent, then it follows that simple, single purpose mining robots can also be sent. The relative cheapness of sending robots to the moon again comes in to play, this time in favour of leaving humans on Earth. Whereas humans need food, air, and rest, robots can work tirelessly and transported cheaply, thus ensuring an even larger amount of resources can be gathered and transported back to Earth. Using only unmanned missions would mean getting more resources for less cost, making manned missions seem wasteful in comparison. Furthermore, the aforementioned team from NASA says that they could send a robot to the moon in just one thousand days (Chang, 2010). That kind of speed is much faster than what a manned mission would take, especially considering the amount of training astronauts require. These unmanned mining missions could also be used to drop off research equipment when possible, further removing the need for any human element on the moon.
Again, the crux of the issue comes down to an argument about the costs of the mission versus the benefits such a mission would have. Certainly, an unmanned mission would allow for the cheap procurement of large amounts on lunar material. The question is, can a robot make accurate judgements as to what materials are valuable, and not just send back many tons of useless rock? It has been shown on pervious lunar missions that human beings provide an incredible amount of information, with human eyes being much stronger than the most advanced robotic identification systems (Lowman, 2008). When searching for new resources, having a pair of human eyes backed up by a human mind is an invaluable resource. Furthermore, humans can make decisions on the spot, instead of waiting for transmissions back from a robot and then spending time interpreting them. It has also been made very apparent in the past that manned missions are much better at procuring resources than unmanned ones. The Apollo 15 mission, for example, brought back a huge amount of material and data compared to even the best unmanned missions (Lowman, 2008). It is apparent that with resource collection, manned versus unmanned is largely a question of quality versus quantity.
In summary, a mission to colonise the moon is definitely something that people should start thinking about sooner than later. While many of the benefits of such a mission can be replicated by cheaper or more efficient means, a human presence on the moon has the benefit of flexibility. Between research, resource collection, and even living in space, a human population can do whatever is required. Furthermore, divorcing the human race from its reliance on the Earth is an important security measure against a possible cosmic catastrophe, which is something that a robotic mission cannot do. The surface area of the moon is roughly the size of North and South America combined (Lowman, 2008), and the human race is putting almost none of that space to use. Although any one benefit of a lunar colonization may not seem vital, the combined benefits could make it the most important project the human race has ever considered.