The Moon in Blue: engineering the space age

The future is looming with the same mesmerising luminosity of our nearest neighbour. Or to put it more succinctly – the next major space station will be situated 250,000 miles away, just a hop and a skip from the moon.

Launching with spectacular promise in the next decade, the Gateway space station will be designed to house crews for up to 3 months. Their aim will be to conduct science experiments further away from Earth for long periods of time, and support missions to the moon’s surface.

In tandem with this ambitious plan, a moon base is being designed by the European Space Agency (ESA) in collaboration with both engineering and architectural firms. On the table are renderings of white pods scattered across the lunar landscape, connected by tubular walkways and surrounded by robots and solar panels. These are early and highly imaginative designs, and obviously may not be the final versions, but they will help all those involved to think through a range of possible scenarios.

  • Engineers at Langley Research Centre have been developing a concept for a lunar outpost for over a decade. Their focus is on meticulous detail and collaboration with engineers from many industry partners.
  • Orion space craft and the Gateway space station will need extremely fine-tuned interface to ensure craft can dock successfully. Even small inconsistencies between the program’s assumptions and requirements could endanger both mission success and astronauts’ lives.
  • Gateway will orbit the moon, and factors such as variable gravity and prolonged exposure to space radiation present unprecedented challenges. In many ways, the Gateway space station will serve as a prototype for many future deep-space human habitats.
  • The vision of a moon village has encouraged private and public players to collaborate on ideas for robotic and human exploration of our neighbourly satellite. The rockets of SpaceX and Blue Origin have already shown that the costs of sending people to the moon could be drastically reduced.
  • Visiting the moon for a few hours is one thing, but living there is another. Space architects and engineers will face challenges never before experienced by humans.

The moon’s challenges

  • Occupants will need up to 3 metres of shielding to protect them from galactic cosmic rays. It is hardly possible to ship tons of concrete from Earth, so astronauts will apply what’s known as in-situ resource utilisation—in other words, they’ll use what’s there.
  • To allow people to live on the moon, a robotic workforce will be required because exterior human activity will be restricted. Robots will set up the habitation modules, using the moon’s soil, a material which, lacking in organic material, is called regolith. Ideas put forward to achieve this include using 3-D printing to construct walls in singular pieces or in bricks that will lock together.
  • While there is evidence of the existence of water ice from ancient comets – useful for drinking, cooking food, bathing, making concrete, and splitting into oxygen and hydrogen for rocket propellant – extraction may prove problematic.
  • Mastering life support systems: gravity is only around one-sixth as strong as on Earth. The moon is airless, so habitats must be sealed and pressure-tight. In addition, the moon’s surface is constantly pelted with micro-meteoroids. So structures would have to be built to withstand that punishment.
  • Temperatures are extreme on a sphere with little atmosphere, so living spaces will have to incorporate powerful heating and cooling systems – designed with materials able to withstand dramatic changes in expansion and contraction.
  • The moon has no magnetic field like the Earth, so there’s no protection from a constant stream of high-speed protons and electrons emitted by the solar wind from the sun. Even more dangerous are the sun’s coronal mass ejections, solar flares which hurl elevated bursts of higher-energy protons and electrons into space, increasing radiation exposure enough to possibly kill a human.
  • Adding to all these problems will be a constant shower of galactic cosmic rays, increasing the danger of cancer.

The Dust

  • But most deadly of all, will be the dust. A complication for which we have no solution at present. For billions of years, micro-meteoroid strikes have pulverised the lunar surface to produce sharp, glassy shards of dust in a place where there is no air or water to smooth out the edges. Between 10 and 20 percent of the moon’s shallow regolith consists of fine particles like talcum powder. Hovering too small to see, they stick to everything and have severe corrosive capacity.
  • This dust can wear away spacesuits, scratch lenses, clog air filters and machinery, and present major health issues if inhaled. Currently, there is no idea how to design a sustainable system that will protect outside equipment for any long period in this harsh environment.

Getting to the moon is difficult to put it mildly, but staying there will be the toughest adversity we have ever faced. Nevertheless, a world of possibilities awaits if we can overcome the odds, as we have done throughout history. As always, the challenges will advance science, technology, and ingenuity.

Certainly we will learn a great deal about the early solar system and Earth’s origins, and from a medical perspective – we will establish how the human body reacts to extended stays in low gravity. And most essentially, equipment, designs, and engineering innovation will be tested to new limits to support future voyages to Mars and beyond. For scientists, engineers and technicians, we are at the dawn of what may be the most exciting era of human development.

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