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If you’ve ever dreamed of living on Earth’s Moon, we’ve got an episode for you!

Host: Caitlin Hofmeister
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Caitlin: There’s a question that’s been coming up a lot lately: Should we build a base on the Moon? We could totally do it. We have the technology! And a lunar base would mean lots of new science, plus a possible refueling station for missions heading to Mars. It would be a huge, expensive project, but space agencies are starting to come up with more concrete plans.

According to a team of space scientists from NASA and the US spaceflight industry, it would take us just 5 years to build a base on the Moon, if we wanted to. And the ESA is developing a separate set of plans to build a lunar base by the 2030s. First, let’s rewind back to August 2014, when about 50 space scientists -- both from NASA and from the commercial spaceflight industry -- came together for a workshop organized by Steve Jurvetson, a venture capitalist on the board of SpaceX. They spent the meeting discussing how to build a Moon base as quickly and inexpensively as possible. And in March of this year, the results of that workshop were published as nine separate papers in the journal New Space. Their conclusion, basically, was that with the technology we have today -- or that will be available soon -- we could establish a permanent base on the Moon by 2022, for about $10 billion.

So, not exactly cheap. And not easy either. The crew of a lunar colony would need somewhere to live, not to mention enough food, air, and water to survive. That means transporting tons of supplies from Earth to the Moon, which would be incredibly expensive. Still, it’s getting cheaper to send things to space. And with advances in technology like 3D printing and robotics, building a habitat on the Moon is much more doable than it used to be. The researchers are proposing that we set up shop near the Moon’s north pole, where the terrain is relatively easy to navigate, and there’s a lot of sunlight.

See, the Moon rotates on an axis that’s almost exactly perpendicular to its path as it travels around the Sun with Earth. At the Moon’s poles, though, you’d be able to see the Sun near the horizon pretty much all the time -- assuming you weren’t stuck at the bottom of a crater or something -- because, unlike other parts of the moon, the poles don’t really experience night. So if we want to use solar power for a Moon base, it makes sense to put that base at one of the poles.

First, we’d send rovers to scout it out, looking for the perfect place to set up a habitat and figuring out what resources we’d have to work with. Then, we’d drop off a power source and construction equipment that we can operate from here on Earth. Eventually, we’d send along habitats -- probably something inflatable, which the construction equipment would set up. Finally, once everything was in place, we’d send a crew of up to 10 people, who’d stay for 3 to 4 months before the next set of astronauts took over. The crew would do experiments, but they’d also help continue developing the base. The cost of all this? $10 billion to build in just five years total, and $2 billion a year after that to keep it going. Right now, NASA’s budget for deep-space crew missions is about 3 to 4 billion dollars per year, which makes this possible -- at least, in theory.

The thing is, we already have plans to send humans to Mars within the next couple of decades, and those plans are going to take most of the budget. So, will we actually see a NASA base on the moon in the next few years? Probably not, unless NASA gets a much bigger budget, or changes its goals. But NASA’s not the only space agency with an eye on the Moon. The ESA is also talking about establishing a permanent lunar base -- though their goal is to do it by the 2030s. And their plan is a little bit different from NASA’s. In December 2015, the ESA organized a meeting of about 200 scientists to talk about what it’d take to create a permanent human presence on the Moon.

And they ended up proposing a base that would be kind of like the International Space Station, with different countries and space agencies contributing to the effort. This plan involves building the base near the Moon’s south pole -- again, to get as much sunlight as possible -- and they’d scout out the spot with an unmanned sample return mission in the early 2020s. The area also has lots of water ice, which would provide drinking water and could even be converted into hydrogen -- which could then be used for fuel.

Construction would start sometime in the 2020s, when a capsule would land with an inflatable habitat that could support a crew of four. Then, remote-controlled robots would use the gravelly rocks on the Moon’s surface -- known as the lunar regolith -- to form a shield around the habitat, protecting it -- and the people inside -- from radiation and damage from things like lunar dust. So, between NASA’s plans to send humans to Mars, and all this talk of setting up a base on the Moon, the world’s space agencies have some ambitious goals. Which means the next couple of decades of space exploration will be really exciting.

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