Should We Build a Moon Base?

John P. Millis, Ph.D

When will humans return to the Moon to set up research stations and colonies? It could be this decade, if the Russians, Chinese, and Indians have their way.
NASA. undefined

Moon bases are in the news again, with announcements from the U.S. government that NASA should get ready to plan a return to the lunar surface. The U.S. isn't alone -- other countries are eyeing our nearest neighbor in space with both scientific and commercial eyes. And, at least one company has suggested building an orbiting station around the Moon for commercial, scientific, and tourist purposes. So, can we return to the Moon? And if so, when we will do it and who will go?

Historical Lunar Steps

Many decades have passed since anyone has walked on the Moon. In 1969, when astronauts first set foot there, people talked excitedly about future lunar bases that could be built by the end of the next 1970s. Unfortunately, they never happened. There have been a lot of plans made, not just by the U.S., to return to the Moon. But, our closest neighbor in space is still inhabited solely by robotic probes and the traces of the landings. There are numerous questions about whether the U.S. has the wherewithal to take the next step and create scientific bases and colonies on our nearest neighbor in space. If not, perhaps another country, such as China, will make that historic leap that has been talked about for so long. 

Historically, it really did look like we had a long-term interest in the Moon. In a May 25, 1961 address to Congress, President John F. Kennedy announced that the United States would undertake the goal of "landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth" by the end of the decade. It was an ambitious pronouncement and it set in motion fundamental changes in science, technology, policy, and political events.

In 1969, American astronauts landed on the Moon, and ever since then scientists, politicians, and aerospace interests have wanted to repeat the experience. In truth, it makes a lot of sense to go back to the Moon for both scientific and political reasons. 

What Does Humanity Gain by Building a Moon Base?

The Moon is a steppingstone to more ambitious planetary exploration goals. The one we hear a lot about is a human trip to Mars. That is a massive goal to be met perhaps by the middle of the 21st century, if not sooner.  A full colony or Mars base will take decades to plan and build. The best way to learn how to do that safely is to practice on the Moon. It gives explorers a chance to learn to live in hostile environments, lower gravity, and to test the technologies needed for their survival.

Going to the Moon is a short-term goal when one stops to consider the longer-term exploration of space. It's less expensive by comparison to the multi-year time frame and billions of dollars it would take to go to Mars. Since humans ahve done it several times before, lunar travel and living on the Moon could be achieved in the very near future using tried and true technologies in combination with newer materials to build lightweight but strong habitats and landers. This could happen within a decade or so. Recent studies show that if NASA partners with private industry, the costs of going to the Moon could be reduced to a point where settlements are more feasible. In addition, mining lunar resources would provide at least some of the materials to build such bases. 

Why go to the Moon?  It provides a stepping stone for future trips elsewhere, but the Moon also contains scientifically interesting places to study. Lunar geology is still very much a work in progress. There have long been proposals calling for telescope facilities to be constructed on the Moon. Such radio and optical facilities would dramatically improve our sensitivities and resolutions when coupled with current ground and space-based observatories. Finally, learning to live and work in a low-gravity environment is important. 

What Are the Obstacles?

Effectively, a Moon base would serve as a dry run for Mars. But, the biggest issues that future lunar plans face are costs and political will to move forward. Sure it's cheaper than going to Mars, an expedition that would probably cost more than a trillion dollars. The costs to return to the Moon are estimated to be at least 1 or 2 billion dollars. 

For comparison, the International Space Station cost more than $150 billion (in U.S. dollars). Now, that may not sound all that expensive but consider this. NASA's entire yearly budget is usually less than $20 billion. The agency would likely have to spend more than that every year just on the Moon base project, and would have to either cut all other projects (which isn't going to happen) or Congress would have to increase the budget by that amount. The odds of Congress funding NASA for such missions as well as all the science it could be doing are not good.  

Could Someone Else Take the Lead on Moon Colonies?

Given the current NASA budget, the near-future possibility of a moon base is low.  However, NASA and the U.S. aren't the only games in town. Recent private space developments may change the picture as SpaceX and Blue Origin, as well as companies and agencies in other countries begin to invest in space infrastructure. If other countries head to the Moon, the political will inside the U.S. and other countries could shift quickly — with money quickly being found to jump into a new space race. 

The Chinese space agency, for one, has demonstrated a clear interest in the Moon. And they aren't the only ones — India, Europe, and Russia are all looking at a lunar mission. So, the future lunar base isn't even guaranteed to be a U.S.-only enclave of science and exploration. And, that's not a bad thing in the long run. International cooperation pools the resources we need to do more than explore LEO.  It's one of the touchstones of future missions and may help humanity finally take the leap off the home planet. ​

Edited and updated by Carolyn Collins Petersen.