New Column: Armchair Anarchist on Viable Space Colonies

In space exploration and colonisation, as in all endeavour, vision is a great thing – but it needs to be tempered with realistic thinking. Surely it would be the course of wisdom to establish a colony in orbit before building one on the moon?

Why we should be planning to build orbital colonies before lunar colonies

NASA caused quite a stir with a recent announcement of their intent to return to the moon and establish a full-time colony there. Some have whole-heartedly applauded the agency; some have trotted out the traditional ‘waste of money’ objections that dogged the original Apollo missions; still others have cautiously expressed approval, but expressed concern over the lack of a distinct budget for the project and its potential to direct funding away from other avenues of research and exploration.

As a life-long space advocate, I’m happy to see any push towards establishing a foothold for our species beyond the limits of the Earth’s atmosphere, and I shall leave the debate on political motivations and budgetary restraints to those more qualified in such matters. However, I would contend that attempting to establish a Lunar colony would be like trying to run before we can walk properly, and that our efforts would be better directed to establishing orbital habitats, if only as a pre-amble to colonising other planets or satellites.

First and foremost, we already have an orbital colony (albeit a very small one) in the form of the ISS – and simply maintaining and expanding it has proved to be not only difficult in an engineering sense, but economically challenging too. If resources are going to be expended on space colonies (and I believe they most certainly should be), why not build on the platform that has already been established? If I remember the initial plans for the ISS correctly from my youth, we’re far short of the bustling scientific outpost that we were supposed to have established by this point in time. Progress has been hampered by issues with the shuttles and rockets used to ferry materials and crew, granted; but it would be a mistake to assume that similar problems would not be attendant to a Lunar project.

Indeed, flights to the moon offer twice as many opportunities for dangerous mistakes with (or failures of) launch hardware – having gone to all that effort to get materials and men out of a gravity well, the risks inherent in attempting to land them at the bottom of another one make little sense from a logistical point of view. The gravity of the moon may be considerably lower than that of Earth, but it is still there, and in combination with the lack of an atmosphere it presents an obstacle that requires much planning to overcome. With an orbital platform, materials that make it out of the Earth’s gravitational pull are right where they need to be. Shifting stuff around in orbit is a cinch in comparison to landing it at the right location on the Lunar surface.

Gravity does play a factor in the argument for a moon base, in that long-term inhabitants of a space colony would require some gravity for their own well-being – long term exposure to zero-gee has a number of negative effects on human physiology, which present a serious hazard to anyone spending a long tenure in space. While the moon does offer a built-in gravity field for any potential inhabitants, it is less than a fifth of that found on Earth – meaning that all the same ailments associated with zero-gee would manifest after a certain length of time. Orbital colonies of any decent size would almost certainly be designed to be spun, hence producing ‘artificial gravity’ due to centrifugal forces that could easily duplicate the pull of Earth, thus obviating health problems.

A colony embedded in Lunar rock would certainly provide a great degree of protection from cosmic radiation and solar storms. However, theoretical research has demonstrated that an orbital habitat of sufficient size would provide ample protection in the form of its superstructure and internal atmosphere; additional shielding could be provided in many ways, from the low-tech (stationary rock outside the platform), through to the more science-fictional (magnetic fields, plasma screens and so forth).

The moon’s surface offers the temptation of easily accessed material resources. But if one assumes that a colony would require to be economically sustainable in the long run, regular interchange of goods with Earth would be a necessity, bringing us back to the ‘two gravity wells’ issue. A habitat in the right sort of orbit would pass fortuitously close to both the lunar surface and that of the planet below, allowing a flexibility of transport options as well as a refueling and maintenance stop between the two bodies. Hence an orbital habitat would be well placed to obtain resources from wherever they were most readily available, with a wider margin of safety.

Orbitals would inevitably be at risk from collisions with debris and junk in orbit. A sufficiently well-buried Lunar outpost would be less likely to be struck by falling debris, but by no means immune to a strike by an object of sufficient size; furthermore, it would have no chance of relocating if an incoming hazard was detected. The necessities of protecting an orbital (for example early warning systems, and laser or projectile weapons for destroying debris) would not be an insurmountable problem with sufficient resources and expertise brought to bear, and the technological advances made in the process would likely bring ancillary benefits – the energy and effort expended to excavate a Lunar base would have little payback value.

There are doubtless many other objections that could be raised to both scenarios (enough that I could write for days and not cover them all), but it seems to me that the trump card is with the orbitals; orbit is closer, cheaper and easier to get to, and offers more flexibility as a long-term outpost. Sure, let’s put men back on the moon, mine it for helium-3, research its history and origins. But it makes more sense to launch missions of that type from an already-established colony in orbit. To use a military analogy, an orbital presence would act as a beach-head not just for exploring the moon, but as a jump-off for other locations in our solar system – maybe someday even further afield. It is said that even the longest journey starts with a single step; I would argue that there is no failure or cowardice in making that first step a realistically attainable one, as opposed to taking a flamboyant leap onto terrain whose hazards have already been established.

(This essay was written with reference to Wikipedia articles on Lunar and orbital habitats.)

21 thoughts on “New Column: Armchair Anarchist on Viable Space Colonies”

  1. Natural order – go to space, go to the moon, collect ores, export ores from the moon with mass accelerators, create habitats, create solar collectors, repeat.

    Moon – L4/L5 Habitats – Solar collectors – The rest of the solar system.

    It’s simple.

  2. LEO is bad because it deteriorates. GEO or the Lagrange points are almost as hard to get to as the Moon, so might as well do a lunar colony where there is at least plenty of rock and room. It would be a lot harder to deal with pressurization for a large habitat in vacuum. (The ISS is *tiny*).

  3. I believe that the most significant loss to the space program has been the sense of exploration that usually accompanied it. During the Apollo era, that sense was what drove the program. Were risks taken? Of course. But it was understood that that was part of the initiative. What has taken its place is a sort of dispassionate attempt at trying to raise a profit.

    The fact is, we cannot realize a profit in space travel until we get beyond the narrow box that is perception of space exploration. As long as we keep our focus on the ever slimmer viewpoint of earth-bound processes and production, we will never get anything out of space exploration.

  4. This is a great article. That being said, I think our primary goal should be the construction of a self-sustainable colony. Can an orbital colony ever truly become self-sustainable? I always thought no, but I could be wrong. Nevertheless, wouldn’t it be easier to reach a point of sustainability on the moon, or mars, particularly, since there may be water to drink and ore to mine just below the surface?

  5. Respectfully I disagree, at least in part. Research needs to be done on making it cheaper to get things into orbit. The leading alternative to mass driven ( read that as rockets ) methods is the so called space elevator. The major drawback currently is materials technology. With an infusion of money for research this should be overcome. Once an elevator is in place going to either the ISS/some other colony or the moon becomes a LOT easier. The moon to me is more attractive because of the raw materials available to build with. They may not be much, but EVERYTHING for a space based colony would have to come out of a gravity well. And if there was a moon colony to help provide those materials, it would be cheaper to ship them back from the moon than out of the Earth’s gravitation well, even with a space elevator. Just need to throw it using a magnetic catapult.

  6. Very well thought out indeed. I whole-heartedly agree. I like the usage of the term gravity wells. Never really thought of it like that, eventhough I have heard the term before. Seems like those in power cannot put aside our earthly strife and look to the stars. Such a shame.

  7. First, I’d sorta like to think the moon should be preserved instead of mined. Nut who am I kidding.

    Second, why not launch a series of stations in assorted orbits that permit long term resupply and emergency housing for crews. We could stepping stone all the way to Mars.

    And lastly, can we retire the shuttle? It’s getting to be more embarrassing than mom’s 20 year old Impala station wagon.

  8. Congrats on the slash dotting.

    orbit is closer, cheaper and easier to get to, and offers more flexibility as a long-term outpost.

    This is something that is easy to overlook; cost is everything.

    I am not sure that an orbital station is cheaper to maintain than a lunar base; we only have a few examples of the former and none of the latter.

    Ya, because it’s closer it might be cheaper; on the other hand the existence of a space station of the kind you are talking about implies we’ve solved the ‘cost to orbit’ problem so that might not be such a factor.

    Example of costs? The cost to keep the station in orbit with regular altitude corrections. This isn’t a cost the lunar base has – whatever it’s drawbacks it’s not going to get dragged back into the atmosphere.

  9. The comparison was interesting and logical to the extent that NASA people can add this articles points to their feasibility study.

    While there are science concerns for doing such futuristic experiments, the science concerns are used as cover for happily shoving away a few billion US$ by the ever poor, every less-powerful feeling American politician.

    They could shove more than 3 billion $ for fixing a foam crack in shuttle (which many reports indicate is still unfixed).

    I am sure NASA scientists would have raised the orbital option and the lunar option as two better known possibilities but obvious reasons of being low-budget, the orbital option would have been marked off the shopping list.

    And already there seems to be nobody caring about habitats setup in antartica(which is another project that is way way behind what they planned to be having in antartica by 2000), leave alone what care they governments will show to manage a lunar habitat. The US government will start off, swallow all american money, then go out and invite all other countries to participate to save the lunar project. just like how MIR-SS became I-SS

  10. When you become a tax-paying American citizen… feel free to express your opinion on what we do with our space-projects…

    It’s not that I don’t agree, just I’m sick of the insane anti-Americanism that is sweeping the world.

    Can we do ANYTHING right?

  11. The main problem with the international space station (I like the older name -Russianized alpha station or Ralpha 🙂 is the lack luster political support that has led to a subsistence funding, bureaucratic game playing, and endless delays.

    Any additional space stations will simply relive the pattern of political neglect forced on the ISS.

    Until launch costs fall enough to permit a robust private exploration of space, which would still require political support and permission, we need to look at how to use the miserly government appropiations to leverage a non governmental solution.

    Running the ISS and an austere lunar return program is probably the best we we can do right now. Leveraging such a program or programs to maximize non government space activities might take us to the tipping point where the private sector can be self sustaining.

  12. Thank you all for your comments; my intent with this essay (which I will freely admit is written from the perspective of a space enthusiast with no direct experience or education in the industry) was to provoke some discussion of the matter, and I am pleased to see that I have at least achieved that!

    @An American; I apologise if I have inadvertently given you offence. My points were not intended to be anti-American; they weren’t even intended to be anti-NASA per se. As I stated at the top of the piece, the politics of the situation are well beyond my ability or interest to comment upon, and so I approached the question from the angle of logistics.

    Furthermore, to criticise America as a nation on the matter of their space program would be ridiculous, as no nation has ever achieved nearly as much in that field of endeavour. But overall, believing as I do that the destiny of our entire species lies beyond the atmosphere of Earth, I see space exploration as the province of all humans, not just Americans, and it was from that perspective that I was speaking. I’d be pleased to see my taxes in my own country going toward a united push for space projects, but sadly my own government would rather spend it on CCTV cameras, crop subsidies and an easily-gamed state welfare system.

    To be honest, I’m rather jealous that you guys have done so much of the hard work – British triumphs in space have been largely theoretical thus far!

  13. ESA got a probe to the moon on ten Gallons of Xenon with an ion thruster. To say NASA has accomplished more for space travel than ESA is absurd.

  14. I fully agree with the concept that to build a space facility is a priority before we expand to other missions such as Moon or Mars.
    Not only that is a priority but can be the primary and more affordable means to reach the Moon and Mars since there are no gravity wells to go through.
    If we consider a Kardashev type 3 society, a society that has developed interstellar travel, and we consider how they will face the settlement of a new planetary system, they would cetainly do it from a traveling fully equipped settlement in space , utilizing local , asteroids and comets, easy reaching resources , and not be prisoners of diffficult to reach planets or satellites, gravity wells at all effect.
    Let’s think in a different way at least sometime and we will certainly reach better results at a fraction of the cost and time of the traditional approach.

  15. Sekky: surely you jest. I think that it is wonderful that other countries have been willing to commit resources to space exploration but to claim some sort of parity is nonsense of the first order.

    Despite that quibble there is a very important point hidden in your posting. A spacecraft using an ion thruster can be much less wasteful of money and resources but it doesn’t have the thrust needed to land on the moon. People who are aware of the extreme demands for a material used to construct an Earth based space tower (also called an elevator) may be unaware that there are materials today that could be used to contruct a corresponding moon based space tower.

    So one of the projects that could be considered for a moon base would be a space tower. Then we could use ion thruster based transportation to bring people and material to the moon’s space tower which could them be lowered to the surface. This would also give engineers great experience with space tower issues while material scientists continue their advances to find ever stronger materials for an Earth based space tower.

    The same considerations apply to Mars. We could have space towers on the Moon and Mars before building one on Earth. A moon base is a great first step and about 20 years overdue.

  16. The resources needed for Lunar cononies are far smaller. With gravity and building material (dust) available, and water present for future recovery, the task of Lunar is far easier. And the viability of plant growth in very low gravity is not long term proven. Moon dust has been sintered (GE Corp R&D Center) using temps available with a parabolic reflector in sunlight.

    Orbit is easier to reach but harder to expand.

  17. Really interesting discussion you’ve started AA. I’m another “space enthusiast with no direct experience or education in the industry,” so I can’t add anything of much value to the conversation concerning the practicalities and science of it all, but will say that, as an American with a libertarian bent, space endeavors are among the few things I actually want the government spending money to pursue. However, I also tend to think that the future of space exploration lies in the private sector, and that some of the best uses for NASA money are X-Prize type competitions which promote private research and investment. More to the topic at hand, Lunar Stations or Orbitats, you make some good points and sparked some interesting comments in response, so mission accomplished, eh? I just wanted to say that I enjoyed reading the essay and the resulting commentary. Thanks for the effort.

  18. This entire argument is pointless. Build in orbit or build on the moon, preferably the moon. Why is it pointless to discuss?, the simplest reason is that we need to get off this rock, in order to do that we need to learn to live in space whether it’s ‘space’ in orbit or on the surface of another body is irrelevant, we need to go and explore and leave this Mother Earth. It’s high time humanity grew up and left home (so to speak).
    Regarding the comments on the validity of lunar vs orbital I’d have to come down on lunar over orbital. We need experience of living on another planet or body, we already have a ton of experience in how to live in orbit. I think that is the key point too, its doing something for the experience, getting the knowledge, learning by doing. A lot of people are going to die garnering this knowledge in much the same way a lot of people died researching atomics, sailing the high seas, even seeing what’s over the next hill. This lunar colony will be our ‘next hill’ and it will be trod. Orbital stations are the hill behind us.

    Thanks for reading my wednesday morning ‘God, I’ve got a hangover’ spiel… 🙂

  19. sorry, you’re all severely retarded. yes, let’s one and all deplete the earth’s resources- natural and human, in order to colonize space. get real, you don’t even know what’s in the earth’s oceans but you want to live in space, for what purpose? i’ve heard one pretence, to conduct scientific experiments in a controlled environment, but i think we know it’s actually for the militarization of space; control of space is control of earth, isn’t it RETARDS. either you’re ignorant as to the true purpose and utility of the space programme or you’re just a bunch of pretentious wannabes; either or.

  20. Well, I think I should thank you, ‘realist’; not just for taking the time to comment on a very old post, but for doing so with such incisive logic and subtle language. I really feel you’ve moved this debate forward.

    While we at Futurismic work on the theory that everyone is entitled to share their opinions here, we would like to suggest that you avoid crass insults as a debating tactic. Not only is it unnecessary, but it makes you look extremely childish. Please feel free to comment again – but rest assured that if you persist in your use of derogatory language, we *will* ban you by your IP address.

    Thanks again.

    (Yes, you guessed it, I’m in the pay of the Illuminati. What can I say? The benefits package just couldn’t be argued with.)

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