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space233-3d-printed-moon-base-4x3.jpg

An artist's conception of what a lunar base could look like.

Sarah Fecht

for National Geographic

Published December 20, 2013

China's Jade Rabbit moon rover made history, and tracks, when it wheeled across the moon's gray surface on Sunday.

The rover and its lander, the Chang'e 3, are the first spacecraft to soft-land on the lunar surface since 1976. Together they've made China the third nation ever to achieve a soft landing on the moon. (See also: "Watch HD Footage of China's Historic Moon Rover Landing.")

America largely lost interest in walking on the moon after the Apollo program ended in the 1970s. But the situation is changing, says Christopher McKay, a planetary scientist with NASA. "Things are starting to really heat up in terms of exploration of the moon."

In the December issue of New Space, McKay argues that America should set up a permanent manned research base on the moon. Here's why:

1. Maintaining U.S. influence

For decades, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were the only nations to land on the moon. Now several new players—including China, India, and private companies such as SpaceX and Moon Express—are interested in visiting the moon, and they're demonstrating the technological capabilities to do so.

If America wants to have a say in how the international community treats the moon, McKay says, it needs to be active there.

"Will private companies be allowed to take tourists to visit Neil Armstrong's footprints? How close will they be able to get? And who sets those rules?" McKay asks.

In 2011, NASA proposed a 194-acre (500-meter-radius) "keep-out" zone around historic lunar landing sites. This limit must be honored to win the Google Lunar X Prize, a $40 million award for the first private company to land on the moon, travel on the lunar surface, and beam video back to earth.

Henry Hertzfeld, who teaches space law at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., expressed some concern about NASA's role in future missions to the moon. "We're seeing a lot of partnerships forming without the United States. It may be that we're being left out of something we started because we've pulled back and focused on other things."

2. Paving the way for other applications

The U.S. Antarctic Program, run by the National Science Foundation, provides a good model for how a lunar research base should be run, McKay argues. The U.S. has maintained small research bases in Antarctica continuously for 60 years, and in the process helped to pave the way for Antarctic tourism.

Similarly, a manned science operation on the moon could pave the way for space tourists, mining industries, refueling stations, and burgeoning private industries.

3. Learning more about the moon

Despite being our nearest celestial neighbor, the moon harbors many mysteries, including how it formed. From a lunar research base, scientists could potentially explore the moon's lava tube caves, look for signs of geologic activity, and investigate hints of water ice found in the dark craters of the lunar poles.

"Every year, new things will be discovered on the moon that will raise new questions and spawn new research," McKay says.

4. Assessing the health impacts of living in space

What effect would living in gravity one-sixth that of Earth's have on human health and immunity? Building a lunar base could help us learn more about the effects of disrupted circadian rhythms, isolation, and high doses of radiation—all information that would be useful for future space exploration.

5. Learning how to build and operate an extraterrestrial base

If we ever want to build a colony on Mars, the first step may be to prove ourselves on the moon.

A lunar research base would give NASA expertise in engineering and operating life-support systems, sustainable energy sources, supplying food and recycling water, and troubleshooting while the base is just a three-day trip away—because a base on Mars would be six months away from help of any kind.

Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, does not agree that the moon is a necessary step on the way to Mars. He instead suggests that a base on the moon could be a side application of Mars missions. "Mars is where the challenge is," says Zubrin. "Mars is where the future is."

McKay counters that building a base on the moon is like going camping in your backyard when you're preparing for a camping trip in the Sahara. "If you can camp in your backyard, it doesn't necessarily mean you're ready for the Sahara. But if you can't camp in your backyard, then you certainly aren't ready to go to the desert ... If we can't do it on the moon, there's no chance that we can do it on Mars."

6. Becoming an interplanetary species

If humans are to become the interplanetary species we imagine ourselves to be, then it's time to stop merely visiting other worlds and start proving that we can survive on them, McKay suggests.

NASA's current lunar program consists of three orbiters that are searching for water ice, studying solar wind, and analyzing the moon's tenuous atmosphere. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is seeking out potential landing sites for future manned missions, but at the moment, no such mission is planned.

To date, money has been the biggest obstacle to manned moon missions. McKay says that working with private companies, utilizing innovations such as 3-D printing, and taking advantage of off-the-shelf electronics could make a moon base affordable. "It's not that much harder than supplying and operating the space station," he says.

Hertzfeld added, "If we're going to have human spaceflight, the moon makes the most sense for now."

Follow Sarah Fecht on Twitter.

44 comments
Michelle Zangirolami
Michelle Zangirolami

The geological monitoring was turned off by Jimmy Carter. If left alone we would have decades of data to determine the suitability and stability (or not) of the moon surface and underground (Sublunarian?).

With the coming of Barack Obama NASA has dumped its brains and given up manned missions altogether.

Democrats hate science I think.

J. Griffin
J. Griffin

Nope. Humans should build permanent structures on any other planets but Earth. 

George Clark
George Clark

I Think The Rich And Big Governments Around The World Would Built  On The Moon After They Pollute  Or Runout Of Gas,Oil,Coal

James Holland
James Holland

 Mankind needs to put a subterranean base on the Moon to deal with researching , deflecting comet's ,  Asteroid's , and cleaning up Space Junk in Earth's orbit .  

  I really don't understand why everybody keeps talking about , going to Mars . We 

have cosmic problem's that we have a chance to defend ourselves from our Moon . If we blow our resources for a trip to Mars , we are probably pulling the trigger on Humanity .         

Richard Wizig
Richard Wizig

I predict in the next 100 years or 500 years, man will not be living on the moon or Mars. 

Angel Lopez
Angel Lopez

Before attempting to flight to Mars many operations to be mastered to make sure the travel to Mars will succeed.

Apollo Baby
Apollo Baby

We will do both the Moon and Mars soon now!

Apollo Baby
Apollo Baby

I would like to go to the Moon; it would be a fantastic vacation destination.  I would like to take my family to visit Tranquility Base and ride a cable car or monorail over the Apollo 11 landing site.

I am very exited about NASA's support of commercialization and the progress made by great companies like SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace.  

My hope of going to the Moon seems like a real possibility.


Dean Unick
Dean Unick

The moon is not a good place to spend resources. Mars is.

Mars has an atmosphere.  Mars could, just possibly, be terraformed. Mars has days that are nearly the length of ours.  The 13 days of darkness on the moon will present difficulties.  On Mars you could grow in a greenhouse.  You can make water, oxygen, and fuel  from the atmosphere.  There is building stone on Mars.


If you wish to leave the planet, go to Mars.  The earliest explorers should not plan on returning,,, expensive, impractical, nearly impossible until there is an infrastructure in place.  Go and stay on Mars.


The moon is none of what Mars is, just near.

Randy Coots
Randy Coots

We as a race need to expand beyond the limitation of Earth, and this is an obvious first step to achieving that.


The moon would give us materials that can be launched into space at a much lower cost than from Earth. 


And I would love to watch a basketball game played on the moon, where players can jump 10 to 12 ft off the ground.

First Last
First Last

Way to miss the biggest point , that Chinese are openly talking about

- Moon has _resources_, metals, volatiles, rare elements, and energy in the form of abundant sunlight.

International Space Station is a worthy investment, but it cannot "live off the land" in even small capacity, like producing oxygen locally - this is realatively easy to do anywhere on the moon.

Alan Webb
Alan Webb

I think the installation of a base on the moon is very dangerous, because without atmosphere, any meteorite could be cause a catastrophe.


Garry H.
Garry H.

I predict within 200 years man will be on the cusp of extinction thanks to catastrophic climate changes.

Richard Alexander
Richard Alexander

@Dean UnickThe Martian atmosphere is what we on Earth consider a vacuum. If we use a mechanical air pump to pump out all the air it possibly can, the amount of air pressure remaining in the vacuum chamber will be about the same as at the surface of Mars. So, yes, Mars has an atmosphere; it's just enough of an atmosphere to present an obstacle to incoming spacecraft, but not enough to do much useful with it. Besides, Moon also has an atmosphere (or, xenosphere). 


We are about as likely to terraform Moon as we are to terraform Mars. Neither makes much sense, because both would lose whatever atmosphere we generate within a few centuries, depleting them further in the process.


The day-night cycle isn't an issue. Earth's poles have months of fairly constant day or night, yet we have people working there. 


Mars is a fascinating planet, but don't fool yourself about the challenges of just getting there, never mind remaining there. We have not yet produced a space habitat that is capable of keeping humans alive for more than a few weeks at a time without direct support from Earth. We have never produced a space habitat that doesn't have critical component failures every few weeks, and that's in the relatively benign environment of Low Earth Orbit. Because of this one reason, you will find that being near is much, much more valuable than being able to pull fuel out of the atmosphere.

First Last
First Last

@Dean Unick

@Dean Unick

Little knowledge is a dangerous thing. You are wrong in many regards, see my reply below

- Moon has spots near the poles in NEAR PERMANENT sunlight, which means constant abundant energy. Much closer and higher solar flux than Mars, no atmosphere to get in the way

- Moon has volatiles at poles. Hydrogen, Nitrogen etc, lots of it. Also carbon

- You can grow a greenhouse anywhere with energy


- Water is there, you can make oxygen from regolith anywhere on the surface

- There are all other materials for building, Aluminium, iron, pretty much any metal, silicates

- Mars is far and and small problem can result in a catastrophe. On the moon resupplying critical parts can be done in a few days. Are you aware of the issues on ISS currently which is one failure away from being abandoned ?

- Going to Mars at this point is dangerous and reckless

First Last
First Last

@Dean UnickLittle knowledge is a dangerous thing. You are wrong in many regards, see my reply below

Dean Unick
Dean Unick

@First Last  No. Production of oxygen on the moon will be difficult and expensive.  You must find, and go to water.  Nothing certain about where or how deep you will find water.  And the only 'mineral' that is even remotely valuable enough to withstand the transportation cost of the moon, is He3.  A POSSIBLE (theoretically) fusion fuel.


The surface could be pure gold, and it would be unprofitable to go get it and bring it back.

Gary Coffman
Gary Coffman

@Alan Webb 

ISS is an even more dangerous place for people to work. A lunar base can be located UNDERGROUND, which not only provides protection from small meteorites, but also provides RADIATION SHIELDING. That makes a Moon base a much safer place than ISS. The only things that need to be above ground at a moonbase are the solar panels and the electromagnetic catapult for launching materials into space. 


Most likely the Moon is not a healthy place for people to be, though. 1/6th G isn't enough to avoid bones demineralizing and muscles atrophying. The 1/3rd G of Mars likely isn't enough either. Besides, both are at the bottom of gravity wells. Not a good place for a spacefaring species to live and work. Getting up out of a gravity well puts you 90% of the way energetically to any place in the solar system. Immediately diving down another gravity well doesn't make much sense. 


Where people belong is in habitats constructed in free space. Habitats that can be spun to produce 1 G on their inner surfaces. Habitats with a thick enough shell (min 2 meters rock) to provide radiation shielding. Habitats made from hollowed out asteroids. Plenty of raw materials, plenty of energy, plenty of room. Tens of thousands of potential habitats, just waiting to be utilized, each capable of holding hundreds of thousands of people. Each one capable of being used as a starship.

Randy Coots
Randy Coots

@Alan Webb So is establishing a research station near the south pole. Or climbing mt. Everest. 

We as a human race don't avoid doing things because they are dangerous. In fact our best accomplishments in history are done because men were willing to take the risks despite the danger involved.

Jim Floor
Jim Floor

@Angel Lopez We have had people living on space stations since 1975 with SkyLab.  We have sent rovers to Mars.  We know the risks and dangers of deep space.  We know how to make rocket fuel on Mars for the return trip.  What lame excuses are left?  There is nothing that can't be done.  Making excuses will never get anything done.

Jim Floor
Jim Floor

@First Last @Dean Unick  Going to the moon in 1969 was also dangerous and reckless... The same could be said for all of the great explores, from Columbus to Lewis & Clark.  


Scuba diving can result in catastrophe if a small problem happens.  Driving a car is very dangerous.  Over 1.5 million people in the US have died on US roads since 1975.  Life is dangerous but always playing it safe isn't living.  


Dean, you're correct with your points but Mars is much more interesting.  It will also be much more difficult or much more challenging.  If I get a vote, I'll vote for the bigger challenge.  Mars will yield more new technology.  


We don't have a moon colony because we spent the money to build the shuttle and the ISS.  That boat has sailed.  It is time to focus on Mars.

First Last
First Last

@Dean Unick@First LastAnd you are wrong in many regards.

- Oxygen can be obtained from regolith and rocks, anywhere. Look up current NASA project called ROXygen that has been field tested

- Moon has water, quite a lot of it, and its certainly at the poles


- He3 is very valuable for multiple uses on earth. Look it up, and figure out why its so expensive

- There are likely valuable metals in relatively pure deposits like platinum group metals

- You can use teleoperation of robots to set up a lunar base, you dont have to risk humans immediately. Impossible on Mars


But thats not the point - will you take ISS with NO opportunity to use local resources, OR an International Lunar Base with opportunity to gradually start figuring out which resources can be used locally ?

Hollister David
Hollister David

@Gary Coffman@Alan Webb"1/6th G isn't enough to avoid bones demineralizing and muscles atrophying." This is still not known. We lots of data from living in 0 g, but none in partial gravities.

Jim Floor
Jim Floor

@Gary Coffman @Alan Webb In 1/3 gravity it would be easy to wear clothing with weights to simulate Earth gravity.  Stand up or lift you arm with enough weights in the fabric you'll get the same workout as standing on earth.  The strain on you bones and muscles would be close enough.  


Jim Floor
Jim Floor

@Richard Alexander @Jim Floor @Angel Lopez 


The facts don't match up to your assertions.  The ISS doesn't get resupplied every few weeks.  Sky lab lasted from 73 to 79.  Mir 86-98.  ISS 98-to now.  Things can break but I am not aware of critical components breaking down every few months.  The ISS is 15 years old.  


 I am not suggesting we land on the Mars 1st trip out.  Take smaller steps.  Fly by Mars, Apollo 8 style.  Land on one of the Mars moon's.  Develop the technology to make rocket fuels on Mars for the trip back.  Place fuel and supplies in Mars orbit before sending crew.  We will learn lessons when we take each new step.  The most important is the first step and not to make excuses.  


There are new aerospace companies like SpaceX and Bigelow that will allow NASA to purchase major components off the shelf rather then spending 10's or 100's of billions, Apollo style.  



Richard Alexander
Richard Alexander

@Jim Floor@Angel LopezWe've never been able to keep a spacecraft manned an isolated from any supplies from Earth for more than a few months at a time. Skylab and ISS received resupplies every few weeks, at least. We can hardly keep a station running for months at a time without some critical component breaking down, much less the need to restock air, fuel, food, water and other consumables.

Louis G.
Louis G.

@Jim Floor@First LastSo, exactly how is it that China going to the moon is NOT humanity going to the moon? What difference does it make who builds a base, colony or tourist trap there? 


Space is a frontier that should be developed without borders, nationality, creed, religion etc. Lets not screw this up before we even start it!

Hollister David
Hollister David

@Susan Cronk@First Last We can't have a constant supply chain to Mars. Launch windows to mars open every two years or so. After a launch window opens, it takes about 8 months to reach Mars.

Susan Cronk
Susan Cronk

@First Last Everyone talks about "going there and back," and sending help if there's an emergency. What about a dual approach where you have people on Mars living and working and another team orbiting that in a station that can respond to emergencies, and solar-power craft in constant motion, like a living supply chain to ensure they have everything they need to respond to emergencies. Those ships moving between Earth and Mars or the Moon could be solar powered and unmanned, and could act as shuttles to carry new personnel to/from the stations and planetary bases.


I agree with Mr. Floor. Life is dangerous. Earth-based explorers knew there was risk when they set out, and good thing they didn't let that stop them. They prepared as best they could, but they went ahead. We've taken the baby steps, now we need to get to toddling a bit faster. I don't believe it has to be the Moon OR Mars. We have enough people willing to go and be those explorers and settlers outside of Earth's atmosphere and the technology will push forward as the need arises. .

First Last
First Last

@Jim Floor@First LastNothing in your cheerleading explains why Mars would be a more worthy place to go to than Moon, Europa or Titan, or staying in LEO for that matter. There is an entire spectrum of engineering difficulty and cost right here.

Its just that you want Mars.

If "exploration is dangerous" then lets go to Europa now !

Jim Floor
Jim Floor

@First Last The ISS is 15 years old.  You can send supplies ahead before the crews ever show up.  Not saying you attempt to land on the surface on the fist shot.  Apollo had 6 total test flights, 4 with crew before Apollo 11.   


You manage risks.  You learn by taking steps.  An Apollo 8 style fly by of Mars is well within our current  capabilities.  Do that a few times.  Land machines on Mars to create fuel from the atmosphere, and getting O2 from the water trapped in ice on the surface.  Send back up cargo and water and place it in orbit around Mars.   


No one ever said space travel is NOT dangerous.  There are risks and people have died and will die in the future.  That doesn't mean you shouldn't attempt it. Exploration is dangerous.  From Columbus to Lewis & Clark.  

Over 1.5 million Americans have died in automobile accidents since 1975.  Does that mean we shouldn't drive our cars anymore?  From 76 to 04 over 375,000 deaths from guns in America.  Living life is dangerous.  Continue to make excuses and watch the Chinese land on Mars in 2025.

First Last
First Last

@Jim Floor@First Last@Dean UnickI think you have not followed ISS program very closely.

Right now it is but one failure away from being abandoned, and it's not the first time things break down. Our space tech is not robust enough to send humans on a minimum 2 year duration mission to Mars yet, with no resupply or rescue windows available.

At least with ISS you have multiple resupply and rescue opportunities, and you can have that with Moon too because launch windows are not constrained.

Also you can realistically keep ISS/Moon base maintained without human presence, with telerobotics. Not so with Mars.

Again, going to Mars with current state of technology is reckless because of
- Launch windows
- Time lag

Europa and Titan are even MORE interesting than Mars and you might as well want to go there tomorrow, but it would be suicide.

Louis G.
Louis G.

@Jim Floor@First Last@Dean Unick 

1) The moon as a mine is nowhere near as promising as asteroids. Asteroids are primal and most minerals are concentrated .. no planetary geothermal mixing. The moons regolith is the result of bombardment from asteroids and mixing of lunar rock .. lots of processing to harvest small quantities. 

2) Long term colonies on either the moon or Mars would likely result in devolution of our species. The lower gravity would produce weaker offspring that in generations to come could not survive on Earth. 

3) SpaceX and its re-useable insect (grasshopper), is a ridiculous exercise. The only way to significantly reduce the cost of space launches is to use a different launch vehicle engine ... all rockets max out at about 450s SI. You need an engine that can produce better SI not just a reusable engine. Have a look at projects like Skylon and the Reaction Engine. 

4) Many NEO asteroids can be reached for less delta V than the moon .. thus cheaper.

5) Orbital habitats, built from asteroid mining are the future of space development. They can provide Earth like gravity and a micro gravity well for stepping stones to further space exploration and development. 

6) BTW, oxygen can be extracted from sand .. SiO2 ... just add heat! H2 can be captured from solar wind ... therefore, water is not that hard to get in outer space (many other sources for both elements as well).

7) He3 is a dream .. but Thorium and LSTR for nuclear power generation is a viable alternative to solar in space. 

Richard Alexander
Richard Alexander

@Jim Floor@First Last@Dean UnickYou are correct about the economics of Moon occupation. Of course, much the same could be said of Martian occupation, and at 1000 times the risk.


I was dismayed to find that the only thing economically practical to bring back to Earth from any space destination would be He3 on Moon. Then, I discovered that the energy density per acre of He3 on Moon is about the same as a coal mine on Earth. Even if we got He3 fusion working perfectly on Earth, lunar He3 would have to compete with coal (and everything else), and that's before transport costs.


The best use of Moon right now is scientific research. Astronomers have wanted to put a radio observatory on the lunar far side for decades, for example.

Jim Floor
Jim Floor

@First Last @Dean Unick


The key to long term space is getting the cost per kg to LEO down.  If putting 1000 tons of equipment into orbit only cost $100 million building a moon colony on going to Mars would be easy.  The primary engineering problem with Apollo was keeping everything as light as possible.   


This is why something like SpaceX's reusable grasshopper technology is so important.  It may get launch costs way down.  Fuel is cheap compared to rockets.  


re: He3


Current US Industrial demand for  He3 is 8 kgs/year.  He3 mining mining on the moon belongs in Science fiction books.  The regolith contains an estimated 1.4 to 15 part per billion of He3.  The type of large scale industrial mining operations required to refine He3 on the moon doesn't make any kind of economic sense.  


Let some one first develop a cost effect working prototype for a He3 power plant before we spend a few trillion dollars to mine for it on the moon.  It still would be easier to produce it here on Earth.  


The same could be said for the platinum group metals.  You're most likely spending $1,000 for every $1 you make selling the metals back here on Earth.   And flooding the markets will only cause the prices to crash.  This is also science fiction with today's launch costs.


The best use for the Moon right now is as a tourist destination.  Apollo 8 style trips for billionaires. 


Mars is the next great adventure for the bold.  



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