Moon Settlers May Be "Ski" Racers, Helium Miners, TV Stars

Richard A. Lovett in San Francisco, California
for National Geographic News
February 19, 2007
Last year NASA announced plans to establish a permanent base on the moon by 2024. But what exactly would lunar living be like?

On Saturday astronomers, NASA scientists, and a former astronaut gave a hint of the challenges and opportunities awaiting the moon's first residents.

Astronauts living on the moon will have to build a variety of new skills to make their mission successful, from learning how to walk to producing an extraterrestrial version of reality TV, scientists say.

Simply walking on the moon is difficult but delightful, said Harrison Schmitt, who visited the moon in 1972 with the U.S. space agency's Apollo 17 mission.

"It's like a giant trampoline," he said at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco.

Future astronauts will have better luck getting around if they train in cross-country skiing, Schmitt suggested.

The astronaut said he used a push-and-glide motion similar to cross-country skiing when he was on the moon. This allowed him to move comfortably at 6 to 7 miles (10 to 12 kilometers) an hour, a pace that makes him the fastest human in lunar history.

Learning to move quickly is about more than just having fun, he added.

Explorers are going to have to perform many vital tasks in short order, from building self-contained space habitats to obtaining precious water and oxygen from the lunar soil.

Mastering such tasks is among the first steps toward a successful moon base, which could become a launching point for more ambitious space missions.

"Settlement of the moon is the first step in settling the solar system," said G. Jeffrey Taylor, of the Hawai'i Institute of Geophysics and Planetology.

Moon Base Planned by 2024

(Watch a video about NASA's next moon mission.)

Explorers on such a mission will face a variety of new day-to-day challenges, the scientists said.

One challenge will be dealing with lunar dust, which is abrasive and easily tracked into habitats. It's nasty stuff, smelling like spent gunpowder, said Schmitt, who breathed a bit of it on each reentry into the lunar lander.

Future moon dwellers can eliminate most of it by leaving their spacesuits in an antechamber of their habitat, much as people in some cultures leave their shoes at the door.

Any dust that does get inside can be removed magnetically or via electrical fields, Schmitt said.

A bigger problem, the experts said, will be making a lunar settlement economically viable.

The base will have to provide some kind of economic return if humans are to stay on the moon indefinitely, the scientists agreed.

(See "NASA Aims to Open Moon for Business" [July 25, 2006].)

Initially, the return on investment will be vast amounts of new knowledge, scientists said.

The moon will likely provide important sites for large telescopes that will peer to the edges of the universe and search for habitable planets circling other stars.

(See a National Geographic magazine feature on the search for other Earths.)

There may also be opportunities to make money, possibly through television and the Internet.

"I think there's a potentially huge market for interactive television [and] real-time virtual reality," said Paul Spudis of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

For his part, Schmitt, the former astronaut, thinks one of the moon's most valuable resources is helium-3, a lightweight form of helium contained in rocks on the moon's surface.

The material is so valuable as a potential source of nuclear-fusion power that a mere 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of it could replace 140 million U.S. dollars' worth of coal, Schmitt said.

Fusion technology has yet to be perfected, and probably won't be anytime soon (nuclear fission is the technique used in current nuclear power plants.

But there is already a market for helium-3 on Earth, in medical imaging technology—such as PET (positron emission tomography) scans, which are often used to spot cancerous cells—he added.

Whatever else they do, lunar residents will also have time to enjoy their environment, the scientists speculated.

Perhaps they'll run races, perfecting the gait invented by Schmitt.

It should be easy after a little cross-country skiing, the former astronaut said. "You use the same rhythm."

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