Home on the moon likely to be dangerous, unglamorous

Experts look into ways to harvest water, oxygen

January 10, 2004|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

If Americans colonize the moon, the distant outpost that scientists imagine would hardly be a dream home.

Astronauts likely would be crammed into a converted space shuttle fuel tank, bombarded by potentially deadly radiation, threatened by meteorites and constantly covered with lunar dust.

But building even the most basic permanent habitat in the harsh lunar landscape would be a tremendous accomplishment. To do so, NASA scientists would likely have to devise everything from new tools and rockets to machines that extract water and air from the lunar soil, experts said yesterday.

Scientists have spent more than 40 years and written hundreds of technical papers that address the problems of building a base on the moon.

"No matter whose plan you look at, Step 1 always turns out to be: build a big rocket," says Wendell Mendell, manager of the Office for Human Exploration Science at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston and long an advocate of a manned outpost on the moon.

The space shuttle was designed only to ferry astronauts and equipment to Earth orbit - more than 225,000 miles short of the moon. None of 13 massive Saturn V rockets that lifted Apollo astronauts to lunar orbit survive. So NASA would have to build a new generation of heavy-lift launch vehicles or turn to existing French or Russian rockets.

While experts have proposed a variety of potential lunar habitat designs over the years - from inflatable buildings to underground burrows - the first lunar base would likely be something simple.

Haym Benaroya, a Rutgers University engineer who has studied the construction of manned lunar bases, thinks the most likely possibility is a converted space shuttle fuel tank. The tank, he says, would be the simplest lunar habitat to build, although perhaps not the most stylish.

"It would look like a soup can on the moon," he says.

Ferrying equipment to the moon is only the beginning. Without an atmosphere to shield them, the astronaut-construction workers would be vulnerable to everything from meteorites to cosmic radiation that continually bombards the lunar surface.

The airless environment could also cause tools and machines to wear out more quickly because surfaces rub against each other harder when there's no air.

Then there's the moon's gravitational field, which is one-sixth of Earth's. The weak lunar gravity means structures would be able to bear six times more weight than they could on Earth.

But, as Apollo astronauts discovered when they skipped across the powdery surface, reduced gravity can also kick up dust. Engineers say building a lunar outpost could create a damaging mini-dust bowl.

"That fine dust would get into every machine, every crack, everything," says Benaroya.

Keeping colonists on the moon supplied with basics such as air and water would be difficult. But evidence gathered by lunar probes in the past decade shows that the moon might be richer in natural resources than scientists once believed. Scientists know that moon rocks, for example, contain almost 50 percent oxygen by weight, a potential source of breathable air.

They've also turned up evidence that the shadow-shrouded craters of the moon's polar regions might harbor vast deposits of hydrogen, which could theoretically be extracted for use as water and rocket propellent.

"You're not going to go there, stick a straw in the ground and suck water out," says Paul Spudis, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory.

But, he says, recent discoveries about the potentially abundant natural resources offer hope. "Living on the moon is going to be easier than we thought," he says.

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