If all goes according to plan, humans will have been living in space for more than 20 years when NASA's centennial celebration rolls around in 2058. As part of President Bush's "Vision for Space Exploration" plan, the agency announced in 2006 that astronauts would break ground on a lunar base settlement no later than 2020 [source: Johnson].
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As billionaire entrepreneurs including Richard Branson of Virgin and Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com strive to get the affordable space tourism industry up and running, NASA and possibly other cooperating countries will be constructing what could be the precursor to human space colonization. That's right, sci-fi novel plots could be coming true in 20 years.
Beginning with short flights and working up to extended trips, NASA estimates that the lunar base could be functional by 2024 [source: Johnson]. It hopes to send out a Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to help select a prime location for the base, probably at one of the moon's poles, by October 2008 [source: NASA]. Aside from experiments in outer space life, NASA says that astronauts will use the lunar base as a launch site for a manned mission to Mars.
The $100 billion-plus plan could run into problems on Earth, namely that hefty price tag.
To meet monetary needs, NASA is shutting down its space shuttle program and shifting funding for the International Space Station. Several scientists, including some employed by NASA, see the manned lunar mission as a fantastic money waster that diverts resources from more practical research projects. Whether the government can provide adequate federal funding for the colossal project also remains in doubt.
Since NASA began investigating the feasibility of space colonization in the 1970s, people recognized that lack of available cash is one of the most immediate obstacles for getting humans from their terra firma houses to Jetsons-style space pods. Transporting freight -- not to mention people -- hundreds of miles above the Earth costs millions. The per pound cost of delivery to the moon hovers around $25,000 [source: Jones].
In spite of the challenges, some people view space migration as essential to human survival. Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking said in 2006 that people must begin colonizing planets in other solar systems in the event of an asteroid collision or nuclear war [source: Reuters]. Supposing Hawking and others are correct, just what could these space settlements look like? Find out on the next page.
What would space colonies look like?
When you look at the facets of the environment on the moon, you understand why astronauts have found no traces of life. First, the climate vacillates significantly from 270 degrees Fahrenheit (132 degrees Celsius) on the equator to between minus 22 to minus 58 F (minus 30 to minus 50 C) at the poles [source: Jones]. Add to that the sharp moon dust that flies about and the lack of atmosphere to protect you from solar radiation, and it isn't exactly a trip to the beach.
That said, initial space settlements won't look like trendy McMansions minus the manicured lawn. NASA's Lunar Architecture Team continues to work out the details, but pressurized habituation modules -- think futuristic FEMA trailers -- and tough inflatable tentlike structures could house the astronauts. These would need to be buried or covered in moon dirt to protect them from harmful radiation.
For power sources, NASA researchers are looking into solar power technology. Although nights on the moon can last 334 hours, researchers hope to build an energy storage system to harness as much energy as possible when the sun hits the lunar landscape.
One outline for space colonization published by NASA proposes that average people, not just specially-trained astronauts, could one day live on rotating spacecraft that orbit the Earth [source: NASA Space Settlements]. If the space vehicle spins while in orbit, it would simulate gravity, allowing for proper human development. Given the recent breakthroughs in lower-cost reusable space vehicles that are fueling plans for the space tourism industry, NASA predicts that such livable spacecrafts could be in existence in 50 years [source: NASA Space Settlements].
As with the lunar base, the main caveat attached to livable spacecraft is money. Private flights into space orbit have cost $20 million for one person. In addition to the problem of getting there, migrating to outer space means starting even before scratch. Humans can't breathe freely outside of the Earth's atmosphere, and the amount of solar heat can kill us. We would essentially have to create our own oxygenated, well-protected containment areas to survive.
We'll have a better idea in the next decade about the likelihood of these space dreams turning into reality. If federal funding moves forward for the lunar base project and private space tourism ventures progress, outer space neighborhoods may no longer be the stuff of fantasy.
For more information on space travel, read the links on the following page.
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- Dickey, Beth. "Stake Your Claim." Government Executive. January 2006. (May 9, 2008)
- Easterbrook, Gregg. "Moon Baseless: NASA Can't Explain Why We Need a Lunar Colony" Slate. Dec. 8, 2006. (May 9, 2008)http://www.slate.com/id/2155164/
- Jones, Thomas D. "The Lunar Base: How to Settle the Moon (and Pay for Sleepovers)." Popular Mechanics. September 2007. (May 9, 2008)http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/air_space/4221721.html
- National Aeronautics and Space Administration. "Lunar Outpost Plans Taking Shape." Oct. 1, 2007. (May 9, 2008)http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/exploration/mmb/lunar_architecture.html
- National Aeronautics and Space Administration. "Space Settlement Basics." Office of Advanced Supercomputing. Sept. 22, 2005. (May 9, 2008)http://www.nas.nasa.gov/Services/Education/SpaceSettlement/Basics/wwwwh.html#who
- National Aeronautics and Space Administration. "The Vision for Space Exploration." February 2004. (May 9, 2008)http://www.nasa.gov/externalflash/Vision/index.html
- Reuters. "Hawkings: Humans must colonize planets." MSNBC. Nov. 30, 2006. (May 9, 2008)http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15970232
- Svoboda, Elizabeth. "Who owns the moon?" Salon. Jan. 19, 2008. (May 9, 2008)http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2008/01/19/moon_real_estate/index.html
- Zimmer, Carl. "Life on Mars: How to Survive the Red Planet (and the Tech to Help)." Popular Mechanics. September 2007. (May 9, 2008)http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/air_space/4221805.html?series=35