Will Humans Be Living in Space in the Next 50 Years?

What Would Space Colonies Look Like?

NASA studies theorize large spacecraft as houses on the moon because of the harsh outer space environment.
NASA studies theorize large spacecraft as houses on the moon because of the harsh outer space environment.
Paul Taylor/Getty Images

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, check out the links below.

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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
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  • 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