There are approximately 6,314,919,789 people inhabiting our planet today. Our population will grow to reach an estimated 9,084,495,405 by the year 2050 (U.S. Census). This epic number of occupants is consuming our Earth’s natural resources as if our resources were from a perpetual supply. We are incessantly depleting our life-giving forests, water, air, and ozone in order to accommodate our explosive population growth. Recycling, conservation, and pollution restraints will slow this destructive pattern down, but looking beyond Earth for solutions to the problem is inevitable. According to some researchers, one answer lies 147,560 miles above us – our moon (NASA).
Compared to Earth’s abundance of blue waters and lush, green plant life, the moon offers a harsh and barren environment. With no shielding atmosphere, it is unprotected from the extreme temperature swings (a 300 °F difference between night and day), cosmic rays and occasional solar flares directly striking its surface. Without protection from these elements, inhabiting the moon would be impossible. A group called Oregon Moonbase is researching ways to protect the habitation modules of a future lunar colony. With support from NASA and private investors, Oregon Moonbase has devised a plan using lava tubes. Lava tubes are passageways left behind under a lava flow after the lava drains out (Gillett, 33). A natural occurrence on earth – there is a site in Oregon – and on the moon, these caverns offer the protective insulation the modules require to withstand the moon’s environment. When compared to digging areas for the habitats, then covering them with lunar dirt, excavating an entrance to a lava tube is less riddled with problems: man-power required of astronauts, equipment wear and down time due to the moon’s dusty surface, and needing protection during construction of the colony. This all equals up to a far more cost-effective plan for colonization.
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The environment of our moon is not conducive for sustaining plant or animal life. Therefore, a lunar colony must look within itself for its vital needs of the future. At Purdue University, development of biospheres and other advanced technologies to colonize the moon has begun. Horticulture professor Cary Mitchell heads research to design a self-sustaining ecosystem for future moon colonies. What they’re doing, Mitchell explains “is exactly duplicating what happens on Earth, but to make sure that things cycle fast enough, you need some chemical and physical processes to help along the biological systems”(“Building Biospheres”, 7). Future residents will grow their own crops, which will provide food and oxygen. All wastes will be constantly recycled and purified. Microbes (micro-organisms) will be used to break down many wastes, generating heat up to 194° F. Plant waste, such as roots, can be ground and used to feed fish. “Thus, the mostly vegetarian diet will be supplemented by small but important amounts of fish protein, which also will have important psychological value for humans living for long periods of time in confinement in space” notes Mitchell (“Building Biospheres”, 8). Scientists are also developing systems to freeze liquid waste to remove impurities and to use ultraviolet light to cleanse air and water before consumed by the colonists. The Purdue research team’s goal is to enable a self-sustaining colony by the late 2010s or early 2020s.
Once location and environmental issues are overcome, transportation to and from the moon is the next objective. Along with using recyclable spacecraft, such as the space shuttle, is the prospect of building a space elevator.
The concept of a space elevator is simple: Put a platform in space and attach two cables. One goes down to Earth, and the other goes out into space, where it’s attached to a captured asteroid. The asteroid counterbalances the platform so it doesn’t fall out of orbit. (Schwartz, Going Up, 74)
The elevator system will consist of a rigid compression structural base that can reach a height of 15 miles, carbon nanotube cables (100 times the strength of steel, but with much less weight), and an electromagnetic propulsion system for the initial launch.
At a 2000 NASA workshop headed by David Smitherman, technical manager in advanced projects, it was determined that building a space elevator is technically feasible today, with a $10 billion construction cost. At the rate technology is improving, this project should be on an engineering drafting board in less than 5 years, with a substantial reduction in cost. Once constructed, the cost of getting people and cargo into space would drop from $22,000 per kilogram to as little as $10 per kilogram. “The closest analogy to the transformative power of such a costly undertaking might be America’s railways or interstate highway system” (Schwartz, Going Up, 74).
Our Earth is an abundant planet that gives the human race everything we need to survive. Unfortunately, our ever-growing population is consuming these resources at a rate faster than they can be replenished. Looking toward the moon for solutions to our dilemma offers us more area to live on, and all the research entailed to make it possible generates new solutions of how to better conserve our planet. Inhabiting our closest celestial neighbor is no longer just a plot for a Hollywood science-fiction movie; it is likely to be a pivotal factor in the future of next generations.
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