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The countdown’s on for humans to return

July 20, 2009 by  
Filed under tech news


July 20, 2009 – David Templeton, Pittsburgh PostGazette
Plans are under way for humans to return to the moon “no later than 2020,” says NASA. And if and when it happens, people may remain there forever.

As a permanent outpost for humans, the moon may become not only a destination for science and exploration, but also for economic endeavors, including mining of platinum-based metals or collection of helium-3 for fusion-energy reactors back on Earth.

In time, the moon will have its own transportation system, energy grid and housing plans powered by solar-panels with fuel centers to provide rocket fuel for daily blastoffs to Earth and Mars.

Projections wax and wane about when people will revisit the moon and what will happen when they do.

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But the NASA Authorization Act of 2005 has established a program to develop a sustained human presence on the moon, with an emphasis on “exploration, science, commerce and U.S. pre-eminence in space.” That program will serve “as a stepping stone to future exploration of Mars and other destinations” throughout the solar system.

NASA’s Web site says work on the moon will enable eventual settlement, with an emphasis on lunar activities that hold a direct benefit to life on Earth.

Human settlement of the moon represents an even bigger step for people and a more humongous leap for humankind. And people now are preparing to make that leap.

William “Red” Whittaker, Carnegie Mellon University roboticist and chairman of Astrobotic Technology Inc., holds a robot-centric view of the universe and says robots will work for years preparing a lunar landing base, energy infrastructure and housing before humans return there. He believes humans will return in about 2022.

“The early presence will be machines, not people,” Dr. Whittaker said. “Robots will be the agents of exploration.”

David Gump, Astrobotic president, said the company hopes to send a robot to the moon and win the $20 million Google Lunar X Prize in May 2011. Eventually it will send other robots to explore the moon, prepare the way for humans and mine valuable resources.

The first people to return will share the moonscape with a troop of robots doing excavation, among other chores. A lunar colony could be situated on the rim of a crater, possibly the Shackleton Crater at the moon’s South Pole, where, theories hold, water may exist.

NASA says the lunar South Pole has elevated quantities of hydrogen, which could be in the form of ice. The South Pole also has areas with greater than 80 percent sunlight and less extreme temperatures.

That first human habitats could be an inflatable structures already in development, or robot-built habitats buried under moon dirt known as regolith. Such a structure below the surface would protect people against solar and cosmic galactic radiation that can cause cancer, cataracts, acute radiation sickness, hereditary effects and damage to the central nervous system. A long-term plan would involve transforming lunar lava tubes — tunnels created by lava flow — into underground homes for people.

Robots could explore lava tubes long before humans arrive. Constructing walls and protective doors would make it possible to fill the lava tubes with oxygen and create moderate temperatures.

As for a landing site, Dr. Whittaker and Mr. Gump said robots could position rocks to provide a landing pad and prevent high-speed blasts of regolith during touchdowns and liftoffs. Robots also could build a horseshoe-shaped bank of regolith around the landing pad to protect habitats, people and equipment from flying regolith.

Solar panels would provide electricity. A fuel station would use electrolysis to divide lunar water into liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen to power rockets. Oxygen generators would sustain human life.

On the moon, astronauts would use smaller vehicles to cruise the outpost and larger ones for long-distance travel and exploration.

Once settled, humans could explore and mine. Helium-3, a gas rare on Earth but common on the lunar surface, can be used in fusion energy with no radioactive risk or threat of global warming. Mr. Gump said one large shuttle-load of helium-3 from the moon could meet Earth’s total energy needs for a year.

Also, the moon would be a low-gravity base to send astronauts to Mars and elsewhere in the solar system. The moon’s perfect vacuum also would allow for easy production of drugs that require expensive vacuum chambers on Earth.

Dr. Whittaker said humans always have found ways to survive in unusual environments, be it the New World after 1492, Antarctica throughout the 20th century or current efforts to survive at the bottom of the ocean or atop high mountains.

The South Pole in Antarctica could serve as a model for international cohabitation of the moon.

Reaching ever deeper into the future, Mr. Gump said space travel may become as common as airplane travel today. By 2040, humans likely will be on Mars.

“It took a long time for people to think that Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas could support life,” Mr. Gump said. “Now it’s the breadbasket of the entire planet. It took people spending time there to find out what is good there. It’s the same with the moon.”

So in decades to come, he said, human lunar outposts could expand into ever larger domed areas filled with oxygen and featuring entertainment, housing and business. It would be a futuristic scenario with humans donning wings to fly inside the dome.

It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s a superhuman display of our ability to adapt.

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