In March 1988, Popular Mechanics ran an article, written by sci-fi legend Isaac Asimov, exploring humanity's future on the moon. With NASA's plans to return to the moon in the coming years and President Trump's recent executive order clearing the way for companies to start mining the moon, Asimov's vision is more relevant than ever.
Reprinted here is the original article in its entirety.
The Lunarian stood in the eternal dark within the crater at the Moons south pole, and thought that silence was so characteristicand soothingand, yes, frighteningabout the Moon. He was not a true Lunarian, of course. He had come from Earth and when his 90-day stint was over, he would return to Earth and try to readjust to its strong pull of gravity.
There was no motion anywhere, no sound of living things. There was light along the crater top, as perpetual as the dark at this portion of the crater floor. Farther along the gently rolling floor, in the direction of the opposite side of the crater, was sunlight, too.
The Lunarian looked in that direction, and the photosensitive glass of his faceplate darkened at once.
The Lunarian thought: It is the year 2028 and the Moon has become our second world.
The line between dark and light swung slowly toward him and away in a 4-week cycle. It would never quite reach the point where he was standing, nor ever quite recede out of sight. If he were to move a few miles into the light, he would see the Sun skimming the crater edge along the horizon, but, of course, the faceplate grew virtually opaque if he accidentally looked in the Suns direction. At intervals, he could see the Earth, or a portion of it, edging above the crater wall. His heart would always melt at that sight. He tried not to think of Earth.
For now, he was on the Moon. He could make out the line of photovoltaic cells in the sunlight and he knew that solar energy, never ending, was powering the world beneath his feetwhich was, as yet, very small. Already, dozens of human beings were housed there and in his lifetime it might well rise to hundreds. An experimental farm existed there, plus a chemical laboratory for the study of lunar soil, a furnace for baking out the small but precious amounts of volatile elements from appropriate ores.
This was not the only Moon base. A much larger one existed near the lunar equator, where the soil was mined and hurled into space to be used as a construction material. A much more specialized one existed on the Moon's far side where a huge radio telescope, insulated from Earth's radio interference by 2000 miles of solid Moon, was being completed.
The Lunarian thought: It is the year 2028 and the Moon has become our second world.
But it is now 1988. We have visited the Moon six times between 1969 and 1972, and 12 men have trod its surface. But those were visits only. We came, lingered and leftso that the total time human beings have spent on the Moon is less than two weeks.
But we have been sharpening our space abilities, and when we return to the Moon, it will be to stay. A day will come in the future after which there will never be a time when human beings will not be living on the Moon.
NASA is already planning Moon bases. In recent years, scientists, engineers, industrialists and scholars have met to discuss scientific, industrial and sociological issues in connection with living on the Moon. Former astronaut Dr. Sally K. Ride, America's first woman in space, recently produced a report outlining this nation's space goals. Satellite studies of the Earth will remain an important priority, along with the lofting of unmanned spacecraft to explore our solar system.
But the "Ride Report also stresses a manned permanent presence on the Moon before we embark on a manned mission to Mars, hoping to fully exploit the Moon's resources and scientific opportunities while boosting our own interplanetary learning curvebefore engaging in a Mars space spectacular.
Whether or not we choose to follow the Ride recommendations, the Moon will probably play an important role in man's future space explorations. But why bother? The Moon is a dead, desolate world, without air or water. It is a large super-Sahara. So what is there to make us want to go there, let alone live there?
Super-Sahara or not, the Moon would be useful, even vital, to us in many ways. Some of those ways are not material in nature. For instance, there is the question of knowledge. The Moon has not been seriously disturbed after the first half-billion years of the existence of the solar system (something that is not true of the Earth). We have been studying 800 pounds of Moon rocks astronauts retrieved, but merely bringing them to Earth has contaminated them, and the astronauts were only able to investigate isolated landing areas. If we can investigate the Moon's substance on the Moon, over extended periods and over every portion of its surface, we might learn a great detail about the early history of the Moon-and, therefore, of the Earth as well.
Unlike man's initial forays to the lunar surface, future trips to the Moon will be greatly aided by a space station positioned in low Earth orbit, by orbital transfer vehicles and by expendable lunar landers. It's envisioned that early lunar pioneers will reside in pressurized modules and airlocksnot unlike the modules currently being designed for the space station but with a significant difference. Because the Moon has no protective atmosphere, early settlers will cover their modules with up to 2 meters of lunar soil, or regolith, to protect them from solar radiation. These modules may give way to larger structures positioned beneath regolith archways or buildings made of lunar concrete as requirements change. Indeed, lunar building materials may one day be a principal lunar export.
Solar collectors, photovoltaic systems and small nuclear powerplants positioned well away from lunar habitats would supply the power needs of an early Moon base. The resulting energy would support not only human explorers but a broad array of science and industrial activities, principally lunar mining and astronomical observation. Wheeled lunar rovers powered by the Sun would provide close-in transportation and cargo handling. Vertically launched rocket vehicles would aid in mapping and distant exploration. Some tasks may be performed by intelligent robots already on the drawing board.
After humans become established on the Moon, some visionaries foresee a complex of habitable dwellings and research labs for geochemical, physical and biological research. A life-giving atmosphere "manufactured on the Moon would promote ecological and agricultural pursuits, helping to make a Moon base self-supporting. Turning to the heavens, special detectors would analyze rays from astrophysical sources, and Moon-based particle accelerators would give new insight into the nature of matter. Spe cial units would process oxygen and refine new ceramic and metallurgical materials. "Moonmovers," adapted from Earthmovers, would excavate building and mining sites.
Think of the nuclear power stations we could build...where safety considerations did not bulk so large. Think of the efficiency of the solar power stations we could build on a world without an interfering atmosphere...
To what purpose? First, but not necessarily foremost, the Moon is a marvelous platform for astronomical observations. The absence of an atmosphere makes telescopic visibility far more acute. The far side of the Moon would allow radio telescopes to work without interference from human sources of light and radio waves. The Moon's slow rotation would allow objects in the sky to be followed, without interference from clouds or haze, for two weeks at a time. Neutrinos and gravity waves, together with other exotic cosmic manifestations, might be detected more easily and studied from the Moon than from the Earth. And, in fact, radio telescopes on the Moon and on the Earth could make observations in combination, allowing us to study in the finest detail the active centers of the galaxies, including our own Milky Way.
The Moon can also be used for experiments we would not wish to perform in the midst of the Earth's teeming life. Think of the genetic engineering we could perform, of the experimental life forms we could devise. We could obtain energy in copious quantities for use not only on the Moon, but for transfer to space structures and even to the Earth. Think of the nuclear power stations we could build (both fission and, eventually, fusion) where safety considerations did not bulk so large. Think of the efficiency of the solar power stations we could build on a world without an interfering atmosphere to scatter, absorb and obscure light.
From the Moon's soil, we would obtain various elements. The Moon's crust is 40-percent oxygen (in combination with other elements, of course). This can be isolated. A common mineral on the Moon is ilmenite, or titanium iron oxide. Treatment with hydrogen can cause the oxygen of ilmenite to combine with the hydrogen, forming water, which can be broken up into hydrogen and oxygen.
But where would the hydrogen come from? Those portions of the Moon we have studied are lacking in the vital light elements: hydrogen, carbon and nitrogen. That makes it seem that these "volatiles will have to be imported from Earth (which has plenty), but there may be places where they can be found in small amounts on the Moon, especially in the polar regions where there are places where the Sun rarely shines. Lunar hydrogen can then be used to obtain oxygen, and lunar nitrogen can be used to dilute it. There you have an atmosphere.
Other elements, particularly iron, aluminum and titanium, all very useful structurally, are common in the lunar crust and can be smelted out of the soil. In addition, silicon can be obtained for making computer chips. The Moon will be an active mining base to begin with. Quantities of lunar soil can be hurled off the Moon by a "mass-driver, powered by an electromagnetic field based on solar energy. This would not be difficult because the Moon is relatively small and has a gravitational pull much weaker than that of Earth. It takes less than 5 percent as much energy to lift a quantity of matter off the Moon than it would to lift the same quantity off the Earth.
To build observatories, laboratories, factories and settlements in space, it would make sense to use lunar materials, especially since Earthly resources are badly needed by our planet's population.
Because of the Moon's feebler gravity, it would be a particularly useful site for the building and launching of space vessels. Since far less power would be required to lift a vessel off the Moon's surface than off the Earth's, less fuel and oxygen would be needed and more weight could be devoted to payload.
Eventually, when space settlements are constructed, they may be even more efficient as places where space vessels can be built and launched, but the Moon will retain certain advantages. First, it will be a world of huge spaces and will not have the claustrophobic aura of the space settlements. Second, a lunar gravity, though weak, will be constant. On space settlements, a pseudo-gravitational field based on centrifugal effects may be as intense as Earth's gravitation in places, but will complicate matters by varying considerably with change of position inside the settlement.
The Moon, as an independent world, will represent a complete new turning in human history. Humanity will have a second world.
Then, too, since the Moon exists and is already constructed, so to speak, it can surely be developed first and be used to experiment with artificial ecologies.
Once the lunar colonists discover how to create a balanced ecology based on a limited number of plant and animal species (which may take awhile) that knowledge can be used to make space settlements viable.
Finally, of course, our Moon, with its enormous supply of materials, may eventually become a self-supporting, inhabited body in the solar system, completely independent of Earth. Surely this will become possible sooner than much smaller settlements elsewhere in space can achieve true independence.
The Moon, as an independent world, will represent a complete new turning in human history. Humanity will have a second world. If Earth should be struck by an unexpected catastrophe from without, say by a cometary strike such as the one that may have possibly wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years agoor if humanity's own follies ruin Earth through nuclear war or otherwise then a second world will exist on which humanity will survive and on which human history, knowledge and culture will be remembered and preserved.
Asimov's Dream Coming True?
But when will this colonization take place? Naturally, we can't tell because so much of it depends not on technological ability but on unpredictable economic and political factors.
If all goes well, there is no reason why work on the project cannot be initiated in the 1990s. By 2005, the first outpost could be established, and by 2015, a permanently occupied Moon base may be in existence. After that, it may be that the Moon settlers will have developed their world to the point of being independent of Earth by the end of the 21st century.
On the other hand, if affairs on Earth are so mismanaged that there seems no money or effort to spare for space, or if humanity concentrates its efforts on turning space into a military arena and is not concerned with peaceful development or expansion, or if humanity ruins itself forever by means of a nuclear war in the course of the next few decades, then clearly there will be no Moon base, and perhaps no reasonable future of any kind.
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