Going Interplanetary – How Can We Build a Lunar Colony?

    By Matt Williams | 13 September 2020

    (Credit: ESA / Foster + Partners)

    Hello and welcome to our latest series here on Stardom! Starting today, we’ll be taking a look at how human beings might set up shop on other planets, moons, and bodies within the Solar System. In other words, we take a look at what needs to be done in order for humanity to, as Elon Musk puts it, “go interplanetary.”

    It is only fitting that we begin with the closest celestial body to Earth: the Moon! Since time immemorial, the Moon has played a central role in the mythological and cosmological traditions of every culture on Earth. In modern times, the sight of the Moon has served as a source of inspiration, where people hoped to one-day go.

    And thanks to the Apollo Era, we know a great deal about how the Moon formed alongside Earth. These and subsequent missions have also given us a good idea of the Moon’s composition, where to find water, and the kinds of resources that can be harvested there. So how do we leverage all of that into a colony?

    While the subject of a lunar colony was touched on in a previous article (Are We Going to Colonize the Moon?) this series gives us a chance to take a more in-depth look at the idea, as well as an opportunity to really dig into some of the proposals that have been made over the years.

    So without further ado, here’s the who, what, when, where, why, and how of lunar colonization.

    A World Next Door

    As the closest astronomical body to Earth, the Moon is a natural choice for establishing a human presence beyond Earth. Every two years, Mars gets as close as 55 million km (34 million mi) from Earth, which is the best time to send missions. However, it can still take anywhere from 150-300 days (5 to 10 months) for a spacecraft to reach there.

    Venus is actually closer to Earth than Mars, reaching as close as 40 million km (24.85 million mi) every 584 days (a little over 1 year and 7 months). During these close approaches, spacecraft have been able to make the transit in about four months’ time.

    Compare that to the Moon, which orbits Earth at an average of ~384,400 km (238,850 mi) with little variation in its distance. During the Apollo missions, astronauts crews of three each were able to reach the Moon in just two to five days.

    This relatively short transit period means that resupply missions could be dispatched to the Moon quickly. While this is not a cost-effective option for keeping a lunar colony supplied, its good as a backup option. In the meantime, the lunar colony and its people will have to make the most of what they’ve got on hand. Speaking of which…


    Getting to the Moon is the easy part. Sixty years ago, humanity committed to developing the necessary hardware to send astronauts there, and we got pretty good at it! During the Apollo Era, NASA relied on a three-stage rocket known as the Saturn V to send the Apollo spacecraft to the Moon.

    This rocket stood 111 meters (363 ft) tall, which is about the height of a 36-story building, and was capable of sending 118,000 kg (130 US tons) into space. The Apollo spacecraft, meanwhile, consisted of three components: the Command Module (CM), the Service Module (SM), and the Lunar Module (LM). The Command Module and Service Module functioned together, forming the Command and Service Module (CSM).

    Whereas the CM was the control center and the living quarters for its crew of three, the SM contained the spacecraft’s oxygen, water, electric power, and its propulsion system. The Lunar Module was a separate vehicle that would detach from the CSM and carry two astronauts to the lunar surface.

    It consisted of the descent module, which would transport the astronauts to the surface, and the ascent module – which would bring them back to orbit once they were finished. The ascent module would then rendezvous and reattach with the CSM, and the crew of three would return to Earth.

    Beginning in the mid-2000s, NASA began working on a new launch system that would take astronauts back to the Moon and then on to Mars. This was known as the Constellation Program, which produced a series of designs for a new crew launch vehicle (Ares I), a heavy cargo launch vehicle (Ares V), and a new crew spacecraft (the Orion).

    This program was canceled in Feb. 2010 due to the changing budget environment in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008-09. However, eight months later, the seeds of that plan were resurrected with the passage of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, which committed NASA to return to the Moon and go to Mars within the next two decades.

    As part of this commitment, NASA adopted the Space Launch System (SLS), a massive rocket based on the Ares V, and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). Other elements included the Lunar Gateway and the Deep Space Transport, which would allow for missions to the lunar surface with a reusable lander and missions to Mars.

    With the announcement of Project Artemis, the plan has been changed somewhat. At present, NASA has been directed to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024, followed by the construction of the Lunar Gateway and the Artemis Base Camp on the lunar surface by 2028 and after.

    Beyond the space agencies of the world, private aerospace companies are also looking to make regular trips to the Moon. But unlike NASA, the ESA, China, Russia, and other national entities that are interested in exploration and scientific research, companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and others are looking to establish lunar tourism as an industry!

    In Elon Musk’s case, this would come down to the Starship and Super Heavy launch system (still in development) transporting cargo and customers to lunar bases on the surface. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon and Blue Origin, has similar plans involving the New Glenn rocket and Blue Moon lander.

    With this infrastructure in place, establishing a lasting human settlement (a lunar colony) will be just a matter of time and energy, not to mention a serious commitment in terms of people and resources. Speaking of resources, a significant amount will need to be harvested locally.

    In-Situ Resource Utilization

    This process, known by its familiar abbreviation ISRU, involves using local resources to meet your needs – such as food, water, fuel, construction materials, etc. And when it comes to establishing a human presence on the Moon, the concept of ISRU is at the heart of every modern proposal.

    For instance, NASA’s long-term plan for a “sustainable program of lunar exploration” calls for the construction of a lunar base (the Artemis Base Camp) in the South Pole-Aitken Basin. The same is true of the European Space Agency’s plans for an International Moon Village, and China’s plan for a lunar base.

    To reduce the cost of transporting supplies and building materials, space agencies plan to leverage additive manufacturing (aka. 3D printing) and ISRU to build their bases. This will involve harvesting local regolith and either bombarding it with microwaves (“sintering”) to create a molten ceramic and print the habitat’s superstructure or mixing it with a bonding agent to print “lunacrete.”

    Similarly, building a base in the South-Pole Aitken Basin would allow access to the abundant water ice that has been observed in the area. This ice could be used to create a steady supply of drinking water for astronauts, irrigation water for plant-growing operations, and even as a source of oxygen gas and rocket fuel.

    The presence of this infrastructure on the surface (and in orbit of) the Moon will facilitate long-term lunar missions, shave billions off the cost of missions beyond the Earth-Moon system. Beyond that, there’s also the way it could allow for the commercialization of the Moon, complete with lunar mining and lunar tourism.

    With the ability to conduct regular trips between the Earth and the Moon and harvest resources locally, lunar colonization could also become a reality. However, long-term strategies will be needed to make sure that people can live, work, and reproduce on the Moon without serious health effects.

    Making the First “Loonies”

    Aside from radiation and the dangers posed by micrometeorites and larger objects (which regularly impact on the surface), the greatest hazard comes from the low-g environment. On the Moon, the gravity is roughly 16.5% of what we experience here on Earth (0.1654 g), and long-term exposure will almost certainly lead to physical degeneration.

    Based on extensive studies conducted aboard the ISS, like NASA’s Twin Study, long-term exposure to microgravity has been shown to have detrimental effects. This includes muscle atrophy, a loss in bone density, diminished cardiovascular health, loss in eyesight, and liver damage. What’s more, readapting to normal gravity is quite difficult and painful afterward.

    While no studies have been conducted involving lunar gravity, it’s safe to assume that the effects of prolonged exposure will be similar (if not quite as severe). So in order for humans to live, work, and procreate on the Moon, strategies will need to be developed to ensure we can do so healthily.

    Luckily, there is a range of options. On the simpler side of things, we could build rotating cylinders in orbit of the Moon that are spun up to simulate 1 g of gravity. If future “Loonies” visit these stations periodically, they will be able to stave off the worst ravages of low-g. This would be mandatory for pregnant women and children during early development.

    At the more advanced end of things, genetic modifications and advanced medical procedures might be available in the future that can restore muscle tissue, bone density, and organ health. If such treatments are available down the road, periodic visits to the doctor could allow Loonies to live happy and healthy lives in lower gravity.


    In so many ways, a permanent human presence on the Moon could open the door to the entire Solar System. With the ability to refuel and resupply missions from a lunar site, space agencies could shave billions off the cost of deep-space missions. It would also facilitate missions to Mars, Venus, the Asteroid Belt, and beyond.

    Having a conduit between the Earth and the Moon could also create immense commercial opportunities, like space-based solar power, asteroid and lunar mining, and Helium-3 extraction (fuel for fusion reactors). The potential for scientific research is also immense, and studies conducted in low-g will yield invaluable information for deep-space exploration and colonization.

    But of course, there are the downsides and challenges to this whole undertaking, which include the cost involved, the commitment in time and resources, not to mention the short-term and long-term hazards for those who choose to live there. But as President John F. Kennedy famously said about going to the Moon:

    “We choose to go to the moon! We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…”

    Reprinted with permission from the author.

    Matt Williams is a professional writer, lecturer, and science fiction author whose articles appear in Universe Today, Interesting Engineering, HeroX, Popular Mechanics, and other publications. His first collection of novels is available through Amazon, Audible, and Castrum Press. He lives in Esquimalt, BC, Canada. For more info, check out:⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣ https://storiesbywilliams.com⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣, https://www.universetoday.com/author/mwill/⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣ and https://interestingengineering.com/author/matthew-s-williams. Follow him at Twitter.

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