How will we power life on the moon?


July 20, 1969, was the first time that man set foot on the moon. It was described as both a small step and a giant leap at the time and while that was true many would argue that we have since failed to turn that small step into the giant leap for mankind that it could have been. Man has not been on the moon since 1972 when the last Apollo mission took place, we have not utilized the moon for enough human endeavors either. While there have been some innovations because of the moon landing we have not seen enough. It begs the question when will we return the moon and for what purpose? To some, it may seem like a distant answer but NASA is working on it as I write these very words.

To say that the moon landing did not accelerate human innovation is not fair. The research and development that went into the moon landing accelerated the development of rockets, satellites, miniaturization (making tech smaller), and more. These things have allowed humanity to have a much more sophisticated system of communications that we have benefited from but to be fair we all thought in 1969 there would be more. Many at the time thought that by the year 2020 people would be living on the moon. While they could not have predicted the incredible innovations that have taken place, like the internet, they would be sorely disappointed to see that we all still live on Earth. 

According to NASA, there are plans to return the moon in 2024 and this will not be with the aim of just one small step. Instead, NASA is already trying to create systems that will allow settlements to exist on the moon. It sounds fantastic but four years is not far away and there must be a million obstacles to overcome before anything like that is possible. One of the most obvious issues is power. How can we provide power to settlements on the moon?

The latest scientific papers emerging suggest that settlements on the moon will be nuclear powered. Solar power would be everyone’s favorite choice but it is simply not possible due to the harsh conditions that exist and the dark shadow that reigns over part of the moon. The winds that raise lots of debris would not be good for solar panels either. Spacecrafts have used some form of nuclear power since the 1960s so it is a natural step for the moon.

Spacecrafts have used decaying plutonium -238 for power but this will not be sufficient for the moon. Instead, uranium -235 atoms may be suitable. Initial tests have shown the ability to reach a power of 5 kilowatts of electricity but it is believed that 10 kilowatts will be required. NASA is more than optimistic that this is achievable. 

The biggest advantage of uranium is that it can be safely transported to the moon. The particles emitted by the core are weak enough that a protective device can shield them. If this solution works it may be the largest obstacle already solved.

When people think of life on the moon the biggest obstacles are being able to access power, being able to breathe, and being able to access materials to build with. The breathing element appears straight forward as it has been well covered by every science fiction movie to date, we will use some pretty cool domes. The building materials will be tricky as the cost of transporting materials will be incredibly high but we are already seeing huge progress from the private investment that is lowering the cost of space travel. Now that the power source is close to being solved it appears we are not so far from achieving many more giant leaps in the years to come.