While the desire to live on the moon decreases considerably when you find out it isn’t made of cheese, there are still a lot of reasons to dream of one day calling it home. For one, there is the pure wonder of living somewhere other than earth. There’s also the strategic value in using the moon as a base for launching exploration deeper into space.
But what would that cost to put a colony on the moon? After all, the moon has just one-sixth of the gravity of Earth and almost none of the water. That also means there’s not enough air to breathe, and that you’re exposed to dangerous radiation from the sun that’s normally blocked out by Earth’s atmosphere.
Here’s a closer look at what would be required to build a moon colony and what it could ultimately cost.
Need: Getting to the Moon
Escaping the earth’s gravity is no easy feat. Just getting out into orbit requires an enormous amount of energy, hence the massive rocket boosters and fuel tanks you see attached to shuttles prior to launch. So, before you can build a colony on the moon, you’ll have to move everything you’ll need there at great, great cost.
Cost: $10,000 per pound
The current cost to put anything into space is $10,000 per pound, according to NASA. And, no, there’s no cheaper option for “ground shipping.” That would mean that sending a 10-pound bag of rice to feed astronauts living on the moon would run you a whopping $100,000 just for transportation. That would make any moon colony a massive and very expensive undertaking.
Why It Might Cost Less
Fortunately for the future, NASA is working on a number of theoretical solutions with the goal of eventually reducing the cost of traveling to space into the hundreds-of-dollars-per-pound range. Whether it’s rockets that can “breathe” air, or an electromagnetic launch using a track, or even an electrodynamic tether — there are a lot of ideas for bringing the cost of reaching space down to something manageable.
Need: Electrical Power
Once on the moon, astronauts are likely to need a lot of energy to keep themselves alive. Whether it’s maintaining a breathable atmosphere or running grow lights for growing food, a steady supply of electricity will be the only thing keeping the astronauts alive. However, because of its orbit, most of the moon’s surface has nights that can last for two weeks, making reliable solar energy nearly impossible outside of select areas.
Cost: $20 million
The people at NASA have a plan for this, and not just for the moon. The space agency concluded testing in 2018 for a project called Kilopower, a small nuclear reactor that could be transported great distances before providing 10kw of power for 10 years. Not exactly enough to power Moon Las Vegas, but certainly enough to support a small human outpost on a different planet.
The budget for the entire project came to less than $20 million, impressive considering similar projects in the past ran budgets of nearly $1 billion in one case. And that doesn’t include the cost of launching it into space, which could be a lot given that it weighs from 880 to 3,000 lbs.
Why It Might Cost Less
If the idea of putting a nuclear reactor onto a rocket ship makes you understandably nervous, there might be some alternative solutions. For starters, while the long lunar night makes solar power hard to rely on, there are four areas on the moon where the sun actually shines around the clock for the entire year, making them an ideal location for solar panels.
There’s even a fascinating idea for sending a self-replicating robot to the moon that could mine for resources, begin making more robots like itself and then use that robot army to build solar panels.
Everyone needs to eat, but a moon colony would face some interesting issues. Either you’re launching food resupply missions at enormous cost, or you need to figure out how to grow your own food in a place without air and nights that can last two weeks at a time.
Even if there is a farm on the moon, things are difficult. Water moves differently in low gravity environments, meaning that soil can often be ineffective. And if you either fail your resupply mission or in harvesting your moon crops, it could place the lives of anyone living on a moon colony in jeopardy.
Cost: $230,000 per person
It is possible to grow things on the moon. In fact, the Chinese moon lander Chang’e 4 succeeded in sprouting cotton seeds while on the lunar surface, the first life to grace its surface since the final Apollo mission. You need roughly an acre of land per person to support a population on earth, but hydroponic farming can improve yields by five times or more.
As far as the cost is concerned, AmHydro sells a basic hydroponic bundle that can yield between 3,500 and 4,000 plants per week and fit into a 4,320-square-foot greenhouse (roughly a tenth of an acre) will run you $161,500. And you’d hypothetically need two for each person.
Why It Might Cost More -- or Less
Of course, while the basics of hydroponic growing won’t hypothetically change on the moon, enough is different about the moon that it’s a safe bet you would need to take some extra steps. The greenhouse, for example, would not only need to be perfectly airtight but it would also need to be able to protect the plants inside from the sun’s radiation that isn’t getting stopped by the atmosphere. And that’s all without mentioning the cost of transporting all of the equipment, seed and water to the moon.
That said, NASA scientists are working hard at figuring out the ins-and-outs of hydroponic growing off Earth. The weight and space that food supplies take up mean developing sustainable sources at the ultimate destination would free up much-needed cargo room for future space missions.
Shelter on the moon is more than just a three-bedroom house. Whether it’s the UV radiation beating down or the temperatures that can go from 253 degrees in the day to negative 387 degrees at night — yes, that’s Fahrenheit — any moon colony would need housing solutions that kept the moon’s inhabitants safe. And given the difficulty presented by any sort of construction project on the other end of a space mission, this most basic need is not easy to fill.
Building shelters for people living on the moon wouldn’t be easy, but there are a variety of ideas for how it might work. Using underground caves, for instance, could mean dwellings that wouldn’t expose astronauts to dangerous UV radiation and any small meteorites crashing into the surface.
That said, none of these ideas are far enough along that any sort of meaningful cost estimate can be made. The closest comparison you might get would be the cost of an underground bomb shelter, which Atlas Survival Shelters estimates would cost about $20,000.
Why It Might Cost More — or Less
Aside from the fact that building anything on the moon is going to be vastly more expensive than doing it on Earth, it’s also a safe bet that moon shelters will need a variety of additional features to deal with the conditions on the moon.
However, there are plans for constructing distant bases at a much lower cost. Many people envision the colonization of Mars being made possible by sending 3D printers in advance to build the base remotely, but testing any such program on the moon first seems more prudent.
While food is often top of mind from a survival perspective, it’s the lack of water that can be the real killer. A human can survive for a month or more without food, but without any water, they will usually die in about 48 hours. And that’s just drinking water. Add in bathing and cooking — not to mention irrigating a hydroponic grow house — and it should be clear that any plan for a moon colony needs to settle on a source for water before anything else.
Cost: $80,000-$160,000 per day
To supply the roughly 2 to 4 gallons a day that the World Health Organization says is needed to sustain human life, it would cost a lot. A whole lot. The weight of a gallon of water is about 8.34 lbs, meaning that the cost to transport enough water to the moon to sustain a single person would come to about $80,000 to $160,000 a day — or somewhere between $30 million and $60 million a year.
Why It Could Cost More -- or Less
Turns out, there’s water on the moon. Not much because the radiation from the sun will blast water molecules into its component parts of hydrogen and oxygen that would then escape into space. However, in places where it’s protected from sunlight, water does exist. Lunar dirt contains a small percentage of water, and other scientists have ventured the theory that there might actually be quite a bit of water trapped in the moon’s mantle after previous volcanic eruptions.
But it’s still unclear just how viable a solution that winds up being. The top layer of lunar soil contains about 32 ounces of water for every ton, meaning astronauts would need to process four to eight tons of dirt per astronaut, per day.
As needs go, this is a big one. You can go a month without food, a couple of days without water but try going more than a minute without air and you’ll realize there’s nothing that matters more. And, given that the moon’s low gravity prevents it from developing a real atmosphere, getting enough air to survive is tricky. And it’s a lot: the average adult breathes in 11,000 liters a day, or about 3,000 gallons.
Cost: $60 million a year
There aren’t really a lot of options for getting air on the moon other than transporting it there from the earth. The good news is that rebreathers have been in use in submarines and spacecraft for years, scrubbing out carbon dioxide to help reuse exhaled air. However, you still have to replace the oxygen that your body is actually consuming even as you’re removing the carbon dioxide. The average human absorbs oxygen to the tune of 0.55 kg a day — or about a quarter of a gallon.
So, at a quarter of a gallon a day, one astronaut will go through a little over 80 gallons of oxygen a year. If you wanted to just fill up a tank and blast it into space, a 125-gallon tank from storage equipment company ConVault weighs 6,000 lbs. And at $10,000 a pound, that would mean spending $60 million to transport a 125-gallon tank to the moon.
Why It Might Cost Less
The engineers sending people into space have actually gotten quite good at rebreathing air with a minimal need for additional oxygen or creating waste. On the ISS right now, the process involves breaking down wastewater into its component parts of hydrogen and oxygen. It can then take the carbon dioxide scrubbed out of the air and combine it with the extra hydrogen in a process that creates water and methane as a byproduct — both of which would have a lot of uses on a moon colony.
What’s more, there’s a perfectly natural way to keep air breathable — plants. After all, plants naturally absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen is how air remains breathable here on Earth. As such, maintaining large indoor farms could play a key role in future astronauts sustaining life on the moon, essentially converting the carbon dioxide you don’t want into the food you desperately need.
Clearly, there will be no open-toed shoes on the moon. At least not on those colonists who want to live long enough to see the next lunar sunrise. Any trip out onto the lunar surface would require a spacesuit, equipped with a number of devices to keep you alive, one of which is a rebreather. All told, the cost of your lunar wardrobe is likely to exceed that of even the most lavish Barney’s shopping spree.
Cost: $250 million
The odds are good that, unless a more economic spacesuit comes along, future moon colonists might have little choice but to be real homebodies. The cost of a space suit was originally about $22 million, but that was during a broader redesign of spacesuits that meant economies of scale kept prices lower. Building a new one right now would cost a stunning $250 million. Which is more than a little disappointing, given that NASA has sunk nearly $200 million into a few different failed projects to make improvements.
Why It Might Cost Less
The fact that NASA is currently down to 11 functioning space suits should be a sign that creating cost-effective outdoor wear for space is really, really hard. That said, there are efforts to develop a space suit that can keep its users safe without costing millions. One pair — Brooklynites Ted Southern and Nikolay Moiseev — raised just over $25,000 in a Kickstarter campaign in 2013 for their company Final Frontier Design. The end result is an adjustable outfit that they claim will be 10 lbs lighter and cost a third as much.
Need: Bringing Our Lives With Us
Of course, life on the moon won’t really be life without all the things that make it worth being alive. While no one should realistically expect to have all of the creature comforts of life on Earth, a few luxuries are necessary just to maintain sanity. Whether it’s an iPod full of your favorite music or an e-reader with all the Harry Potter novels, building an existence on the moon will require at least a little of what makes us human.
Cost: At least $15,000
Once again, the $10,000 per pound cost for transporting anything out of Earth’s atmosphere makes any decision about what you take with you incredibly consequential. The current policy for NASA allows astronauts to bring up to 1.5 lbs of personal items with them to the ISS. And while that’s not a lot — one iPad pro weighs about that much — it’s still going to cost NASA a whopping $15,000 for you to take it with you.
Why It Might Cost Less
Clearly, what you need to remain sane over the course of a single shuttle mission is far less than if you’re a semi-permanent resident. Astronauts living on the moon are likely going to need to make as much as they can of their surroundings, finding ways to enjoy their lives that don’t depend on flying things there from earth at enormous cost.
At least a few people have put an estimated price tag on the entire expedition. And while it’s entirely too distant in the future for these to carry too much weight, they do help provide at least some context on what the entire project might cost.
One projection comes from YouTube channel Wendover Productions that itemized costs and put the total at $36 billion to support four astronauts for a year, or about $100 million a day. NASA astrobiologist Chris McKay has a sunnier outlook on the cost of building the most basic base possible, saying in a 2016 issue of “New Space” that the cost to get started could be as low as $10 billion.
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