Version 1.1 August 18, 2018
Lunar Homesteading seems like an odd concept. There’s no air, no water, and no life on the Moon. So how can regular people homestead? We’ve been told for decades that Lunar “settlements” will be very expensive small outposts temporarily crewed by highly trained professional astronauts. That doesn’t sound like the right way to settle the Lunar frontier. Lunar Homestead presents an alternative that would include EVERYONE.
Side note – I am deliberately capitalizing Lunar Homesteading and Homesteaders. Lunar is capitalized because it’s the name of a place (Luna). Simple. Homesteading and Homesteaders are capitalized because I like to think it’s a Big Idea and deserves it. Now let’s get to it.
First, let’s break down the phrase Lunar Homestead. Lunar obviously refers to Luna, or the Moon. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines homestead as “the home and adjoining land occupied by a family” and “an ancestral home”. There are also some legal definitions that we can safely ignore because none of them apply to land on Luna. Besides, a home and land occupied by a family or small group of people is exactly what I’m talking about.
Because it’s small groups of people wanting to live on the frontier that will power the human expansion throughout the Solar System. Not governments or corporations. Europe, Asia, America, South America, and the American West were all “settled” by homesteaders. Of course it didn’t go well for the people already living there and who considered the area already settled. But that’s a whole other issue and luckily not one that is relevant to Lunar Homesteading (there’s no life on Luna to begin with). The indigenous people can be considered homesteaders in their own right. They settled into an area and carved out a life. That’s what our Lunar Homesteaders are going to do.
Be sure to check out Lunar Homesteading at a Glance if you want the short version.
The Lunar (and solar) frontier will be initially settled by Homesteaders (individuals, family units, and small groups) using low-tech locally manufactured equipment. These Homesteads will form the nucleus for larger towns and cities.
Governments and businesses are not the answer
Governments, particularly the U.S. and Russian, have had half a century to move humanity out into the Solar System. All we’ve gotten are 6 men spending a few days on the Lunar surface and a small amount of people temporarily in Low Earth Orbit. That’s a terribly pathetic showing, in my opinion. But you can’t really blame them. Modern governments are hampered by a severe lack of long-term vision and political willpower. Add in the fact that the vast majority of the population (in any country) just doesn’t care about the human settlement of space (or are hostile to the concept). And here we are.
Apollo was able to happen because it was a different era and because it had a clearly defined MILITARY purpose. We were at war with the Soviets (the Cold War was still a war). The country as a whole was scared and angry. Apollo was a propaganda weapon we used to show the U.S.A was technologically (and morally) superior. We were lucky to get 5 more landings after Apollo 11. Sure, Apollo did some science and exploration. But those were secondary activities. If Apollo had been pitched to the U.S. government and people as a long-term Lunar settlement program it would have never been started. NASA had good ideas and plans for settling the Moon, and beyond, after Apollo was cancelled. They just were not allowed to pursue them due to the public and Congress losing interest. The situation for NASA hasn’t changed in decades.
Nowadays, politicians seem to only be worried about their next election and raising money for their next election. They have no reason to push for an expensive, long-term Lunar settlement program that won’t help them political or financially. We can’t even get a small, temporary base. Heck, we can’t even get stuff done that the majority of Americans want done. Hyper-partisanship prevents governments from carrying out even the most basic of tasks, let alone something as complex as Lunar settlement. We obviously can’t rely on politicians to get us into the Solar System.
I’m not going to rant about what I think is wrong, or right, about America and her people. This isn’t the place and, honestly, it doesn’t really matter. Every place has flaws. The point I want to make though is that most people don’t care, or even think, about space settlement. And most of the ones that do don’t think it should be a high priority (we do have a lot of pressing issues to deal with). Some people are actively against spending government resources on space settlement because they believe that it would take money from programs they support. Those of us that think that the permanent human settlement of the Solar System is critical to the continued existence of Earth life (not just human) are a small minority. It’s absolutely unreasonable for us to expect the American people to allocate significant money and resources, over a long period of time, to an endeavor that they perceive as having no value to them. Outreach efforts might change that a little but we should be committed to finding ways to achieve our objectives on our own. Enter Lunar Homesteading.
Big business was supposed to be the great savior of space settlement because Big Government was obviously not going to do it. Business failed also. But it’s not their fault. The primary reason for a business to exist is to make as much money as they can with as little risk as possible. Providing launch services is a proven business model and that’s why companies like SpaceX can do what they do. Same for the construction of satellites. But there is no money to be made in establishing a Lunar settlement. Only expense and risk.
The only physical product a Lunar settlement could produce that would be worth the expense might be helium-3, the fuel used in some fusion experiments. And Lunar helium-3 might be a viable product when cost efficient fusion power plants become a reality. If it can compete with helium-3 produced on Earth. And IF we ever figure out how to do it in the first place. Cost efficient fusion has been “20 years away” for a long time now.
Tourism is often mentioned as a primary driver for space settlement. The reason space tourism is still unrealized is because launch costs are still very high and there are no people or cultures to experience on Luna. Natural beauty and the experience of “being there” is great but most people travel to experience new places and things. Homesteaders create unique places THEN tourists come to experience those places. Until then the only tourists will be rich people seeking a new thrill.
The concept of Solar Power Satellites (SPS) has been around for decades. Build large solar collectors and place them in geosynchronous orbit. Change the solar energy collected into electricity, beam it to Earth with microwaves, collect the microwaves, turn it back into electricity, and send the electricity into the grid. Simple, “free”, environmentally friendly electricity available 24/7 (mostly).
The problem is that the cost to launch all of the equipment necessary to build (they would have to be rather large) these satellites from Earth would be enormous. So the thought is that Lunar mining camps can provide all the high-mass material. This won’t be a small scale activity. Substantial bases are required on Luna and in geosynchronous orbit. High risk with uncertain rewards.
Unfortunately, access to cheap fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal) makes SPS completely unviable. Additionally, we can’t even get the Earth’s most powerful governments to agree on the simplest climate change protocols. There just isn’t an economic reason to create Lunar settlements to support the construction of an SPS at this time. Wouldn’t it make more sense for businesses to buy goods and services from Homesteaders already on Luna and in orbit to create SPS infrastructure?
Lunar produced fuel could be a very profitable industry once there are enough people on Luna to require a low cost transportation system. There is no need for lower cost fuel if there isn’t any reason to build a lower cost transportation system. Why build a low cost transportation system if there aren’t places that need regular service? It’s a chicken and egg scenario. A low cost transportation system needs a reason to exist (places to go to on a frequent and regular basis). But we’ve been told for decades that we can’t build settlements and bases until we have a low cost transportation system in place. Madness. And so rational businesses won’t get seriously involved because the profit is very uncertain but the risks are substantial. Besides, Homesteaders don’t wait for cheap transportation options. They just GO.
Government and businesses FOLLOW Homesteaders. Not the other way around. Governments move in to provide services and collect revenue once people are established in a location. Businesses move in once there are enough people to support them. Homesteaders FIRST then everything else will follow.
Historically, it has been individuals, families, and small groups (Homesteaders) that have carved settlements out of the frontier. It was Homesteaders that left Africa to settle Europe and Asia. It was Homesteaders that crossed the land bridge connecting Asia to North America. It was Homesteaders that created the Colonies out of the American frontier. And it was Homesteaders seeking a better life who transformed the American west. These are only a few examples of what small groups of determined humans can accomplish.
If we want to see life spread throughout the solar system (and beyond) then we need to create the technology that will enable Lunar Homesteading. Because Luna is our gateway to the universe.
Safety is not guaranteed
Life on the frontier (any frontier) has always been dangerous and uncomfortable. As a society, we have forgotten this basic truth. Lunar Homesteaders may not have to face hungry wildlife or justifiably angry indigenous people, but radiation and decompression will kill you just the same. Sometimes a rock will penetrate a habitat, possibly killing everyone inside. The main oxygen tank might leak out, leaving the Homestead with an insufficient supply of air. Or maybe a rocket won’t fire at the right time, sending Homesteaders out into the dark or crashing to the surface. The Lunar dust and the low gravity might cause you serious harm. Or maybe the isolation, restricted spaces, and/or lack of a huge living environment cause you to mentally and emotionally break down. Luna, just like Earth, has a lot of ways to kill humans.
Homesteaders will die. We need to accept this fact. We can’t let the risk keep us from going out there. We can’t obsess about making everything as safe as possible to the point that we barely do anything at all. The rewards are too great. The risk of doing nothing is so much greater than the risk of losing some Homesteaders. When tragedy occurs we need to analyze what happened and try to prevent it happening in the future. But we don’t stop.
The majority of the population will have no interest in becoming Homesteaders. Most won’t be able to understand why anyone would want to. And that’s good because they aren’t the type of people who would thrive on the frontier anyway. We only need that small, special sub-set of the population that has what it takes to be Homesteaders and who want to be there regardless of the dangers.
Cheap Access to Space (CAtS) is not necessary
If we keep waiting for CAtS we will never have Lunar settlements. While launch costs are already coming down, we won’t see a truly efficient cislunar transportation system until there is sufficient demand to make it economically necessary. We need to create the places that a CAtS system will connect, not the other way around.
As noted above, Homesteaders don’t wait for efficient transportation systems to get them there. Existing Homesteads are the REASON for building those transportation systems.
Homesteading is a one-way trip (at least initially)
Early Homesteaders can save a significant amount of money by not planning on going home. At least not until a regular transportation system is in place. One-way trips mean the entire return component can be eliminated. Getting rid of return rockets, fuel, heat shields, parachutes, additional life support, and all that other stuff means either more equipment landed or a smaller vehicle can be used.
Plus, knowing there’s no turning back puts Homesteaders in a very different mindset than people knowing they are going home soon. Luna IS their home. They will be following the long tradition of Homesteaders that left their old home to create a new, permanent, home somewhere else.
Homesteads are small scale
The Homestead and its equipment should be sized so a small group of people can build and maintain them. It’s a Homestead, not an industrial complex. The current Lunar settlement paradigm calls for a lot of big and heavy machinery.
Small scale has many advantages. Multiple, smaller pieces of equipment are preferable to a single large piece of equipment. Redundancy is life when resupply can take weeks (or longer). It’s easier for a small workforce to setup and maintain smaller equipment. Smaller gear is quicker to build and requires fewer resources.
Let’s save the heavy industry for the Lunar towns and cities.
Homestead technology is low-tech
The basic formula for Lunar Homesteads is:
Mechanical > Electrical > Simple Electronics > Complex Electronics
This means that a mechanical solution to an engineering problem is preferable to one that requires electricity. Why? Mechanical solutions are usually simpler to design, manufacture, maintain, and operate. Not every Homesteader is going to have an engineering PhD. Long supply lines and a harsh environment means everything needs to be as durable as possible. Being able to construct all the components and replacement parts locally from Lunar resources is critical to the survival of any Homestead. Simple is good. As a bonus, steampunk is cool!
If a mechanical solution won’t work then we move on to electrical. It shouldn’t be too hard to make Lunar-made electrical motors and similar components. The big leap is moving to simple electronics. With some effort Homesteads might eventually be able to manufacture vacuum tubes. Yes, it’s old technology but there could be many uses for them. Manufacturing transistors, integrated circuits, and all the other high-tech electronic components will require specialized equipment and will be beyond capabilities of most Homesteads (unless 3D printers can do it). All high-tech electronic components and equipment will have to be imported from Earth at great cost. We’ll need to avoid this as much as possible.
But space is so expensive!
The first few Lunar Homesteads (or Homesteads in ANY location) are going to be expensive. No doubt. But costs will start to come down once some people and industrial capability are on-site. As Homesteads multiply, we’ll eventually reach a point were all Luna really needs are high-tech components, critical resources (hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon, etc.) and people. High-tech components are usually lightweight and low volume so that’s not a problem. Resources and people are neither light weight nor low volume but are kind of the reason for this whole adventure so we’ll have to make it work.
Types of Homesteaders
I envision three “types” of Homesteaders, based on where they are in the process of creating a settlement. Some Homesteaders may be happy with the size of their settlement and decide not to bring more people in. Heck, I don’t know. I’ll probably be completely wrong when (NOT if) this actually all plays out but it helps me think through this.
- Pathfinders (1-3 individuals) – If we can make the tech simple and small enough. These would be the people that are first in. They will conduct basic resource extraction and the construction of the core habitat/infrastructure. Pathfinders don’t NEED to be perfect physical specimens or super smart. It won’t hurt but it will be far more important that Pathfinders are mentally tough and resourceful. They will need to thrive in physical isolation (they’ll be able to communicate with people however) and constant danger (space is deadly and unforgiving) with few amenities for an unknown period of time. Pathfinders will be a rare and unique bunch of people.
- Pioneers (Small groups or extended families) – The pioneers arrive after the Pathfinders have created a suitable habitat for them. Pressurized space, life support, electricity, food, water, and a bunch of other stuff have to be in place before the Pioneers show up. Some of this stuff can be sent ahead of the Pioneers but a lot needs to be built on-site before they get there. The job of the Pioneers is to expand the settlement and make it a far more livable place. Create some amenities, luxuries, and trade goods. Pioneers won’t have to be as mentally tough as Pathfinders as there will be more people to interact with and a more comfortable place to live. But they will still need the frontier spirit, willing to deal with hardship and danger.
- Settlers (Individuals, families, and groups) – Settlers are people that want to live on the frontier but with much less danger and discomfort. By this point the Homestead should be a comfortable place to live. It won’t be as comfortable as an extravagant Earth lifestyle but all the inhabitants’ basic needs will be met and there will be enough luxuries to make it appealing. Get enough settlers (and the equipment and supplies to support them) in a big enough Homestead and you’ve got yourself a full-blown Lunar village.
- Everyone else – I predict that there will be a surplus of people wanting to live in a Lunar village that can provide them with all the comforts of a middle-class American existence. There are a lot of advantages to living on Luna once the discomforts and dangers are minimized (a topic for another article).
The Big Picture
How can Lunar Homesteading change things? Creating permanent sustainable settlements beyond the Earth will fundamentally change the future. And it all starts on Luna. This isn’t a comprehensive list by any means and I’ll add to it as things come to me. Suggestions are welcome.
- Survival of all life on Earth – I’m not being dramatic here. All it takes is a large rock impacting the Earth to hit the reset button. Ask a dinosaur. Oh wait, you can’t. Because they are all extinct. Lunar (and cislunar) settlements can provide an active defense for Earth by creating the capability to detect and deflect incoming threats. Additionally, as humans settle Luna (and the rest of the solar system) they’ll take other life with them. Plants and animals for consumption, industry, companionship, or decoration. Some settlements might have lifeforms as a conservation program. At the very least we can preserve the seeds, eggs, embryos, or whatever in protected vaults.
- Uplift the human spirit – OK, this is a bit esoteric but hear me out. Civilizations without frontiers turn inward and stagnate. It’s happened throughout history. Some would claim it’s happening right now. Frontiers allow a civilization to channel its energy and drive into exploring new places and solving new problems. Frontiers ignite and feed curiosity and wonder. Frontiers inspire visions of an exciting and hopeful future. Doesn’t this sound like something humanity desperately needs?
- Unlimited room for expansion – One of the biggest threats we face as a species is the fact that there are over 7 BILLION humans on this planet. And all of them want a comfortable lifestyle. That’s a reasonable desire. What is totally unreasonable is that the number of people continues to increase every day. Our massive overpopulation is the root cause of most of the threats we face today. Climate change. Water scarcity. War. You name it. Spreading into the Solar System won’t have an immediate impact on Earth’s population but it will give humanity plenty of room to do whatever we want to do. And we won’t have to destroy the only habitable planet we know of in the process.
- Unlimited freedom – If we can have virtually unlimited number of settlements then we can have virtually unlimited diversity. Want to create a nudist settlement with your friends? Go for it. Want an orbital settlement based on Tolkien’s Lothlorien? Why not? Want to move to the Kuiper Belt to get away from it all? Wagons Ho! There’s no scientific reason why we can’t do these things once we figure out the tech. Infinite cultural diversity and the freedom to live how you want.
- Unlimited economic opportunities – OK, technically we’re limited by what’s available in the Solar System. But that’s an awful lot so let’s not nitpick. And don’t forget that as the Solar population expands, so does the demand for goods and services. Earth cannot sustain unlimited population and economic expansion. But the solar system can. Once we get people out there, the economic opportunities will follow.
- Unlimited creativity – Imagine all the wonder that a solar system full of people can create. Music, literature, entertainment, art, and more being created by billions of people living in a multitude of unique environments. Talk about a new Renaissance!
- Unlimited scientific discovery – I, literally, can’t imagine what we will discover as humanity explores and settles the Solar System. New worlds with 4 billion year old mysteries. New fields of science created to deal with our new environments. New insights into how the universe works. All fueled by the new technology that a solar system-wide civilization requires. If you think we live in an age of wonder then just wait.
Alright, that’s all I have right now. I’d love to hear about any suggestions or comments you might have. Seriously.