Like most settlers throughout history, Lunar Homesteaders will head to their new home knowing there’s no way back. At least until a sustainable cis-Lunar transportation system is operational. Even then, they may not be able to return to Earth because they’ve adapted so well to their Lunar home. Planning on Homesteaders returning to Earth introduces a lot of unnecessary complexity and expense into an already complicated plan.
Let’s be clear. I’m not talking about a suicide mission. We’re not going to send people to Luna with the intention that they’ll do as much work as they can on the settlement before they die from lack of supplies. That would be awful. And hard to get volunteers for. Even the term “one-way trip” sounds somewhat negative. We’ll have to come up with a better way to describe it.
The plan is that after the initial Pathfinders build the core Homestead; they’ll be reinforced over time with more people, equipment, and supplies. These reinforcements will expand the Homestead and make it possible for more people to move to Luna. Eventually, they’ll have a nice, comfortable, safe, and productive settlement that doesn’t need much from Earth. One-way doesn’t sound too bad in those terms.
One-way tickets to Mars have been in the news for years. Mars One gathered some notoriety by creating a hypothetical one-way Mars mission and then asking for people to apply. They actually got thousands of applications, even though they had none of the tech necessary for such a mission. Predictably, Mars One collapsed without producing anything of value.
That’s no surprise though. Every day there are people happily rolling the dice in the name of adventure or sport. There are even more people that go to work every day knowing they may be permanently injured or killed. Explorers throughout human history have risked everything to see what was over the horizon. And other people financially backed them. There’s no reason to expect that settling a new world would be any different.
Remember what I said about Homesteaders having to be a rare subset of the population willing to endure hardship and danger for an epic outcome? Well, this rule is part of the process of weeding prospective settlers out. Initial Homesteaders (Pathfinders and Pioneers) must be willing to go all-in for the rest of their lives on the dream of settling Luna.
Sending people and equipment one-way is less expensive than round-trip. Here’s some (but probably not all) of the reasons why.
We don’t have to wait for new tech or a mature transportation infrastructure, both of which will cost a lot of money or time. We know how to land equipment and people on the Lunar surface safely using disposable rockets. We’ve already done it. NASA is currently spending billions on tech that will do exactly the same thing as the Apollo gear did. What a monumental waste.
I’m not suggesting that we resurrect Apollo, just that we don’t need all the high tech that’s associated with space. We certainly don’t need space station transfer points (Gateway), reusable rockets, orbital tugs, or any of the other stuff necessary for a fully developed cis-Lunar transportation system. All of that stuff comes after the Homesteads are built.
One-way trips also save money by not needing extra rocket stages, additional propellant, heat shields, parachutes, additional life support, and all the other stuff necessary to return people to Earth. That equates to either using a smaller (and cheaper) vehicle or delivering more payload.
For the initial Lunar Homesteads all we really need is a single-use rocket powerful enough to land several tons of cargo on the Lunar surface. Launching a handful of these to establish a Homestead will be much less expensive than building all the infrastructure I just described. Also, increasing the number of launches of a standardized launch vehicle will significantly decrease the overall cost of each launch. We don’t really need reusable (like the Falcon), complex (some of the space plane designs), or expensive (I’m looking at you SLS) vehicles to make this happen. Mass produced dumb rockets will do just fine.
And the cost of the transportation component goes down if you amortize it against how long you stay there. We do that all the time. I would never pay for a round-trip airplane ticket to New Zealand and only stay one day. However, I sure would if I planned to stay there for a month. The longer the stay, the less prominent the transportation costs are. Stay long enough and the transportation costs become minimal.
A one-way trip will also allow us to build Homesteads much faster. And time is money, right? The faster we can build Homesteads, the sooner we’ll have the conditions where the cis-Lunar economy can take off. And that should bring costs down across the board. In order to do that we need to make the initial Homesteads as cost effective as possible. That means one-way trips.
Speed is also necessary if we want to get, and keep, people interested is Lunar settlement. We may not need public support for government funding but crowdfunding could be a significant source of revenue for the Homesteaders. A bored and disinterested public doesn’t really help our cause. The added drama of Homesteaders struggling to carve out a civilization from the Lunar wilderness without a safety net should keep them riveted. It would be a true reality show with real consequences.
And it’s not just the public that would want to see things happening. The backers of the Homesteaders are going to want to see continual progress as well. They’re going to want the Homestead producing a profit so it can start paying them back.
Finally, here’s something else to think about. If the landing vehicle isn’t designed to ever lift off again; then it doesn’t much matter if the next vehicle to land sandblasts it with exhaust-launched regolith. Everything useful would have already been removed from it. Heck, the previous vehicle may have already been completely dismantled for parts. The point is that Homesteaders won’t have to spend time, money, and effort in building special landing pads from the start.
I’ve read estimates that adding a return component to a mission makes it 3 to 10 times more expensive. Take that with the proverbial grain of salt. I couldn’t find a source I was confident enough to cite. For this book, it’s enough to say that adding a return component will significantly increase the cost of the mission.
Safety is not guaranteed, right? That doesn’t mean we take unnecessary risks though. As we’ve seen in the previous section, the transportation part of the plan is the most dangerous. So, let’s cut that risk in half (or more). No launch from the Lunar surface. No return flight (with its radiation risks). No reentry. No landing on Earth. Whew. I feel safer already.
Let’s save all of that drama for much later.
Knowing there’s no turning back will put Homesteaders in a very different mindset than people knowing they are going home sometime in the future. Luna IS their home. They are going to have to find solutions to problems we haven’t even thought of yet. Or they are going to die. That’s the kind of thinking that tends to sharpen your focus and inspire creativity.
Homesteaders will be following the long tradition of settlers that left their old home to create a new, permanent, home somewhere else. And never looked back.
Of course, nothing is perfect and one-way trips have their share of problems. There are three basic problems with sending Homesteaders on a one-way trip.
First, the tech had better be bulletproof because they can’t just bail if things go sideways. They are going to have to be able to maintain and fix everything they rely upon (or have quite a few in reserve). It will probably be difficult, or impossible, to get new parts and gear delivered in a timely manner. Guaranteed it will be expensive. This is one of the core things I’m working on.
The second problem is similar to the first but we’ll have a lot less control over it. People will get severely sick or injured. Some will develop significant psychological issues. Everyone will probably get really homesick from time to time. Others will simply have had enough and want to leave. NOW. The lack of a built-in emergency return system means that some of these Homesteaders are going to die. And suicide is going to be an issue no matter how good the screening.
The third problem is that most people, including the “experts”, are going to have a hard time accepting one-way trips. It just isn’t how we’ve done things. Heck, it’s right in Kennedy’s speech; “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the earth”. It’s built into NASA’s DNA. And for most people, NASA IS SPACE. If NASA thinks it’s nuts then it must be nuts.
Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and cosmologist, wrote “To boldly go where no one has gone before does not require coming home again” . And he’s absolutely right.
79) Krauss, Lawrence (August 31, 2009). “A One-Way Ticket to Mars”. The New York Times.