The Lunar Frontier is a harsh place. Every piece of gear that Homesteaders will rely on needs to be as reliable as possible because their lives will depend on it.
When most people think of space, they think high-tech. That’s only natural since we rarely see NASA pursue low-tech options. Space exploration and settlement demands the best technology we have, right?
Not really. We managed to land 12 people safely on the Lunar surface with 1960’s technology. Heck, your cell phone has orders of magnitude more computing power than the Lunar Module. Now, I’m not saying that Apollo tech is something Homesteads would use. It most likely isn’t. But low-tech can often get the job done just as well as more advanced technology.
So, what does low-tech mean in the LH context? 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. You don’t need an advanced engineering degree to make them work. And early access to iron and aluminum will enable Homesteads to build mechanical gear earlier than electrical.
Most mechanical gear is power source neutral. Let’s use a mechanical jaw rock crusher as an example. Spinning the shaft causes the gears to rotate. This causes the jaws to come together forcibly which crushes the rocks. It’s a pretty simple design that’s been in constant use since 1858 . Homesteaders could easily build one out of Lunar iron. It doesn’t matter what power source is used to spin the shaft. We could attach a stationary bicycle to the shaft so Homesteaders get exercise while crushing rocks. We could attach an electric motor or combustion engine (maybe algae-based bio-diesel or thermite-based). We can use solar thermal energy to power a steam engine attached to the shaft. This attribute is really useful because it builds in a lot of flexibility and redundancy.
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 but we don’t know yet. As far as I can tell, nobody has tried using only Lunar materials. We’ll also need to figure out how to make safe wiring and connectors. Most electrical equipment, like mechanical, is power source neutral. It doesn’t matter if the electricity came from solar photovoltaic cells, a chemical battery, or a nuclear fission power plant.
The big leap is moving to simple electronics. I’m talking about devices that use things like resistors, capacitators, diodes, and other basic electronic parts. 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. The first digital computer, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), was built in 1946 and contained around 18,000 vacuum tubes . Sure, it took up a 50 foot by 30 room and threw off 150 kilowatts of heat when in use; but it also made the hydrogen bomb possible . With today’s knowledge, Homesteaders could possibly build smaller and more powerful locally-sourced vacuum tube computers.
Complex electronics (transistors, integrated circuits, etc.) are going to be a real challenge for Lunar Homesteaders though. Manufacturing these things requires specialized equipment and resources that aren’t found on Luna (at least not in meaningful quantities). 3D printing offers some intriguing possibilities but the printers themselves are pretty high tech. The end result is that most, if not all, of the Homestead’s high-tech electronic components and equipment will have to be imported from Earth.
The ideal situation is that all Homestead critical equipment is designed to be manufactured and repaired on-site using local materials. That way the Homesteaders are not in danger if their supply line is disrupted. We’ll also need to design lower tech back-ups for equipment that has to be shipped from Earth. They may not be optimal or efficient but they’ll keep the Homestead rolling along.
Finally, low-tech tends to give the equipment a steampunk/retro kind of look. And how can that be bad?
Rugged is just another word for durable. Long supply lines and a harsh environment means everything needs to be as durable as possible. Even the relatively benign environment inside the Homestead will take a toll on equipment. Anything made by humans will eventually break. Usually at the worst possible time.
The best way to prolong the life of the equipment is to “over-engineer” it. I put that in quotes because it really doesn’t involve engineering at all. We simply make things bigger and/or thicker. It’s a lot harder to break a thick iron pipe than a thin aluminum one.
Almost all of the current (and past) space equipment is designed and built to minimize mass as much as possible. This is purely a cost saving technique because everything, so far, has been launched from Earth. This is a lot less important for Lunar Homesteads. Sure, the equipment used to make the initial settlement still needs to be low mass. But the mass of anything they build locally can be effectively ignored because it’s not going anywhere.
Making gear more rugged is another reason we favor low-tech solutions. Mechanical machines are typically more durable than machines built with complex electronics. Compare dropping a bicycle from 3 meters (10 feet) with dropping a cell phone.
There will be some things that can’t be built on Luna without a significant industrial base. High-end computers come to mind. Homesteaders are going to want capable computers so they can interact with the rest of humanity on Earth. And to play the latest computer games.
It takes an entire global industrial base to make modern computers. Homesteads will have to buy them and ship them from Earth. Since mass equals expense, they’ll want to ship only the parts they can’t make. Basically, most of the guts of the computer. However, Homesteaders can make the case from local aluminum and the other low-tech parts. And they can make these parts far more durable than the ultra-lightweight ones that would have been part of a complete computer. Now they have a hybrid device that cost a lot less, is more rugged, but can still play the latest version of Final Fantasy.
Simple isn’t the same as low-tech. You can make a simple device from very high-tech components. A crowbar made from iron is simple and low-tech. A crowbar made from Inconel, a high-performance nickel-chromium-based superalloy, is simple but high-tech.
The first part of making equipment simple is to simply (ha!) minimize the number of parts, especially moving parts. A Rube Goldberg machine (“a machine intentionally designed to perform a simple task in an indirect and overly complicated way” ) may be mechanical but it sure isn’t simple. Unnecessary components not only increase the chance of a failure; they also increase the chance of an error during construction. Devices with lots of components are also harder to diagnose when they stop working. That’s not good if your life depends on it and you need it working NOW.
Homestead designs have to be simple to operate. Not every Homesteader is going to have an Engineering PhD (or even be mechanically/electrically inclined). Or children might have to operate it in an emergency. Or they deal with it every day and it’s become so familiar that they unconsciously become sloppy. Operator error is a lot less likely with simpler devices.
Simplicity is hard. Just look at all the unnecessarily complex crap we’re drowning in. I really don’t have much else to add so I’m going share a few cool quotes about the virtue of simplicity.
“You know you’ve achieved perfection in design, not when you have nothing more to add, but when you have nothing more to take away.” — Anotine de Saint-Exupery
“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.” — E. F. Schumacker
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” — Leonardo da Vinci