By 2050, the Earth-Moon region could be a settled, commercial haven: NASA researchers

Just over 50 years ago the Moon seemed like a distant place that we knew very little about - until NASA landed the first humans on the planet. Now its researchers believe there could be well-established colonies on its surface in only 35 years

The year 2050 isn’t a long way off. By the time it comes around commercial firms will control Lower Earth Orbit, space tourism will be ‘very viable’, space-led power generation will be in production and there will be both small and large settlements on the Moon.

The 300-person habitat in the moon’s vicinity will house personnel to run mining operations

These are the thoughts of a NASA-formed initiative that was created to “speculate” how “earth, space, and public/private entities might be operating and relating to each other” in the future.

In a similar way to how the not-so-top secret Google X works on projects that are considered ‘Moonshots’ – projects that are long shots – this space research looked at how the space between Earth and the Moon would be changed beyond recognition due to commercialisation.

The future thinkers behind how space exploration and relations will look in 35 years time came together twice in the last two years as part of a project called ‘Space 2100’. Their research was published online by NASA earlier in March, although the agency is keen to stress that the predictions and suggestions are not “official… policy or intentions”.

The Cis-lunar economy

Primarily, the direction of the six-strong research group was led by the thoughts of Ken Murphy, who coined the idea of the ‘cislunar econosphere’ in 2012. This idea is based around the principle that as space travel becomes more common, the Moon and anything closer will increasingly be controlled by commercial companies rather than by governments.

moon-nasa“Governments will play a major role in developing methods and negotiating standards and policies so that vehicles and settlements owned/operated by a variety of entities can operate, co-operate and support each other via a flexible, collaborative infrastructure, even though they may both compete and team with each other economically,” said the researchers in their report.

The growth of commercial space ventures such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX is living proof that in (most) of our lifetimes, space won’t be a mysterious place that is beyond our imaginations, let alone our reach.

The commercial takeover of the space industry has already started with SpaceX’s approval to launch military and spy satellites for US government. On the less intimidating front, the same is happening in the commercial sphere with the much-delayed work of Virgin Galactic and the highly improbable Mars One. 

As Murphy said back in 2012, we need to “embrace the chaos of free markets” to propel us into space.

“The first thing to understand is that we are not going to go straight to the Moon and then begin backfilling cislunar space with commercial activity, although some folks advocate for such,” he said.

“What’s going to happen is that activity is going to expand outward.”

This expansion outwards could eventually see the creation of two habitats on Mars; one large and one small.

The smaller habitat will initially be created to construct the larger community, but its purpose will shift towards housing personnel who will be responsible for mining operations to get valuable resources from the Moon.

“The 300-person habitat in the moon’s vicinity will house personnel to run mining operations, way stations, and construction of a large habitat,” the researchers wrote.

“This habitat will provide radiation shielding and artificial gravity.

“It will demonstrate food production and other technologies, using in-situ space materials to achieve near self-sufficiency.”

Governments will play a major role in developing methods and negotiating standards and policies

“The large habitat (thousands or tens of thousands of residents) might be used for a lunar civilization or become the initial instance of portable communities for colonizing other parts of the solar system.”

They also envisioned that 3D printing will have a large part to play in the development of off-Earth communities. Last year the first 3D printer was sent to space and in recent weeks a NASA scientists has said that by the time the printing technique is deployed on Mars, we will be looking to print entire buildings and settlements.

However, the report says that while they were focussing on what would have changed between the Earth and the Moon, they believe there would have been at least one manned mission to Mars by 2050. Just recently, the space agency has been testing its ‘flying saucer’, which is set to be involved in delivering astronauts to the planet’s surface.

This manned mission to the Red Planet would allow for “deep space lessons learned” to be applied to what is happening closer to home.

The challenges

This black-sky speculating from the NASA staff will be music to the ears of those who are looking forward into the future. But as the authors of the paper observe, there are going to be plenty of challenges to overcome before we get there.

From first impressions, the problem with many of the scientists’ speculations would be the technological advancements that would be needed to achieve their thoughts. However, these are rapidly progressing and will continue to do so.

“Our current approaches combined with normal acceleration in computing and manufacturing,” will allow this, they said.

Although much of this future development is likely to happen because the human race needs it happen to survive, a big problem will be space politics and law.

For example, the researchers point out that the Moon Treaty may lead to complications with the mining of resources from the rock.

moon-nasa2

All images courtesy of NASA

They said that the treaty “introduced the concept that while a celestial body may not be appropriated, a natural resource, once extracted, might be subject to appropriation, with possible governance and limitation by an international body.”

As well as a debate around the substance of any material taken from the Moon with a view to further use, there are also international economic and political issues around the mining process. Given world leaders can’t agree on issues around how to tackle extremism or other internationally significant concerns, there are bound to be complexities when it comes to colonising the Moon and other planets.

To add to this, there have already been territory problems on the International Space Station.

The Outer Space Treaty 1976 sets out that the Moon and other bodies “shall be free for exploration” and that the Moon is “not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupations”.

Despite this long-standing agreement between more than 100 countries, it’s possible that it may not be respected or there may be calls for change when travel to the moon is an everyday occurrence.

As well as this, the researchers say that space tourism doesn’t fit into the legal definition of Commercial Human Spaceflight, and there will be liability issues – what happens if 50 people die on a spaceflight?

It is issues such as these that have caused some commentators to call for more space lawyers to start practicing.

Looking towards 2100

If the paper is correct, commercialising the moon will become a reality in the lifetimes of many people who are currently alive.

But the researchers’ initial project was to look at what could happen around the space industry by 2100. Unsurprisingly, their ideas focussed on the larger concepts, such as energy production, clean living, the control of ageing and more. Broader themes are undoubtedly easier to predict than specific enhancements.
Included in this, they drew up a timeline of what could be in place by 2100.

What should be clear is that economic development is not easy

At the furthest reaches of their minds they foresee that robotic missions for interstellar space colony construction may be in place.

They also say that there may be space research conducted through citizen outreach and partnerships.

On the way to making space this accessible, the researchers said that during 2050-2075 there could be the development of rendezvous and rescue vehicles for those in need of help in space. As well as this, interstellar robotic probes could be launched and space may be accessible to academic researches and small businesses, at a low cost.

Whether any of what the paper’s authors have forecast comes true or not will remain to be seen, but what is almost certain is that we will have to discuss the wider issues about our future in space and how commercialisation alongside it will work.

As Murphy said back in 2012: “What should be clear is that economic development is not easy. It depends on complex webs of inter-relationships nurturing one another to grow the whole.

“It also requires an openness to pursuing things in a new way, even if they are perceived as disruptive to existing markets.”

When it comes to space, this is going to be the key.

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