Moonwards is a bit of a different approach to promoting space. It seems time to properly summarize that. I’m on The Space Show next Sunday, Sept. 11th, and i need to organize my thoughts. It hasn’t seemed useful (up to now) to contrast it with various other projects out there, so this gap keeps reappearing where people wonder why it isn’t done like x or y.
99% of the imagery of space that most people see is in fiction, there is a huge quantity of material. For most people, what we are really doing in space is pretty boring by comparison. Unless they have a background in the sciences that allows them to appreciate it, it just isn’t going to hold their attention. However, the growing proportion of popular fiction that takes place in space is a signal of something important. Human cultures are increasingly transferring their broadest vision of our hopes and dreams to a space setting. If you want to reach people, and get them thinking about what the road to our greatest dreams needs to be, tapping that has huge potential.
So Moonwards is building a bridge between the vast energy placed in fictional visions and something that could actually be done. It seeks a keen balance between realism and fantasy that powerfully makes key points about who we are and what we should pursue. A city on the Moon can capture the imagination. Yes, you could fly by flapping wings, needing only your own strength. Yes, you could leap from the water like a dolphin. You could carry 10 people on your shoulders, jump to the roof of a house. You could run for miles and miles without exhaustion - you could just run wherever you go without it being a big deal. You could run everyplace with a friend on your shoulders, and switch occasionally between who is carrying who. The scale of what we could build there once we built up infrastructure would also be that much grander. Ladders into space, skyscrapers miles high, pits miles deep.
When you paint a picture like that, and say that isn’t a fantasy, that is what it would really be like, that makes an impression. I could go on at great length on how that impression can have a ripple effect on how people see the value of things in general, and their willingness to work together to achieve the great things that can only be achieved together. But there are other things to cover…
There are several plans out there about businesses or colonies at a lunar pole, and yet Cernan’s Promise is placed at the equator. The main defense for this is the building approach. Basalt is needed in order to build big quickly. Only with basalt can you make everything needed - the cables that contain the pressure of atmosphere, and the many different construction materials for arches, columns, floors, walls, and furnishings. Only by building large can you have long-term residents who don’t go crazy but are actually happy. Selling residence is the core business of the colony in the initial phase, augmented by broadcasting that can also only be done successfully in a large, beautiful building. If you try to build large and beautiful with any other technique, it takes so much machinery to do that you might as well have used that mass to bring up the machinery to melt and process basalt. The machinery needed to create waterless concrete and build with it would weigh much more (and need rebar), the machinery to excavate and emplace regolith over inflatables would weigh about the same as the machinery needed to excavate and build with fused basalt and basalt cable. If you want something larger than an inflatable that can be rolled up and packed within a fairing, you also need equipment to stitch and weld seams that are reliably strong, and to maneuver large pieces of fabric without damaging them. Unless you reinforce the inflatable with elements strong enough to support the regolith overlay in the event of loss of atmosphere, you risk complete disaster if something rips the fabric - a fire, an explosion, a chemical spill, one person who completely loses it for 30 seconds. But if you put in that reinforcing structure, you might as well just have built out of basalt, in which case you could have built all your furnishings and internal structures in the bargain with the same machinery, and also more entire habitats.
Because it is at the equator, Cernan’s Promise can’t take advantage of the water and other chemicals frozen in the ground of the poles. We don’t know how difficult it will be to mine the poles for water. It might be easy, but it might be very hard. I really doubt there will be a viable market for water as rocket fuel, so the money that would be spent setting up mining is better spent sending a payload of water to the equator, and methane to power a nuclear thermal shuttle. Because Moonwards looks purely at the potential of our technology, planning for nuclear ships is a logical step. That means fuel supplies can be stretched much further, especially once you add a cargo ship running on ion engines shuttling between lunar orbit and LEO. The nuclear shuttle just needs to go to orbit to unload the cargo ship. By the time the colony needs more water than can be accommodated in the payload budget it has with Earth, it will be capable of building most of the mass of the machinery and habs needed for water mining itself. Those can then be taken to the north pole for much less fuel than if everything had to be brought from Earth, and fewer Earth launches would be needed.
More about the transport solution is in the previous post. That post is also going to be updated in a few days with input from Sigvart Brendberg, who made some very salient points recently that really improve it. Like pointing out the nuclear shuttles should run on methane, and the cargo ship should be launched as the second mission, instead of a nuclear shuttle going all the way to LEO. I’d like to highlight again the importance of tethers. Tethers in lunar orbit makes movement of bulk cargo around the moon feasible, and also movement between the surface and lunar orbit. That is critical if the Moon is to become mostly free of shipments from Earth. If you can’t get all the volatiles you need from the poles, you can get them by bringing carbonaceous asteroids to orbit. With just one polar tether you can get transport coverage of most of the Moon, so once you find the craters where meteors impacted with speeds low enough that remnants of them remain there, you can find metals, hydrocarbons, and nitrogen chemicals there, as well.
By accepting nuclear power into our lives, Moonwards also solves the energy problem of the long cold nights, which polar colonies handle by staying on peaks where there is sun 90% of the time. Nuclear generators will power the colony in the early days. Since everything is being made of solid basalt, and there are also a lot of boulders around at the site of Cernan’s Promise, thermal mass will make temperature regulation way easier. Machinery outside will be protected from the cold on solid basalt platforms warmed by the sun during the day, tucked under reflective tarps that trap the heat. Later a hangar with a thick basalt floor and several layers of reflective insulation suspended tent-style over the whole space will keep temperatures quite even.
I think those are the things i wanted to cover… One last thing is that the influence a true colony would have on Earth, a colony with at least a thousand people, that is developing its own culture, is hard to overstate. Transmissions between the Moon and Earth would be literally a million times what that transmission power could send between Earth and Mars when they are farthest apart. Running a hundred 4K channels all the time would be no problem, with all the video calls and file transfers you could possibly want on top of that. Places that are entirely new encourage new ways of thought, and that tends to be very powerful. An example i think is relevant: American Revolution, 1776… French Revolution, 1789.