Rovers and Robots - the Workhorses
In this project, the approach is taken that the first missions to settle the Moon will focus on developing the robotic infrastructure needed to do construction entirely without humans present. Such robots do not yet exist, but the field is advancing quickly. Development of that technology has a wealth of applications here on Earth, it would make sense to make such R&D a central part of a settlement space program.
The first few missions to the surface work like rover missions today, except with many robots being operated from Earth instead of just one, and performing tasks as much to test their ability to manipulate their environment as to explore and study. Once a human crew is in orbit at Crossroads Station, which is the beginning of the first lunar skyhook, they do a mission to the surface to install equipment that allows the robots to do more demanding and precise work, perform repairs, and install a repair station they can run from Crossroads. The Crossroads crew takes over a large chunk of the remote operations, as the signal delay between them and the robots is imperceptible. After that, the robots build the first permanent habitat and its infrastructure without anyone on-site. (There could be more missions from Crossroads to the surface, but only if there are failures that make it necessary.) Once that hab is near completion, again a crew arrives. They test everything, maybe make some minor final touches. Then they stay. After that the human population ramps up quickly and they operate the robotic machinery from within the habs.
So, great things come from great robots. Rovers and probes in space have already been designed to handle some of the things in the list below, others are new territory:
- The high radiation environment, which requires special design of computer components. This technology is well developed, but does add cost and increases the bulk of components.
- On the Peaks of Eternal Light where the first missions are, the temperature change between day and night is not the concern. Instead, it is simply that the sun is very hot and the shade is very cold. Where the ice is, it is very, very cold. Ice mining equipment needs heaters and to be made of specialized materials. Other equipment can be protected with translucent shades that dilute the sunlight, the use of stone, which holds in heat, and some lighting, so it isn't difficult to see in the stark shadows. Away from the poles, where the day and the night are each two weeks long, the same techniques work when done on a larger scale.
- The extremely abrasive, finely powdered soil that will grind away at any moving part it gets into. And it comes with static cling. Moving parts like joints can be wrapped to minimize the dust that enters, possibly with multiple layers of material. Magnetic brushes seem quite effective for dusting things off, though they haven't been tested on-site. Ultimately, the best thing is to fuse the surface soil into a solid cap of stone wherever robots work (or people).
- The 3 second round-trip radio transmission delay between Earth and Moon. This is eliminated once there are enough people in orbit, and later at the base, to operate the robots locally. Before that, operation has to consider this factor. So the more the robots can do without needing specific instructions, the better. If a robot is tipping over, it needs regain its balance itself. It needs to be able to handle simple, repetitive tasks on its own. It needs protocols for collision avoidance. It needs to understand what it is looking at well enough to direct itself as it moves around and manipulates things. The video in the sidebar on Boston Dynamics shows how close to this we already are.
- Extending the point above, the need to be independent. It's doubtful it will ever make sense to have people work out in the open instead of robots. People should be outside only fairly briefly and rather infrequently, to limit their radiation exposure. People hampered by space suits are very clumsy and have trouble sensing their environment. Robots need to be able to do ever more things without human oversight.
It is hard to overstate how much of a difference robots with these capabilities make. They are absolutely necessary for success.