Apollo 17 Station 5 panorama image made by Hans Nyberg; original images from Eugene Cernan.

Building a Moon Base: Part 4 – Infrastructure and Transportation

22 Mar , 2008

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In this exciting but challenging period of space exploration, the time is fast approaching for serious design concepts for the first habitats that will be built on the lunar landscape. In previous articles, we have examined the hazards associated with such an endeavour, we have looked at the structures available to us, we have even detailed a particular hangar-like structure that might use locally mined materials. Now, we look into the possible infrastructure elements that will be needed to support a viable colony on the Moon. Florian Ruess, a structural engineer who is working on the future of habitats in extreme environments, also took some time with the Universe Today to give his opinions on mankind’s future on lunar soil…

Imagine trying to build a structure on the surface of the Moon. Two of the biggest obstacles the first lunar settlers will come across are the very low gravity and the fine dust causing all sorts of construction issues. Although it seems likely that the first habitats will be built by automated processes before mankind even sets foot on the moon, fabrication of a settlement infrastructure will be of a primary concern to engineers so construction can be made as efficient as possible.

The basic, but optimal shape for a lunar habitat module linked with other modules (image courtesy of Florian Ruess)

Infrastructure will be one of the most important factors concerning mission planners. How will building materials be fabricated? How will material be supplied to construction workers? How will precious water and food be supplied to the fledgling lunar colony? Can supply vehicles go from A to B with little effort?

Historic examples of the effectiveness of an efficient transportation infrastructure can be seen in the coalescence of cities around rivers (traditionally the quickest way to transport people and material around a country). Canals were instrumental in bringing cities to life during the Industrial Revolution in the UK in the late 18th century. As railway lines linked the East and West of North America in the last half of the 19th century, acceleration in population growth was experienced by people uprooting and “homesteading” the new, accessible farm lands. Over the last 50 years, the “Southern California freeway effect” is responsible for the proliferation of gas stations, restaurants, shops, followed by residential areas for workers – eventually whole towns and cities are based around the ease of access for transportation.

Concepts of a lunar infrastructure (credit: NASA)

Future manned colonization of the Moon and Mars will most likely be based on a similar principal; the success of a lunar settlement will heavily depend on the efficiency of the transport structure.

It seems likely that most transportation around the Moon will depend on wheeled methods, following from terrestrial vehicles and tried and tested “Moon buggies” from the Apollo missions in the 1960’s and 70’s. There are some significant drawbacks however. Addressing this issue, Florian Ruess, structural engineer and collaborator with Haym Benaroya (whose publication this article is based) points out some problems with this mode of transport:

For any mission there will always be the need for individual transportation and the obvious solution is some wheeled vehicle. But there are a couple of serious issues with this solution:

  • Reduced traction. 1/6 gravity and the lunar soil make traction a problem just like [the Mars Exploration Rovers] Spirit and Opportunity on Mars one can get stuck easily or need to much power to get around.
  • Dust. Apollo experience shows that a lot of dust is levitated by wheeled vehicles. This dust is hazardous to machines and humans when breathed in.”

– Florian Ruess (private communication)

So travelling around in a modified “dune buggy” might not be the answer for an established Moon base, some form of road infrastructure would be needed if wheeled transportation is used.

Neil Armstrong's footprint in the lunar regolith (credit: NASA)

Disturbing dust on the lunar surface is far from being a minor problem. From NASA’s experience with the Apollo missions, by far the biggest contributor to dust generation was the take off and landing of lunar modules. 50% of the regolith is smaller than fine sand and approximately 20% is smaller than the “dusty” 0.02mm that preserved the Neil Armstrong’s first boot prints. It is this very fine component of the regolith that can cause a host of mechanical and health problems:

  1. Vision impairment
  2. Incorrect instrument readings
  3. Dust coating
  4. Loss of traction
  5. Clogging of mechanisms
  6. Abrasion
  7. Thermal control problems
  8. Seal failures
  9. Inhalation

It therefore seems obvious that dust creation should be kept to the bare minimum as this factor could be a severe hindrance to the infrastructure of the settlement.

Roads are would be the perfect answer to the new lunar colony. They would provide wheeled vehicles with the much needed traction (thus having a knock-on effect with the fuel efficiency of the vehicle) and may significantly reduce the amount of dust suspension, especially if the road surface is raised above the surrounding regolith. Roads, however, have their drawbacks. They are enormously costly and may be very difficult to build. Fusing regolith to form a tough surface may be an answer, but as pointed out by Ruess, “…this requires enormous energies, which cannot be provided by solar power alone.” So an alternate form of energy would be required to perform such a construction.

(a) Basic Roman road design features, (b) 2000 road design, (c) model of force distribution (credit: Haym Benaroya, Leonhard Bernold)

Although road construction would be highly desirable, it may not be possible, at least in the early stages of lunar settlement development. One emerging development in alternative space transportation is the vertical take-off and landing method, but as previously stated, rocket-powered take-off and landing produces vast amounts of dust. But should there be multiple bases on the Moon, this might be a possibility, “…a lot of people recommend different solutions for routes that will be used frequently like getting from the landing pad to the settlement or from one settlement to the next,” Ruess adds.

Lunar habitat with a cable-based transportation infrastructure (credit: H. Benaroya, L. Bernold)

Another solution is an established form of transportation. Totally avoiding contact with the surface, thus cutting down on dust and avoiding obstacles, a lunar cable car might be a viable possibility. It seems likely that such a cable car transportation network would be highly effective. “Very large spans will be possible on the Moon and therefore infrastructure cost not exorbitant,” Ruess points out. This possibility is being seriously considered by lunar settlement planners.

Looking back on the previous articles in the series, Florian Ruess comments on whether lunar bases can be mobile and points out some of the severe difficulties facing settlement planners if locally mined materials are to be used:

I am not a big fan of mobile bases. Such a system that includes power generation, communications and especially long-term meteoroid and radiation protection does not seem feasible to me. But the wheeled vehicles could be pressurized designs capable of serving several-day-long science missions. This would be a good solution to expand the capabilities of a permanent base.

Local materials are a crucial yet difficult issue. My research so far has shown that only after a certain presence has been established and experience with lunar issues and materials has been gained we would be in a position to dare and build habitats from local materials. Certainly not before man sets foot on the Moon. And please forget about the much-cited lunar concrete! There are so many showstoppers for this imaginary material that I don’t even want to start mentioning them. The only early local material application I see is meteoroid and radiation protection using regolith as shielding material.

“Building a Moon Base” is based on research by Haym Benaroya and Leonhard Bernold (“Engineering of lunar bases“)

Plus an exclusive interview with Florian Ruess, extreme habitat structural engineer and founder of Habitats for Extreme Environments – HE2

-Florian Ruess, private communication.

Many thanks to Florian Ruess for his time in contributing to this article. For further information about his work and extreme environment habitat designs, visit his website at: HE-squared.com.

For more information about the future of lunar settlement, check out the Moon Society and the collaborative resource, Lunarpedia.


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Polaris93
Member
March 22, 2008 11:18 PM

Hmmm . . . Okay, here’s a blue-sky idea: http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=strandbeest&search_type= Maybe one could use space-age versions of these “Beach Beasts” to get around on the Moon in places where there aren’t any roads, powered by solar panels and batteries rather than the wind, and made of materials suitable to the terrain and environment. Just a thought.

Silver Thread
Member
Silver Thread
March 22, 2008 8:49 PM
I wonder if Lava tubes would have retained any of the gas that may have hung around in the primordial atmosphere of the moon. Such places wouldn’t have the solar wind stripping away gas and the gravity of the moon might draw said gas down into the deeper parts of the lava tube. In any case I would say that some sort of inflatable designed to be inserted into an existing lava tube would be our best bet for a quick set up. The membrane might be made to expand and fill the entire volume of space provided by the lava tube and the Tube would provide structure and protection to the membrane. As far as the issue… Read more »
tacitus
Member
March 22, 2008 9:06 PM
Ok, so here’s an idea that springs to mind. Given that there is no wind to blow the dust around, why not create a dust-free “clean zone” (of perhaps a couple of hundred yards) around the base before you establish it? Sure, that’s a lot of dust, but It’s easy to move the dust, so why not spend some time and money blowing it away from the site before building the base? If it takes an extra few months, that’s not a big deal. (I’m sure Hoover or Dyson would be happy to work on developing the technology ) Once the dust has been moved, it won’t ever blow back under natural conditions. The only thing you have… Read more »
EagleUK
Member
EagleUK
March 23, 2008 1:58 AM

I guess that my first question is “Why?”

What purpose is there in returning to the Moon that can’t be solved more easily by building an enhanced space station in Earth orbit?

ericick
Member
ericick
March 23, 2008 3:47 AM

I like the dust free-zone of a couple hundred yards radius, Tacitus. Seriously, perhaps a shaped-charge explosion of a nuclear device to fuse it all into glass or sand? A designed nuke whose hard rads will die off quickly.

VMAC
Guest
VMAC
March 23, 2008 10:27 AM

Regolith Ice Cube Paving Stones. I recall that there are enough materials on the lunar surface to create water. So why not make a slurry with regolith and water? When poured into molds then exposed to space to freeze the resulting ice bricks would make excellent paving stones – or habitat building blocks for that matter.

Alex
Guest
Alex
March 23, 2008 10:44 AM

I imagine this is going to be really expensive at first but as time goes on, it will probably be self-sustaining and maybe even profitable in monetary terms.

Vanamonde
Guest
Vanamonde
March 23, 2008 10:48 AM

When I agree that it would be better in the long run to build cities in orbit instead of back in a gravity well with no air to make it worthwhile, you want a lunar base to mine material to build those cities in orbit. Using solar power, you can mine stuff that would be much easier to get than from the Earth. And you can build solar powered rail guns to launch the stuff to it’s destination. The late great Gerald O’Neil did much study on this for NASA.

Chuck Lam
Guest
Chuck Lam
March 23, 2008 10:51 AM

A functional life sustaining base on the moon? Interesting thought. I wonder how many governments will be required to fund this project?

Chuck Lam
Guest
Chuck Lam
March 23, 2008 6:53 PM
Frank is correct about mankind’s engineering prowess. We’ll eventually get to the moon. However, I suspect it will take several billions of dollars and generations before any nation can set-up permanent house keeping on the moon. I’m basing my comments on America’s current plans to go back to the moon. To go there in the next decade or two (why so long?), spend a few days on the surface and return is a technical no-brainer. To develop a means to stay permanently, in the interest of pure science, will most likely be found to be economically impossible. Unless, of course, there will be some clear-cut permanent military interest, than our elected leaders will throw a high percent of… Read more »
owen
Guest
owen
March 23, 2008 4:31 PM

I think that a cable cart is a good idea but i also think some sort of hover craft using magnets or something woul be a good idea.

Frank
Guest
March 23, 2008 5:05 PM
Lunar bases will happen because of elegant solutions by engineers and technical experts. Everyone conveniently forgets how enormously expensive and dangerous it is to put anything into space. Throw in a lunar landing/takeoff and you’ve more than doubled the risk and expense. Throw in human beings and everything it takes to keep them alive in such an environment and it is a daunting engineering feat unlike anything in human history Every gram of mass lofted upwards is precious. When people talk of pogo boots, nukes and maglev, well, my advice is put down the sci-fi books, stop watching Star Trek and use that prodigous imagination to think of realistic solutions rather than juvenile musings that are insulting to… Read more »
tacitus
Member
March 23, 2008 7:02 PM

Seriously, perhaps a shaped-charge explosion of a nuclear device to fuse it all into glass or sand? A designed nuke whose hard rads will die off quickly.

Heh. I’m guessing that would be what they would call the sledgehammer approach! smile

Not saying it wouldn’t work, but given the public queasiness over launching very safe plutonium power packs into space, I suspect the idea of launching a less safe nuclear weapon to the moon would be a tough sales job to a nuclear averse public.

tacitus
Member
March 23, 2008 7:09 PM
When I agree that it would be better in the long run to build cities in orbit instead of back in a gravity well with no air to make it worthwhile, you want a lunar base to mine material to build those cities in orbit. For one, the Moon is a far better place to conduct astronomy than in orbit around the Earth. If we are going to explore the solar systems around us (i.e. exoplanets) then the only practical way to do it in the forseeable future will be through the end of a telescope. A permanently dark crater near one of the Moon’s poles is just about the idea place in which to put a large… Read more »
tacitus
Member
March 23, 2008 7:16 PM
Throw in a lunar landing/takeoff and you’ve more than doubled the risk and expense. It’s a lot easier to land and take off from the Moon than it is Earth. So, you’re only doubling the risk if you take into account that we have to get to the Moon as well as land there, and once out of Earth orbit, you’re bail out options are greatly reduced. (Mind you Apollo 13 managed to cope, and that was decades ago!). But my bet is that colonization won’t be widespread until we solve the issue of getting off Earth in a safer and cheaper fashion. That’s why I think the Space Elevator idea has legs — assuming we can solve… Read more »
Caitlin MacMurtrie
Guest
Caitlin MacMurtrie
March 23, 2008 7:28 PM

honestly this sounds amazing, but whose to say when we go to far? Say we do finaly get a life sustaining area on the moon, whats next? will we keep adding to it? Untill one day the moon is covered in things? How far is to far?

Silver Thread
Member
Silver Thread
March 23, 2008 8:20 PM
[quote]# Frank Says: March 23rd, 2008 at 5:05 pm Lunar bases will happen because of elegant solutions by engineers and technical experts. Everyone conveniently forgets how enormously expensive and dangerous it is to put anything into space. Throw in a lunar landing/takeoff and you’ve more than doubled the risk and expense. Throw in human beings and everything it takes to keep them alive in such an environment and it is a daunting engineering feat unlike anything in human history Every gram of mass lofted upwards is precious. When people talk of pogo boots, nukes and maglev, well, my advice is put down the sci-fi books, stop watching Star Trek and use that prodigous imagination to think of realistic… Read more »
Johnny Blues
Guest
Johnny Blues
March 24, 2008 3:45 AM
Great conversations from a provocative and interesting ariticle. While reading the ariticle, I wondered if anyone would think of the Earth Space Elevator research, which would work 6 times as eloquently on the moon. There would be little need for landing/take-off ports, just use orbital UPS Elevator freight. Considering the areas with meaningful mineral deposits will probably be just as far apart as our investigational landings will be, roads would seem impractical. Another item wasn’t mentioned, albeit Mr. Florian Ruess commented in the same vein – history. I was thinking go further back into history and find a cave, or blast one out with that aforementioned nuclear shape charge. I don’t see why not since a nuclear power… Read more »
tacitus
Member
March 23, 2008 10:25 PM
honestly this sounds amazing, but whose to say when we go to far? Say we do finaly get a life sustaining area on the moon, whats next? will we keep adding to it? Untill one day the moon is covered in things? How far is too far? I dunno, how far is far enough? Seriously, though, assuming we continue to thrive as a species, who knows what will happen in the long term (by 2500, by 3000, etc). If we find the Moon profitable, I would expect us to exploit it to the fullest. If mass interstellar migration remains impractical, then the Moon will likely be the second most desirable chunk of real estate after the Earth until… Read more »
Peter Knapp
Guest
Peter Knapp
March 24, 2008 7:35 AM
Tacitus: dust free zone: excellent. Aren’t the dark areas of the moon (the seas) areas of more recent lava such that they might not even be deep in dust? Nice bedrock foundations? I’ll go out with my leaf blower, come out with the iced tea. Caitlin: The moon is not an ecosystem, environment yes, but there’s no life. Nothing to wreck or destroy. The stark beauty will remain. We’ll never cover the surface, too few resources. I’d rather science and population take us there than into the last recesses of our Earth. Frank: you got yours from Silver Thread, he said it better than I could. Insulting others for insulting engineers … clever. Anyone: Is the atmosphere on… Read more »
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