Moon Base Alpha, the dream of astrophysicists and science fiction fans alike may have moved one step closer to reality, thanks to a few bottles of vodka. The Russian space agency Roscosmos has recently invited it’s international brothers NASA and ESA – European Space Agency – over for a vodka or two. Russian it seems is floating the idea of an international Moon base, Moon Base Alpha. With plans to start firing unmanned modules off in the next decade and completing the construction as early as 2020, it is an ambitious plan. Now when Russia asks you over for a vodka you accept the offer, they do have the best vodka after all.
Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin told Vesti FM radio station, “We don’t want man to just step on the Moon. Today, we know enough about it, we know that there is water in its polar areas, we are now discussing how to begin exploration with NASA and the European Space Agency.”
Popovkin also revealed the options being considered by Roscosmos, including either setting up a base on the Moon or launching a space station to orbit around it. Roscosmos has already scheduled two unmanned missions to the Moon, the Luna Glob and the Luna Resource which are scheduled to launch within the next 8 years.
NASA the next day with a slight blush and confused look was heard to say “We believe Popovkin may be referring to the work of the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG) and its Global Exploration Roadmap,” NASA spokesman J.D. Harrington told SPACE.com in an email. “NASA has been meeting with senior managers from Russia and nine other space agencies to advance coordinated space exploration. The ISECG, as this group is called, has developed a long-range human exploration strategy over the past year.”
Each of the major players involved in the latest discussions have announced plans for a moon base, in the not too distant past. each with an interesting twist. This meeting may have been the first time all three organizations plans have been put on the table at once.
In 1959 while Russia was still aiming its rocket powered satellites at the Moon they also announced plans for a base on the moon. It seems to be a logical thought, after all the planning to get there it doesn’t seem like that much more work to build a base. In 1961 while America was still dreaming of a trip to the moon many stories of possible moon bases appeared. Stories of the bases being built into caves, plutonium power sources and solar observatories were covered by the media of the day.
In more recent times NASA made another push for the moon, with designs concepts laid out and costing’s done they tried for funding as part of NASA’s congressionally mandated strategy to meet U.S. President George W. Bush’s Vision for U.S. Space Exploration, a plan outlined in 2004. NASA’s proposal included plans for a solar power station at the Moon’s pole. The estimated cost, even back in 2006 when the plan was completed was $230 Billion USD over 20 years. No small amount of money. They also estimated the cost of a much simpler trip there and back, no base, would still cost $104 Billion USD.
The other side of the cost equation is of course the benefit balance to the cost. A contentious issue in itself. Even without money generating commercial interests there are scientific and exploration benefits to be had. But the benefit does at the end of the day have to be relative to the cost. At $230 billion it will need to be more than an astronaut hotel. Mining does seem to be an often discussed possibility, and as the X-Prize has shown innovation can happen for other commercial reasons, Richard Branson’s Galaxy One is an interesting example.
The technology required to build Moon Base Alpha has actually existed since late 60’s. Technologies to convert lunar soil and rock into oxygen, hydrogen and minerals for construction have been tested in the labs. Ideas for the construction of the habitation buildings shows some of the most imaginative thinking of all parts of the plan. Buildings range from the cave dwellings of the 60’s, to inflatable cylinders and 3D printed structures. Even new wacky moon buggies have been designed, built and tested in the desert. With enclosed pressurized cabs and 12 wheels we may even see a lunar SVU in the future.
The polar regions of the Moon are the most likely location for the first, possibly robotic / autonomous base on the moon. The poles contain the highest concentration of frozen water just under the surface. This coupled with the almost permanent day light of the poles and it is the likely spot for the first power station and resource mines. Being located at the poles also makes for much simpler and more efficient landing zone, with-out the requirement to enter a traditional orbit or match the landing zones rotational speed life is easier at the poles. Russia is said to already be working on a rail system to move between the pole bases and other possible locations.
Moon Base Alpha is one of those ideas that seems inevitable, logical even. The technologies required for lunar colonization have been speculated upon and hypothesized about for more than 50 years alas no-one country has ever had deep enough pockets and the commitment to make it happen. Hopefully a bottle of vodka can inspire enough international co-operation to make it happen. Achieve what generations of dreamers and fans of Space 1999 have already envisioned, a quick trip to the Moon for the weekend. Let’s hope we don’t blow it out of orbit this time.