A couple of months ago, I had an idea for a story following a guy around as he did some “weekend” chores, like checking the smoke detectors. Why would anyone care for such a story? Because he’s a crewmember of the first lunar base. Since going to the moon is so difficult, the crew works for six days, and then they have a half-day where they finish up their experiments, do some minor maintenance and cleaning, and usually watch a movie. This week, it’s my character’s turn to do the safety checks: each room has a detector unit for smoke, radiation, pressure drop, carbon monoxide, and probably a few others. He also does a visual check to see if there are any cracks in the walls. Every few months they do a more rigorous check with a laser system, but that’s not this week.
the story there is no alien invasion, or some secret plot to destroy the
base. Nothing like that. It’s just a group of people learning to live
on the moon. For example, every week
each crewmember gives a blood, urine, and stool sample. Some tests are run there on the moon, but
most of the samples are frozen to be shipped back to Earth where dozens of
tests can be run. Because we have barely
any data on what living at the reduced lunar gravity will do to humans. It’s necessary science, but not the premise
for a blockbuster.
I decided that I needed to come up with the layout of the base to keep
everything straight as he walks around and sees all the various ongoing
experiments. My initial design had seven
modules the size of what could fit in a rocket.
The idea was they would launch and dock with a small space station that
would probably only be temporarily crewed.
There it would be attached to a lander that would fly it to the moon and
land it. This lander, once unloaded,
could then lift off from the moon, dock with the station, be refueled, and go on
to land the next module.
first thing to land, however, would be a bulldozer and a 3D printer. The printer would take lunar regolith, mix it
with some binding agent, and basically make lunar cement. The idea of the cement was to build an
airtight, protective shell around the modules, which would then be covered over
in more regolith to give radiation and micrometeor protection.
foundation would be printed out, then the seven modules would land and be
placed. The seven modules would be
arraigned like a straight-sided “8.” The module furthest in would be the
sleeping quarters with a galley, the one in the middle would be the greenhouse,
and the one with access to the lunar surface would have the airlocks. And the other four would have labs, storage,
command center, common area, etc. In
addition, the two interior holes would be used.
They’d have a cement floor and ceiling, but the walls would be the outer
layers of the modules. They’d have air
in them, but they’d just be used to store spacesuits, extra oxygen tanks, and
other bulky stuff.
the plan was for the base to be built by robots before people showed up, but I
figured that since this was going to be difficult enough as it was, having
boots on the regolith to make sure it actually fitted together correctly would
speed things up. Because the more I
thought about it, the more complex and expensive this first base was
becoming. So we have the bulldozer and
3D printer needing a rocket launch, along with the lander. Then each module needs a rocket, along with a
few refueling tankers for the lander.
Then there’s solar panels, a rover, communications antenna, and we
quickly get to maybe twenty rocket launches just to get everything to the moon,
not counting the people. We’re talking
at least a year, or maybe two, to build the base. But could such a big, expensive project
actually survive long enough to be built?
an attempt to make things cheaper and faster, my second plan was to land a
small outpost – either just a couple modules or maybe an expandable module –
that would just be on the surface with no 3D printed lunar cement thing around
it. This outpost may only be temporarily
crewed, but one of the things they would do would be to work on building the
second base. This would be mostly 3D
printed lunar cement, with the only things built on Earth being a bunker module
as well as all the airlocks and airtight interior doors. This lasted for a while, but then I realized
that it would be stupid to just abandon this first outpost, so the current plan
(Version 2.1, I guess) is for the first outpost module(s) to become the bunker
module with the rest of the base 3D printed around it. This would be the permanently crewed base my
story is set in. Their main goal is to
learn how to live on the moon in order to build even bigger bases.
cool,” you – hopefully – say, “but why is designing a practical lunar base
hard?” Even with 90% of the base being built with lunar cement, there are still
many literal tons of stuff you have to send to the moon. You’ll need a bulldozer to clear the area,
sensors to make sure the area is compact enough to build on, the 3D printer,
something to gather the regolith, something to shift it to get the proper sized
grains, maybe a grinder to break up rocks to the proper size, something to mix
it with the binding agent, and all the binding agent. And do all of these things have solar panels,
or is there a central power station all these things return to to recharge
their batteries? Then there are the big
things like hatches that are built on Earth and set into the 3D printed walls,
but what about lights and all the wiring that goes with them, and ventilation,
and toilets, and all the computers and microscopes, and all the plumbing for
the hydroponic system?
take a minute to think about electrical wiring.
Long before anything is actually built on the moon, the base would be
designed in a computer on Earth. So in
the computer you could see that this one wire would need to be 17.3 meters
long. So do you make a wire that long on
Earth, tag it as “Wire 17R-14J” or whatever, and ship it up to the moon with a
few hundred other lengths of wire that are just pulled out when needed? But what if something unforeseen comes up and
it ends up a centimeter short? Do you
include a wiggle factor of, like, an extra five centimeters for every expected
meter in length, just so nothing ends up short?
Or do we just send a couple 100 meter rolls of wire to the moon and let
the astronauts cut the appropriate lengths?
A benefit of doing all this on Earth is you could have basically plugs
on each end to plug everything together, without the astronauts having to strip
the wire and actually make the electrical connection. Both ways have their pros and cons, but which
would be the best choice?
could just set a story in a base that is fully furnished, but you do have to
wonder how it all got there? What
elements were delivered first? Did they
land a package with all the hydroponic stuff, 3D print the greenhouse around
it, and once they were sure it was all airtight did they go in and unpack
it? Or did they 3D print the rooms,
leave them empty, and just fill them as they landed the cargo? To see the final design, I needed to figure
out how they would actually build this base.
Part of the reason is that in such a complex process, there are bound to
be quirks, like even with virtual walkthroughs, once there is a crew at the
base they will wonder why the engineers didn’t put the door two meters that
way. And by working through the building
process, I can pick up on some quirks to make for a richer world building. So, this is the construction plans I came up
1: Land the original outpost and basic equipment. This outpost would be crewed for one to two
week missions every few months. They
would do extensive surveys of the area to make sure there were no hidden caves
or anything like that. They would also
test print some small structures to see how they survive the extreme day-night
cycle on the moon.
2: Print the bunker foundation. The foundation
of the base would probably be twenty or thirty centimeters thick, at least. But it probably wouldn’t be solid, because
that would need a lot of binding agent.
I’d guess there would be two air pockets in the foundation, with ten
centimeter wide pillars spaced every meter or so. Why two air pockets? Well, in the bottom one you could pump in
some non-dangerous but easily detected gas with sensors in the upper pocket to
check for leaks. And you could pump the
upper pocket full of air to be used as an emergency air supply. This might also be done with the interior
walls. Let’s face it, the first lunar
base will be overdesigned for safety.
Like I imagine every section will have several emergency spacesuits that
you wouldn’t want to go out on the surface in, but in a worst case scenario
they would keep you alive for an hour or so for you to get to somewhere safe or
to find a proper spacesuit.
3: Finish the bunker. Once the
foundation is set, the original base would be lifted up and set on the foundation. The original base would have a hatch that a
detachable airlock could be hooked up to.
The airlock would be taken off, and an extra thick wall and ceiling
would be 3D printed around the, now, bunker.
Another hatch would be set into the wall, and the airlock would be
attached to it. So now you’d go through
the airlock and end up in a small, lobby before going through the inner hatch
to end up inside the old base. All the
science equipment and such will eventually be moved out, and the space refit as
crew quarters. Spacesuits and other
bulky equipment could be stored in the lobby.
This bunker section I’m calling Section 1.
4: Make Sections 2-5. The final base
will be a two-level dome. The bunker is
in the very center with four sections around it and an upper floor
section. For Section 2, you’d print out
a foundation several times larger than for the bunker. There would be several interior rooms that
may, or may not, be airtight. But the
section as a whole would be airtight.
There would be two more hatches leading to Sections 3 and 4. The airlock would again be removed and
switched to one of these hatches.
Section 2 will ultimately be the greenhouse, but until everything else
is built, it is also the command center, galley, storage area, etc. Section 2 will also have the primary bathroom
because the hydroponic garden will be connected in with the water purification
system. Section 3 will be the command
center along with the galley, pantry, and other storage. Section 4 will be the labs, and Section 5 –
besides being the primary spacesuit storage/maintenance area – will have the
airlocks. There will be person sized
ones, but also a larger cargo airlock. I
imagine there will be a minivan-type rover that will be able to take several
crew members some distance, but there will probably also be a pickup-type rover
for cargo. A cargo ship will land, and
instead of making forty trips through the person sized airlock, they’d just
load up the pickup and drive it in.
You’d need something more than just a wagon, because some of the cargo
will need to be refrigerated or frozen, and any biological cargo – plants or
lab mice – will need some life support.
5: Make Section 6. The main part of the
upper floor will be the common area.
This would have couches and a big screen TV so the crews could watch
movies. This would also be the area
where they would talk to kids back on Earth from. There would also be private rooms that would
be soundproofed. That way crewmembers
could have videochats with loved ones without someone walking through the
background. And there would be storerooms. Sections 3 and 4 will have ramps leading up
to Section 6, with hatches on each end.
And there will also be a cargo elevator that will be airtight, somehow.
6: Finish the dome. So the outer walls
of Sections 2-5 and the wall/ceiling of Section 6 would form the inner
dome. Around this would be several
walkways wide enough for someone in a spacesuit to walk around for inspections.
An outer dome would be printed around
this. And then, on the outer dome would
be attached these 3D printed baskets.
These would probably be roughly cubes a meter on a side. The sides would be ten centimeters or so
thick, and the inner and outer walls would be curved to fit the dome. These would be filled with loose regolith –
to save on binder agent shipped up from Earth – and then stacked on the
dome. They might even do two layers of
this because, well, overdesigned for safety.
And if one of these baskets was damaged, it could just be removed, print
a new one, and replace it.
7: Other stuff. There will probably be a
garage, but it will probably just be a roof to protect the rovers from
micrometeors. If any repairs need done,
they’d drive them into the cargo airlock.
There will probably also be a garage/recharging area for robotic rovers,
which I imagine will do the majority of outside work. There will also be science areas, like the
surface of the moon is a higher vacuum than we can make on Earth so who knows
what possibilities there are for manufacturing.
Part of the reason for this first lunar base is to work out what can be
done before building full-scale lunar factories.
is that what the first lunar base will look like? Unlikely.
Which is too bad. In my armchair
moon architect eyes, I think that would work really well.