On Thursday this week, a group of 40 senior students from Purdue University, presented their moon colonization plans to a very full room. Listening in were a few of NASA’s administrators, eager to collect ideas and provide feedback. Ever since scientists and aeronautics professionals have looked further into the possibility of sustaining human life outside of Earth, dozens of questions have been raised, from the pragmatic to the philosophical. The surprising part about the moon colony plan pitched to NASA by these students is that it has real potential.
For all the reasons that moon (or even Mars) colonization could be appealing, there is a laundry list of technical obstacles that must be addressed first, not least of which is the $550 billion estimated cost. To put a perspective on such a massive expenditure, NASA is typically budgeted about $18 million per year. Hypothetically, if NASA were to save every dollar of this annual budget toward usage on the moon colonization plan, it would take roughly 30.5 years to amass the funds, bringing us to the year 2044.
The students presented more ambitious scenarios, however. All talk of funding aside, the students laid out a series of articulate points and measures throughout their entire report, lasting 1,100 pages. If developers and scientists were to start now, the students speculate that the initial stages of research and its implementation would take about eight years, or until 2022. At this point, a spacecraft would be launched with the robots and cargo necessary to construct the colonies, over a span of two years.
Four middle-aged married couples would then be deployed to the moon as the colonists, and would embark on their mission of exploration from May of 2024 until September of 2028. The students figured that by sending married couples, it would help to quell any feeling of cabin fever and reduce overall stress. As for the length of the trip, the students calculated that this could pose as a long enough time to determine whether or not long-term colonization of the moon or Mars would be fully feasible.
Andrew Cox, the student project manager for the proposal, mentioned that the mission’s speculated success rate is 80 percent. This is a markedly high rate of success, especially in light of the fact that U.S. astronauts have only previously been in space for about six months at a time. Cox also notes that the mission’s odds of the colonists not making it back to Earth is around 17 percent. If this colonization plan ever reaches fruition, those that are a bit more daring, may embrace this as a challenge to be surmounted.
The most important comment of the day, however, was from Prof. James Longuski, who has been directing this Purdue aeronautics class since 2001. Longuski brought to the table a number of underlying questions about the nature of such an endeavor, if the designs for the mission were to ever be executed.
He noted that the moon would serve as a “test bed” for Mars, which, of its own right, he surmises would be a one-way colonization effort. This brings up a number of engaging premises to consider, including whether or not the future colonization of either orbiting body would be the right move for humanity.
Longuski was of the mind that ultimately the colonization of Mars is more of a “when” than an “if.” The professor brought up the fact, that whatever country decides to be the first to step up to such an unprecedented challenge, they will be represented by the specific individuals that end up being eligible for the trek.
This is a very strong point to consider, because regardless of whether or not this type of potential voyage ends up being a success or failure, the nation that the space travelers would belong to would receive the consequences of the journey. If the expedition goes well, more countries and their respective citizens would undoubtedly want to vie for their own opportunity to travel to Mars.
Staying within the bounds of the present, however, the lengths to which this particular group of aeronautics and astronautics students went to develop a detailed plan is remarkable. There’s no question that a few of those students will have satisfying careers in their fields. Don’t be surprised if you hear more about U.S. plans to develop colonization in Mars in the coming decades, because the plan for an initial moon colony that these students pitched to NASA has real potential.
Opinion by Brad Johnson