Moon base

Innovation

Moon City: Famed NASA engineer reveals why it’s a higher priority than Mars

Homer Hickam is perhaps best known for his memoir Rocket Boys.

NASA/Wikimedia Commons

Humanity could be on the verge of building permanent settlements on other planets, and an ex-NASA engineer is all for it.

Homer Hickam is perhaps best known as the inspiration for October Sky, a 1999 movie about growing up in West Virginia and building a rocket against the odds. He was first inspired when, as a child, he watched Sputnik flying in the sky in 1957.

Following the release of his latest memoir Don’t Blow Yourself Up, Hickam says that he now hopes a future Moon city could inspire people in the same way.

“I'm 78 years old, and I hope to live long enough to see the lights in a little crater on the Moon from a little community,” Hickam tells Inverse.

His comments come as private companies and national agencies ramp up efforts to reach further into space. SpaceX is building its Starship rocket in Texas, with plans for an orbital test as soon as possible and a crewed mission to Mars this decade. Blue Origin last month announced plans for a commercial space station, and founder Jeff Bezos has expressed support for giant cities orbiting Earth.

Hickam suggests that efforts like these could help inspire a new generation. As a child, Hickam looked up and saw Sputnik in the sky from his Coalwood hometown, a community more focused on coal mining than space colonization. He says that, in the future, children could similarly look up and see the lights from cities on the Moon.

“We'll have Coalwood on the Moon,” he says. “I can't wait to see that.”

And in a twist that would perhaps make this city a lot more like Coalwood, Hickam says that these cities could support mining activities on the Moon.

“The Moon is loaded with resources that the Earth needs!” Hickam says. “There is a business plan that could be made for the Moon.”

Want to know more about how Hickam inspired Bezos and Musk, what it was like to fix the Hubble Space Telescope, and how Hickam helped shape U.S. space policy? Read the full interview with Homer Hickam, only in MUSK READS+.

Hickam also supports SpaceX and Elon Musk’s efforts to get to Mars, but cites two reasons why the Moon should take priority:

  1. Mars is so far away. Humanity would need to develop nuclear rockets to cut journey times from up to nine months down to just three months.
  2. There is enough to do on the Moon that we would be “preoccupied” for “decades”

Paul Wooster, SpaceX’s principal Mars development engineer, explained in 2019 that the company could do both at the same time:

“Because it’s the same system that’s being used for going to the moon and going to Mars, it’s not something where you have to stop going to the moon in order to go to Mars…we’re really excited about the possibilities of doing both, having bases on the moon while we’re also setting up these cities on Mars.”

But beyond economic activities in space, Hickam suggests that humans may have the ability to go to space because “our creator wants us to get out there and really admire what he or she has done.”

“Philosophically, why have we been given this technology?” Hickam says. “It is to use, I believe [...] it's almost preordained. Kismet, as I like to call it, has preordained that we should move into space. And it may very well be that we are the only intelligent species capable of doing that.”

In other words, we should take advantage of the window of opportunity that is opening — a sentiment shared by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

City on the Moon: Who would build it?

Several organizations plan to build permanent lunar settlements.

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos said in 2018 that he planned to work with NASA and the European Space Agency to build a permanent settlement on the Moon.

NASA has plans of its own to build infrastructure on the Moon, with the planned Artemis Base Camp that would support future crewed missions. The plan is to send humans to the Moon in 2024, before sending more crew to the Moon around once per year. The Base Camp would support missions in the long-term, with housing for up to four astronauts for a month-long stay.

NASA's concept of how missions on the Moon might work.NASA

Russia and China also plan a permanent Moonbase. In June, the two countries announced plans for a permanent base on the Moon to support scientific work.

In September 2019, the Open Lunar Foundation also announced its goal to build a settlement on the Moon at a cost of $5 billion. The non-profit organization is backed by names like Steve Jurvetson, who also serves on the board of SpaceX and Tesla.

SpaceX itself has also expressed interest in using its under-development Starship rocket to build a settlement on the Moon.

“We should have a base on the moon, like a permanently occupied human base on the moon, and then send people to Mars,” Musk said in March 2019.

SpaceX's concept art for a permanent lunar settlement, with Starship landing in the foreground.SpaceX

Hickam hopes that these small stations would encourage companies to expand their operations over time.

“That's what I hope to see,” he says. “We go back to the Moon, we set up a station there. Commercial companies go up there, they start just mining.”

City on the Moon: When could it happen?

NASA aims to send humans back to the Moon in 2024. This would act as a stepping stone to a larger habitat sometime later. Musk claimed in April 2021 that SpaceX could do it sooner. Previous concept art from NASA claimed it could build an “advanced exploration lander” by 2026.

SpaceX’s timescale for a Moon base is less clear. While Musk has grand plans to build a city on Mars by 2050, and he’s expressed interest in building a base on the Moon, he’s quieter on when this Moonbase could take shape.

On the Russia and China side, The Guardian explains that the two countries plan to choose two or more sites in the coming years. This would start a decade-long construction process, leading to a base by 2036.

As for when these could expand out into something closer to a city, that remains to be seen. Phil Metzger, a planetary physicist at the University of Central Florida, told The Verge in 2019 that it can take up to 20 years to establish a mine on Earth. That could mean it would take far longer to establish industry on the unfamiliar terrain of the Moon.

Concept art of a Moon base under constructionESA

City on the Moon: Why do we need it?

The Russian, Chinese, and American space agencies tout the scientific benefits of working on a Moonbase. NASA claims its base plans “will allow our robots and astronauts to explore more and conduct more science than ever before.”

For SpaceX, a mission to the Moon would “provide an opportunity to gain valuable experience for missions to Mars and beyond.”

Hickam suggests that a permanent Moon base could be used to mine for vital resources. This includes thorium and helium-3. The European Space Agency has declared the latter element could be used in nuclear fusion reactors for a clean source of energy.

Space mining has got private companies excited. A Goldman Sachs report in 2017 claimed that a single asteroid could be worth up to $50 billion in rare resources.

Science, exploration, and clean energy are good goals — but money could be the catalyst to get private enterprise really interested.

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