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Event Horizon

Moon colonies aren’t possible — yet. But NASA is crowdsourcing solutions.

Contests like the ‘Space Poop Challenge’ are laying the groundwork for living on the moon and Mars.

By Glenn McDonald

The Fantasy

Novelist Emily St. John Mandel, the author behind HBO’s Station Eleven, updates a classic sci-fi trope in her new novel Sea of Tranquility by depicting life on various lunar colonies in the years 2203 and 2401. (Time travel is involved.) The book’s title references the place where humans first stepped foot on the moon.

Science fiction has speculated about moon colonies since the beginnings of the genre. Before that, really. Johannes Kepler wrote about lunar travel in his 1634 novel Somnium. For a great contemporary man-on-the-moon story, seek out the fabulous 2009 film Moon. But what is the state of the real science? Are moon habitats a near-future or far-future scenario? And who’s going to get us there?

The Reality

Any discussion of near-future lunar plans must start with NASA’s Artemis program, a multinational initiative aiming to put astronauts back on the moon by 2025. Artemis’ international and commercial partners include SpaceX and the European Space Agency.

If all goes according to plan, the Artemis program would establish an Artemis Base Camp at the lunar South Pole by the end of the decade. Designed for one- to two-month surface stays, the base camp would initially include a four-person astronaut cabin, an open-top rover vehicle, a second robotic explorer, and a pressurized “habitable mobility platform” — a lunar RV, essentially. Further down the line, lunar explorers might start digging for geothermal energy options or valuable resources like Helium-3, which could power future nuclear fusion reactors. NASA isn’t thinking about permanent habitation yet, but hopes that the Artemis base camp will provide critical data for future lunar and Martian colonization programs.  

These are incredibly ambitious goals that present literally millions of individual technical problems that will need to be overcome: problems around orbital mechanics and wireless communications, fuel for vehicles and food for space travelers, and problems about air and algorithms and asteroids. It’ll require a lot of brain power.

“People often assume that just because we can go populate another planet, or the moon, that we will. But I tell people, there has to be a driver.”

Steve Rader, manager of NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation

NASA realized years ago that it will never have the manpower or resources to tackle all these issues in-house. So the agency got hip to the concept of crowdsourcing a few years back and established the NASA Tournament Lab, which sponsors contests open to anyone who’d like to pitch in. The challenges, aimed at qualified scientists and students worldwide, set goals and deadlines for the myriad problems the agency needs to solve.

The Tournament Lab runs dozens of challenges at a time, many designed to benefit the Artemis program. Some current contests involve orbital recycling, origami-inspired radiation shields, and robot arm architecture. There’s even an organic recycling contest called The Space Poop Challenge, which is about what you think it’s about.

“We’ve done about 600 projects so far,” says Steve Rader, manager of NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation, which oversees the Tournament Lab. “This technique acts as a dragnet across other industries and domains. The program finds innovative technologies and concepts in a way that really nothing else does.”

Crowdsourcing requires brainy crowds to source from, and that’s where Northeastern University engineering professor Taskin Padir and his students come in. Padir is faculty advisor for Northeastern’s chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS), a nonprofit that empowers young people to make an impact in space exploration. Padir estimates his students have participated in around 20 NASA challenges so far.

In 2018, Northeastern’s SEDS team signed up for the three-year Moon to Mars Ice & Prospecting Challenge, which involved designing an autonomous robotic system for drilling down and melting subsurface ice, be it lunar or Martian. The Northeastern squad prevailed over eight other university teams in the initial contest, in which NASA simulated off-world drilling conditions. The challenge involved a literal testbed of rocky material called overburden, which Padir describes as similar to lightweight cement.

“You have to go through the overburden to get to the ice block, melt it so that it turns into water, then suck it up and filter it,” says Padir, who is, not coincidentally, also the director of Northeastern’s Institute for Experiential Robotics. “The year that we showed up as a rookie team, we extracted almost a gallon of water.” The team kept improving the system — upgrading the drill, filtering system, and electronics — and later won Best Technical Paper in the 2021 final challenge. Moon nerds can get the details here.

These results are good for NASA, which may very well incorporate the science into its final plans. But such results are also good for the students (and their résumés).

“The bragging rights are nice,” Padir says. “But ultimately the students don’t do the challenges because they want to earn the prize. They do it because they want to solve a hard problem and contribute.”

The Future

NASA’s Rader says the path to moon colonization will be iterative; each mission will lay the groundwork for the next. In short: It’s going to take a while.

To maintain momentum — to generate the required funds and political will — humankind needs a compelling reason to keep pushing forward. In a dark twist, climate change may provide that motivation, Rader says. If things get really bad, humanity may need to get off-world in a hurry.

“People often assume that just because we can go populate another planet, or the moon, that we will,” Rader says. “But I tell people, there has to be a driver.”

Right now, the drivers for future lunar colonization are scientific advancement, potential resource extraction, and maybe a little of the relentless expansionism our species is known for.

“But if conditions on the planet degrade, then it’s the lifeboat scenario,” Rader says. “If the Earth isn’t a great place to live anymore, well, that certainly makes other places look better.”

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Glenn McDonald is a writer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He has written for National Geographic, NPR, Discovery News, The History Channel, Thrillist, Goodreads, and McClatchy newspapers.


Illustration by Adrià Voltà

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