A modest proposal:
One large basket, 8 billion eggs.
There are many reasons for exploring space, maybe the easiest one to argue is that what we don’t know can, manifestly, kill us all. As I write this, yet another rock, this one about a quarter mile in diameter, is approaching earth. This stone, or pile of stones as the case may be, is scheduled to pass within the diameter of the orbit of the moon. There is another on the way in 2029 which is bigger, closer and less predictable. If we had a mature system of traveling and working in space we would have at least a chance of diverting the big one that isn’t going to miss. Currently we don’t even have a workable plan to do this.
Perhaps too much more below
We’ll need a long extension cord.
Living in space is very energy intensive, fortunately there is a very large source of energy that is always available. Earth bound solar energy harvest is crippled by the atmosphere, a primitive economic system and endemic stupidity. A large parabolic reflector focused on a boiler could be much more efficient method of large scale energy harvest. Since we’ve been using steam power for a couple of centuries now, I think we could declare steam a mature technology. Nuclear power is another possibility; no atmosphere to contaminate, no water tables to desecrate and a lot of real estate to separate the bastard from where folks congregate.
I’m not convinced they’re safe anywhere, but I by nature, am sceptical (and I like commas).
I could however, accept a nuclear powered steam tug plying the spaceways propelled by cometary water. We all have a price.
What ain’t we doing wrong?
Lifting all the necessities into orbit, and beyond, will always be expensive. Improvements in methodology will reduce the cost somewhat, but as long as we’re using chemical rockets we’ll still mostly be lifting fuel. The only way to greatly reduce the energy requirements to reach orbit is to start from a shallower gravity well (I’ve heard that the term gravity well has fallen out of favor, but I like it). The Apollo astronauts left the moon in a big aluminum trash can with a couple of bottle rockets, relatively speaking.
Don’t carry timber to the woods.
The moon has all the elements that earth does. Getting oxygen, for example, might not be easy, but with a good bit of energy, and some good clean vacuum, we could probably get all we need from the silicon dioxide that makes up most of the lunar surface. Far more simple to extract O2 and H2 from the native water, which appears plentiful, but widely and thinly spread. Nickel/iron of good purity could probably mined with a magnet, and it’s not even rusty. Ores might be refined by fractional distillation, just like petroleum, or booze. The lower the ambient pressure, and the higher the temperature, the faster materials sublimate, even iron atoms will jump off the parent body well below the material’s melting point if the pressure is low enough. The moon has a good supply of very high quality low pressure (useful stuff; nothing). It could be that a stream of vaporized moon-stuff can be persuaded to separate into streams according to the constituents atomic weight, if targets were placed to intercept specific bands the pure (or at least more pure) elements would accrete to be collected for use. This sorting might be accomplished by electrostatic effect, gravity, magnets or some other means that is so simple that only a genius could conceive thereof. The manufacturing processes that use vacuum on earth, where vacuum is expensive to make and retain are just now being developed and are already worth billions. It is possible that wire feed printers could be developed to make complex apparatus merely by repetitiously depositing thin layers of metal until the product is complete. In the pristine purity of a point nothing atmosphere, heat isn’t required to weld metals or even quartz, just good mating surfaces and a little pressure. The kinetic energy of an atom or droplet of metal vapor striking a surface will cause it to accrete with fine structural properties. New materials and alloys will be discovered in this fashion.
The first loads could be the inflatable power station, a miner/refiner/wire extruder, a printer and an intelligent control moderator to deal with the three second delay to allow remote operation from earth. Build our facilities there, from here. Electromagnetic waves are cheap to get to the moon (Waldo rules).
Space sucks, where I rhapsodize about the beauty of nothing.
People cans (habitable pressure vessels) could be made simply by directing nickel/iron or aluminum vapor at a rotating mylar balloon until a sufficient layer has been deposited and then burying it. NASA made some very nice mylar balloons for the ECHO program during the 60‘s, quite large balloons at that. A spherical habitat or garden would only need a layer of lunar soil (perhaps a quarter of the total volume inside to make a flat floor), local water could be leached through, until the soil is less reactive and the precipitate left from distilling the water mined for ores. Add poop, plant hemp, plow it under, replant and you’ve got a nice little garden/air purifier. Locally made metal sheet might be workable for inflatable forms too. Titanium is common on the lunar surface, vacuum is used to purify Ti and other metals on earth, where vacuum isn’t cheap. The parabolic reflector could be an inflatable structure also, think of a bicycle wheel, the tire and wheel a mylar torus and the spokes two membranes, one transparent, one silvered. The torus would be inflated to a higher pressure than the volume between the two membranes. Make it big, ‘cause it’s light and cheap (and as described, probably won’t focus all that tight). The first such structure could be the last made of imported materials. The reflector and could be built very lightly, no weather, only 1.6 meter/sec. gravity and it would only need to rotate one revolution per lunar month. At the lunar poles, where the best water seems to be, just a little altitude will keep the collector in full time sunlight allowing uninterrupted power. Nearby shaded craters or even the shade behind the reflector would provide a good temperature differential for re-condensing the working fluid.
That was The easy part, now what?
Say we have people, industry and stability, on the moon. The moon is easy to get off of. A Heinlein catapult, why not? Rockets that are more than reaction mass and the little bit that still fits. People who are practiced in solving difficult engineering problems, all the resources off the world. Go for it, organics from Titan, metals from Mercury, maybe even romance from that hell-hole Venus. Orbital or even dirigible habitats spread through the system. I’m probably thinking too small here, but just thumbnailing; wouldn’t a cylinder a kilometer in diameter make about 1G. at the rim turning just 2 rpm? Wouldn’t it still be 1/6 G (like back home) 400 meters axis-wards? Out amongst the asteroids, water and metals are far between, but can come in non-negligible quantities when found. If the blowing bubbles habitats can be made to work (radiation and other annoying realities aside), it is quite possible that individual living volume could exceed that of say, New Yorkers, or even Angelinos.
If it’s the way we’ve always done it, the method could probably be improved.
Rather than boring you with more imaginary (though I hope, imaginative) technologies. I ask that you consider the technologies that could be developed through the challenge of lunar colonization. During “that decade” when we did go to the moon, physical monitoring became pacemakers, a bag of wires knitted by hand through a series of ferrite chokes became the digital revolution. A game of who’s got the biggest with the USSR became weather satellites and global communication and rarely, compassion for pagan babies in distant lands. The future is a sneaky bitch, but doing it the way we’ve always done it is sure to get us right where we’ve always been, and the pagan babies are pitable, still.
When man evolved in this world, and became human. There were many dangers, not the least was the tribe in the next valley, they worshiped evil gods and wore funny hats and must be killed ‘fore they kill us. There are young people today sitting before computer displays in air conditioned trailers sipping cold drinks and directing missiles to the detriment of pagan babies on the next continent. These young people aren’t evil. They are just caught in a closed loop that originated in that valley. Evil gods are still worshiped, hats still funny, and they are yet trying to do for us before we do for them.
If some group had a barrier that could keep the other tribes away, reliably, there would be no need to war. One big tribe occupying an (insert Douglas Adams’ description of how big space is) volume. People could, perhaps, overcome their atavistic aggression, or at least channel it in directions away from their neighbors. Societies have always been heirarchical, and military, unless there was such a barrier. Places that were separate from threat did breed egalitarian democracies, social democracies, matriarchies and even pure communism (i.e. the San of South Africa, some Eskimos and the Bonobo apes.) Everywhere else, pacifists were loved, they were so easy to catch and eat.
The evolution of the wired generation, in which everyone seems to be in constant contact with everyone could lead to a government that has no need to govern. A cautious constitution, machine moderated real time communications and a readily available extract of consensus could be perhaps, all the governance that is needed. With a population that is taught to how (not what) to think from birth and an ethical system that is based on survival of the species as a whole as well as the best values of the individual, people might actually decide to do what is right. (One can dream)
Perhaps a 10M sec/sec gravity well could finally be that barrier. We could have a rational society. Miraculous times, indeed.