Moon base plan 'pie in space'

How the base might look (ESA/Foster + Partners)
How the base might look (ESA/Foster + Partners)

Plans to build a base on the moon have come and gone, but a new proposal by the European Space Agency (ESA) is perhaps humanity's best shot yet.

ESA director-general Johann-Dietrich Worner has proposed an international effort to set up a permanent base in the mould of the International Space Station by 2030.

"It will be the Americans, it will be the Russians, it will be the Chinese, it will be the Indians, the Japanese, and even more countries with smaller contributions," he said last month.

"It's an open station, for different member states, for different states around the globe."

AUT University's Steve Pointing, a former NASA scientist, says the idea isn't pie in the sky; it's "pie in space".

"It's always good to set an ambitious plan," he said on the Paul Henry programme this morning. "If you consider [US President John F] Kennedy in the '60s, he put a man on the moon within a decade."

No humans have set foot on the moon since 1972, but technology has come a long way since Neil Armstrong's giant leap for mankind.

Dr Worner wants to take as little building material as possible from the Earth to the moon, and instead rely on mining and 3D printing to construct our first extra-terrestrial base.

"Basically this is all about money and having the will do it," says Prof Pointing. "The technology's already there -- we know very well how to live on the moon."

We've known since 2009 there is water on the moon, which can provide not just a source of drinking water, but also oxygen and fuel, in the form of hydrogen.

Technology and scientific advances aside, what sets out Dr Worner's proposal is that it won't just be for scientists.

"Not only will it be full of scientists, but maybe accountants," jokes Prof Pointing.

Tourism is another option. Private space companies are making money by taking up billionaires looking for thrills, and the same could happen on the moon.

Mining is another, with the potential to make rare Earth elements used in electronics not so rare, but not one Prof Pointing is so keen on.

"If human beings are unable to sustain a population by using the resources we have on this planet, is it really a good idea to start pillaging another?"

While Dr Worner is aiming for the moon, private organisation Mars One is bypassing it altogether with plans to establish a human colony on the red planet by 2027, three years ahead of the ESA's lunar mission.

The catch is, if the mission ever goes ahead, it's a one-way trip -- there is currently no known way to get any ship that lands on Mars back again. The advantage the moon has is it only takes three days to get there, and as the Apollo missions proved way back in the '60s and '70s, we know how to get back.

"It's the closest bit of real estate to Earth, so if you were going to test out technologies that you might one day use on Mars, then it makes sense to do it on the moon first," says Prof Pointing.