How Close Are We To Living On The Moon Or Mars?
Recently, Earthlings have been buzzing about Mars and the moon. In September, NASA announced that liquid water had been found on the Red Planet, reinvigorating an ongoing curiosity about the planet’s inhabitability. The Martian, starring Matt Damon, was an astronomical success—the film grossed roughly $55 million in the first weekend, making it the second-largest opening for an October movie in cinema history.
There’s also been a lot of conversation around the possibility of lunar habitation. The BBC recently reported that the European and Russian space agencies are already planning to explore the moon in preparation for possible human settlement.
So let’s ask the million (or really, multi-billion) dollar question: Will we get the chance to live on the moon or Mars in our lifetime?
We hit up scientists across the country for their thoughts. Here’s what they had to say:
Sally Oey, Professor, University of Michigan, Department of Astronomy
“Our destiny is in space and I’m convinced that humans will be looking into establishing moon settlements as a necessity during our lifetime. But I don’t think we’ll have established any viable colonies in our lifetime—at least, not mine. But my own view is that our destiny is as a cyber species, so moon colonies of biological humans will only be a stepping stone, if they’re ever established.”
Meers Oppenheim, Professor of Astronomy, Boston University
“Moon habitation would not be that difficult but quite expensive. After all, we did it in the 1960s and ’70s, even if only for brief periods. I doubt that substantial amounts of water will be easily extracted from the moon but we could bring most of the required materials with us. The essential question that we face is: What do we want to achieve by inhabiting the moon? If it’s just for the right to say we’ve done it, then we certainly could. If it’s for scientific exploration, we could do that too. This could be done in our lifetime, though it’s such an inhospitable environment with little economic value, that I doubt we will be motivated to have a continual habitation.”
“Mars is a more interesting and exciting possibility. Inhabiting it would require global scale resources, in other words: trillions of dollars. But, if we as a human community decided to do it, we could in the next 25-50 years. Most of the technologies exist today. Some resources could be extracted from the moon but it would not be easy and most of the initial materials would need to come from Earth. The benefits ultimately could prove enormous–a whole world to explore and exploit!”
Mario Mateo, Professor, University of Michigan, Department of Astronomy
“The lunar surface is tough, not just on people but on machines too. All that dust the astronauts picked up on their suits is extremely abrasive…the abrasiveness would really be a challenge to equipment that has motors or gears or bearings. And spacesuits. There are certainly ways to overcome this, but it would largely rule out large-scale habitation and fabrication facilities on the Moon and would really underscore how for the foreseeable future, everything would have to come from Earth. This might be offset by the obvious big advantage of the Moon, its proximity. One could imagine a supply chain that is simpler, more continuous and far more robust than for Mars (not only farther away, but due to orbital mechanics, there are many more restrictions on ’windows’ for when one could go).”
“As for Mars, well, that’s much, much tougher. The fact that there is water there is good, but one cannot assume it would be easy to use without considerable treatment. Otherwise, there is two times less energy from the Sun, enough weather to make things complicated (this was the one thing the movie got really wrong; the weather would not be as violent at shown), and too far for easy transit of supplies from Earth without really massive effort (it would be of interest to get an economists take on that). The idea of three to four week visits in a purely science/exploration mode seems entirely doable within the next 20-30 yrs, again depending on will. There are some serious roadblocks, but they appear to be solvable. But long-term habitation? That’s a long way down the road…so, whose lifetime are you talking about?”
Paul Martini, Professor of Astronomy, The Ohio State University
“I’d love to see both happen in my lifetime. I am not too optimistic that we’ll actually see either become continually inhabited, but I am fairly optimistic that we’ll at least see people return to the Moon, as well as visit Mars.”
Karl Gebhardt, Professor of Astrophysics, University of Texas — Austin
“I can say that as an astrophysicist and Earth inhabitant, it would be totally awesome! Awesome in the true sense of the word (inspiring awe) and in terms of the scientific and technological advancement.”
“I certainly do hope that both [lunar and mars habitation] happen in our lifetime. I suspect that we have, or could develop, the technology to do both; now, it just takes the will, which is money, which is a political decision.”