The European Space Agency is championing the idea of creating a base on the moon with similar multinational cooperation as is currently seen on the international space station. Allowing partner nations to contribute their own expertise and interest into the program. Is a moon village doomed to fail or is it the most promising plan for the future of the moon. Let’s find out.
In 2016 ESA director Johann-Dietrich Wörner unveiled this vision. The idea is to build on the existing international relationships, partnerships and processes used for the ISS – the largest and most successful international project in human history. And to extend it to a new international endeavour on the lunar surface. Like the ISS, companies and countries can join and contribute to the project in their own way, leveraging their own unique expertise and aligning with their own goals. It is certainly a laudable goal, and the prospect of sharing the costs across more than a hundred organizations and governments has some real benefits.
The following year In 2017 this vision was further entrenched with the formation of the independant Moon Village Association, a NGO devoted to making the vision real – through establishing the working relationships across businesses, government and academia and driving the disparate groups to make concrete actions that will harmonize human activity on the moon. The naming is a source of some confusion as the moon village association is independent of ESA and its efforts.
What does that mean in reality?
The moon village is not necessarily seen as a physical base – putting all people in one place – such as the ISS, it is an umbrella of coordination of all parties that will be going to the moon. The coordination may result in things such as standardized docking mechanism, shared infrastructure projects, a platform for voicing concerns to other members, for establishing limits for preserving historical artifacts, and reducing duplication of work, or establishing market places for business to happen on and around the moon.
It’s worth keeping in mind that the ISS is currently scheduled for end of life in 2030, this has already been extended beyond the original lifespan of the station, as it was scheduled to be deorbited in 2016. As such, Many systems aboard the ISS are operating beyond their designed life expectancy and will need to be recertified in 2028. Should the station be decommissioned in 2030, as currently planned, the international partnerships built up over the previous 30 years will dissolve as well. Moon Village is a strategy for building on this history, and pivoting the partnerships to a new space goal.
The moon village association has created a number of working groups devoted to studying various aspects of how things could work as we expand onto the moon. As the costs and availability of launching payloads to the moon is expected to drop significantly with new rockets over the coming decade the moon village association is attempting to get ahead of the curve to put things in place before the capability is developed of low cost access – and the ensuing rush to the moon.
ESA for their part have been in discussions with their counterparts at NASA,who are on board with lunar cooperation. ESA is also in discussions with China about various ways to work together, China has agreed to be part of the moon village, though given the differences in government organization and legal aspects (particularly around intellectual property in China) finding ways to work together with China seems tepid so far. ESA would like Moon Village to be an international effort of nearly every nation, but headed up by Europe.
Broadly there seems to be strong support for creating a framework for international cooperation around getting back to the moon. The moon doesn’t belong to any one country, in fact the outer space treaty prevents any country from making a claim on the moon which reduces the benefit for any single country to go it alone.
If nothing else, the moon village will be a platform for discussion and debate for how things will work beyond the limits of a solid legal framework for what all the various countries and private companies do on the moon. Certainly if some rogue player starts to strip mine the moon, the relationships built through the moon village should help in deciding what to do about it.
Establishing humans on the moon will eclipse the ISS in complexity and scope. In addition to all the technical challenges that go with a space station such as life support systems, energy, re-supply missions, communication systems, scheduling missions, science programs etc the moon is much further away – a multi-day journey (too long to stay cramped in a Soyuz capsule). It requires a lunar lander and re-launch vehicle, it deals with harsh radiation that the ISS doesn’t need to deal with, abrasive lunar regalith that wears on everything, the possibility of using local resources which we haven’t had to do yet, and driving private business investments which are limited on the space station. Encompassing all these aspects into a single nation’s space plan is, in all likelihood, not feasible. Furthermore, The moon is an open environment, not constrained by physical limits the way ISS is. We will not be limited by what modules can connect together. On the moon we can build and later upgrade or abandon things we build there. Our presence on the moon can be expanded nearly endlessly over time. The availability of lunar real estate means that private companies have an easier time building things with fewer limits.
One of the criticisms of moon village is that all these partners add communication overhead and complications to the prospect of a lunar base. For instance, ISS does demand that training astronauts constantly travel – to Houston for training on US modules, to Montreal to learn how to use the Canadarm, to Japan to learn to use systems on the JAXA module, and to Roscosmos to learn the Russian systems. In addition to the technical skills required, people need to become fluent in Russian language and English, and spend much of the year away from family. Playing into the demands of each government in order to capture as much value from space investments as possible for their respective countries, results in lots of these kinds of inefficiencies.
The appeal of small and nimble private companies is that by avoid a lot of the overhead of these complex agreements they can stay focused on making things happen.
The counter argument is that a system as complex as ISS or a lunar base is outside the scope of what can be accomplished by a single organization. ISS has been resilient to US Government wims and across changes to power partially because of the pressure of international agreements. Spreading the investment across multiple countries makes it more palatable from a budget perspective and as a result a smaller target for cost cutting governments to axe. This diversity of capital and influence has reduced the risk of getting cancelled, and broadened the scope of the missions and science that gets done.
One of the prominent things that has been accomplished has been the partnership between ESA and engineering and design firm SOM to complete a concept moon base from the master plan for the community down to the individual modules that will make up the first habitats. Granted this is more inspirational fodder than ready to fold metal and start building our future home on the moon stuff, but it’s good to have a concrete vision about what the moon could be like, if everybody joins in on the adventure. Convincing nations and companies to be part of a moon village will require having a compelling vision.
I think the relationships formed under the umbrella of the moon village has already had an impact and will continue to shape how we proceed in settling the moon. Even if ultimately the “Moon Village” isn’t a place we go to, or a round table of stakeholders, the concept will continue to frame our discussions and be foundational to how we think about exploring the moon, not as a single nation or company, but as a international venture. Hopefully something that all humans can feel like they are part of.