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It’s been almost exactly 50 years since astronauts first set foot on the moon and won a Cold War-era skirmish for the bragging rights. Yet over the past few weeks, echoes of that era and its pseudo-political lunar squabbles have reverberated, after Vice President Mike Pence spontaneously moved up NASA’s stated deadline for reaching the moon by four years, from 2028 to 2024. He described a “new space race” between the United States and other world powers including China and Russia.

In comparison, the European Space Agency and its Director General Jan Woerner are taking a distinctly apolitical approach to their lunar aspirations. Woerner’s vision is to build a “moon village,” or semi-permanent, multinational settlement, that could serve as a base for research or further exploration. “The original vision of Jan Woerner was to take the lessons learned about the International Space Station and apply them to the moon, and that all entities interested in going to the moon should pool our resources and create a common infrastructure,” explains Georgi Petrov, an associate director at the architecture firm SOM. “So the various people interested in going to the moon–be it scientific exploration by governments or private tourist agencies–they could all come to the same site and share into the same pool of resources.”

The ESA’s approach has included collaborations with professionals outside of the aerospace industry–and outside of Europe–to create a body of research and working knowledge that is accessible to any nation. The latest of these is a group of architects at the large, international firm SOM. Their plan is purely a research project, but figuring out how to keep people alive on a remarkably hostile planet resonates with designers on earth all the same.

“It definitely does make you acutely aware of how much we take for granted,” explains SOM design partner Colin Koop, who worked with Petrov on the project. “You’re keenly aware of how much less problematic it is to build on planet Earth,” he explains. “And then, paradoxically, how seemingly terrible we are at building on planet Earth, to the point of reaching a crisis in terms of the environment.”

[Image: © SOM/Slashcube GmbH]

Rather than imagine settlements of the distant future, the team at SOM gave themselves a brief of envisioning a lunar settlement that could be built within the next five years. That meant soliciting the input of MIT professor of aeronautics and astronautics and former NASA astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman, who advised them on issues like rocket payloads and building for human factors in low-gravity environments, like the moon’s. “He’s helping us understand what are the kinds of experiences and interfaces that you would need to contend with in low-gravity environments,” explains Daniel Inocente, a senior architectural designer at the firm.

Their concept, still in its early days, proposes a small team of four astronauts setting up a temporary base on the edge of the Shackleton Crater, at the moon’s south pole, where sunlight is nearly constant throughout the lunar cycle and where ice deposits offer scientists rich research opportunities. The living spaces are lightweight frames wrapped with pressurized skins–an aerospace technology that the ISS is already using through its year-old Bigelow inflatable module–mixing strength with weight savings, which is so crucial when every pound of cargo equates to millions of dollars in fuel costs.

While the architects imagine eventually finding ways to use lunar regolith (or dust) to fabricate structural shells that could block radiation for these habitats, they envision this first envoy as a mission to simply establish a working research hub on the moon. Later, in situ building technologies, such as 3D printing structural components out of moon dust, could eventually be deployed.

[Image: © SOM/Slashcube GmbH]

The small habitats would be connected by pressurized walkways–a crucial way to limit the amount of time astronauts need to spend on EVAs (extravehicular activity, or any activity that puts them outside the confines of the pressurized habitats). That insight came from Hoffman, who helped the architectural team understand the day-to-day ergonomic challenges of life in deeply inhospitable space. “One of the things that was a surprise is that when you’re inside of a space suit because it’s pressurized, it’s actually very difficult to operate–so the amount of energy that you utilize is a lot higher,” Inocente explains. “You have to kind of limit the amount of work that any astronaut can do.”

In contrast to some of the wilder concepts for lunar habitats produced by architects working with the ESA over the past few years–see Foster + Partners’ 3D-printed habitats–the plan is measured more by the confines of current aerospace tech; the modules are designed to fit in any of today’s available rocket cargo holds and designed with materials that could be launched into orbit today.

[Image: © SOM]

Yet the architects also had to imagine a construction pipeline that doesn’t exist yet. They imagine that once the materials were launched into low earth orbit, they could be handed off to a transport vehicle that shuttles them to the Lunar Gateway, a planned NASA station in lunar orbit that could begin construction in the 2020s (but whose future is still very unclear). Then they’d be handed off again to a lunar lander, which would shuttle the materials down to the moon, where a rover could deliver them to the crater.

In other words, while their plan strives for realism, it’s still very much subject to the whims of the space agencies themselves–many of which are embroiled in political battles over budget and direction. Both ESA and SOM see their lunar research as open and cooperative, though, in contrast to the “new space race” that Pence portrayed earlier this month. “We’ve laid out our master plan with the idea that any such entity, be it the U.S. government or ESA or the Chinese government or some private entity, could come and partake in the moon village,” Petrov says.

[Image: © SOM/Slashcube GmbH]

Even if the world’s lunar aspirations end up shifting over the next few years, there may some inherent value in imagining how to sustain life in the dark, cold, dusty landscapes of the moon. “If you brought that same degree of discipline back to architecture on planet Earth, I think we would be in an infinitely better place than we are today,” Koop adds. “There’s tremendous value to taking that wisdom and trying to apply it to our projects on this one.”

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