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What If We Took an Ark to Colonize the Moon? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Peter DeGiglio
First stop... the moon! Join us... and explore!

We're getting closer and closer to a return to the moon! After more than 50 years, we may soon finally step foot on the lunar surface once again! But, what if we've been planning the journey all wrong? What if, instead of just a few astronauts, we placed thousands of human beings into one ship, and sent them on their way? In this video, Unveiled explores an ARK bound for the moon.
Transcript

What if We Took an Ark to Colonize the Moon?


The moon has been watching Earth stoically for billions of years, and in 1969, we finally sent people there for the first time. Slashed funding and a lack of return on investment for lunar expeditions mean nobody has gone to the moon’s surface since 1972. But could the moon be a future home for humanity?

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; what if we took an ark to colonize the moon?

Though moon missions have, unfortunately, fallen by the wayside in the last few decades, things seem to be looking up for our closest celestial neighbor. With more space agencies and private companies capable of spaceflight than ever before, attention is back on the moon, and NASA is in the midst of planning a renewed lunar expedition: the Artemis program. Among other things, Artemis will be looking to launch more crewed missions and eventually build the Lunar Gateway, a space station in orbit around the moon, just like the International Space Station orbits Earth. The Lunar Gateway will give astronauts better access to the moon than ever before, allowing them to descend to the surface for months or even years of study. Currently scheduled to launch in 2024, we’ll hopefully see this endeavor come to fruition by the end of the decade. Elsewhere in the world, China and Russia are collaborating on a similar plan, to construct a permanent base – the International Lunar Research Station – on the surface.

But these are all still relatively small-scale space missions that will only sustain a handful of people for short periods of time until they return to Earth. They’d spend their time performing experiments and studying rocks. Valuable as this research is, people around the world are all watching the various space agencies to see which one will be first to establish a true, human colony on another world – the likes of which we’ve only seen so far in science-fiction. The construction of a permanent settlement on the moon might require a far bigger, more ambitious plan than NASA and the China National Space Administration are currently entertaining – it might require an ark.

An ark is an enormous starship capable of sustaining a population of thousands completely independently. You’ll usually see them appear in fiction as “generation ships”, crafts that can support a large population for the hundreds or thousands of years it could take for the ship to reach another star system and a potentially promising exoplanet – or perhaps to exist in space indefinitely. Researchers at the University of Arizona have proposed that we build a “Noah’s Ark” on the moon inside lunar lava tubes. But this wouldn’t be a generation ship; it would be a base containing DNA samples from every species on Earth, to protect Earth’s ecosystem from a doomsday event like a giant asteroid impact.

When we talk about sending an ark to colonize the moon, we mean an enormous starship, the only difference being that it won’t need to travel large distances in space. It also wouldn’t be particularly far away, so a disaster that affects the food or water supply could be rectified with support from Earth – unlike a similar disaster striking in deep space. And we wouldn’t need to go through the trouble of developing artificial habitats after arrival. Everybody would already be living inside the ark; the ark itself would be the colony as soon as it landed on the moon.

But why would we consider building an ark and taking it to the moon in the first place? Isn’t it a little pointless to construct such a large and elaborate starship, only to take it to the moon, which is on average only 239,000 miles away? Well, there are two major reasons this could become an attractive idea. The first is if a cataclysmic event strikes Earth and makes it uninhabitable; this could be a giant asteroid impact, the eruption of a supervolcano, a deadly plague, a nuclear war, or something else equally devastating. Of course, in the event of such a catastrophe, we could also build an ark and simply reside in it here, to protect ourselves against toxic conditions on Earth. The moon, after all, is extremely cold, has no air, and is subjected to large amounts of radiation. The condition of Earth would have to be worse than that to make going to the moon viable. That’s hard to imagine - but it’s not completely impossible either.

Alternatively, the second reason might be that the moon contains resources and minerals so profitable that the expense of constructing and crewing an ark would actually be cost-effective. The ark would, in short, be a mining town. Lunar mining – and space mining generally – is an idea that has been thrown around for a long time, but it’s finally looking like it might actually be possible. And not just possible, but extremely lucrative, potentially generating trillions of dollars in revenue. Of course, building the ark in the first place and sending it to the moon, while paying everybody who lives there for the incredibly hazardous job they’d be doing, would be an enormous cost in and of itself. The Apollo program, after all, cost over $280 billion when adjusted for inflation, and astronauts were only on the moon for a few days in total. Space mining, in general, would be safer, more efficient, and more cost-effective if it were automated, reducing the cost of labor and the risk to human lives. But we wouldn’t need to build a self-sustaining ark to accomplish this.

Perhaps, in the end, there’s no good reason to send an ark to the moon, beyond the desire of people who’ve had enough of Earth and want to become lunar colonists, maybe with the aim of someday terraforming it to create more living space.

An ark like this definitely would be an important step towards colonizing the moon. It would be a great base of operations to start the process of constructing an artificial atmosphere or even building a domed city. The Shackleton Crater, within the South Pole-Aitken Basin, has often been suggested as a viable site for this project. It’s a vast space, 13 miles in diameter and 2.6 miles deep. The dome would be able to hold an Earth-like atmosphere, meaning we could green the lunar surface underneath it. Since the rims of the crater receive almost constant sunlight, they’d be a prime location for solar panels to power the new colony. Nearby shadowed regions could be good sources of frozen water, for both drinking and manufacturing fuel. People living on the ark would be working on the construction of the dome, which could enable cheaper and more effective lunar mining and research further down the line.

Even better, if we can do this on the moon, we could potentially do it anywhere, using the ark as a colony and base camp and expanding from there. Mars, Titan, Europa, and even planets in other star systems, could become habitable worlds thanks to what we learn by sending an ark to the moon. Titan in particular seems like a prime candidate, thanks to its dense atmosphere that blocks radiation, lakes of liquid hydrocarbons to provide fuel, and plenty of water ice.

But what would life on the ark really be like? One comparison that already exists on Earth is the isolated town of Whittier, Alaska. Most of the residents in Whittier live in one building, Begich Towers, which also contains the police department, post office, a grocery store, laundromat, and hospital. People in Whittier describe the communal living conditions as making them one big family - people generally help each other out, although there’s also not a lot of privacy. It’s so isolated – frequently getting buried in snow and ice, with very few ways in or out – that it’s a good example of what an ark, where everybody lives communally under one roof that contains all amenities, would be like. The moon would be far more isolated and hostile than the Alaskan wilderness, but since it’s the moon rather than another planet, it would still be relatively close. Unlike taking a generation ship into deep space, this would be a journey you could return from; moving to the moon could be the same as immigrating to another country. You’d have the option to move back if it wasn't for you.

Someday soon, humanity’s wildest dreams of journeying to other worlds and building thriving communities there could be a reality, beginning with our very own lunar neighbor. And that’s what would happen if we took an ark to colonize the moon.
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