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Return to the Moon: Risks and Rewards


A sustained human presence on the Moon will be an important first step in settling Mars and other bodies in the Solar System. This long-term mission will be to prove scientific and exploration technologies, provide life support for human settlements, and extract resources at cost-effective levels. Factors that will impact sustainability of lunar outposts include power generation and energy storage, radiation and micrometeorite shielding, and food cultivation. All of these factors will also have to be considered in Martian habitations. Health hazards imposed by fine-grained lunar dust represent a critical problem for human settlement. These hazards will involve not only impaired breathing as experienced in the Apollo 17 mission, but also damage to equipment, dispersal from engine blasts, and reduced mobility. Underground installations, either excavated from lunar regolith or located in subsurface lava tubes, will be necessary to mitigate radiation and impacts from micrometeorites. The Moon contains mineral and volatile resources for construction materials and propellant manufacture. Detailed mapping of pyroclastic volcanic vent deposits has identified volcanogenic elements that include iron, zinc, cadmium, mercury, lead, copper, and fluorine. Rare metals and platinum-group elements may also reside in low concentrations in regolith breccias, highland impact breccias, and possibly in layered mafic intrusives. Thorium is relatively abundant in Oceanus Procellarum, associated with late-stage melts rich in KREEP (Potassium/Rare-Earth-Elements/Phosphorus) constituents. Exhalatives and some impact breccias contain volatiles such as nitrogen and carbon, the building blocks of plastics and foodstuffs. Other volatiles, including water, also occur in lunar pyroclastic glasses and in cold, permanently shadowed areas near the poles. Lunar orbital depots for fuel and life-support materials can serve as temporary accumulation areas for transport of materials derived from volcanogenic sources to Earth’s surface. Future advances in technology and planetary engineering on the Moon, a perfect proving ground, will offer humans a steppingstone to Mars, ultimately leading to a sustained human presence in space.