The handful of astronauts who have set foot on the Moon spent as little as a day on the surface. How do you build a settlement that will last for years?

If my 1980s-era Usborne Book of The Future was to be believed (and, frankly, it served as my bible when I was growing-up), at the beginning of the 21st Century – along with flatscreen TVs, electric cars and telephones that “have pictures as well as sound” – there would be astronauts living and working in a city on the Moon.

Occupying vast domes connected by pressurised underground passageways, “Moonies” would work at consoles surrounded by banks of computers or bounce across the surface in Moon jeeps on their way to the Moon mines.

Since the last astronaut left his final footstep in 1972, however, the only evidence that people once occupied the Moon consists of little more than a few flags, three rovers, a dozen cameras and 96 bags of human waste (you can read more facts on Apollo here). Whatever happened to the Moon base we were promised?

“One of the big goals of what we’re doing today, is to make sure that this isn’t flags and footprints and then it gets cancelled again,” says Nasa’s strategy and architecture lead for the exploration systems development mission directorate architecture development office Nujoud Merancy. In non-Nasa speak, that means Merancy is one of the key people responsible for planning the agency’s return to the Moon.

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“We want to lay the groundwork so that this can be an inevitable process that goes forward,” she says, “and we don’t spend 50 years not exploring beyond low Earth orbit again like we have for the last 50 years.”

And, so far, that plan is working out. Nasa’s first uncrewed Artemis mission returned to Earth in December 2022 after almost four weeks in space. Travelling far beyond the Moon, it proved the capabilities of the Orion capsule, its European Space Agency (Esa) Service Module and the giant SLS rocket that blasted it on its way. Artemis II is due to carry the first astronauts to lunar orbit in 2024 and, sometime in the middle of the decade during Artemis III, two astronauts will land near the lunar south pole. At least one of them will be a woman.

The first astronauts to land on the Moon since the 1970s are due to travel there on Artemis III later this decade (Credit: Red Huber/Getty Images)

The crew of the final Apollo mission, Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt, spent the longest on the lunar surface of any astronauts so far: 75 hours in total. Cernan likened it to a camping expedition – they ate and slept, in hammocks, inside the compact lander and put on their spacesuits to head outside. In comparison, the astronauts of Artemis III are scheduled to stay on the Moon for around a week and can expect a few more home comforts – and a lot more space.

The lander they will use is being provided by Elon Musk’s SpaceX and is based on his Starship concept, which was originally conceived to carry 100 people to Mars. Given that Nasa only wants to convey two people to the Moon, there should be plenty of room for a laboratory, storage for a rover and even a few home comforts like beds, a kitchen and toilet.

“I don’t know that we can discuss a lot of details at this point,” Merancy says. “But yes, [SpaceX’s] proposed solution exceeds our government requirements, so there are other discussions going on for how you could you use that margin for other purposes but there’re no agreements in place today.”

Whatever the final specification for the Artemis III lander, during subsequent missions, astronauts are going to live on the Moon for extended periods and explore further. This is likely to involve them using their spaceship as a base and travelling around in pressurised lunar rovers – mobile habitats trundling across the surface.

“To get the range on the Moon, you need mobility systems, the crew can’t go very far on foot,” says Merancy. “The science we want to do is in a lot of locations around the Moon, the goal is to build systems that would be capable of month-long or better excursions.”

But the longer you stay, the riskier it gets.

“You’re dealing with three major challenges – radiation, temperature extremes and meteorite impacts,” says Aidan Cowley, scientific advisor at Esa’s European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne, Germany. On Earth, we are protected from the worst of these effects by a thick atmosphere and the magnetic bubble surrounding the planet, known as the magnetosphere.

Astronauts may have to build much of the new settlements using materials they can find on the Moon itself (Credit: 3000ad/Getty Images)

“On the Moon you’re exposed to solar radiation and cosmic rays at a much more dangerous dose level and temperatures can range from 100C (212F) in the day to -180C (-292F) at night,” Cowley says. “Then, all you need to do is look at the Moon and you see its craters; it’s being constantly pelted by micrometeorite impacts and this essentially ablates and damages anything on the surface over time.”

Rather than bringing bulky – and expensive – habitats from Earth, Cowley favours living off the land. “If you look at the history of our civilisation, every time we move to a new location, a new continent, we look around to find what resources are there and we use them to sustain ourselves,” says Cowley. “This is how we proliferated across the planet.”

And while the Moon’s natural resources are not immediately obvious – it doesn’t have any vegetation, food or running water – it does have some mineral resources, sunlight and water ice.

“If you really want to do it for the long term, we need to make the most of every resource that we bring or extract,” says Rachel Klima from Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, near Washington DC. Director of the Lunar Surface Innovation Consortium, Klima’s group brings together space agencies, academics and industry to plot the future of lunar exploration.

“If you have waste heat, use the heat for something… if you have waste metal when you’re trying to create oxygen, use the metal… if you have waste scrap metal, use the scrap metal,” says Klima. “You don’t want to trash things up!”

Over the past decade Cowley’s team in Cologne has been taking that mantra to heart. They have become adept at turning one of the most abundant lunar resources, lunar dust or regolith, into bricks.

“I joke to people that I want to build a brick factory on the Moon,” he says. “And initially everyone’s like, ‘That’s crazy,’ but then they start thinking through the problems and solving them.”

Any Nasa settlement on the Moon is likely to begin with astronauts delivered by Artemis programme spacecraft (Credit: Gregg Newton/AFP/Getty Images)

Esa has now developed several ways of making Moon bricks, experimenting with dust that has similar properties to lunar regolith. One method is straight out of the Bond villain’s handbook and involves a giant mirror and a series of magnifying lenses to focus sunlight. The heat from the light is used to melt together dust, which can be built up in layers – a 3D printer for Moon dust.

Esa scientists and engineers have also made bricks by heating dust in a solar oven and bombarding regolith with microwaves. In fact, they are becoming very good at it.

“There’s no huge showstoppers in our estimation,” Cowley says. “People have been building bricks for tens of thousands of years, the hard part is doing it on another world.” And that is the next step. One idea in the future could be an experimental extra-terrestrial brickmaker.

If successful, then bricks could be used to build entire lunar structures – perhaps encasing inflatable modules or repurposing defunct landers. So, does this mean astronauts will one day need to acquire bricklaying skills?

“I love the idea of my astronaut colleagues laying bricks on the Moon, that would be hilarious,” Cowley admits. “But I think it’s probably going to be a small automatic system, perhaps using robots working together in a collaborative way, but maybe humans could be involved at some point much like a foreman of a construction site.”

But even if they have robots to build their home, don’t imagine astronauts are going to be living in luxury. “It’s going to be cosy,” says Klima. “I’ve seen some designs where you have the living quarters stacked in different ways, or you have areas that are multipurpose, there is not going to be a whole lot of privacy.”

Eight years ago, Esa’s former director general, Jan Wörner, first revealed his proposals for a village on the Moon. Today, those plans do not seem quite as far-fetched. Contracts have already been signed between space agencies and industry for long-term lunar infrastructure missions, such as satellites to provide communications and navigation services for the Moon, and plans are being devised for water extraction from lunar ice and electricity from solar power plants. Nasa’s vision might not be the only one; there may be plans from other countries with their own lunar ambitions, such as China, or private ventures aiming to make money from the Moon.

Nasa’s Merancy is careful to not promise a Moon village in the next 10 years but she believes within the next decade we will have at least the basic foundations for humans to live and work on the Moon: “I think we will have permanent infrastructure, repeatable missions that are occurring hopefully on an annual basis and we should have a lot of capabilities to explore different regions.”

So, at the risk of repeating the optimism of the Usborne Book of the Future, if you are reading this in 40 years-time I confidently predict we will have a Moon base.

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