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Future Tents: If Only Balaam Could See Me Now

Monday, July 10, 2023 @ 04:07 PM
posted by Roger Price
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Terra, from Luna.

Lunar Base Armstrong: Material Science Log

Terran Date: July 11, 2041. Lunar Time Zone 18.

It never gets old. It just never gets old.

As I sit here looking at the VisScreen, I see my home planet. On average, it’s about 384,400 kilometers(238,835 miles) away, and from here, without a high-powered telescope, I cannot make out any human-made objects. What I can see though is what Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean called a “beautiful sphere,” white from clouds, blue from the massive seas, some yellow, tan, and green.  When the first settlers arrive on Mars, they will barely be able to see Terra (what we used to call Earth) at all. I am blessed.

My grandfather once wrote that when he was growing up humanity’s engagement with outer space was purely fictional and aspirational. He talked about reading comic books, listening to the radio, and watching movie and television serials featuring characters like Flash GordonBuck RogersCaptain Video and His Video Rangers, and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. In a history class at the Space Academy, I actually got to see recordings of some of the shows he watched. They were pretty much like the old American westerns that I have seen, thinly disguised morality plays, but with bad costumes and not so special effects. 

The shows that followed on television and in motion pictures such as Star Trek and Star Wars were better in their costuming, effects, and theme music, but they succeeded because of their stories, and the challenges of being off-planet and engaging with creatures from other star systems. The perhaps ironic truth is that it is quite quiet here. There is no traveling at warp speed, no beaming anyone or thing up or down, no conflicts between one or more intergalactic empires, republics, federations, or renegade extraterrestrials. 

Our work here is science, indeed at the cutting edge of several sciences, both theoretical and practical. We have our routines, especially for matters of safety and security, but, while quiet, it is never boring here. As President Kennedy said so long ago, we have “set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained . . ..”    

Still, this adventure is not for everyone. Light takes less than a second and a half to travel between here and Terra, yet while roughly 240,000 miles is but an astronomical blip, for mere mortals, new to settling on a new world, the distance is substantial. We are, for all practical purposes, essentially alone in the southern polar region of Luna, on a ridge between the Shackleton and de Gerlaches craters. We have communication capabilities with Terra, of course, but should an existential emergency present itself, and we were unable to reach the Gateway lunar orbiting platform, it would undoubtedly take the Space Patrol too long to reach us with any meaningful aid. 

And, obviously, we are not free to be. We cannot just get up one day and decide to go for a walk in the woods or a swim at the beach. There are no woods. There is no beach. 

What water exists here is generally frozen. In the always shadowed polar craters, temperatures have been recorded to -246 degrees Celsius (-410 degrees Fahrenheit). Even at Luna’s equator, where daytime temperatures can reach a hot 121oC (250oF), nighttime measurements drop to -133oC (-208oF). So, even if liquid water were present there in the daytime, it would not remain in that state to create a shore line. 

Even walking is, if not difficult, then a studied and laborious process because surface gravity on Luna is only one-sixth that of Terra. One small step could result in a calamitous giant leap if one were to lose focus.

There is no air to breath either. While Luna once had a full atmosphere, the components of that atmosphere would not be suitable for life as we know it and, in any event, that atmosphere was lost billions of years ago. Today, there is an exceptionally thin atmosphere, called an exosphere, which includes helium, argon, sodium, and potassium. The mix keeps changing as elements are both out-gassed from below the lunar surface and, also, escape into space. 

And certainly, Luna itself presents several serious challenges to extended settlement. The lunar surface is blasted, more or less continuously, with radiation. The sources vary. The Sun is responsible for intense radiation from solar flares and solar wind. But other radiation bombards Luna constantly in the form of cosmic rays apparently from outside of our own solar system. And while Terra is surrounded by an atmosphere and a magnetic field that insulates it substantially from this hazardous radiation, Luna is not so fortunate. Measurements as far back as 2020 showed that radiation levels on Luna would be about 200 times those on Terra, and five to ten times what passengers experience while flying relatively exposed at high levels of the atmosphere on an intercontinental flight between the United States and Europe. The danger of radiation is serious, as charged particles could damage human cells. 

Luna is also hit by meteoroids. Terra gets hit daily with about 33 metric tons (73,000 pounds) of meteoroids, most of which burn up in its atmosphere. The surface area of Luna is only about 7.4% that of Terra, but because Luna lacks a protective atmosphere, what comes to Luna, strikes Luna. And these rocks impact at amazing speeds, the slowest being about 20 km/sec. (45,000 mph) and the fastest coming in over three and a half times more quickly. From Terra, you can see some of the results of high energy collisions on Luna since its formation. By one estimate, 10 to 1,000 metric tons (10 to 1,100 tons) of solar dust hit every day, as do about 100 pinball- sized meteoroids. Larger rocks strike only every four years. The odds on sustaining serious damage on any one day are relatively low, but we continue to monitor the situation and must always be prepared. 

If the lunar exosphere is a problem, so, too, is the lunar surface. For all practical purposes, it is made of nasty, abrasive charcoal-grey dust. Substantial bombardment of the lunar surface, especially in the formative years of the satellite, has caused the lunar surface to have a composition akin to a powder called “regolith.” There is some evidence that meteor impacts “decreased significantly about 3.8 billion years ago,” but the dust created long ago remains and is churned by current impacts (and our own activity). In heavily cratered areas, the regolith may be ten to fifteen meters in depth, while in geologically younger and the less cratered locations, the regolith may be four to five meters thick. 

Chemically, the lunar soil is made up mostly of oxygen and silicon, supplemented by magnesium, iron, calcium, and aluminum, and lesser amounts of titanium, uranium, thorium, potassium, and hydrogen. More specifically, by weight, the soil is about 45% oxygen and 21% silicone. The dust, which, consequently, has silicate in it, is “finer than talcum powder,” but rather than soft, also “sharp like glass.” And, in the low gravity situation of Luna, any disturbance of regolith results in a suspension of the dust for a comparatively prolonged period. Landing and moving about the lunar surface are two obvious human activities that can aggravate the regolith, but even before humans intervene, solar radiation can cause the soil to become electrostatically charged which, in turn, can cause the dust to levitate.  

On Terra, silicates inhaled by miners are known to have caused inflamed and scarred lungs.  On Luna, each and every of the twelve Apollo astronauts who stepped on Luna reported adverse nasal complications from sneezing to congestion as a result of encountering regolith. Less protected spacesuit boots and other items were abraded away by the regolith. 

And let’s not forget moonquakes. Based on readings from seismometers placed by four different Apollo teams from 1968 through 1970, the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (“NASA”) identified four kinds of moonquakes. Those events caused by the impact of meteoroids, the expansion of the frigid lunar crust after a two-week deep-freeze lunar night, or deep quakes perhaps caused by the Terran gravitational forces pulling and stretching the lunar interior, are thought to be harmless. On the other hand, shallow quakes, 20 to 30 meters below the surface are both common, averaging about a dozen a year, and potentially troublesome, with some reaching around 5.5 on the Richter scale and lasting more than ten minutes, in sharp contrast to the strongest earthquakes which tend to cease within two minutes. Some could even trigger landslides!

Still, none of the sixteen lunanauts who are here, each of whom worked hard to be selected to be here, would not change their position with any of the billions of folks back home, regardless of the comparative excesses of comfort and freedom that they might have.

There is a stark and brutal reality about this place. Some might call it barren for it is, but beautiful it is as well, at least in the eye of this beholder.

Lunar Base Armstrong was selected and developed to protect us, as best our current knowledge and technology can. Our location in Luna’s southern polar region affords a number of unique advantages. First, there is near constant sunlight, which our solar panels convert into the energy we need for a variety of functions. Second, while hydration is common around the lunar surface, the permanently dark areas around here contain “high concentrations” of water in the form of ice. We are now able to mine the ice, which we then use for vital purposes. 

Initially, we can melt and then purify the water for drinking and for growing crops both hydroponically and on lunar soil which has been supplemented by waste we have treated and composted here. We are also able to process the water, which chemically is H2O, break its molecular bonds, and capture its constituent hydrogen and oxygen. The former can be used for fuel for our transport on the Artemis Lunar Lander, the descent/ascent vehicle (“LADV”), to and from Gateway. The latter supplements the air we breathe in our residence and working areas.

And, happily enough, lunar ice is not our only source for oxygen. As noted, the lunar soil has a lot of oxygen, albeit tightly bonded to a variety of minerals. Here, too, though, we have made progress. We can convert metal oxides into liquid form and then break the chemical bonds to release the oxygen from the metal to which it was attached. That oxygen can be stored cryogenically, and used when needed. What we still have to do is figure out how to scale up production. If we can, there is more than enough oxygen on Luna to support settlers here and beyond for many thousands of years.

Lunar Base Armstrong, at present, consists of five interconnected units, plus an array of energy collectors and transmitters and pads for landing and launching vehicles. At the center of the five interconnected areas is, essentially, a two-story high cylinder. The lower level is where we do our lab work. There we also have hygiene, laundry, and medical facilities. The lower level is also the point of ingress and egress, where lunanauts can move though a soft hatch and airlock to the lunar surface and where crew members have access to more private crew quarters, also partially buried into the lunar surface. In the upper story, half of the interior perimeter walls are designed as greenhouses and growth devices for cellular meat. The remaining sections of the interior perimeter wall are devoted to food preparation and consumption and communications equipment. At the center on this level there is a gathering space, complete with a library. The two levels are accessible by a circular staircase which also serves as a modest exercise device. 

There are four units for lunanauts each of which is connected by semi-buried tubular walkways to the central unit. Each unit is used by a four-person crew for up to 180 days, a time period NASA deems safe from excessive radiation. A new crew arrives and an old crew departs every 45 days. This system allows for crew bonding and, also, minimum disruption when there is a crew turnover.

The central unit and the crew quarters are built on foundations 160 centimeters (about 5 feet) beneath the surface. The sides of the exterior of the central unit are comprised of regolith melted by microwaves and lasers, converted into a slurry, and then fashioned with 3-D technology into triangular or hexagonal bricks and assembled into sheathing. Attached to the sheathing on the lower level, except in areas for ingress and egress, are panels of inflatable membranes filled with water. A second layer of sheathing has been applied to the interior sided of the membranes and forms the interior walls of our main facility. The top of the central unit is a dome made of processed regolith. It is covered by a separate water filled membrane for additional protection from radiation. Covering the membrane is an extended canopy of regolith.

Construction bots did the initial excavation work and much of the construction before we arrived. That we, or, rather, the bots, are emulating Mesopotamians in the Ancient Near East who used to sun-dry or bake dirt into bricks has not been lost on us. 

Pads for landing and launching LADVs are also be made of processed regolith to minimize any potentially damaging dust or other material which may be stirred up by rocket engines coming or going and possibly even reaching the LGO. For similar reasons, the pads are surrounded by regolith shields to deflect away from the base any material set in motion by arrivals or departures.

Lunar regolith is an excellent choice for us because it is plentiful (and therefore cheap) to obtain and relatively easy to fashion and assemble. It also offers superb insulation and protection from radiation and meteorites. Unfortunately, is not translucent, so currently we have no external light beaming into any of our units.  

As a materials scientist, I am currently conducting experiments on several processes and materials that NASA has been considering for use here and on Mars. 

As you might expect, a number of these efforts involve regolith, which, like the upper soil on Terra is not uniform in all locations. So, we are testing different devices and methods for melting it and cooling the resultant mass, different substances which may be used with the melted paste to increase its strength and durability and minimize its brittleness, and different methods of spraying or forming it.  Who knew that genetically engineered bovine protein could work with regolith so successfully? That’s part of what makes our work here so interesting and so much fun!

My second focus is on water and ice, mined from sources nearby or created in our labs. Ice is not only a good insulator and radiation protector, but, when frozen, could provide a translucent component which would admit natural light into our units. There is a concern, though, that the ice could be chipped away by meteorites or abraded by swirling dust. Then, too, there is the challenge of connecting the ice to other components of the units without fracturing the ice. 

Other lunanauts are exploring the use of bacteria for waste processing, the collection and recycling of carbon dioxide as a building insulator, whether fungi could be used to generate and repair structures, and bioluminescence as a supplemental interior light source.  

Our facilities are basic, but hardly primitive. We are still learning about the challenges of living off Terra and becoming an interplanetary species. We learned quickly that in order to retain our humanity, we need to be in the presence of other humans. That is why Lunar Base Armstrong has sixteen lunanauts now and plans to expand.

We have also learned that the mental challenges are as strong as physical ones. Our minds must be as challenged as our bodies. And these challenges are about more than the novel science in which we engage. They involve the deepest challenges that have driven us since we developed language and began to write out our thoughts and explains why we have a real library.  Each of us was allowed to bring hard copies of two books to read and share. Most of the books are large classics, sagas that have much to teach, but there is poetry as well. For example, Cervantes’s Don Quixote is in the library, as is a collection of Shakespeare’s works, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and The Analects of Confucius.  I brought the Hebrew Bible (Jewish Study Ed.) and Milton Steinberg’s As a Driven Leaf.  

In the encompassing stillness, I can look back at our past and think about our present and our future. This week, on Terra, Jews around the planet are reading in the Torah an old tale about an impending battle in the Ancient Near East between Israelites and Moabites. Before the battle was to commence, Balak, the Moabite king, called for a prophet named Balaam to come down from what is now Syria and curse the Israelites. (Num. 22:2-6.) Then, so we are told, on his journey, Balaam got into a verbal dispute with the donkey he was riding and later had prolonged negotiations with King Balak. Finally, when Balaam began to speak, he could not curse the Israelites. To the contrary, he spoke nothing but praise. In transliterated Hebrew, he said, “Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishk’notecha Yisrael.” (Num. 24:5.)  My rabbi on Terra, Eliezer Hoffman, still with us at age 102, translates this phrase as “How wonderful are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel.” 

I know enough about history, enough about literary devices, enough about how ancient stories were compiled into an origin story of the Jewish People, not to take the story of Balaam as factually true. Still, I must wonder what the fictional Balaam would say today. Perhaps Balaam, as well as many of my much more recent ancestors including my grandfather, would be surprised that the Jewish People still lives in the very early years of the 59th Century on the Hebrew calendar and would consider that fact as evidence of a miracle (possibly theological, possibly not). 

And, from this spot, on this satellite, I think about all the tents, all the mud and straw huts, all the wood houses, all the stone quarters, all the concrete and steel structures, all of the dwellings my ancestors have occupied, and, as I think about them and their lives, I wonder if they ever contemplated that someday, some human, some Jew, might be living on Luna, might in time be living on Mars and beyond. Surely, the stories others will write about us will be fantastic. 

And, thinking about my grandfather, I recall a poem that he read to me often. Coincidentally, like the story of Balaam, it was about praises and curses, but with God not caring so much whether anyone offered one or the other as long as that person was engaged in the actions and passions of the times. The poem was written by a Yiddish playwright and poet, Aaron Zeitlin, but Pops translated it for me. It ended with these lines:

If you look at the stars and yawn,
If you see suffering and don’t cry out,
If you don’t praise and you don’t revile,
Then I created you in vain, says God.

I don’t know what Zeitlin meant by God, nor what most people do, for that matter. As someone who is data driven, I have seen no evidence of the storm god described in Genesis, the warrior god depicted in Exodus and Numbers, the supernatural legislator issuing the commandments, laws, ordinances, and rules that fill Leviticus and Deuteronomy, or the great educator with The Teaching, a Book of Instruction.  

But I also know that there is much that I do not know, including, not least, the full extent of what it is that I do not know. And I also know that our species is not driven by data alone. We wonder and we wander. We dream. We aspire. We hope. We search and we strive. 

In contrast with the continuing mission of the starship Enterprise on Star Trek — to boldly go where no one has gone before — we have moved cautiously, prudently. Yet, if we have been deliberate, we have also been determined, and being so we have travelled farther and stayed away longer from Terra than any other of the billions of our species to date. All of us here deeply appreciate the opportunity to serve, acknowledge the privilege, and remain conscious of the responsibility we have to those who will follow and surpass us.

So, from my rather unique vantage point, I can say with considerable certainty that no one on Lunar Base Armstrong looks at the stars and yawns. Rather, we are immensely grateful for a universe that contains such worlds and wonders as we can see as well as those we will someday discover. We marvel at the countless processes and events that had to occur in order for us to be here and to be aware of what surrounds us. And, most assuredly, we are nothing if not in awe of where we are, how far we have come, and what we see when we venture out from our home and look up and around. 

My name is Jacob Atid and, if I say so myself, I think my tent is pretty good.

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