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Our Apollo-inspired dreams of living on the moon could still come true

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Written by Asad Naseer

As Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped on the moon 50 years ago, we imagined a future lunar life filled with wingsuits and tourist cruisers.

In 1968, Edward Guinan was a young graduate student studying the universe from an observatory in New Zealand. And like countless members of the Apollo generation, he anticipated the moon landing by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin the following year would be the start of Manifest Destiny, lunar edition.

He believed landing on the moon was just the beginning.

“I was a space advocate, I was involved with building rockets and things of that sort, so I was a big fan of the program,” Guinan, who would go on to have a pioneering career in astrophysics and planetary science at Villanova University, tells me.

Some of the observations he made in 1968 from New Zealand would eventually earn him credit for discovering a ring system around Neptune. At the time he looked forward to a coming age of new observatories on the surface of the moon that could see deeper and more clearly into the cosmos because they would be unobstructed by any kind of weather or atmosphere.
And naturally, doing more science on the moon would require sending more scientists there, something that didn’t happen much with the Apollo missions.

“Even though scientists did fly on the last [Apollo mission] they were all test pilots and things like that,” Guinan recalled. “They did a good job, but they weren’t trained [scientists].”

Wingsuits and dust cruisers:

Guinan was just one of many dreamers at the time who imagined a new role for the moon in the near future.

In 1967, the New York Times Magazine published an essay by famed author and robot evangelist Isaac Asimov alongside a full-page illustration of a concept for a “Lunar City.”

“In the next 50 years, by the most optimistic estimate, we can place several thousand people on the moon,” Asimov wrote 52 years ago. “The moon colony will be a completely new kind of society … that might well be infinitely illuminating to the billions who will watch the process from Earth.”

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The illustrated moon metropolis included a nuclear power station, mines, moving sidewalks, farm domes, housing, a university, and art gallery and, of course, people flying around in low-gravity wingsuits.

For years leading up to Apollo 11, similar images filled screens and pages worldwide. The habitats for lunar living and working were often a combination of domes and underground dwellings. Using ancient lava tubes or other holes in the moon’s regolith, the idea was to shield the new moonies from all that nasty stellar radiation that Earth’s atmosphere normally protects us from.

“I believe we, at a minimum, envisioned setting up lunar colonies and shuttling people there — not just scientists and pilots but also tourists and families,” says Ella Atkins, a University of Michigan aerospace engineering professor and IEEE senior member.

This 1965 Soviet film titled simply Moon is filled with plenty of space race propaganda, but ends with a vision of the first lunar family, who presumably speak Russian:

The moon was also a popular setting for all sorts of popular fiction in the mid-20th century. Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein spun a tale of revolting lunar colonists in his 1966 novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and the legendary Arthur C. Clarke also attempted to tell realistic stories of settling down on our natural satellite.

Before the Apollo 11 landing in 1969, there was significant uncertainty over just what the consistency of the moon’s surface might be, with some believing that it might be covered by a layer of fine dust that flows almost like water. If such a layer were deep enough, it could present a serious pitfall for lunar explorers almost like quicksand on Earth.

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