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Sandbags, Pile-Drivers, or Dust Pushers: Protecting the Lunar Habitat

In the studies that they did at the Johnson Space Center during the Space Exploration Intiative, they considered using garlands of sand bags hung over the habitat modules.

However, I've never seen any development work on a system that would fill the sand bags. Tailings from some industrial process would be a convienant source of material already on a conveyor belt, but then first you need some working industrial processes. Whatever that system is, it will mean transporting a lot of mass to the moon for the equipment and, until we start spinning our lunar glass into fibres and textiles, the empty bags.

We've seen several proposals for ways to avoid having to move so much moon dust, but none of them seem to be a first-mission kind of thing. Folks in the Seattle Lunar Users Group Study (SLUGS) are fond of touting the virtues of sinking sheet piles into the moon, digging down to create a pit like the one you see in the movie 2001, putting the habitat inside, and then roofing over the pit. That's a neat idea, especially if we don't find a convenient cave right away; but a massive pile-driver on the moon is a serious show-stopper. We also face a major problem with trying to drive a sheet pile into the lunar regolith. Because particles of moon dust are jagged and tend to stick together, it takes as much force to drive a pile through moon dust as it does to drive through solid basaltic rock.

Our robots will have to sweep up an awful lot of moon dust to protect the lunar base. It will take a long time to do this, and rigging the canopy or superstructure over the base so that we can still use the windows will be a tricky job for people working in space suits. However, we can do this with the mininum mass of equipment, and the robots can perform many other functions on the moon. So every time we come back to the question, we end up at the same place: the scenario that works is having the robots pile up the dirt.

Later on, when we've got some industry going and can make sand bags and bag-filling machinery from in-situ materials, we'll probably see a lot of sand bags on the moon. We'll see grand structures made of sintered rock dust and even lunar concrete. But these things won't happen on the first mission unless we wait until we can land a million pounds on the moon.

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