by Marshall T. Savage in Wired Magazine, July 1, 2001.
Mars Direct may have the heat, but the real fun - extraterrestrial vacation homes - will be built on the moon first. Indeed, after 30 years of neglect, the moon is suddenly the destination of choice for a variety of national space agencies and private-sector companies. And this time, remote-control robots will do the dangerous work of homesteading.
In 2002, the European Space Agency (ESA) will kick off its moon program by launching the Smart-1 lunar orbiter, which will follow a polar orbit around the moon, scouting for prime real estate. Bernard Foing, a scientist with the Smart-1 project, sees the mission as a first step toward a moon base. According to Foing, who is also president of the year-old Lunar Explorers Society, landers and intelligent rovers could be operated from Earth to build a moon base by 2020.
Following Europe's lead, Japan plans to launch its own lunar probe, Selene, in 2004. The polar orbiter will map the moon's surface. Like the ESA's "international robot village," Japan envisions a moon-base built entirely by robots. According to Yoshisada Takizawa, a senior engineer at Japan's space agency, the idea is to use native lunar materials to produce everything needed for a manned base, including oxygen, electricity, and structures.
Meanwhile, China has announced plans to use robots to build a moon base so it can claim lunar reserves of helium-3, a precious fusion fuel. If the Chinese keep to their timetable, taikonauts will be mining on the moon by 2015.
Even RadioShack, one of the world's largest purveyors of remote-controlled toys, is getting in on the act. It has embarked on a joint venture with Fairfax, Virginia-based LunaCorp, a space-exploration firm, to put a rover on the moon by 2003. David Gump, LunaCorp's president, says the rover will establish a broadband link with Earth for real-time interaction.
What's more, Gump already has a lunar business model in mind: selling tickets to tool around in the rover and witness the moon rush. Remotely, of course.