The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Lunar settlement
A number of lessons for future commercial lunar settlements can be drawn from the experience of the Old West. (credit: Phil Smith courtesy of Sam Dinkin)

Cowboys, miners, farmers, and hoteliers

Frontier settlement on the Moon might be a lot like frontier settlement in the American West in the 19th century if we work hard at it. I project that the Moon may be home to the same kinds of larger-than-life archetypes like those who sold colonization of the West to so many in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and the Davy Crockett musical. Before we get to lunar cowboys, let’s look at lunar hotels.


For 20,000 kilograms, Bigelow Aerospace delivers 333 cubic meters of pressurized living space in orbit. Let’s see what would it take to scale that up to one of the football field-sized domes like the one covering the practice field at the University of Texas. A back of the envelope calculation tells us that we need to enclose 260,000 cubic meters to get a hemisphere of radius 50 meters. However, the Bigelow Nautilus is not a perfect sphere. Suppose we approximated that hemisphere by a scaled-up the Nautilus a factor of 1500 larger in volume. Since surface area and mass would go up as the square of the radius while volume goes up as the cube of the radius, we would only need 130 times the surface area and mass. So, for 2,600 metric tons and a hot glue gun, we could have a football field-sized dome on the Moon. At $400 per kilogram to the Moon (about nine times the fuel cost), that would only be about a billion dollars.

If we can’t achieve such a feat of propulsion economics, perhaps we can achieve a feat of material science with carbon nanoweave or maybe just Kevlar—it is only one atmosphere that we are talking about—and get the weight down to that of a terrestrial dome. On the web, we can buy a ten-meter hemispheric inflatable tent that ships in a 0.8m x 0.8m x 1.8m box. For 25 times the surface area, we can get our fifty-meter hemisphere. That is, a football field sized dome would just pack into 2.4m x 2.4m x 5.4m or about the size of a Falcon 5 payload fairing.

Suppose we find a source of lunar water. We might want to have a transparent dome with water between two airtight shells to help with temperature control, puncture resistance, radiation. and hotel views.

A football field sized dome would just pack into 2.4m x 2.4m x 5.4m or about the size of a Falcon 5 payload fairing.

A hotel would indeed be a fine thing to put in such a dome. A bed and breakfast run by a family would be a frontier ideal. Outside the hotel, the weather could change to reflect Earth seasons. We could also have a fish pond for aquaculture, fishing, swimming in the summer and ice skating in the winter. There could be leaves to jump into in the fall, and grass to lie on in the spring.

If there is a regular supply run from the Earth, perhaps the local fish can be augmented by terrestrial fish for a sushi bar. For only a little more than $2 million at $2,000/kg, a 1,000-kilogram tuna can be imported that has been paralyzed, but is still alive. If our sushi bar won the lunar fish market auction, it could have quite a few people over for an awesome sashimi feast.

A good location for the dome would be on the Moon’s south pole. There the solar array could get full-time sunlight. Perhaps the array could be on the rim of a crater and the dome could be inside the crater. To avoid eternal darkness, suspended on wires from tall poles over the top of the crater could be a football-field sized Mylar mirror that reflects sunlight into the crater some times of the day. At night, it could show the phases of the Earth.

Lunar materials would be a good choice for building materials. There would need to be lots of stone and ice. Perhaps a Superman-style igloo would be a good temporary choice if stone is a long wait. The tall building could be leapt in a single bound in lunar gravity. The hotel could also put up miners and cowboys—and be a good place for them to spend all of their money.

Miners and cowboys

The Moon miner needs a suitable Wild West beast of burden to carry the gold back to the assayer’s office. The miner’s transport choice should be a lunar robot mule. The treasure of the Sierra Mare could be gathered up and hauled back to town.

With the right power plant, a “Moon cow” could smelt the regolith and keep the good bits—some of the oxygen for breathing, the platinum group metals and the helium-3—and throw away the rest.

The Moon miners might not want to be troubled with getting into and out of their suits every time they wanted to eat. Perhaps they could have special airlocks to put some food into their suit. Another thing they might want to do is scratch their noses. By having scratchers built into their suits that can be manipulated externally, they could scratch for a while (at least until the scratchers break).

Cowboys might want to have cattle-shaped robots that process regolith for helium-3. With the right power plant (e.g., antimatter), a Moon cow could smelt the regolith and keep the good bits—some of the oxygen for breathing, the platinum group metals and the helium-3—and throw away the rest. Then drive the cattle back to town for auction once they’re fattened up.

Lunar metal prices will drop to nothing if metal is a byproduct of wholesale helium-3 smelting. Anticipating a bright lunar future when those resources are needed, we might make the cow patties distinctive. If the patty can be construed as a space ship part, it can be branded and remain the property of the cowboy while it sits there on the surface, to be sold if the price ever creeps far enough above zero.

Lunar cowboys also might not want to bother with getting out of their suits for a couple of weeks. They might not smell so good when they get back to civilization just like their terrestrial counterparts from back in the day.


Another use for a dome is a farm. Fresh food ought to sell pretty well since imports are likely to continue in this area and local produce will perforce be fresher than imports. If the best we can do on imports will be three days old, perhaps fresh corn would be good. Lunar corn might be a good bit taller than terrestrial corn. If it doesn’t like the low gravity, perhaps the dome can be spun up. The hotel guests might like that too, especially if they are just in from Earth or just heading back. Even if imports come live, potted in a hydroponics pack, picking produce ourselves off the tree or the vine has an appeal that could make local farmers rich.

Lunar wine might be an especially decent export: its novelty value and conspicuous consumption value might well justify the trip.

Ironically, the same products might be exported as imported. When I dined in Arhüs, Denmark at a banquet for the World Junior Bridge Championship, the wine served there was from California’s San Joaquin Valley. I suspected—having grown up there in Fresno—that the hearty flavor the label spoke of was from the pollution, as the air quality in the San Joaquin Valley was only better than Los Angeles at the time. However, the people around me might not have been able to tell the San Joaquin Valley from Napa Valley. The mere act of transporting the bottle of wine makes California wine as alluring in Denmark as French wine is in California.

Lunar wine might be an especially decent export in this respect. Its novelty value and conspicuous consumption value might well justify the trip. Perhaps it should be Luna tuna, making the trip back to Earth paralyzed, reviving the Star Kist brand. Sushi-grade Moon fish might fetch a pretty penny at an auction in Tokyo. Chill it with lunar ice and garnish it with lunar apples and flowers and serve it with lunar sake in a sushi bar under a larger-than-life projection of the Moon.