When humans head back to the moon (and hopefully spend longer than a moonwalk on the lunar surface) astronauts have a lot to worry about. Without a cosy atmosphere to hide behind, anyone starting a moon base must build their own protection from deadly solar radiation and stray meteorites.
And then there’s the regolith – or moon dust – itself.
“This is the stuff that gets everywhere, tears up people’s lungs if they breathe it in, destroys seals, destroys machinery, destroys everything,” says Monika Stankiewicz, a lunar architecture PhD student at the University of Adelaide.
“We have a very love-hate relationship with lunar regolith in that it is the most readily available resource there. But it’s also one of the most dangerous.”
When I spoke to Monika Stankiewicz at Adelaide University, she told me I was catching her in the middle of her “origin story”. That might be a big claim, but after talking to her for hours about the complex architecture of moon buildings, I absolutely believed she’s on the cusp of something big.
“My life keeps coming back to bricks. I played with Lego bricks as a kid, my first job out of my bachelor’s degree was at Austral Bricks working in the brick factory,” she tells me.
“And then I got to my capstone project, which is about bricks as an alternative way of building regolith shelters on the moon.”
Making a moon base is mind-blowingly expensive. Currently the cost of launching one kilogram into space is about US$75,000. Even something as simple as a lightweight garden shed can weigh 120 kilograms. An entire moon base worth of materials would weight significantly more.
But if you can turn regolith into your building material you don’t need to cart it all the way to the moon with you – it’s already there.
Stankiewicz research isn’t focused on making these space bricks so much as forming them into a structure to protect a rover or human inside.
“I just need the bricks!” she jokes. “It’s someone else’s job to work out exactly how to make them.”
For her capstone project, she focused on what type of structures could be made using these lunar bricks, using as little extra material – like concrete – as possible.
The structural form she settled on is an ancient solution called corbelling. If you’ve seen a piece of decorative bracket on an old building you’ve seen a corbel in action.
The style has been used since the Neolithic times to create arched doorways and small structures without using a binder.
“It’s been around for 1000s of years – it’s basically advanced brick stacking,” says Stankiewicz.
But her end plan was by no means simple. The final design was a 12-room bunker, partially underground but with futuristic looking domes jutting out of the surface.
“You end up with these cavernous temple-like spaces that definitely would have heavy Star Wars vibes,” she adds.
With the bricks piled up just right, certain ones can even be removed for small windows or replacement if something breaks – all without damaging the structure.
“I started looking at different brick patterns or shapes that I could use so if I pull out a brick and replace it, the rest of it doesn’t slump,” Stankiewicz says.
“It’s part of the reason why I’ve been calling what I’ve been doing ‘advanced space Jenga’.”
And to make sure these structures are secure?
“My dream is to build a little regolith shelter that I can shoot a gun at and then have robots come and repair it,” she tells me. “If I can accomplish that, I would be ecstatic.”