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Science & Technology
Earthbound Lunar Colony

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Prof. Dr. Matin A. Khan
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From Diana J. Choyce
Feb 14 - 20, 2000

Many times, some of the best ideas and visions come from the common man outside of established foundations

Man has dreamed of setting up colonies on the Moon for ages. The reasons range from escaping this planet we are using up, to satisfying man's insatiable curiosity and adventurous spirit. And we will probably meet this goal in the coming years. In the meantime, a small town in California has decided they have waited long enough. The city council of Hesperia, located in the Mojave desert about 50 miles northeast of Los Angeles, has voted to begin construction on a full scale moon-like colony. Their goal is to promote future space development, produce practical applications for Earth, and of course to promote attention for their town.

At the centre of this project is Iranian born architect, Nader Khalili. Mr. Khalili is the founder and director of the Cal-Earth Institute in Hesperia, which promotes ideas for building safe, comfortable, affordable housing of earth and other readily available materials. He used to design conventional skyscrapers, but has since turned his attention to housing the poor and homeless. His simplified housing ideas were born about 20 years ago when he found a way to make the traditional domed or vaulted mud-brick houses of his native Iran more resistant to earthquakes and weather. The process, which he calls "geltaftan" after the Persian word "fire structure", calls for setting oil-fueled burners in the buildings and baking them for two or three days until the clay-brick walls and roof turn red hot, making the structure into a ceramic house. The ceramic quality made the house impervious to rain, snow, and all but the most powerful earthquakes. And the building materials were very inexpensive.

The building method Mr. Khalili is using in his Hesperia project is called "superadobe". It is basically rows of bags filled with sand dug from the house site and piled up to form walls. Barbed wire is then laid between the rows to reinforce and help hold the bags together. Hesperia is located within an earthquake zone, but these houses have passed seismic tests and were approved by the city's building inspectors. Khalili was invited to a NASA sponsored symposium in 1984 on lunar bases, where he explained how geltaftan and superadobe could be adapted for lunar use. He conducted an experiment at the McDonnell Douglas Space Systems laboratories to show that the heat of the sun could be harnessed to melt and fuse the soil on the lunar surface, turning it into blocks, fibers or other shapes in an outer space version of geltaftan.

Khalili, whose Web site is www.calearth.org, said in an interview the planned lunar colony in Hesperia would demonstrate these possibilities and boost the image of earth as a modern building material of the future. "It's extremely exciting to be able to work on this,'' he said. "If we can get some funding going, we can show that "mud houses" can solve housing problems across the world. ... Unfortunately, most third world people sneer at them, they have lost respect for their traditional houses.'' Mike Duke, a staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, contracted by NASA to perform support services, praised the Hesperia plan. "I like the idea because it illustrates what is a useful theme for future space development, and at the same time it shows that there are some potential practical applications on Earth for things that people will eventually develop for space,'' Duke said. "It's certainly true that if we want to build habitats on the moon for significant numbers of people for significant periods of time, we'll probably make them out of material on the moon, not bring them from the Earth.'' Duke said he knew of no other project like the one planned in Hesperia. "There are a few ideas that have been reported in the literature but I don't think anybody has taken it even to laboratory experiment stage, so Mr.Khalili has jumped a couple of steps actually.''

As for the town of Hesperia, the project has no funding as of yet. Mayor Jim Lindley says the city does not have the $100,000 needed to start the colony but will assist in raising the funds needed. "We're going to help where we can, we can help with community support, community organization. With the backing of the city council we can help him get the grants necessary to finish his project," he said. "We are very interested in education in our area and there's been some interest from NASA and other universities to pursue his concepts. ... We'd like to have that kind of activity in our city of course, anybody would. He's quite a visionary. He's before his time,'' said Mayor Lindley.

This may indeed seem a frivolous project to some. But many times, some of the best ideas and visions come from the common man outside of established foundations. And it's good to see a whole community get behind one of its own in support and encouragement. So many creative people get lost in the shuffle by not having the right contacts. One would hope this trend will continue. Because it will take all of us to pursue a fruitful future for our planet.