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State of Mind: Fly Me to the Moon, Let Me Whiz Among the Stars

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(Apologies to Frank Sinatra)

I just read in my favorite science news magazine that astronauts might be able to use their urine to make cement on the moon. That’s right. They just need to pee on some lunar soil and voila, they could build a four-story parking garage for their lunar rovers! Permits are another matter.

The notion of using lunar soil to create cement and using that cement in a 3-D printer to create dwellings on the moon has been proposed by some space-exploration researchers, but the large amounts of water that would be needed for such a process make it prohibitive. As I’m sure you remember from the days of the Apollo landings, although lunar soil is quite abundant, water is scarcer than hens’ teeth on the moon.

The revelation of using human urine instead of water comes to us from Norway, where apparently there is not much to do during the winter other than Nordic skiing, drinking, and trying to make cement out of available materials.

A chemist at Østfold University College, Anna-Lena Kjøniksen, and her colleagues experimented by creating some faux lunar soil from silica and aluminum oxide powders. They then added water containing a high amount of urea, which is a major component of urine. According to the scientists the urea cuts down on the amount of water needed to create cement by keeping the mixture from becoming crumbly.

They were able to use the resulting . . . uhh . . . mud in a 3-D printer and managed to produce layers that when stacked created miniature walls. These walls were able to sustain light amounts of weight and temperature changes.

Several questions remain, however. Kjøniksen said she wants to determine whether the urine would need to be purified before it is used to make cement or whether the astronauts could just pee directly into the cement mixer. Call me silly, but I personally would prefer that, if I were going to be living in one of these dwellings, the urine be purified before going into the cement. (I had a similar reaction when I learned that early pioneers in the American west cooked their beans and bacon over nice smokey “buffalo chip” fires.)

Although she didn’t address the issue, another consideration is, if urine can be used directly, exactly how does one pee on the lunar soil while in a pressure suit. As far as I have been able to determine, the men’s moonsuits do not have flies, and female astronauts would face even greater challenges. And would opening a fly or flap in a place with no real atmosphere and extreme temperatures pose any danger to various exposed components of the body? At least there is gravity, albeit only one-third that of Earth’s, so things should go where directed if you correct for reduced ballistic drop.

Last, and this is a huge one, exactly how do we get all the beer that would be needed to produce the urine up to the moon? If Anheuser-Busch is aware of this Norwegian research, I’m sure they have already contacted Elon Musk at Space-X or the Russians about the necessary “heavy lift” rockets. Budweiser would be a good candidate for making cement with urine. After all, my brother did not refer to his cans of Bud as “Bee-wees” for no reason.

I had the privilege of growing up in the shadow of Cape Canaveral during the early days of the space program, and if the astronauts of the future are anything like the original seven Mercury astronauts, large and frequent shipments of beer will be needed just to keep them happy. As I remember, those seven astronauts were hard partiers in and around Cocoa Beach. If they were still around today and given the task and raw materials, they could probably produce the cement for an extensive lunar metropolis in a couple of months.

I’m making an assumption here that beer is lighter than water because of all the little bubbles in it. Still, given the logistics and expense of lifting all that beer to the moon, instead of Bud or PBR, I’m putting my money on a local label: Zero Gravity.