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Years ago space settlement advocates were working out ambitious schemes for orbiting colonies housing 10,000 people. They were to be built of lunar-derived materials and would have been occupied primarily with building dozens of huge power satellites. Given the known resources on the Moon, and its advantageous location for interplanetary flights, has there ever been a design for a LUNAR-BUILT spacecraft to go to Mars?

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There have been lots of plans for Lunar built spacecraft. There have been few that have been credible, and all are in the realm of speculation.

At present, any such plans are relegated to either distant conceptual plans (NASA, ESA, and ФКА/Roscosmos), fuel processing only (NASA and ESA), or science fiction literature.

Distant Conceptual Plans

NASA, ESA, and Roscosmos all have had conceptual plans for lunar construction and lunar bases since inception. None of these are even to the practical testing stage. NASA is funding some specific technological testing by college students in a variety of fields; I don't know about ESA nor Roscosmos testing towards it.

NASA has recently had some funding that lead to testing of the ability to seal up natural lava tubes into pressure habitat structures. Likewise, they've made chemically comparable ground regolith and tested it for cement and concrete usages. These are extremely early steps towards the "eventual" lunar construction base.

The actual plans themselves are little better than science-based whimsy - without major changes to the funding, none of them are likely to see any major progress.

Fuel Only plans

A number of NASA plans involve automated harvesting of lunar water to make O2 and H2, then shipping that fuel to an orbit assembled spacecraft for orbital fueling. By launching with tanks dry, the mass of the booster stage can be much reduced, allowing for a larger tank size per unit, and fewer earth to LEO missions to assemble the final martian mission; similar units would refuel the lander at mars, and possibly also the transfer vehicle.

Of the various plans, these, which don't actually meet the question's narrowest scope, are the only ones likely to be used. The technology exists, the water exists, the robotics can be made to perform the needed tasks. The Mars missions on the drawing board are looking at various methods of getting fuel into orbit, and lunar water is one that is getting serious consideration.

Science Fiction

Pretty much all other variations are speculative fiction. Many science fiction stories include plausible human habitation on Luna, and manufacturing located at the lunar habitats. A few of these rise to credible plans. Most make assumptions about some form of fusion power and high efficiency electric thrusters, both of which are plausible but not yet implemented technologies.

The best rise to or exceed the quality of what NASA has released, but unlike NASA, there is little chance of these being implemented.

Select references

http://www.nasa.gov/centers/marshall/news/news/releases/2009/09-083.html
http://www.universetoday.com/106808/this-moon-rover-could-hunt-for-lunar-water-in-2018/
http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Preparing_for_the_Future/Space_for_Earth/Energy/Helium-3_mining_on_the_lunar_surface
http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2009/11/moon-water-will-lunarbase-humans-be-able-to-drink-it-a-weekend-special.html

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the input. It may not have been intentional, but I gather from your comments that NASA is going to emphasize robotics now that money for manned operations is not happening. What I am after with my question is whether NASA is actually interested in reducing its own costs by preferentially choosing a technology path that does not require a massive infrastructure. I was wondering if anyone else had seen a NASA-sponsored study for a lunar-built spacecraft for human missions to Mars. Apparently there is no interest in such a thing, or it would have been studied on by now. $\endgroup$ Jun 23 '14 at 13:42
  • $\begingroup$ MercuryPlus, How would you build spaceships without massive infrastructure? $\endgroup$
    – HopDavid
    Jun 24 '14 at 6:53
  • $\begingroup$ @HopDavid: Define 'massive'. I'm not saying you don't need 'infrastructure'. Infrastructure is what you use to get things done. What concerns me is NASA shows no interest in changing the way things are done. The old debates over Single Stage Orbiters is a case in point. NASA swears it is trying to be efficient. Yet it spends $20+ Billion dollars to create the SLS which cannot possibly match the cost efficiency of a Single-Stage Orbiter based program. Why? I suspect its because they assume an SSO could not get us to Mars (a wrong conclusion) and Mars is everything for NASA. $\endgroup$ Jun 24 '14 at 13:32
  • $\begingroup$ Mining propellent, water and oxygen are one thing. Making an entire rocket is something else completely. We would need iron mines, copper mines, aluminum mines. We'd need transportation infra-structure connecting the mines. We'd need ceramics, seals, plastics, highly purified silicon for the computer chips. We would also need the manufacturing facilities extrude wire, machine parts, etc. Some of the mining and manufacturing processes are energy intensive and would need robust power sources. $\endgroup$
    – HopDavid
    Jun 25 '14 at 7:13
  • $\begingroup$ If you wish to sell this notion of lunar made rockets, I suggest you research all that goes into making a rocket, what mines and manufacturing would be required and how how much mass the mining and manufacturing infrastructure would require. $\endgroup$
    – HopDavid
    Jun 25 '14 at 7:16
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The advantage of building on the moon is that it is a shallower gravity well than earth, so requires less propulsion to get to Mars (or elsewhere). The major disadvantage is that (for the foreseeable future) it is very hard to operate there-there is not infrastructure. Remote operations are extremely difficult under these conditions. If we get to the point of an infrastructure on the moon appropriate to build a spacecraft, technology will have advanced so much that any design done now would be useless.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the response! Do we really need all of the infrastructure to be there? I can see a scenario where structures are derived from lunar resources where things like computers and electrical equipment are made on Earth and integrated on the Moon. The latter represents a tiny fraction of what a planetary vehicle would weigh fully fuelled. To date I am not aware of any specific design that has been offered using this approach. I would not build a lunar base just for that purpose, but it could do a lot of other things too, much by way of bootstrapping. $\endgroup$ Jun 22 '14 at 17:38
  • $\begingroup$ Even to build a structure you need considerable industry. You need to refine the (say) aluminum from lunar soil, then some way to make the shapes you want. Forget about graphite-epoxy, as the elements are rather rare. Adhesives are nice things, too, that will be very hard to come by. You would be surprised how much of the dry weight is electronics. The computers need to be in boxes in their own right, plus the interconnect harness, etc. $\endgroup$ Jun 22 '14 at 21:08
  • $\begingroup$ I understand your point. My question was about why no one is thinking about building interplanetary craft on the Moon. It's understood we would need infrastructure there first. Long term, however, it would allow, larger crews to be sent to Mars than will ever be the case from Earth's surface. NASA thinks in terms of a lunar base supplying an orbital depot at L1, another depot in LEO while still needing giant boosters like SLS Block II's AND the Block I/Orion to support flights with crews of maybe 4 or 6 people. How is this more efficient or 'cost effective'? $\endgroup$ Jun 23 '14 at 1:13
  • $\begingroup$ There are layers and layers of thinking about. The first approximation is just to look at the delta v required and to recognize that from the moon to Mars is cheaper than from earth to Mars. Unfortunately the moon is short on fuels for your rocket unless you can justify using the water in the polar craters, but it is probably better used for other things. Maybe you can use some sort of railgun to leave the moon. When (in the original question) you use the word "design" I think of a level of detail that doesn't make sense to do at this point. It depends on what is available at the time. $\endgroup$ Jun 23 '14 at 3:41
  • $\begingroup$ A lot of discussion is centered on the use of lunar water as a propellant source. This is what is so mystifying: Lots of discussion about using lunar water to REFILL spacecraft launched from Earth. Yet, somehow, the even more efficient extent of that idea (building entire spacecraft out of lunar materials) is nowhere to be seen. So I'm wondering if there is a design out there I have not seen for a spacecraft intended to be constructed on the Moon from lunar materials. Evidently, there is no real interest in cost efficiency anywhere. The current paradigm is not sustainable. $\endgroup$ Jun 23 '14 at 4:38

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