"One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind."
Giant Steps are what you take Walkin' on the moon I hope my legs don't break Walkin' on Walking on the moon
Aye, pardon us, O moon, Round, bright upon the darkening! Pardon us our little journeys endlessly repeated!
—William Carlos Williams, A la lune, 1914
Though a longtime companion in space, the moon for a time has passed its heyday as an interest of mankind. We left the moon alone while we went on to explore the ocean depths and the planets of the solar system. But the question arises, considering the Cold War fervor of going to the moon in the 1960s: after attaining the goal, why did we lose interest? What are we to tell children when they ask why there are no people on the moon? One answer can be found in what Armstrong said on the fateful day in 1969 when we first set foot there. Stepping on the moon may be still too big a step for a divided humankind.
In truth, it is one less headache that there are no people on the moon; in fact, one might rephrase the question: "Why are there no sleazebags on the moon?" I don't refer to the astronauts, heroes willing to risk their lives on the public stage, but to the military powers and capitalistic incentives that provided the muscle to send us to the moon. As early as the thirties, famous theologian C.S. Lewis and futurist Arthur C. Clarke were concerned with space imperialism. It was a more romantic time, when science fiction writers were still putting space ships in people's back yards.
In an article published by Arthur C. Clarke in the mid-forties, The Moon and Mr. Farnsworth, he attacked American Farnsworth's argument: "Then let us strive for the day when the American flag is planted firmly upon the volcanic ash of the Moon, and thenceforth, in its entirety, it will become a possession of the United States!"
Clarke went on to quote C.S. Lewis's famous passage from Perelandra which described Western science, in the shape of the villain Weston, as immoral: "It is the idea that humanity, having sufficiently corrupted the planet where it arose, must at all costs contrive to seed itself over a larger area: that the vast astronomical distances which are God's quarantine regulations must somehow be overcome. This is for a start. But beyond this lies the sweet poison of the false infinite--the wild dream that planet after planet, system after system, in the end galaxy after galaxy, can be forced to sustain, everywhere and forever, the sort of life which is contained in the loins of our species. The destruction or enslavement of other species in the universe, if such there are, is to these minds a welcome corollary. In Professor Weston the power had at last met the dream."
Space travel turned out to be a much greater challenge than the two envisioned. We have not yet fully studied what the effect of zero-gravity conditions are on human physiology. Even a "nearby" moon settlement is still a challenge.
As the chairman of the British Interplanetary Society, Clarke responded personally to this passage in Perelandra, beginning a correspondence with C.S. Lewis. Clarke argued that such an attitude as Farnsworth's was not widespread in astronomical circles. Clarke relayed this to Lewis but then took Farnsworth to task on this point in the article that was republished in Clarke's recent non-fiction collection Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds!:
"Little serious thought has been given to the social and moral effects of interplanetary travel, and many people are becoming increasingly critical of those who wish to enlarge man's powers before he is fit to use those he already possesses.....If we intend to inflict on other worlds the worst excesses of a materialistic and spiritually barren civilization (and here I am not thinking specifically of modern American culture, but of certain aspects of all Western societies), our case is lost before we begin to plead it."
Clarke concluded: "The 'quarantine' will have to remain in force for a few more decades yet if many advocates of interplanetary travel think as Mr. Farnsworth appears to do."
This quote illustrates C.S. Lewis's influence on Arthur C. Clarke, with Lewis also providing the moral weight behind Clarke's argument against Mr. Farnsworth and other would-be space imperialists of the time. But Clarke went on to own this territory, exploring the wholesome side of this endeavor, and safeguarding the territory from the imperialists.
The "quarantine" still exists, but it is enforced by the humanistic who also argue that the enormous "star bucks" should be spent to solve human problems, and by environmentalists who think we need to be more down to Earth. Meanwhile, as a society, we are held back, unable to further acknowledge that the Earth is a fragile vesicle in this vast unknown of space, that if civilizations exist in space we don't know anything about them, and that these astronomical distances are insurmountable by our modern technology. We also don't often get to say there could be something out there a million times as old as us (like Clarke's monoliths) that would consider Earth a "test tube." Or even worse, as H.G. Wells writes in The War of the Worlds, out there, there could be "Intellects Vast Cool and Unsympathetic." But Lewis's fear of human imperialism is not as alarming a concern due to the fact that no one lives on the other planets in our solar system.
But the "quarantine" is a challenge to overcome, with the forces assembled being the humanistically concerned, as well as the financial cost and scientific challenges involved. And I believe we may have gone too far too soon. The moon challenge of the 60s was like jumping down a set of stairs, ignoring intermediate steps like the space shuttle, Skylab, Mir, and the International Space Station. Are we still not ready to support a human settlement on the moon? It is a scientific challenge, but also a social challenge, and an interesting study in human diplomacy. A similar study is already in progress at The International Space Station.
The military got us to the moon, but they were thankfully not allowed to pursue their goals. International Space Law arose to safeguard against imperialistic actions. The men we send up into space are different now. They are no longer test pilots. As Bryan Burrough writes in Dragonfly: "The Mercury astronauts went down in myth as hot dogs, flyboys careening around The Cape in their beloved Maseratis and Corvettes and Shelby Cobras like a pack of drunken teenagers.... Yeager, Shepard, Armstrong, Glenn—those men were American heroes. Jerry Linenger is a space worker." p. 4-5
Burrough writes that present day astronauts worry about not being selected for space flight, which can result in ruined careers. The right stuff ("an amalgam of stamina, guts, fast neural synapses and old-fashioned hell raising"—Tom Wolfe) has been replaced by reserved professionalism.
A Longtime Fascination
Presently really a potential "territory," the moon has been many different things over the ages. As Scott L. Montgomery recounts in The Moon and the Western Imagination:
Plutarch reminded that an Earth-like Moon was a call to humility for those who saw the Earth as an endall. But an Earth-like Moon did not fit with a Christian belief system which found the heavens inspirational for revelations. The artists successful transcribed the moon. Such efforts were successful means to document nature. Van Eyck put the moon on the maps. British nationalist Gilbert: "codified the perception of the Moon as a 'territory' and 'place' into the form of an actual map." The telescope provided the impetus for the science of mapping the moon and others would later seek to improve upon previous efforts. Mapping became science, but also political as the maps showed the political allegiance of the map makers. Montgomery comments: "Rewriting the Moon as a text of its own ecumenical past was a great act, and we are fortunate to have preserved today. It reveals that any 'science,' be it physics or astronomy, is a discourse of history as much as of theory, fact or hypothesis." (p. 224). The International Astronomical Union saw to it that we inherited a seventeenth century moon with the nomenclature of Giambattista Riccioli and Francisco Maria Grimaldi. The names of modern figures were added to the "pantheon" of titles on the moon.
As Montgomery summarizes: "The Moon of today is the result of troubled adventures of the eye, hand, and mind that went far beyond the limits of the terrestrial realm, only to be discovered again in rarefied form.... Only a few precious years before the first man set literal (non literary) foot upon the lunar surface, many of the beliefs about the Moon from long ago were still in evidence among astronomers in one form or another." (p. 225)
Unlike the far distant planets Jupiter and Saturn, the moon has not only been a place to explore, it has also been interesting in a realistic sense from an imperialistic or military perspective. But we have instead focused on the satellite belt as a place upon which to focus our military concerns. Left virtually alone for almost the last 30 years, the moon has been preserved as the largest wilderness in history, but maybe the sociological experiment of a moon settlement would present itself as the next step on our way to Mars.
The space race of the 1960s showed what the scientists, with the military behind them, could do. But it also showed that NASA is at the mercy of the public and taxpayers. At issue is cost, safety, and scientific priorities. We didn't send our priests or our social commentators to the moon. We sent adventurers who were willing to risk their lives. We sent a wild bunch of dudes into space. Virility and fun was at a premium for these pioneers whose lives were on the line.
The question had arisen in Washington: "What kind of men should we send into space?" The government chose test pilots. Kennedy put forth the challenge to put men on the moon. As Norman Mailer recounts in Of A Fire On The Moon, "Four assassinations later; a war in Vietnam later; a burning of Black ghettos later; hippies, drugs and many student uprisings later; one Democratic Convention in Chicago seven years later; one New York school strike later; one sexual revolution later; yes, eight years of a dramatic, near-catastrophic, outright spooky decade later, we were ready to make the moon" (p. 11). And they succeeded.
But we stopped being interested in the moon. We had not completed earlier steps first. We jumped down the stairs with men who were willing to jump down a set of stairs. But mankind would later choose to walk down the stairs, one step at a time so that it would not cost lives, so people wouldn't fall. The military high ground was not the moon, but the satellite belt.
The reasons not to go to the moon again are many. Here are some, not necessarily in order:
- Safety: We are still studying the effects of zero gravity on human health and physiology. Mistakes have been made that have cost people their lives.
- Right Step?: We have to successfully complete a few steps first (space shuttle, International Space Station) before we put a human settlement on the moon.
- Money: Exploration and $cience are co$tly. Very co$tly.
- Dullness: There are other more interesting moons out there. In Jeffrey Kluger's words in Moon Hunters, "Earth's moon was, by even the most generous assessments, a carcass of a world: uniformly gray, uniformly dry, uniformly dead."
- We are more interested in finding life: Kluger writes, "It was the life part that interested the reporters most. And it was the internal heat part that was likely to make the difference. No amount of air, water, and organic molecules was going to be able to do all the clever recombining it had to do to create living organisms if you didn't have something to keep them all warm" (p. 13).
- What is the next challenge?: We already succeeded on the moon. Mars, Europa, and Titan will yield more interesting discoveries. Andrew Chaikin recounts in A Man On The Moon, "Meanwhile, outside NASA, interest was building in the far more audacious goal of sending humans to Mars. For these advocates the Red Planet was what the moon had been in 1961: mysterious, just beyond reach, awaiting the footsteps of human beings. To them, Mars was the goal NASA sorely needed to revitalize the space program and excite the American public. A return to the moon, they said, would only siphon off necessary resources for the Mars trip. The moon, they said, is boring" (p. 575).
- Not another human headache: How will we manage astronauts on the moon? Burrough writes: "Someday, perhaps a century or two from now, there will be no nations in space, no Russias or Americas or Japans. There will just be human beings. And when that day comes, schoolchildren may well look back on the seven missions of Americans to a rickety old space station called Mir as the first shaky step toward a unified tomorrow" (p. 513).
- Is it legal?: Not enough knowledge of and respect of the United Nation's International Space Law exists.
- We are still working out the kinks with the space shuttle and space satellites.
- The International Space Station is our present challenge.
For some, the main concern is that the military are behind the efforts to explore and will exploit the opportunities they are given. The moon ceased to be considered the military high ground. Throughout history, those who controlled the high ground had a military advantage. We have gone on to learn how hard and dangerous the exploration really is.
Lessons From Space Exploration
But what are we to make of the Apollo program?
Chaikin writes, "We touched the face of another world, and became a people without limits."
David Harland, in Exploring the Moon: The Apollo Expeditions recounts:
"Having fallen so far behind, the Soviets denied that they had ever been participating in Kennedy's race to the Moon, and they too switched their attention to orbital stations. So it was that in the decades since Armstrong placed his boot in the regolith at Tranquillity Base, the American and Soviet space programmes diverged to such an extent that they ultimately became complementary" (p.333).
One could argue that at the time the moon was still in our far future and the Soviet Union decided to focus on the high ground that the nearby space represented, because those who controlled the space overhead controlled the high ground. We followed suit and left the moon alone. The moon is still a challenge, but when NASA funding dried up in the early 1970s, NASA focused on the safer and more immediate steps: the space shuttle and space stations. There is the atmosphere of international cooperation in space exploration, but some (William E. Burrows and Karl Grossman, Wrong Stuff) warn that space is likely to become the new battleground. Maybe that is why we put our efforts into the satellite belt.
After the Apollo missions there was a lot less for us to learn about the moon. According Harland, NASA's "Top Ten" Scientific discoveries about the moon at that time were:
- The Moon is not a primordial object; it is an evolved terrestrial planet with internal zoning similar to that of the Earth.
- The Moon is ancient and still preserves an early history (the first billion years) that must be common to all terrestrial planets.
- The youngest Moon rocks are virtually as old as the oldest Earth rocks. The earliest processes and events that probably affected both planetary bodies can now only be found on the Moon.
- The Moon and Earth are genetically related and formed from different proportions of a common reservoir of materials.
- The Moon is lifeless; it contains no living organisms, fossils or native organic compounds.
- All Moon rocks originated through high-temperature processes with little or no involvement with water. They are roughly divisible into three types: basalts, anorthosites, and breccias.
- Early in its history, the Moon was melted to great depths to form a "magma ocean." The lunar highlands contain the remnants of early, low-density rocks that floated to the surface of the magma ocean.
- The lunar magma ocean was followed by a series of huge asteroid impacts that created basins which were later filled by lava flows.
- The Moon is slightly asymmetrical in bulk form, possibly as a consequence of its evolution under Earth's gravitational influences. Its crust is thicker on the far side, while most volcanic eruptions—and unusual mass concentrations—occur on the near side.
- The surface of the Moon is covered by a rubble of rock fragments and dust, called the lunar regolith, that contains a unique radiation history of the Sun which is of importance to understanding climate changes on Earth.
(Harland, pp. 330-331)
The question remains, if we send them back again, will the experiment be a success? Will the astronauts survive and work together?
Harland laments: "The supreme irony of all this is that, if we had not already been to the Moon, with Apollo, we would likely be beginning development of the specialised spacecraft to land on the Moon, and in this case taking the first step onto another planet would not be seen as the end, but as the beginning." Eugene Cernan, author of The Last Man On The Moon concludes, along with many others, that Mars is the next step. But maybe we should listen to the Artemis Society, which wants to open the moon to tourists, business, and scientists. The Bush administration, with its plans to create a human settlement on the moon, appears to have heard this message. If the goal is a human settlement on another celestial body, surely we are safer in choosing the moon over Mars.
Direction---> White Moon
A pristine moon thirty years later suggests that the real interest (or driving interest) of space exploration has been scientific rather than nationalistic fervor. Maybe the moon presents itself as a human experiment: a place where an American astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut can learn to live with each other.
Not to suggest that all astronauts should be solemn as John Glenn, but there needs to be some recognition of environmentalism, which was one of the major scientific revolutions of our times. We have learned that we put ourselves at risk when we don't care about biodiversity, that what we drop in the water may wind up in the food on our dinner plate, that we are changing the atmosphere and making dangerous holes in the ozone layer, that chemical pollution is probably effecting our ability to reproduce, etc.... We see the signs of the same problems in space with that accumulation of space debris.
We should embrace the scientific revolution that environmentalism represents and bring the appropriate values with us out into space. This can be called astroenvironmentalism. Astronomers who work daily with extremes can embrace wilderness protection on other planets, and centralization of habitation to avoid urban sprawl. They should argue against the idea of terraforming the moon. Though these issues are present only in our future, science fiction can guard against these damaging values because it is influential.
We need to promote the scientist to equal ranks as the air pilots which dominated the Apollo missions to the moon, but preferably scientists who have acknowledged environmentalism as a scientific social revolution.
A green space should not mean bringing life, as Kim Stanley Robinson suggests in his award-winning Mars trilogy. It may already be there. An environmental moon or Mars plan should mean that the celestial bodies are kept intact in their pristine form. Aldo Leopold's famous Land Ethic was necessary, and it should be studied first before we choose to alter it. There needs to be a more extreme adherence to wilderness protection. When we decide this about the moon or Mars, we are also saying this about the Earth as well. We need a "White" moon, e.g., the "White" treaty that protected Antarctica. Brian Aldiss and Roger Penrose in White Mars envision a utopic Mars preserved from the terraformers for research. A terraforming mentality may look at the solar system as a testing ground to create human habitations in space, but we need to recognize that these "barren" places have their own inherent worth. We need to continue to treasure them because they are different and preserve them as such.
We need to add to the space exploration enterprise what astrogeologist Gene Shoemaker taught us about the worth of geological features; we need to search for life before we terraform; we should see environmentalism as arguing for the need to keep things as they are, i.e., preservationism. We can still enjoy watching Star Trek, but environmentalism should remind us that space is a wilderness which, due to physical challenges, is still "quarantined." The moon offers itself as the next step after the International Space Station. Let's keep the discussion to international cooperation rather than terraforming so we will someday enjoy these alien worlds firsthand. Let's see how things work out on the moon before we go to Mars. How about a Moon First Society?
So why are there no people on the moon? Because it has been too risky, costly, boring compared to other things, and a social challenge we have not conquered on Earth yet.
We need to embrace and confront space, and its potential dangers (approaching asteroids, possibly dangerous extraterrestrial civilizations), but we do not do so as a unified species or society yet. For the time being, we can still have fun reading about the moon in science fiction.