the return of the rising red moon scare?

June 23, 2012

History is not only written by the winners, as the old expression goes, it’s also written to emphasize the good, to brag about accomplishments, and to gloss over the bumps along the way. For example, to hear a popular narrative of the Apollo program tell it, the nation came together to achieve technologicals feat that would dwarf all others before it to show the world what the United States could really do, landing men on the Moon exactly in the time frame predicted by JFK and to fulfill the then constant promises of one day living on other worlds in enclosed cities you’d see in The Jetsons and popular science magazine covers. The reality is that more than half the country thought the whole thing was a huge waste of time and money, and the only real goal for an extraterrestrial excursion was to show those dang commies who’s boss. As soon as that was done, the lunar landers were quickly moved into museums along with the space suits and used command modules, and the ambitious plans to actually settle the Moon, for science, and military purposes, were quickly scuttled. And as an odd reminder of the Cold War rationale for space exploration, consider a short essay by political scientist arguing that the U.S. needs to return to the Moon to beat the Reds again, this time the Chinese ones.

As a former citizen of the Evil Empire, my feelings on this argument are rather mixed. When I was growing up, despite seeing plenty of old newspapers and books featuring nasty pictures of civil rights protests to aid their descriptions of America is being the northern hemisphere’s South Africa under apartheid, there wasn’t even a single derogatory comment about the Apollo program or any effort to downplay its accomplishments. Maybe I missed them, but as far as I learned while growing up, the United States managed to accomplish something only dreamed of by science fiction authors and the idea that humans walked on the Moon was breathtakingly inspiring to me. We didn’t just have to dream about going to another world, we could really do it. We did it with what is by now antiquated technology. We could certainly do it again with a brand new spacecraft. Why, if we’d play our cards right, we could use the Moon as a stepping stone to other planets and other stars. Yes, we’ll be stuck with politicians managing space exploration budgets for the foreseeable future, but they can’t simply neuter our dreams, can they? But all that said, in the real world, getting to the Moon is expensive and we can’t let patriotic fervor dictate our lunar plans because they’d follow fickle passion rather than good science.

With his passions running high, Hickman imagines that the Chinese would want to colonize the Moon to start mining He-3 and could find a way to argue out of The Outer Space Treaty to legitimately claim a portion of the natural satellite as their sovereign territory. Now, we’re talked about the need to annex territory in space a few times before and why it’s important for both business and for future governments to be able to do so. But when it comes to mining anything in space, the costs of getting to the resources and transporting them back would cancel out whatever value they possess. Mines on Earth cost billions of dollars to set up in Third World nations, where operating costs are hardly what we’d call sky high and infrastructure can be improved to allow mining operations to flow more or less smoothly, and even then it takes years to fully realize profits. Mines on the Moon would cost several orders of magnitude more than that while the value of the materials they’ll extract would stay more or less the same. That’s hardly a sound investment, which is why current ideas for a mining business targeting asteroids isn’t actually to do much extraction at all, but in setting up on-demand bases for spacecraft on their way deep into the solar system, like a network of gas stations on an interstate. Hickman’s counterpoint is to compare the difficulty of colonizing the Moon with the difficulty of settling Alaska…

To most of us, the Moon appears impossibly distant and forbiddingly hostile. But remember that Alaska and Australia were no less distant and hostile when Russia and Britain claimed them in the 18th and 19th centuries. Both territories seemed like wastelands — until new technology made them into economic engines. Russia later exchanged Alaska for cash and warm relations with the United States. In Australia, Britain created a strong ally, molded in its own image, halfway around the world. So let’s not write off a Chinese moon colony as sheer fantasy. Unless steps are taken now to stop it, our children might look up to the night sky and really see a red moon rising.

Seems like a great point until we remember that the frozen wastes of Alaska and the arid deserts of Australia had a few advantages that we won’t find on the Moon. Things like air, gravity to which our bodies are used, an encouraging lack of electrostatic, dangerous, abrasive sand, and the protection of a magnetosphere able to repel lethal storms of radiation spawned by the Sun. The technological gap between settling deserts, be they arid or frozen, and another world, is more like a gaping chasm. Notice the urgent plea to stop the Reds from a claim to the Moon, a plea that sounds as if it was brought back from the mid-1960s with a time machine. With his patriotic zeal obscuring his rationale, Hickman vastly underestimates the challenge of building a colony on the Moon and how difficult it would be to pry the money and political backing from the clutches of politicians in the middle of trying to implement fiscal austerity and eagerly slashing any science and education budgets in sight with wild abandon. The public barely had an appetite for a $140 billion space program (in 2010 dollars) to simply land on the lunar surface. Will they want to bear a $1 trillion comprehensive colonization effort when they think we already spend 30 times more than we do on space exploration and want budget cuts for the space agency they refuse to understand is woefully underfunded and neglected?

I’m thinking the answer is a pretty firm no. Though really, the Chinese government doesn’t exactly have a lot of the restrictions that would force it to cater to public demands on how it should spend its budget and it’s really interested in becoming a global superpower. It has a vast military, nuclear weapons, client states reliant on a relationship with it to survive and grow, and now, a quickly developing space program. Were it to match what was done by the Apollo program, it would surely arrive to its desired global status. And maybe, just maybe, if Chinese astronauts walk on the Moon, the American public could get fired up about space again and urge the government to speed up its investments in SpaceX and innovative new aerospace companies like it to build a lunar colony, even if only to show that American science and technology is not simply coasting on a Cold War accomplishment and left it at that. It would be most unfortunate, however, if the American response was "yeah whatever, we did that back in 1969, who cares?" because that would be what you’d expect to hear from a has- been resting on his laurels, not a competitor who still has the ambition to peruse his dreams.

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