The Race (back) to the Moon

Sky and Telescope is one of the major monthly publications for amateur astronomers; it has a long history, some very talented writers, photographers and artists, and a long list of big corporate advertisers. They’re a serious bunch of people who do a lot for the amateur hobby, the professional science, and a general public that should know a lot more, generally, about where they are in the universe. It’s also packed with information about what planets are visible, when, and where, and includes a monthly sky map. It’s an excellent resource, and if you’re new to astronomy, this should be your very first purchase. Or, skip the consumerism, read it at your local library, and photocopy the star map for home use.

When my issue comes every month, I sit down and open it to the back. It’s a habit. I always read magazines from the back to the front. I should have been born in Japan. The last feature in Sky and Telescope is called Focal Point. It’s a chance for astronomers to write about a variety of non-technical subjects close to their passions: reflections on the observing life, stories about communicating astronomy to the public, or musings on the meaning of it all. I can usually expect to find the kind of astronomy writing I myself aspire to produce; enlightening, funny or moving, and always gently nudging readers to a wider understanding of our place in the universe.

In June, however, I was dismayed to find that Robert Wolfe’s “Who Will Be Next on the Moon?” (June 2009) did none of those things, and instead presented an awkward, nationalistic argument for re-energizing the US space program that rested on those standby twins of justification: economic development and national security. Wolfe starts his essay ominously: “U.S. citizens will wake up one day to watch Chinese taikonauts setting up a lunar base, resulting in us having to catch up once again.”

“Once again” references several things: the initial fright that the launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, caused the US in 1957, the renewed terror that resulted from the USSR sending up Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, just four years later, and a whole slew of other horrifying “firsts” that the supposedly decrepit USSR beat us too, including Alexie Leonov’s first space walk in 1965. The thought of the Chinese opening up these old wounds…well, I can’t speak of it. The shame of the early Space Race is enough!

Wolfe then outlines the economic benefits of returning to the moon: the much diminished escape velocity of rockets leaving the moon for destinations further afield, all that Helium 3 waiting to be mined for the as-yet-nonexistent fusion reactors, and the technological dividend of new technologies the second great race to the moon would bestow upon humanity Americans.

The economic argument laid out, he then slips in the national security argument: A moon base “will allow relatively easy delivery of defense systems to low-Earth orbit.” Let’s reflect on that a bit, and forget that Wolfe is the retired Chairman/CEO of Gencorp, “with companies that are involved in space propulsion and space-based defense systems.” Also forget that the Department of Defense was rightly called the Department of War until Truman, and the earlier title was more accurate if less friendly-sounding. When the US acquired a de-facto imperial hegemony after World War II, agressive war became an impossibility (the Mexicans and Phillipinos must have breathed a sigh of relief!) and every military action the US undertook became “defense”. Okay, so defense=war=people dying.

What we’re talking about here is anti-satellite and anti-ballistic missile technologies. Satellites don’t kill people directly, but they help guide the bombs and missiles, direct the soldiers, collect intelligence. Ground war is directed from space. Wolfe is talking about bringing the fighting into space. It’s a natural thing for a war-minded person to do.

Perhaps because the space industry has been so linked to the war industry, as Wolfe’s essay and position indicate, many of the people involved as astronauts and scientists and administrators have worked really hard at creating a different, peaceful vision of space exploration. Yeah, the Cold War kinda propelled the US forward into space (at least, it propelled the funding forward), but the tone of those involved has been more or less consistently peaceful. Talking to people in my astronomy club who remember watching tiny Sputnik fly overhead, they remember the wonder, the way it changed their worldview. And many of them became engineers and scientists as a result of that little chrome radio that simply fell but missed the earth for a short while. Few of them talk about wanting to pick up the technological sword to fight the Russians. Sputnik, to them, wasn’t Russian or communist, it was a human endeavor. The Apollo-Soyuz handshake that happened in earth orbit nary two decades later was more than a publicity stunt, it was a statement of this principle.

Hard science fiction dealing with space exploration picked up the tensions and themes. Arthur Clarke’s novel 2010: Odyssey Two and the 1984 film by Peter Gubers both dealt directly with the Cold War politics of space and a way around it. Ben Bova’s 1987 The Kinsman Saga imagined the earthbound Cold War ending when the two opposing nation’s lunar bases create their own separate peace. Yukinobu Hoshino’s 1984 manga 2001 Nights begins with the Soviet Premier and US president holding a peace summit in orbit so they keep the earth’s appearance from space, as a borderless, fragile thing, in the forefront of their minds. So, though the exploration of space and the technologies of war have since the beginning been linked, many of those involved in humanity’s push to the stars have urged us to embrace the same view of the earth from space that forged so many fictional peaces, and try like heck to create a real one.

These voices have urged us not to militarize and carve up space with short-sighted national goals. In the end, it is humanity that needs space, not the US or the Chinese or any national group. Let the Chinese space exploration program inspire and motivate us, but let us proceed in the spirit of cooperation. After all, those fancy technological devices Wolfe credits the US space program with providing are now made in China. It’s not us or them, it’s us and them. Finding Chinese taikonauts on the moon ahead of us is only “sad,” to use Wolfe’s word, to those who wish to make money off of putting weapons into space and moving human conflict into the skies.

Conflict in space is a dangerous and increasingly likely reality. The Bush Administration made a very quiet, but very serious, policy commitment to militarizing space. In 2002, the US unilaterally withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, which is a cornerstone of the legal framework of space as a protected, demilitarized common. There’s speculation, none of it particularly well-founded, that the recent collision of an Iridium communications satellite with a Russian satellite was actually part of an anti-satellite weapons system. With two nations famed for their secrecy, it’s always hard to figure out the truth, but the ramifications of the incident are very real. The impact caused two huge clouds of debris to form that will spread out over an entire orbital path. Space debris could eventually become so common that space travel would become impossible…it’s called the Kessler Syndrome, and it’s a very dangerous reality.

We have to resist the militarization of space. It’s only a distant issue until weapons start raining down on us from orbital platforms. If satellites can see pretty much everything from orbit, including the fact that the hot dog I grilled yesterday was burned or what condiments I put on it, then they can also kill anyone they want. Space, as a frontier, could be the place where humans finally figure out that fighting one another is a rather silly at best and completely suicidal thing at worst. And maybe those humans will come back down to earth and finally convince the rest of us.

Antarctica is the place to look as a way forward. A whole continent run by an international treaty dedicated to peace and science. Let’s extend that model to space, and let’s try to use space exploration as a way for us to develop as a species. Quite simply, let’s try to suck a little less, and let’s try not to ruin things off our world as have done so well on it.


One thought on “The Race (back) to the Moon

  1. looking forward to taking a look next time you set the telescope up…I will keep my eye on your blog for info – Phil Solano, fellow Geneva star watcher

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