Why Exactly Should We Go Back To The Moon—And Onto Mars?
How should we square pro-space arguments from tech CEOs with the history of imperialism and underinvestment in social equity programs?
The following is an excerpt from How to Save the World for Just A Trillion Dollars: The Ten Biggest Problems We Can Actually Fix, by Rowan Hooper.
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How to Save the World for Just A Trillion Dollars: The Ten Biggest Problems We Can Actually Fix
Al Worden was an old-school Right Stuff astronaut. A back-up pilot to Apollo 12, he flew the 1971 Apollo 15 mission to the Moon, and was the first person ever to spacewalk. As he orbited the Moon, alone in the Apollo 15 command module, he got to a distance of 2,235 miles from his crew mates on the lunar surface, earning him a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the most isolated human in history. Like most of the Apollo astronauts, he was a former test pilot and the loneliness didn’t seem to bother him; he said he enjoyed being in the spacecraft all by himself. But he did reveal something of a reflective nature, noting in a poem, “Now I know why I’m here. Not for a closer look at the Moon, but to look back at our home, the Earth.”
Al died in 2020. But he once told me it was essential that we go to the Moon as a staging post to Mars, if nothing else. He told me while smoking a cigarette—defiantly the nothing-can-harm-me hero archetype, the sort of person who speaks at you rather than with you, which probably comes from a lifetime of knowing that his stories are always going to be the best of anyone else in the room. But I was listening. For Al, the Moon came first.
His old friend Buzz Aldrin says the same thing. But don’t jump to the conclusion that it’s just because they’ve been to the Moon that they advocate going back. I heard similar arguments from several NASA scientists I spoke with. Mars and the Moon are almost equally as deadly to humans at the surface, as both have no magnetic field, barely have an atmosphere, and require a spacesuit. However, with the Moon you can get back to Earth relatively quickly, in only three days, if something were to go wrong. It would take anywhere between 150 to 300 days to get back to Earth from Mars. The time delay from Earth when speaking to someone on the Moon is 1.25 seconds; on Mars, it’s anywhere between 4 and 24 minutes, depending on the position of the Martian orbit relative to Earth. We need to learn how to live on the Moon before we make the step to multi-planet status.
If we choose the Moon, we have the added benefit that there is currently a lot of international activity directed there, both human and robotic missions. It’s been called the new Space Race. NASA’s Artemis program, at an estimated $28 billion, aims to put a man, and the first woman, on the Moon by the mid-2020s. We can piggyback on that, and make our trillion go further. The Moon also opens up the rest of the solar system. The most expensive, difficult, and limiting part of space travel is the effort it takes to break free of Earth’s orbit and fling yourself at your target. Rocket engineers refer to necessary change in velocity as Delta-V, and the value is much less from the Moon than it is from Earth. It’s why the Apollo program needed the biggest rocket ever built, the Saturn V, to get to the Moon from Earth, but only a tiny rocket was needed to get off the Moon and back to Earth.
Any crewed mission to Mars will have to be trailed by multiple scouting and setup missions, and any sustained buildup of resources on Mars will require hundreds of missions. It may be far more feasible, far cheaper, to build as much as what we need on the Moon and take it to Mars from there, rather than all the way from Earth direct. The Moon has large amounts of frozen water, which we could mine and use to make rocket fuel to refuel our ships, making return trips cheaper and onward missions easier. The rockets themselves won’t need to be as big, so they’ll be cheaper, and we’ll be able to more easily send supply ships and one-off exploratory probes to locations around the solar system. So let’s do it. Let’s make the Moon the eighth continent.
We need to row back a bit and examine the reasons we should invest in a program to build an off-planet settlement in the first place. There are difficult ethical questions to consider, too. We need to robustly defend our choices.
I’m going to try and keep Marvin Gaye in mind here. (It’s not a bad rule of thumb generally: When my wife and I got married, we played “You’re All I Need to Get By” at the ceremony.) On “Inner City Blues,” Marvin sang “Rockets, moon shots; spend it on the have-nots,” by way of commentary on the money given to the Apollo program, while black people’s problems were basically ignored. The words of that song are just as relevant today. Gil Scott-Heron said something similar in 1970: “I can’t pay my doctor bills but whitey’s on the Moon.” While many people were enthralled by the Apollo program, many were concerned that it was a huge indulgence to look to space when there were enough problems on the ground. Nothing much has changed.
In 2018, Musk’s SpaceX company launched its Falcon Heavy rocket for the first time. This is an impressive rocket, the most powerful built since the massive Saturn-Vs that took “whitey” to the Moon. Elon Musk says it has cost around $500 million to develop—bear that in mind. Of all rockets currently operational, the Falcon Heavy has the biggest payload. Musk had that first flight carry a payload containing a red Tesla roadster with the roof down, a “Starman” mannequin behind the driving wheel and the David Bowie song playing on the car stereo. The mannequin was positioned with one hand on the wheel, the other arm resting on the door. Some people were angry with what they saw as macho and patriarchal imagery and the same old middle-aged, rich, white, male-dominated agenda. The CEO of SpaceX is a woman, Gwynne Shotwell, but it didn’t help that the crowds cheering in the SpaceX launch control center were almost entirely white men.
Nor does it help that Musk likes to talk about establishing colonies on Mars, and “conquering” the Moon. The language is inflammatory to some because it recalls the evils of imperial colonization and slavery. He also suggested we nuke Mars— presumably at the poles, to melt the ice there and warm the planet, in order to kick-start the terraforming process. It’s unclear if he’s behaving like an amped-up Bond villain to irritate his critics, or if he really wants to nuke Mars. Either way, we can do it differently. As it happens, a group of entrepreneurs and former NASA scientists calling themselves the Open Lunar Foundation have similar ideas—we will end up collaborating with them.
Some reasons put forward for space travel, not mutually exclusive, are: to do science, to explore, to save the Earth’s environment, to start independent human settlements, as insurance against catastrophe, to make fabulous amounts of money, to go for glory, to go for greed. Some of these are pie in the sky, or delusional, or deliberately misleading. I can’t see how anyone is going to make money from investing in a Moon base any time soon. SpaceX is well paid from NASA delivery contracts to the International Space Station, and it is looking to make money from orphans of Apollo and other wealthy space tourists. Enthusiasts dream of prospecting for valuable minerals on the lunar surface, and of a business that could be set up refining lunar ice to make rocket fuel. But there is no space-based economy and there won’t be one for decades.
Then there is the insurance idea. That’s the argument that we need to start an off-planet human settlement in order to ensure the human species survives in the event of catastrophe. An asteroid strike ended the reign of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago; a super-volcanic eruption could cause an extinction event of the same scale. But, statistically, neither is likely to happen soon, despite the claims of Stephen Hawking in his final book that an asteroid impact is the greatest threat to life on Earth. To argue that we should spend money on space missions for this reason, to create a backup for the human species, seems disingenuous. Biodiversity on Earth is genuinely facing multiple threats, right now, as we saw in the previous chapter, and we should face them here, and fight them here, not run off to some other planetary body leaving the vast majority of people to suffer. We should acknowledge that and not try to dress up our Moon base plans as something they’re not.
It is, of course, highly laudable to claim that a Moon base will save Earth’s environment, which is what Jeff Bezos often says. The founder of Amazon, and the spaceflight company Blue Origin, Bezos talks of relieving environmental pressure on Earth by shifting heavy industry to the Moon. Blue Origin has developed a lunar lander and is building a rocket to get it there. Bezos wants to move heavy, polluting industry off Earth and relocate it on the Moon, eventually making Earth a residential zone with a bit of light industry and far less pressure on the environment. Some without stars in their eyes see Bezos’s plan as extending his power and wealth ever further, to an end point where Blue Origin produces goods on the Moon that Amazon delivers on Earth.
Again, whatever the outcomes of Bezos’s grand plan, they are far in the future. To some people, our trashing of the Earth environment seriously compromises our right to start settling on another celestial body; it is hardly acceptable to start strip-mining the Moon when our home planet is in such a state. We’ll come to this—I take it very seriously—but for now the point is that Bezos’s goals are long-term; we want something more immediate to focus on. I need a simple answer for when people ask why I’m spending so much money on the Moon.
Excerpt from How to Save the World for Just A Trillion Dollars: The Ten Biggest Problems We Can Actually Fix © Rowan Hooper, 2021. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Available everywhere books are sold.