The right to go to the moonThe recent discovery of water on the moon could provide us with something that’s been in short supply since the first lunar landing in 1969: A reason to go back.
By: John M. Crisp, The Dickinson Press
The recent discovery of water on the moon could provide us with something that’s been in short supply since the first lunar landing in 1969: A reason to go back.
Apparently the water doesn’t amount to very much — one estimate suggests that a ton of lunar rock from the right place might yield 32 ounces of water, which means the moon is still a very, very dry environment.
Still, it was enough to quicken the heartbeats of space enthusiasts and mining engineers everywhere. For one thing, water on the moon could tell us something about lunar history. And it doesn’t take much imagination to picture a lunar way station, a watering hole on the way to Mars.
Why does this prospect make me vaguely uneasy? I should welcome the prospect of another trip to the moon. After all, my own life has happened to parallel the Rocket Age. I was born well before the flights of Alan Shepherd and John Glenn, when space travel was confined to science fiction and the fantasies of schoolboys. The moon was still a very mysterious, impossibly distant place in those days.
And I was privileged to observe the successes and setbacks of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, and eventually the lunar landing, a giant step that in some ways changed everything. Now we shuttle between the earth and the space station almost as casually, and with about as much public notice, as crossing the street.
Besides, I like the idea of space travel: it’s exotic and it probably answers to some primeval human imperative to explore whatever’s out there. Furthermore, our history in space demonstrates that Americans are, in fact, capable of cooperating as a people and that our government can foster programs that work reasonably efficiently to accomplish the most implausible goals. Imagine! Going to the moon!
So why can’t I work up more enthusiasm about going back?
Maybe it’s because once you throw resources like water into the picture — and water undoubtedly will become an increasingly valuable commodity — a trip to the moon and on to Mars begins to look like an ill-considered extension of our long history with the natural world.
Oversimplifying only slightly, the story of civilization can be reduced to a chronicle of the consumption of local resources — lumber, land, water, petroleum — and then moving on to fresh abundance elsewhere.
The examples are practically countless, but consider our own petroleum production, which reached a peak in 1970 and has gone downhill ever since. We’ve had to move on to fresh abundance, depending more and more on places like Saudi Arabia and Nigeria. To a great extent modern American foreign policy has been driven by the impending dearth of local petroleum. Why else would we be so interested in Iraq?
Common sense tells us that no non-renewable resource can be infinite, but this is a lesson we’ve yet to learn in practical terms. We imagine that more resources will always lie over the horizon, and the moon and Mars may represent for us, at some conscious or subconscious level, a fanciful safety valve for our overburdened earth.
Who knows what resources are on Mars? We never thought there was water on the moon. Maybe more resources are out there, and our natural instinct is to go and get them.
But there’s something vaguely unseemly about failing to live within our means here, and then hoping at some level to bail ourselves out by moving on to other worlds. I’m wondering if we have done a good enough job of husbanding the abundance of this planet to have earned the right to begin exploiting resources elsewhere.
— Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.