Return to the Moon may help earthlings

Viewpoint

return moonThere’s no need to rush, but going back to our celestial neighbour would achieve several worthwhile aims, argues Oliver Morton

 Should humans return to the Moon? The arguments against are reasonably strong. The Moon has already been visited and nothing found there detained the visitors.

Interesting lunar science could be done by people on the Moon, but much the same science could also be done by robots – and the world is full of interesting science that doesn’t get done, because the world is almost infinitely interesting. Its wonders leave science spoilt for choice; as long as the science that gets chosen is good stuff, there’s little point in worrying about the equally good stuff that doesn’t.

return moon
All of the moonwalkers have been white American men born before WW2

Some claim that a return to the Moon will bring real, and possibly large, economic benefits. You should take that with a pinch of salt (one of many necessities with which the Moon is woefully under-stocked).

There may be some valuable platinum-group metals there – but unless they can be exploited on a large enough scale to change the way the economy uses such things, driving up demand even faster than costs drop, they don’t look like a good prospect. Helium-3, which makes up a few parts per billion of the lunar regolith, has its boosters; but it is a fuel for a sort of fusion reactor no one has ever built, and which it is quite possible no one ever will build.

Far-fetched ideas

The frozen volatiles – water, ammonia, carbon dioxide and the like – that seem likely to lurk in the permanently shadowed craters near the poles might be usefully exploited by people building a moonbase. But the idea that they could be profitably exported to other parts of space for use as propellants, or in life-support systems, is far-fetched. Yes, it is cheaper in energy terms to send things to other orbits from the surface of the little Moon than from that of the big Earth. But there will probably only be a market for such things in orbit if getting from Earth to orbit is pretty easy – so why not ship them up from the Earth, where you don’t have to mess around close to absolute zero in hazardous terrain to extract them?

And the sort of people trying to build an orbital economy will probably be the sort who wouldn’t like the idea of being dependent on the goodwill of the Lunar Union of Mineworkers.

But this doesn’t mean that there is no reason to return to the Moon. For the US, it is a matter of face. Going to the Moon in the 1960s was a big deal – it established the idea that no other country could compete with the US when it came to the very costly development of utterly unprecedented, even transcendent, technologies.

Going to the Moon in the 2020s would not have anything like the same effect. But if there is a chance that the Chinese might go in the 2030s, then the propaganda case for Americans having recently been there when they land – or actually greeting them – is quite strong. If it didn’t, it would look like America had ceded something. It may well be that, in terms of national prestige, the hidden cost of having once gone to the Moon is the need to keep on being able to go.

Is there a chance that the Chinese may send people there in the 2030s? Sure. It’s not a done deal, but if you want to send people into space, the Moon is the only feasible near-term destination other than a space station of your own devising.

It would not be the symbol it was when America did it in the 1960s. But it would still be something. And it would be way cheaper. Not truly cheap. But cheap enough for a big country to do it without the undue efforts that made Apollo possible. Cheap enough for a multi-billionaire or two to have a crack at it, too.

You might object that reasons based on national pride, or plutocratic ego, are not good reasons. But they seem good enough to make something happen. And when it does, there will be other advantages. The first time humans went to the Moon, it changed the way they looked at the Earth. The same may be true of their return.

And it would certainly change the type of humans who looked back. Women; non-Americans; non-whites; non-engineers, non-officers, non-test-pilots; artists; lottery winners. What they would see when they looked out over the never-living-not-even-dead Moon at the bright life in the sky? How they would think about it. How they would talk about it among themselves, would genuinely add to the sum of shared human experience.

That there should be a fundamental human experience that has only been undergone by a clique of white American men all born before the Second World War is something worth changing.

Oliver Morton is briefings editor at The Economist and author of two books: The Moon, a History for the Future, recently published by Profile Books (read about it here), and The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Save the World, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Samuel Johnson Prize and the 2016 Royal Society Science Book Prize