09 March 1998
Astronomer Henry Joy McCracken considers the reaction to the news that
there is water on the Moon
"It's a God-awful small affair" sang David Bowie a decade and a half ago in
his pop classic 'Life on Mars'. The debate surrounding possible signs of
life found in Martian fossils still rages, but Bowie's lyrics seem quite
appropriate in the context of the announcement of the discovery (by a
bargain-basement spacecraft) of a thin smattering of iced water at the
lunar polar caps. Commentators were quick to proclaim that a new age of
space exploration was upon us. The Guardian's 'Water on the Moon - our
passport to the planets' headline was one of many such declarations. It
would be easy to get swept away on this heady rush to the planets but we'd
do well to reflect for a minute before departure why we haven't been back
to the Moon for twenty years.
The exploration of space has been in crisis for the last two decades.
Budgets have been scaled back and the cost of every mission is measured
relative to Hollywood movies. In the face of any criticism the mantra
'faster, cheaper, better' is intoned to lend justification to cutting back
and restricting ambition. As the reaction of the press to the plight of
Michael Foale aboard the Mir Space Station last year demonstrated, the
bravery and risk-taking which is essential to the exploration of space is
directly at odds with the cautious mood of the times we live in.
Another reason we haven't been back to the Moon is that, quite simply, it's
a bit of a dump. There's no atmosphere, and no significant concentrations
of ores. Nobody is going to get rich quick from mining the lunar soil. And
even the much-vaunted discovery of water doesn't really change the
prospects for long term colonisation of the Moon that much - radiation from
space and the fact that the sun is below the horizon for most of the month
means growing crops - which are essential to the establishment of any
long-term settlement - an extremely difficult proposition indeed. It is
possible that scientific bases could be established on the Moon at great
cost but such bases would be almost entirely reliant on Earth and could
never be self-sustaining.
But the Moon is a perfect objective for a society retreating from the
exploration of space. It's nearby, and accessible, a mere three days'
travel from Earth. Correspondingly, the costs are much lower; but so are
the rewards - a barren and airless world incapable of supporting humans
except under highly controlled conditions. A journey to Mars, by
comparison, would entail at the very least a three-year interplanetary
sojourn, a unpalatable proposition for the mission planners of the
nineties. And we have known since the Viking Landers that Mars has abundant
reserves of water and minerals, and an atmosphere too, albeit a thin one.
Moreover, the idea that water on the Moon now means we can now explore Mars
ignores the fact that perfectly workable plans to explore Mars which don't
involve stop-offs on the Moon have been on the drawing boards for the last
The mood of today's explorers is a hesitant one. "... [Y]ou have to do it
slowly...it's much more complicated, and we have to it one step at a time"
commented Dr. Ellen Stofan, a NASA scientist at the press conference to
announce the discovery. And an editorial in the Guardian suggested that the
lunar water should be put under the protection of the UN with the mandate
of an updated Moon Treaty, to guard against reckless misuse or exploitation
- providing clear evidence that there is no reason one should not be
environmentally politically correct beyond the surface of the Earth. 'We
are moving' the leader continued, 'from exploration to exploitation. As our
activities expand into space, they demonstrate the human-made law of
universal entropy - or in plainer language - the unstoppable drive of our
species to consume finite resources and screw up the environment.'
Despite the Guardian editorial writer's crass Luddism, in the world of
exploration, the greatest risks always produce the greatest rewards. After
a twenty years of never venturing beyond the Earth's orbit, we should aim
to go further than the grey desolate hills of the Moon.
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