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09 March 1998

Lunar Luddism

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 five years.

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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