The Men Who Sold the Moon
Humankind's presence on the moon was never supposed to be some boring public works project. It certainly wasn't supposed to be a failed one. When the easing of Cold War tensions and the economic disaster of the 1970s took the wind out of the Apollo missions, the dream of domed cities and low-gravity industrial parks died too.
The moon remained a vacant lot in a bad neighborhood -- until last month, when TransOrbital Inc. became the first private company granted government permission to explore, photograph and land there. What's fueling this moon rush is not just a juicy balance sheet, but a pulp fantasy version of the frontier. Rather than belonging to the Earth, lunar soil would belong to whoever staked a claim and had the best business model.
"It is necessary for humankind to move off-planet, and in the near future, if we are not to stagnate," TransOrbital executive Paul Blase says. And if the moon isn't turned into a commercial space, "then we are limiting ourselves to an observational presence only ... This will be only signing a suicide pact."
TransOrbital's Trailblazer mission, slated to launch in the next nine to 12 months from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, seems to lack the cachet to save industrial civilization from imminent collapse. For $2,500, you can send a lock of your hair or a business card up on the ship. The launch vehicle has room for corporate logos on its side (think NASCAR, but faster) for $25,000 and up. TransOrbital will license high-definition footage of the moon and daily Earthrise to the movies. Baldly commercial and on a shoestring, Trailblazer replaces the old NASA goals of scientific research and military advantage with a new goal of profit-seeking, and over the long term, homesteading on lunar soil.
Though TransOrbital isn't laying down stakes, it's worth noting that the mission was spun off from the Artemis Project, a commercial venture to establish a lunar colony. Artemis has also founded a science fiction magazine and the nonprofit Moon Society.
"The goal," says Ian Randall Strock, a member of the society's board of directors, "was to gather together people interested in getting back to the moon, in the hope that some of them might spawn commercial ideas which they would run with, creating spin-off companies to promote and finance both the Artemis Project and their own goals."
Rather than lobbying for increased funding for the space program, the group wants to create "a space-faring civilization which will establish communities on the moon" and to promote "large-scale industrialization and private enterprise on the moon." In short, it's a nonprofit built for the support of profit.
Setting up shop in the heavens is perfectly legal, and perfectly American. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 barred nations from owning property upstairs but left companies with an all-clear. Later, the 1979 United Nations Moon Treaty declared Earth's satellite part of the Common Heritage of Mankind, exploitable only for the mutual benefit of all nations. But the U.S. and the Soviet Union never signed on.
America refused because of "the conquistador mind-set," says William Hartmann, author of the current theory of the moon's origin and an astronomer at Tucson's Planetary Science Institute. "Basically [failing to ratify the treaty], says that the rest of the world is up for grabs and is populated by a bunch of ignorant peasants, and since we are the most noble, advanced and moral people, it is our duty to God and country to grab as much as we can for ourselves."
And there is plenty of profit to be made from the moon. It allows for efficient solar power (no clouds), radio astronomy (the earth generates a ton of radio "noise"), vacuums for integrated-circuit manufacturing, and of course, advertising on spacecrafts -- not to mention billboards on the lunar surface itself, for a captive audience of several billion below.
"I sure see a lot of conquistador mentality among what you might call the libertarian space buffs, who have a fantasy about 'getting NASA out of the way,' and then magically private enterprise will blossom with the investments needed to start space industry and a handful of people will get rich by developing space resources, and we'll all be happy," says Hartmann.
He argues that the real choice isn't between allowing the rich to develop space resources or ignoring those resources while the known world devolves into a pre-industrial state. Land-use planning, rather than letting the market carve the moon into real estate, can take the edge off the consumption of Earth's finite resources. Moon bases could generate electricity on the cheap thanks to 24-7 solar access, and proximity to nickel- and iron-rich asteroids could finally let us shut down terrestrial mines, "allowing Earth to relax back to its natural state," he says.
Unfortunately, outside of the small community of space buffs, much of the public debate over the TrailBlazer mission has been hysterical. Democrats.com (a site not affiliated with the political party) fumed, "Bush simply acted as if the moon were his to give away. The TransOrbital venture could be disastrous for the globe -- no scientist today could predict yet how adding mass to the moon via human infrastructure or removing mass, via mining, will impact the delicate gravitational interplay between Earth and its only satellite."
The scientific illiteracy is easily refuted: Mining the moon will no more affect the gravitational interplay than mining the earth does. "Amounts of mass affected by mining the earth or moon are negligible compared to the planet's mass, so simple mining is not the issue, in terms of gravity and orbits," says Hartmann.
Nor was TransOrbital Dubya's end run around the law. TransOrbital received standard licensing from the State Department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, under 1984's Commercial Space Launch Act.
"President Bush, of course, had nothing to do with it, and probably doesn't even know what we're up to," says Blase, the company's chief technology officer. TransOrbital agreed to make footage of the earth available to any government whose land was captured in the images, applied to ship the TrailBlazer craft to Kazakhstan, and sought a license from the FCC. The company started the process in 1998, under President Clinton.
Still, the extension of globalization to a second globe doesn't need doomsday pronouncements or conspiracy theorizing to be a major concern. "If we turn over all cosmic resources to the handful of people who now have the money and technology," says Hartmann, "we guarantee a world in which the wealthy few nations further increase the spread in living standards and consumption rates -- which ultimately leads to unrest, revolution, terrorism from the have-nots."
Hartmann instead suggests a model he described in his 2002 novel "Cities of Gold." "I had my character travel in Europe to contrast with the current American system," he says. "I look down from the plane and see big cities and small towns, each surrounded by exquisitely beautiful farms and countryside. I ask my Swiss friends why don't people buy up that land around the edge of town and build malls and tacky developments ... They say it's in the Swiss constitution that while a farmer owns the land outside a town, the town also has rights about how that land may be bought, sold, or developed."
Now if only some Swiss farmers would launch a mission to the moon.
Nick Mamatas is a freelance reporter and a science fiction novelist. His articles have appeared in the Village Voice, Razor, In These Times and many other publications.