Moon Race – August 8, 2010

I grew up with the space race. I remember being in school the day that we heard the Soviets had launched an orbiting satellite, Sputnik. That day gave the average child a whole new vocabulary: “missile,” “satellite,” “orbit,” “Sputnik.” My brother was the technological whiz back then, and he had built a shortwave radio that we would listen to at night in our bedroom after lights out. I can still hear the faint, cold voice of that satellite from the news broadcasts: “… beep… beep… beep…”

After that came the space dog Laika, Yuri Gagarin and a full orbit, Alan Shepard and more new terms—“Mercury” and “downrange,”—then Glenn and a full orbit for the Americans, followed by Gemini and Apollo, “a man on the Moon by the end of the decade,” and the landing in August 1969.

Even as a child I understood that we had to beat the Soviets in getting into space. But as a budding fan of science fiction (we also used to listen to broadcasts of the radio show X Minus 1), I also believed that we were at the beginning of a great adventure in human exploration and colonization.

We would go to the Moon, build a base there, and use it as a high-orbit launching pad to explore the rest of the solar system and, eventually, the stars. Popular culture—everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Star Trek and all the science fiction novels and stories of the time—seemed to confirm this. Humans were going into space. We would colonize and spread. We would become a “space-faring people,” as the great explorers of the 15th century led Europeans to become a sea-faring people.

We landed on the Moon. We collected rocks and took measurements. We drove carts and golf balls. We left flags. And then, because the Soviets had long since given up after crash-landing a few probes, we lost interest. It was just too expensive in terms of men, expendable machines, institutional effort, and budget to make more trips worthwhile. NASA adopted the Space Shuttle, a reusable vehicle to achieve Earth orbit, launch satellites, and build our first space stations. Along the way we built a whole new world of satellite-based communications, weather observation, mapping and spying, and astronomical observation. The technological bonanza has immensely enriched humankind. But going back to the Moon anytime soon was out of the question. Now even the Shuttle is going into mothballs.

When did things change? I guess it was when we looked at the cost of return moon trips and decided there was no immediate technological path between the Apollo missions and any kind of Moon-based habitat. Low Earth orbit looked like a next-step alternative.

Then came the failure of the privately funded Biosphere venture in Arizona in the early 1990s. It has become a staple of science fiction that humans could easily build a self-sustaining habitat on the Moon: just add water and sunlight, and green algae would do the rest. We had been able to keep crews alive in submerged submarines for months at a time and aboard the International Space Station for indefinite periods. How difficult would it be to make them self-sustaining?

Very, it turned out. Submarines and space stations are stocked and replenished with everything they need from the world outside. Building an ecology under a sealed dome the size of a couple of football fields turned out to be a daunting task, and even today we don’t understand all the variables and all the ways the system can crash. It was a good thing the Biosphere was built first in Arizona—with fresh air, clean water, and safety right next door—instead of on the Moon. It takes a planet to sustain a village.

As of today, it would be cheaper and more technologically feasible to build and maintain a four-star hotel, with tennis courts and an Olympic-size swimming pool, at the top of Mount Everest or at the bottom of the Sea of Cortez than to build a base on the Moon. For one thing, the logistics are easier.

So what did we learn from the Moon race? For me, that it’s important to set the right goals. Beating the Soviets wasn’t the right goal to launch the exploration and colonization of the solar system. When we go back to the Moon—and I say “when” rather than “if” more out of hope than faith—it must be with a long view toward humanity’s future. And with a budget no one is yet in a position to calculate. Short-term political or economic motives and enthusiasms just won’t do it.