What happened to the Moon?

July 20, 1969… Fifty years! A life­time ago, the Moon land­ing seemed like a new hori­zon. But it wasn’t.

On the twen­ti­eth anniver­sary of the Apol­lo 11 Moon Land­ing (July 1989), Pres­i­dent G. W. Bush, sur­round­ed by the Apol­lo crew, announced a project 1 to get back to the Moon before the 50th anniver­sary of the land­ing on 18 July 2019. There were many rea­sons it nev­er came to pass. But the bot­tom-line was: the idea of return­ing to the Moon did not excite last­ing inter­est.

What should we make of this out­come no one planned? Wast­ed? Or indica­tive? What hap­pened to the future?

It became the present we gave our­selves because:

  • Moments after the first land­ing, Gov­ern­ments turned to squan­der­ing funds and lives on hor­rif­ic slaugh­ter and waste such as the Viet­nam War and the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion
  • As the cold-war and nuclear pro­lif­er­a­tion con­tin­ued through the 70s and 80s, Gov­ern­ments were more inter­est­ed in spy­ing than in space
  • Tele­vi­sion (Lost in Space, Star Trek, Bat­tlestar Galac­ti­ca…) and movies (2001 A Space Odyssey…) sub­sti­tut­ed. They did “inspi­ra­tion” as well as an actu­al space pro­gram — maybe bet­ter — and at much low­er cost.

  • There’s a rea­son this image (from Apol­lo 8) is icon­ic. Space explo­ration turned out to be less attrac­tive than earth explo­ration from low or geo­sta­tion­ary orbit (which is where all the mon­ey still goes).
  • Fast, high-band­width, glob­al com­mu­ni­ca­tions was an essen­tial coop­er­a­tor indus­try for the rapid growth of infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy, enter­tain­ment (dis-infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy?) and finance & bank­ing indus­tries. So the com­mer­cial mon­ey went into comms satel­lites. This like­ly raised the cost of oth­er forms of space invest­ment.
  • For the aero-space indus­try and its cus­tomers, inter­con­ti­nen­tal trav­el proved much more valu­able than space trav­el, much less expen­sive to scale and had imme­di­ate pay-offs. Pas­sen­ger prices fell fast in this sec­tor thanks to larg­er equip­ment (wide-bod­ied jets) but rose dra­mat­i­cal­ly for Space thanks to the USA’s choice of an over-crewed space Shut­tle
  • There are huge unit costs — still at least $1,400 per kg — to reach even low orbit. They are much greater where humans are the car­go. The cost of stay­ing there is astro­nom­i­cal. The “Inter­na­tion­al” Space Sta­tion (a “sta­tion to nowhere”) exceed­ed its pro­ject­ed bud­get by a fac­tor of 10 (now about $150bn) and by all reports under­shot its pro­ject­ed ben­e­fits by at least as much…
  • … so, space bud­gets & exper­tise in the USA, Europe, Japan and Chi­na went to ‘hard­er’ sci­ence tar­gets: robot­ic explo­ration and tele­scopes that have made much more valu­able con­tri­bu­tions to sci­ence
  • Aside: The low ben­e­fit-cost ratio of space-far­ing may not be a pure­ly ter­res­tri­al prob­lem . One way to mod­el the Fer­mi “para­dox” is that, even for more advanced civil­i­sa­tions, it is sim­ply too expen­sive to colonise the galaxy: so no civil­i­sa­tion has sus­tained explo­ration (except pos­si­bly by non-bio­log­ics)
  • Space boos­t­er­ism such as the still-pop­u­lar O’Neill the­sis — that space “habi­tats” are a safe­guard against exis­ten­tial threats (envi­ron­men­tal calami­ty; pop­u­la­tion explo­sion; the exhaus­tion of nat­ur­al resources) — only re-hash the dis­cred­it­ed alle­ga­tions of the envi­ron­men­tal move­ments of the 70s (“Club of Rome”, “Silent Spring”, Alvin Tof­fler etc). These overblown fears were nev­er based on sol­id evi­dence or an under­stand­ing of the mar­kets for ener­gy, agri­cul­ture or min­er­als
  • The idea that min­ing the Moon (the ‘eighth con­ti­nent’, accord­ing to boost­ers) or aster­oids could be a com­pet­i­tive source of resource sup­ply seems even less cred­i­ble than the idea of min­ing the seabed. That project, despite decades spent nego­ti­at­ing an inter­na­tion­al treaty and an inter­na­tion­al bureau­cra­cy to reg­u­late it, has not proved a com­mer­cial option except for some “eas­i­ly” recov­ered oil/gas.
  • The Bezos the­o­ry, extend­ing O’Neill’s, that the world will soon need more ener­gy than can be rea­son­ably gen­er­at­ed on the plan­et sur­face and more room for more bil­lions of humans, also seems dubi­ous. But I’ve writ­ten anoth­er post on that 🙂
  1. Remarks on the 20th Anniver­sary of the Apol­lo Moon Land­ing”, G. W.Bush, 20 July, 1989. There was a stamp and a White House Pic­nic to mark the 20th anniver­sary.

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