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MIT Technology Review

The case for sending people back to the moon

Hard to justify in practical terms, a return to the moon nonetheless seems almost inevitable

An illustration showing a question mark and the moonAn illustration showing a question mark and the moon
An illustration showing a question mark and the moon

Jeff Bezos who created a company that has delivered more purchases than any other in the history of the world, stands in front of a craft designed to deliver things beyond it. It is called Blue Moon, and its blocky form, dominated by a spherical hydrogen tank, sits under stage lighting of an appropriately muted but still ethereal hue.

With a payload capacity of 4,500 kilograms (9,900 pounds), Blue Moon is the biggest lunar lander designed since Grumman built the Apollo lunar module in the 1960s. It could fly—if that is the word for something so wingless—in the next few years, Bezos tells his audience in Washington, DC. Odds are it will take a bit longer. But there’s a fair chance that Blue Moon will, in some form or other, reach the moon, and that one of its extended forms will carry a human crew.

NASA will need considerable assistance from private aerospace companies like Bezos’s Blue Origin to meet Vice President Mike Pence’s goal, announced a few weeks before Blue Moon’s unveiling on May 9, of putting an American back on the moon by 2024. On May 16, NASA announced contracts for studies and prototypes with 11 companies interested in providing it with lunar landers and other spacecraft; Blue Moon got funding, as did an unnamed, even larger moon lander from Elon Musk’s SpaceX. (Another of the 11 companies is the much smaller and scrappier Masten Space Systems.)

The Pence acceleration had no compelling rationale beyond an unwillingness to let China seize the “strategic lunar high ground.” It is true that once China builds the very large new rocket its engineers are now planning, the Long March 9, and gains experience with space operations using its proposed space station, a moon mission seems the logical next move. But given that the Chinese space program is characterized by slow, measured steps, that seems a much more likely proposition for the 2030s than the 2020s. Pence’s urgency might simply have more to do with the fact that, were Donald Trump to win a second presidential term, a 2024 moon landing could take place during Pence’s own campaign to become president.

The uncomfortable truth about any trip to the moon is that it is not really about the moon, and never has been. For Pence it is about some mixture of politics and China; for China it is about China, too. For Musk it’s a distraction on the way to Mars, but one he will tolerate if others pay or the publicity is good. For Bezos, it’s a stepping-stone to a greater vision of space and human destiny. He subscribes to the dreams of Gerard K. O’Neill, a Princeton professor who in the 1970s proposed building vast industrial concerns in orbit, their workers and managers housed in spinning, city-size habitats. The moon, in this vision, is at best a handy source of raw materials until the asteroid-mining boom kicks in (which, as explained on page 62, will take a while if it happens at all).

Apollo was not really about the moon either. It was driven by a desire to show the world, and America’s own citizens, that the United States’ capitalist system could achieve greater things than the Soviet Union’s socialist one. The fact that going to the moon would be very difficult and supremely costly—“We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” as President Kennedy said in 1961—was of the essence. Doing something cheap or easy could not, by definition, show the effort America was willing to put into a remarkable project. The moon itself was not of the essence: Kennedy initially resisted the idea, suggesting that desalination plants providing limitless fresh water for all might be a better show of America’s technological supremacy.

An image of Blue Moon
Jeff Bezos unveils the module he'd use to bring humans back to the moon.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

But the world was entranced by space, all the more so after Yuri Gagarin’s flight in April 1961. And America clearly lagged the Soviet Union. In 1957 it had been surprised by Sputnik; at the time of Kennedy’s famous speech it had yet to launch an astronaut into orbit. Part of the moon program’s appeal was that it leapfrogged over that shortcoming. Though the Soviet Union had better rockets—basically, big ICBMs—for putting people into orbit, it was no closer to the considerably larger rockets needed for moon missions than the US was. By deploying $120 billion (in today’s dollars), the US beat its rivals to the goal. A supreme symbol of national achievement was created, and that was enough; the moon could go on its way without further interference from the neighbors.

The current geopolitical rivalry with China that Pence pointed to is not like that of the Cold War. China may think putting people on the moon would be a nice symbol, pleasing at home and impressive abroad. But it would not make the world look on in wonder in the way Apollo did, and Chinese footprints there would not cement a Chinese reputation for technological primacy. That is the job of the industrial policy until recently known as “Made in China 2025,” which seeks to have Chinese companies lead the world in 10 technology areas that are all firmly terrestrial and profit driven. It is true that “aerospace equipment” is one of those areas—but it is only one, and “Made in China” is mostly about what Chinese consumers can use in their millions and Chinese companies can export. Moon rockets are doubly disqualified.

For all this, symbolism still matters. If China got serious about going to the moon, an America with no such plans would have but two options. It could either pooh-pooh the whole venture—darling, the moon’s so last century—or it could make plans of its own. The first option might sound unconvincing, and the second would look like playing catch-up. Getting out in front, as Pence is doing, is thus a plausible strategy. Look at it as a maintenance payment on the great symbol of Apollo. If China gets to the moon and America is not there, then Apollo, which signified America’s greatness in 1969, will come to signify lost greatness instead.

And the moon makes sense in other ways. America has a human spaceflight program and no appetite to scrap it; the International Space Station is a finished project; and going to Mars is a much harder undertaking. If you really want to do something with people in space (a condition not all US administrations meet), the moon is the obvious next objective. And today’s technologies should make it much less of an effort than it was in the 1960s. So why dilly-dally and let some later administration take the credit? As an honest contemporary Kennedy might put it: “We don’t really choose to go to the moon, but we sort of feel we have to, and though it may not be exactly easy, it doesn’t look all that hard. I guess it might even be kind of cool.”

But two things make the possibly imminent return interesting beyond sublime technological oomph, geopolitical signaling, and nifty science. One lies in the fact that, indeed, it doesn’t look all that hard; the other in the new quasi-practical allure that the moon has taken on over its fallow decades.

As an honest contemporary Kennedy might put it: “We don’t really choose to go to the moon, but we sort of feel we have to, and though it may not be exactly easy, it doesn’t look all that hard. I guess it might even be kind of cool.”

Ever since the Apollo program was canceled, people keen to return to the moon have talked, often somewhat fantastically, about the resources it might offer. In the past couple of decades, this speculation has focused on the moon’s poles. Because the moon sits up very straight in its orbit, there are craters at its poles into which the sun never shines. Some astronomers have long suspected that, over the billennia, comet impacts have left tenuous and transitory atmospheres frozen into these cold traps. An increasing body of evidence strongly suggests that they have.

Those cometary residues are probably composed of some mix of water, ammonia, carbon monoxide, and more besides. If so, they could be a source of light elements—hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen—in which the moon is sorely lacking. If food can be fabricated from these instead of shipping it from Earth, a moon base becomes more plausible. What is more, light molecules such as hydrogen and methane make good rocket fuels. Being able to refine fuel from lunar ice would make both getting from point to point on the lunar surface and getting back to Earth easier and cheaper.

Even better, some entrepreneurs believe that because of the moon’s weak gravity, it could be cheaper to fly rocket fuel from there than from the Earth’s surface to spacecraft in Earth orbit. They thus imagine the moon becoming both a source of wealth and a vital component of the space-based industrialization favored by Bezos and his ilk.

But this leads us to the lunar-resource paradox: a market for orbital fuels big enough for a moon base to earn its keep providing them suggests a large orbital economy. A large orbital economy suggests that the cost of launching things to space from Earth has become a great deal cheaper. But if launching from Earth is a great deal cheaper, why pay the high capital costs of setting up a moon-based supply? There will only be enough orbital demand for light elements to justify the expense of a moon base if the cost of launching from Earth to orbit is so low as to undercut the market for such lunar supplies.

Skepticism about this particular proposal might yet be proved wrong, however. Economic history often works out strangely, producing niches almost no one foresaw. More broadly, the fact that people want to go to the moon for possibly dubious reasons is a by-product of the more cheerful fact that they may soon be able to go to the moon for many reasons, because going to the moon will not be so hard. Yusaku Maezawa, a wealthy Japanese fashion entrepreneur, has signed a contract for a trip around the moon—not to its surface—with SpaceX simply because he wants to go, and to take a team of artists along with him to see what they make of it.

The one thing the moon has been proved to offer beyond prestige and science is perspective. For more people to see the harsh glories of the moon, both for themselves and as a context for the beautiful blue-green world fixed above them in the sky, and for those people to be a more diverse sample of humankind than the stalwart white, male American astronauts of Apollo, might come close to justifying a return in and of itself. Since the logic of space programs needing something to do makes that return highly likely, it will be a welcome dividend. It may, in the future, come to be seen as having been the main point.

 

Oliver Morton’s latest book is The Moon: A History for the Future. He is on staff at the Economist.