I was slung in my favorite deck chair, drink in hand, having a gawk at the night sky. Andromeda, Pisces … I trawled the constellations, mind abandoned, still aware in some curve at the back of my brain that the world is coming apart at the seams and we’re all fucked, and enjoying the gentle paradox of it, the clink of the ice in my glass and the slumber of the dog.
By and by I found my gaze resting on the moon. There it was, the great provider: breeder of wonder, werewolves, and all those songs. The place where beauty meets philosophy, where hope and despair alike are lost.
Gnawing through the romance though was a little something I’d read not long before. An astrophysicist had claimed that the moon could save our planet. Not immediately: This would be in about 4.5 billion years when the sun explodes and roasts us in wrath and fire unless we get out of the way.
Frankly, the notion of Earth making a break for it seemed implausible to me, but this Canadian professor said we could do it by shooting off an army of rockets on the far side of the moon. Slammed out of its orbit by the collective blast, the moon would sail off with Earth, yoked by gravity, trailing behind it. A thousand years’ travel and we’re out of harm’s way—albeit dark and freezing unless we initiate phase two of the plan. As the sun receded in the distance, we would replace its rays with a trillion lunar argon arc lamps. A flip of the switch and the moon would become the sun: blue sky, puffy clouds, everything just as before.
I’m gazing up at the night, not quite in a reverie thanks to the gnats, but thinking yes, well, lovely. Imagine the parades. Still, to get that opportunity the human race would have to last (long pause, phone math) 22,500 times longer than it has already. At that point I heaved myself up and went inside for more booze.
Looking back, I believe that night marked the shift in my thinking from save it (Earth) to save us (me). Or if not me, someone. Because when you’ve got surfing champs riding the curl from an ice wall collapsing in the Arctic, when an Ivy League egghead offers mathematical proofs that the human race is doomed if we don’t get off-world, and Stephen Hawking and others are ululating on the same theme, and thousands are tunneling and stockpiling ahead of TEOTWAWKI (The End of the World As We Know It), then you have to start wondering if it’s not time to break camp. Or at least to establish a beachhead on the moon, just as some governments, corporations, scrappy start-ups, and freestanding oddballs are trying now to do.
On the moon, our genius can fly free.
Granted, we’ve heard such talk before, back in the days of the Apollo program. Lunar colonies they promised us, farms, industries, a platform to the universe. What did we get? June 2008: “Space Station Resident Fixes Toilet.” The big difference today is that some people are actually serious about it. In the ’60s it was just something to say. For despite all the soaring rhetoric, the only thing Washington really cared about then was beating the Soviets there.
As a kid when I heard the word Soviets, I got a taste in my mouth like lead pencils. I remember a Weekly Reader from maybe fourth grade with a picture of J. Edgar Hoover beneath the headline, “What You Can Do in the Fight Against Communism.” What winning would mean—Let’s Win the Cold War!—no one ever explained, but the consequences of losing were clear. The Kremlin and the Kingston Trio agreed, when the big one hit, we’d all go, next year, next month, tomorrow … Everyone lived in a state of controlled hysteria and doublethink. To safeguard the nation the Atomic Energy Commission put out a call to any and all Americans to get out there and find more uranium so the government could build more bombs. We pay cash! People were streaming across the Colorado Plateau with picks and shovels, Geiger counters, whole families, some in the newly popular uranium designer-wear including the form-fitting “U-235 suit” for Mom and the “Diggerette Jr.” model for Sis. No protection from radiation expressed or implied, but so what? Handling uranium was safe. People believed this not just because the Mouseketeers were out looking for it, or even because the government said it was safe. They believed it because it was impossible. A lot of these same folks were putting fallout shelters in their homes. Everybody was. My parents got one immediately. We had a small basement and the shelter took up half of it: a little blockhouse of dank concrete with cans and shelving. My mother had to squeeze past it to get to the dryer. Even as a child I knew that sealing the five of us up together for more than an hour and a half was inconceivable on its face. I’d returned home from the dentist one day to find our cat had killed our hamsters and our dog had killed our cat. That was the kind of vibe our house produced among pets in the living room. Put the people in a hole and you can imagine.
Then Sputnik went up. This was in the fall of 1957, and the whole country plotzed. I remember standing in the backyard on those autumn evenings, like millions of other Americans, staring dumbly at the sky trying to spot its winking light. Every 90 minutes the thing passed overhead, accidentally opening and closing garage doors, and with each orbit the Soviets claimed the universe one more time.
What would the Commies do next? Would they bomb us from outer space? Would they bomb us from the moon?
Not to worry, the Russians said. True, in five to 10 years they would be enthroned there but strictly in the interests of peace and science. At 8 I was merely skeptical. Washington’s response recalled the time the great acting teacher Stella Adler told her students to react to the bombing of Pearl Harbor as if they were chickens. One of the first ideas advanced, perhaps predictably, was to nuke the moon.
To be fair, it wasn’t the only thing American officials wanted to nuke. If there was one group in those days even more in thrall to the bomb than everyone else, it was the people in charge of it, many of whom united the self-surrender of cultists with a sort of mad curiosity about what it could do.
The Atomic Energy Commission went on a campaign to create a deep-water harbor in Alaska with five thermonuclear bombs. But the moon! Not only could we keep the Russians at bay by firing a warning shot into its head; the demonstration of strength would have “beneficial psychological results” for our citizens, as Jet Propulsion Lab chief William Pickering explained—plus, he said, scientists could harvest and study the hail of radioactive debris. Thus in 1958, top-secret Project A119 got the go-ahead with prestige support from the RAND Corporation and JPL. A modest strike, the planners said. We won’t be obliterating the whole moon any more than we destroyed all Japan.
Ten months of work was sunk in this scheme. Along the way team member Carl Sagan, later the face of space on public television, established that a Hiroshima-sized blast in lunar gravity would fly in all directions, not mushroom as on Earth, a plus propaganda-wise since it would be easier to see.
Then just like that it was over. NASA was born and the project was scrapped. The new, karmically improved plan was to put men on the moon before the Russians could. For a time this looked unlikely. The Soviets orbited the first animals, the first man, two men, three, the first woman, with a vaudevillian’s arrogant skill, while NASA’s small successes splashed down to a mix of scorn and anxious clapping. But derailed by in-fighting, the Russians flagged, and on July 20, 1969, there was Apollo 11 touching down and America waving the big foam finger.
Ironically, when TV screens showed that white beetle climbing down the ladder, it didn’t matter who had won.
That’s what people said, and for a moment it was true. We’re on our way! NASA cried. Next stop the stars! But with the Russians beaten the rest was gravy, or would have been except there was no gravy: Up close the moon seemed to have nothing a person would actually want. By the mid-1970s NASA’s budget had dropped dramatically, and as an icon of the age the moon faded out, to be replaced by the disco ball in Saturday Night Fever.
Why then, all these decades later, the hunger to return to the big white stone? What’s driving it? The one-world ethos of the Apollo program is long gone. Humanity in the main couldn’t care less about understanding the cosmos. Saving mankind? You couldn’t get the funding.
We’re going back because, like the voice of Gatsby’s beloved Daisy, the moon is full of money.
In the 1990s the rumors began: talk of new fuels there, strange isotopes. Probes from India, China, the United States dove and hovered like hornets over a jam pot. Then water! Confirmed! In two shakes the moon went from a circular corpse to a whiteboard covered in calculations. Some picture it now as the industrial hub of the inner solar system. They see alien-hunting telescope farms, hotels, zoos, gardens, and everyone having sloooooow sex in one-sixth of Earth’s gravity. Plus swimmers like flying fish, cubic basketball, gymnasts like figures in a dream. Lunar eveningwear! Genetic warehousing! Glass roads! And there’s a vision even more extravagant …
Alfred, Lord Tennyson had some thoughts on buying and selling in outer space. As he saw it, when “the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails / Pilots of the purple twilight dropping down with costly bales,” universal peace would shower down as well. A foolish dream, you say? Tell that to today’s entrepreneurs who’ve caught the opiate perfume of phrases like “Persian Gulf of the 21st century,” “Saudi Arabia of platinum,” and “biggest wealth-creation opportunity in modern history.” They believe that new energy sources from the moon, non-polluting and inexhaustible, could transform and heal our planet. Equally excellent, they see themselves profiting unimaginably from these sources without interference or restraint.
Capitalism this pure, it’s almost too good, it’s like uncut heroin, it stops the breath. Look at the target market! Everybody! Experts at the Massachusett Institute of Technology say the 10 billion people on Earth in 2050 will require seven to eight times the largely poisonous energy we’re generating now, or would if they were still alive. The inexorable message: We’ve got to escape fossil fuels whatever it takes.
Small but mighty sectors of business and government see our salvation in a substance called helium-3, an isotope of the party-balloon element. Earth has almost none because our magnetic field repels it, but the moon has enormous quantities hiding in the regolith—enough, we’re told, to provide us all with 100 percent clean power into the far, far future. There could be 5 million tons for the scooping, and a mere 25 tons would fill America’s energy needs for a year. (These are Mad-Libs numbers, the prospectus kind, but you get the idea.) The web page “Helium-3 Moon/Celebs in Bikinis” only begins to suggest the level of interest. Russia’s Energia corporation has vowed “industrial-scale delivery” of He-3 to Earth. The Chinese are determined to control it themselves. India, Japan, and Germany want some. And Harrison Schmitt, the lone geologist to walk on the moon, has founded the Interlune-Intermars Initiative to seize a bunch for the U.S., which may explain why the Russians have accused us of plotting to corner the market and “put the rest of the world on its knees.”
All this we find in the hymnals. Now for the obstacles, large and sobering. First, there’s the task of putting specialists with vast equipment on the moon. Then there’s digging, extracting, and shipping the stuff. But most of all, there’s the problem of what to do when it arrives here. For to be of any use, He-3 has to spark with hydrogen in a fusion reactor at temperatures so high they would essentially melt the reactor, leaving us with a puddle of nothing. The container we need does not yet exist.
Here come people with lots of money.
Thus for every He-3 enthusiast you’ll find someone who thinks it’s a Fata Morgana that will only dissolve in our hands. Thus also the lively competing interest in putting solar panels on the moon instead. Solar energy! Like a big hug from Mom! Unless Mom is bitter and complicated, which is possible, given that the first attempt to use solar power in space was made by—who else?—the Nazis. When Allied forces stormed a German research lab in 1945 they found sketches for a mammoth Sonnengewehr, or “Sun Gun.” This was conceived as a giant sodium mirror which, orbiting 5,100 miles up, would harvest sunlight, tilt, point, and shoot lasers at Earth: death rays, in short. Today’s lunar solar project is approaching things from a friendlier angle. Led by physicist David Criswell, Lunar Solar Power (LSP) envisions powering Earth completely from the moon: laying the panels, setting the satellites, triangulating the beams, and delivering the goods to an estimated 10,000 receiving stations craning for it like baby birds. It would be wildly expensive, the geopolitics is unimaginable, but the technology itself is well within reach. Of course, there’s potential for abuse. At that level of accuracy an LSP worker on the moon sipping coffee could turn an ex-boyfriend into a pile of ash from a quarter million miles away. We should expect it to happen, in fact. It’s like the NSA employees busted for cyber-stalking their exes: Honeycombs of power routinely offer dark chances to the rank and file.
I’m wondering now if I would incinerate an ex. What about you? It would be but the work of a moment. I suppose it depends on whether you nurse an eternal flame of resentment or sentimentalize the past and marinate in loss. Why pick one? You could run down the row …
But that’s neither here nor there. If the core industry on the moon is producing energy for Earth, what other kinds of interchanges between the two can we expect to see?
First of all—to mark the negatives—lunar colonists will have to be on the qui vive against a lot of crap they don’t want.
By that I don’t just mean the hail of urns, steel poems, and so on arriving with the food and supplies. There will always be people on Earth eager to use the moon as a dumping ground. We’ve seen attempts already. When the federal government tagged Nevada’s Yucca Mountain to receive 77,000 tons of spent plutonium, there were immediate cries to regift it to the moon. Research on lethal bacteria? Put it there. Criminally insane? Here’s your ticket. Worst case, colonists may have to man the guns. Conversely, there’s the issue of Earth trying to take stuff away. When trade begins, the imbalance will be near-total: Earth supplying A to Z while the moon replies with bottled water and crafts, but as time goes on … Actually if I were a settler, I’d even be cautious about giving my crazy senior partner a taste of that water. If all the desalinization plants chonking away from the Arctic to Argentina are being swallowed by rising tides, then somebody’s going to take a hard look at the moon. Indeed, lunar water will be even more precious than it first appears. H and O are the Fred and Ginger of elements; the routines they can perform together are dazzling and many; introduced by Edward Everett Horton (platinum), they even generate electricity, and the moon is full of platinum. Another twirl and they’re rocket fuel! Now the moon is a “service station in the sky,” a platform to Mars. Launches toward Earth won’t need fuel at all. High-tech catapults with payloads of titanium, aluminum, magnesium, etc. could be slinging it all back home.
Not everyone is thrilled at the prospect. Among those filled with loathing and dismay are Navajos, Hindus, practicing witches, and legions of secularists for whom the moon represents religion’s last dim chime. Eco-activist Rick Steiner of Alaska has petitioned the United Nations to have the moon declared a World Heritage Site on the theory that man, having made a latrine of Earth, will do the same to the moon, only faster.
The nobility of that impulse, I have to say, struck me a few beats late. When I first heard talk of “malling the moon,” my thoughts jumped to: Here come people with lots of money about to do things to make lots more money, none of which I will ever get. I want to be upfront about this, how my own forlorn relationship to other people’s wealth is part and parcel of my animus against the ultra-rich. I fully believe that much of the misery in this fine pretty world is caused by the privileged class enjoying its obscene privileges. But the rest of my grievance derives from the grinding injustice to me personally. Where’s mine? So much money in the world and none touches me. It’s like the miracle of the Red Sea.
There’s a lively interest in putting solar panels on the moon.
Of course top players in the space business are necessarily loaded. They have daring pantechnicons of ideas, of which we have already seen early fruits. I’ve no doubt that when it comes to the moon, these innovators will make many dazzling additions to the catalogue of human ingenuity.
Historically, it’s true, our ingenuity has been something of a mixed bag. One might even call it the double helix of enterprise and stupidity that dooms us whenever we get near tools. I think in this regard of Thomas Midgley. He was working as a chemist for General Motors in the 1920s when he realized he could eliminate engine knock by adding tetraethyl lead to gasoline. This was great for car sales, but the stuff was tricky to produce. Workers handling the new formula suffered lead poisoning so severe it caused nerve damage and wild hallucinations. At the Deepwater, New Jersey, factory they were beating off clouds of imaginary insects. The problem did get straightened out. Not medically, but politically it was totally taken care of. Lead goes up; life goes on. But Midgley’s not done. He turns around and invents Freon, first of the fluorocarbons. So now he’s the father of ozone-eating coolants too. Later he contracted polio. In 1944 he was struggling with some rigging he’d invented to pull himself out of bed and got tangled in it and accidentally strangled to death, a symbolic gesture if there ever was one.
What’s to be done with such a man? Well, put him on the moon and he’d be no threat at all because the moon has no atmosphere. It’s idiot-proof in that regard. This is what makes the moon ideal for so many kinds of work. It may be a land of boiling, freezing, radiation, and chalk, but our genius can fly free there without opprobrium and reprisals. And a lucky thing too if we have to shift operations in any big way.
We’re so busy, all us little Midgleys, that it may just be a question of what triggers the diaspora. Oil? According to one group of catastrophists we’ll be ruined suddenly and soon by “peak oil,” the term of art for running out of it. But other things could go, snap, like that. Peak water, peak farmland, peak fish: Pick your death blow. Peak bees! Where the bee sucks there suck I but now I suck alone. You’ve heard of course about bees disappearing. Perhaps you thought, as I did, of a fuzzy few creeping around on the roses. Not so. We’re talking great slabs of bees vanishing wholesale. In California the owner of a commercial apiary lost 2 billion bees in two weeks. Colony collapse disorder: It’s happening all over the world. Pretty soon fruits, vegetables, pfffft. What’s causing it? Everybody’s got a theory: Varroa mites, genetically modified crops, cell phone radiation, hillbilly breeding techniques … No one’s sure. But that’s not the weird part. What’s weird is their mode of departure. Because they are literally disappearing. It’s not as though that guy in California was suddenly shuffling through 40 tons of dead bees, or his neighbor came over and said, “Hey, get your fucking dead bees off my land.” There were no corpses found or reported. The bees were just gone. It’s as if we’ve somehow stumbled upon a brand-new recipe, a witches’ brew so potent it doesn’t just kill things; it makes them actually dematerialize. But since we don’t know the formula, all we can do is watch its effects. Where will it strike next? One day we’ll step out the door and the dogs or the wheat won’t be there. And so it’ll go, one thing at a time, until finally people start to vanish and that’s when the panic starts. Now crowds are pouring through the streets, trampling others on the run from dirty-bomb threats, London fogs of CO₂, eructations of methane, rogue viruses, not to mention shortages of food, water, Xanax, whatever it is singly or in combination that sends people streaming toward—toward what? Nobody knows—men, women, children, even the elderly who thanks to medical breakthroughs have joined the growing army of the dead who won’t lie down …
But to return to first principles: Corporations, hand-in-glove with governments, will hegemonize the moon. Broad-brush, that’s the plan. Thereafter, whether Earth somehow escapes immolation and becomes the moon’s robust trading partner, or turns into a global hospice with thousands of acres of methane rising from ancient graves and the seas so full of jellyfish they look like cobblestones, the human race endures. I’m not promoting here the rancid mythology that business success drives the public good. Rather, I think the process will probably resemble the tale of the scorpion and the frog. Suffering humanity (frog) hitches a ride on the back of the scorpion, hoping against hope that the scorpion will overmaster its own instincts and save them both—which, given the stakes, it may or may not do.
Reprinted from Another Fine Mess: Life on Tomorrow’s Moon by Pope Brock. Copyright © 2017. Published by Red Hen Press.