The news over the last weekend has carried stories about the supermoon on Sunday night (23 June 2013). Our natural satellite was both full and at perigee–its closest approach in the elliptical orbit. Why this has grabbed so much attention is beyond me. The Moon is there, visible nearly every night when the sky is clear. But getting people to pay attention to astronomy in this age of artificial illumination of the night is good, so I shan’t question the newfound, if likely temporary awareness.
What I do want to examine is the idea that there is a Man in the Moon. Perhaps it’s because I read Watership Down years ago and felt the chill of the Black Rabbit of Inlé, but I’ve always seen a cottontail up there–curiously, he’s holding a coffee mug. He does have to stay awake all night, though.
But I see no man on the face of the Moon. There was a time when that was not the case. In the years 1969 to 1972, twelve human beings spent a brief time up there. Of that group, eight are still alive, all of them in their latter seventies or older. Though I wish these heroes would live ten thousand years, as the death last year of Neil Armstrong reminds us, we are close to the point of once again having no direct memory of the lunar surface.
Why should we care? Every second Monday in October, we are reminded of what Ian Malcolm said in Jurassic Park about discovery being a violent, penetrative act. More than that, we have many problems here at home. This is what the opponents of the space program keep telling us, though I have little faith that they will spend the savings gained from not exploring on worthwhile deeds on planet.
A pointed example of this attitude came in the 2012 election. Mitt Romney told Newt Gingrich that he’d fire an employee who came to him with a proposal for colonizing the Moon. The eventual Republican nominee claimed that he’d rather spend the money on rebuilding housing in the U.S.
While I hesitate to head off wandering in the weeds of American politics in this essay, I will say that in these remarks, Romney showed himself to be unworthy of the office of the president. Whatever position you take on the political spectrum–left, right, center, or off the continuum–bear with me on this one.
We need to inhabit the Moon. Not just Americans, but human beings.
My reasoning here is practical as well as teleological. We do not presently have the technology to sustain a colony on another world, even one that is as close as the Moon will be tonight. That being the case, a program–combining both public and private effort–to establish one would spur growth in areas such as recycling, water usage, energy generation, and on and on. All of those hold the promise of benefits here on Earth.
In addition, the Moon is an easy step to getting back into space farther out than low orbit. Some question whether we shouldn’t just go on directly to Mars, but doing the one needn’t exclude doing the other. Any move out there expands our chances for learning and for growth.
And grow we will do. We’ve passed the seven billion mark on our way to many more of us on this one planet. Accept the science of climate change or not, acknowledge the concerns of environmentalists or not, we all have to recognize that on a world of finite resources, only some of which are renewable, we cannot sustain our current numbers only here. Education and contraception have some ability to put the brakes on this growth, but the human impulse to make more of us to carry on our cultures is fundamental to who we are. Expanding into the solar system’s many worlds offers a way to do this without destroying our home through excessive concentration. Laying aside the doomsday that we make for ourselves, we live in a celestial shooting gallery, and while the means of diverting incoming asteroids and comets may be soon within our grasp, it would be well for us to expand the number of targets.
This also gives us the possibility of new diversity in what it means to be human. Lunar and Martian and Titanian humans will have to find modes of living and will tell each other new stories. When people from one world visit another, the two groups will fertilize each other with this burst of uniqueness. They might even literally give new life, since isolating populations leads to genetic change. What new genes will arise is impossible to say, but having a greater variety of answers in our genetic library would give us more ability to respond to an inconstant universe.
These are all the practical considerations. Let’s move on to what it means to be human. We are explorers. We started out in Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago, but we didn’t stay there. We spread out across the globe. Yes, that’s been a mixed bag of results, but in that time, we’ve learned many things about ourselves, our world, and the cosmos that we fit into. There is yet much to learn. The process of doing that will not be perfect, nor will it go along without risk or loss.
What I know for a certainty, though, is that if we don’t go forward in exploration, we will lose the best of ourselves, our drive to know and particpate. Would a colony on the Moon be expensive? Yes. Will we suffer setbacks, screw things up, and even endure losses of life? Yes. The same has been true in all human endeavors of consequence. But the dreamers in us will look at that nearby Moon and want to lasso it and bring it closer.
Without our dreams, we have no advantage over the other animals on this planet. This is why a would-be leader who can’t see the purpose of going out and beyond is no leader at all. We’re not stronger than our fellow species. We’re not faster. We’re not better suited to survive in any way other than our ability to see an unfulfilled reality and make it ours. Human faces looking back at us from the Moon would be a reminder of the best in ourselves. Call it lunacy if you will, but by dreaming the impossible dream, we recreate ourselves into everything we can be.
If you’d like to read more from me about the Moon, have a look at A Draft of Moonlight.