Humanity is returning to the Moon, heading for Mars and from there….who knows? As someone who has always been fascinated with the Moon and its exploration, this is very welcome news but as a child who grew up in the 1970’s (I was 4 when Neil and Buzz walked on the Moon), I have been here before. In the 70’s the optimism and positive hope that humanity was about to dive into the great unknown of outer space was unquestionable but by the 80’s it had faded away to nothing. We had swum out to the nearest island, planted a flag and then swam back. And since then, we have been content to wade in the shallow waters and go no further. What happened?
Well, I think the ‘How we did it’ part was brilliant but the ‘Why we did it’ bit was deeply flawed. Going to the Moon and beyond was always much more than just a technical challenge. Without a doubt the scientific and engineering difficulties that had to be overcome were staggering and to this day still rate as one of humanity’s great achievements but just because you can do something doesn’t mean you will. The motivation must compete with potential human risk factors, the huge cost, the questionable benefits of manned flights compared to unmanned flights. And there is also the general interest factor. To do something on this scale you need the majority of people to appreciate the long game, the benefits that may come to future generations and not just the immediate, strong but brief, fist pumping exhilaration of achievement. And it was these factors that went against, not for, the space program. It was very expensive, the long term benefits of repeat trips to the Moon were completely lost on the public and anyway, the Russians were beat, it’s an American flag on the Moon so what else is there to do?
Technology is rarely a show stopper, it’s the human factor, the motivation that usually determines if something will succeed or not and that is as true today as it was in the 1970’s. The capability of humanity to send people to the Moon and beyond is not seriously in question. Yes there are issues and certain aspects which need refinement and optimisation. I don’t underestimate for a moment the brilliance and huge endeavour that is required to achieve these things but it is a level of brilliance and endeavour which humanity possesses. Unfortunately there are signs that the motivation factor is still flawed and it is critical that this is faced up to.
“NASA needs to put astronauts back on the Moon in 2024 by any means necessary.” “Make no mistake about it, we are in a space race today,” Vice President Mike Pence – Mar 2019.
“And we’re gonna defeat socialism and put a man on the face of the moon.” President Donald Trump – Oct 2019
The argument of; ’What does it matter why we are getting to go back, what is important is that we are going back’ to me is deeply, deeply flawed. There are a number of criteria for a successful space program and very few of them will be achieved under a nationalistic space race banner. Certainly the US and NASA are the leaders here. It would be inaccurate and petty to say that humanity can initiate deep space exploration in this lifetime without NASA and the US government being at the centre of that endeavour. Regardless of one’s opinion on the present state of US politics, it would be very short sighted to think that we do not need NASA and the US. But, if this was simply to become another space race and ego trip for certain American interests, regardless of their importance to the project, it will fail as quickly as it failed nearly 50 years ago.
No country, even the US is capable of maintaining the long-term goal of deep space exploration on its own. This has to be a global project, funded with private and public resources. It is going to need the good will of a global population which means that the global population needs to feel that they are a part of this and that humanity will be enriched by this. If the present Artemis lunar program concentrates solely on the ‘Can we do it?’ issues with no regard for the cultivation of support for ’Why we do it?’, I firmly believe that the program will fail. Not fail with respect to getting the first woman and next man on the Moon but failing to make this the starting point and not the end point.
Whatever about US politics, I am a big fan of NASA and NASA doesn’t need to be told all this. They know that unless the Artemis project is a global and not just a national project it will wither on the vine but they have to keep on the side of their paymasters, the US government. Hopefully sounder minds will eventually prevail within American politics BUT it isn’t good enough to lay all this on the steps of Capitol Hill. Politicians and scientists around the world have to step up to the plate and convince the general public that investing in science, that pushing the envelope of knowledge and human endurance is what makes us human. It gives us a collective belonging in the drive to do better and go further. That this drive has seen us overcome so many of the challenges of the past and will allow us to deal with present and future challenges.
The most difficult part of the journey in returning to the Moon will not take place in the further reaches of outer space but in the inner reaches of the human mind.