Late last year I had the pleasure of attending a day of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) fall meeting, back when things were normal and people could meet in gatherings of more than ten. And of the ten or so talks I sat through one continues to haunt me. It was an overview of the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER), which will survey the south pole of the Moon to measure geologic and hydrologic activity. The talk started well, as the presenter was an excellent public speaker (not a requirement for these meetings), and I found myself listening attentively.
But right near the start he offhandedly dropped a line that absolutely floored me.
He said that VIPER was “well positioned” because it was both inexpensive and had an immediate “product to sell”: that product being surveys of the Moon’s resources for private businesses to exploit.
I was astonished. We are going to sell the Moon to industry?
I quickly scanned around me to see if anyone was mirroring my shock, but the audience was nodding along (or nodding off) as if this were business as usual while I sat there, jaw slack, having a crisis of faith.
He continued by calling to mind the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the supply of land surveys provided to energy companies and mining corporations. There have been times when USGS has felt like a survey branch for industry, and this was an explicit call to that. Like, we not only will, but should go back to that.
Then my rational brain kicked in and I realized that this is, of course, how the world works. Then my emotional side pointed out that its feelings are valid too. And thus began an internal dialog that has been bouncing back and forth in my head for the last seven months.
Being a millenial on quarantine, I turned it into a screenplay for your amusement.
INSIDE THE LEFT HALF OF ETHAN’S BRAIN
LEFT ETHAN SITS AT A COMPUTER, READING WIKIPEDIA ARTICLES ABOUT THE THINGS HE DIDN’T PAY ENOUGH ATTENTION TO IN COLLEGE. THIS HALF OF THE BRAIN IS A LIBRARY OF HUNDREDS OF BOOKS, MOSTLY BLANK.
A CELL PHONE RINGS.
LEFT ETHAN LOOKS AT THE CALLER ID. IT’S HIS OTHER HALF: RIGHT ETHAN
LEFT ETHAN (exasperated)
Here we go again.
LEFT ETHAN ANSWERS THE CALL.
CUT TO RIGHT SIDE BRAIN
RIGHT ETHAN IS STANDING OVER A DESK LITTERED WITH PAPERS. THEY’RE COVERED WITH DOODLES AND ONE-LINERS ABOUT SPACE. THE BLINDS ARE DRAWN, AND THE ROOM IS DARK. HE IS WEARING A TINFOIL HAT.
RIGHT ETHAN (in a whisper)
Hey Lefty, it’s your neighbor. Can you hear me this time?
LEFT ETHAN (through phone speaker)
I hear you just fine. This isn’t about VIPER again is it?
RIGHT ETHAN STAMMERS OUT A FEW STILTED SENTENCES.
RIGHT ETHAN (frenetically)
I am just saying that nobody owns the Moon. Who are we to give anyone permission to go mine it, let alone empower them to do so? Should NASA even be the ones to do that? There’s like 75 countries with space programs, what makes ours so special? We’re just getting started studying the Moon, too. There’s a gazillion mysteries that we uncovered during the Apollo missions we still don’t have a clue about...
CUT TO LEFT BRAIN
LEFT ETHAN HAS SET THE CELL PHONE ON HIS DESK AND IS WATCHING A YOUTUBE VIDEO ABOUT CARMEL. RIGHT ETHAN’S VOICE CONTINUES, TINNY, FROM THE CELL PHONE SPEAKER.
Lefty? You there?
LEFT ETHAN PICKS UP THE PHONE
Yes, I looked those up. None of the big players have signed the Moon Treaty and the Outer Space Treaty is so ambiguous on exploitation as to be basically useless. Sure, states aren’t allowed to claim resources, but that’s not the problem in the first place—it’s private industry that has me worried.
Well private industry has been given the go-ahead by both Obama with the CSLCA and Trump with Space Policy Directive 1. At this point it’s going to happen. And Trump in general has been very pro “we do what we want in space.”
RIGHT ETHAN IS AT THE BLINDS PEERING THROUGH THEM. LIGHT IS SCATTERING OFF HIS FOIL HAT ACROSS THE ROOM.
I don’t care what the rules currently are, or about politicians’ empty-threats and chest-beating. I am talking about what the rules should be. This isn’t a situation that we can easily walk back once it gets rolling, and we’ve seen how bad human impact can be.
So you want to know what I think?
RIGHT ETHAN (sarcastically)
Oh, have you finally made a single decision about anything in your life for once?
LEFT ETHAN WINCES AT THE JAB.
I say we strip that sucker to the bedrock. Much better than exploiting the Earth, where we and the rest of known life in the Universe live. If humans need natural resources to survive, getting them from the Moon is better than getting them from Earth. And it’s not like there’s anything the Moon does for us that we could meaningfully disrupt. And of course nobody owns it, so we aren’t taking it from anybody. And corporations pull resources out of the Earth already.
CUT TO RIGHT BRAIN
RIGHT ETHAN IS STANDING NOW. HIS TIN-FOIL HAT HAS SLID AWKWARDLY TO ONE SIDE OF HIS UNKEMPT HAIR.
But they own the land they are using. They’re (theoretically) paying taxes or fines to offset the damage they cause the Earth. They wouldn’t own the Moon, would they?
And human history is littered with tragedies when corporations ignore (often) obvious warning signs. We don’t know enough about the Moon to foresee those. And the whole thing reeks of imperialism and anthropocentrism, which are the reasons we’re in the middle of a mass extinction event of our own invention, we shouldn’t be idolizing and rewarding those same virtues.
VERTICAL SPLIT SCREEN OF LEFT AND RIGHT BRAIN
LEFT ETHAN (calmly)
But it’s fundamentally different because nothing lives on the Moon—we won’t eradicate cultures or disrupt ecosystems because there’s neither cultures or ecosystems to disrupt.
RIGHT ETHAN (angrily)
But just because we don’t currently think that the Moon is important for our continued existence here on Earth, we can never really know that reckless exploitation is harmless.
LEFT ETHAN (frustrated)
Well, we can’t find out if we don’t try. But we do know that reckless exploitation of the Earth is harmful! If the Moon is more sustainable, then we should pour every ounce of effort into that instead.
If we are going for sustainability, then it shouldn’t be the work of private companies at all, as they don’t serve the public interest but rather the interests of the investors.
We will never settle the stars unless we go rip planets apart. We will have to use space’s resources eventually, and the Moon is by far the easiest to access and use.
But who decides what’s off limits? Is it first to stake a claim gets ownership? Because that’s a recipe for monopoly. By having money you can go mine an object that nobody else can because it’s too expensive, which gets you more money, which you can then spend to mine more objects. The last lifetime has shown us how pure capitalism is pretty bad for, like, 99 percent of people.
But it does take a ton of capital to go to space, and NASA hasn’t built a rocket that can get a human to the Moon in almost 50 years, while Elon launched a car into solar orbit two years ago.
Wasting resources mining the Moon is pointless if we can’t even keep our own planet alive. We need to stop ignoring the reality of our situation here on Earth!
Humans need resources to live. We will need to go to other planets if we want to keep life in the Universe alive. We need to stop ignoring the reality of our situation here on Earth!
Stop being so short sighted!
Needless to say, I have thought about it a lot recently, and truthfully, I don’t know where I stand. Humans are unprecedented. We don’t know what the future will hold. All I know for certain is that anyone who thinks they know everything for certain is certainly wrong. VIPER is set to launch in 2023, and I hope that it is successful, if only because our understanding of the Moon needs it. I suspect by the end of the next decade we will have a much better idea of what the Moon has squirreled away for us. I suspect that I still won’t know how I feel about it either.
And then on April 11th, the Trump administration dropped Space Policy Directive 4, which is about the establishment of the Space Force and its objectives. There’s a ton of concerning stuff in there, mostly about projecting military power to and from space (nightmare fuel), but also about using the Space Force to “Ensure unfettered use of space for… the United States economy.” Which shakes up the U.S. side of things in this debate from ambivalence to “we will shoot them for you” support.
About the Planetarian
Hello, my name is Ethan, and I work at a planetarium.
Planetariums are a unique interface where the public brushes up against hard science in a very genuine way. As part of my job I get to talk to—and answer questions from—many audiences about astronomy, and I have noticed some things. Some of the reactions I share are well thought out, most aren’t, all I find interesting, and I hope you do too.
Also, we’re trying to build up our web presence, and after looking at the data it seems our most successful articles include pictures or feature employees. So in a desperate cry for attention, here’s both!
The data says this will work.