The Moon and the White Whale

by Caspar Henderson

Space flight is a brave venture, but upon the soaring rockets are projected all the fears and evasions of mankind. — Loren Eiseley

Space travel was not a problem for our ancestors. They did it all the time. This is true, at least, if you’re a member of the Yolngu, an Aboriginal people largely untouched by European colonisation of Australia until the mid twentieth century. As the Yolngu tell it, a canoe takes the dead to Baralku, a spirit-island in the sky, where their campfires can be seen burning along the edge of the great river of the Milky Way. The canoe is sent back to Earth as a shooting star to let survivors know that their loved one has arrived safely.

And even if — as may well be — you’re not of Yolngu descent, there’s a fair chance that, wherever your ancestors came from, they told stories linking life on Earth to the heavens. Tales about the stars of the Pleiades as seven sisters (or brothers) are found from pre-colonial American and Australia to ancient Greece, hinting a common root dating back tens of thousands years.

But the idea we might visit in our Earthly bodies rather than as spirits is relatively recent. It dates, perhaps, from the early seventeenth century, when Galileo Galilei first looked at the Moon through a telescope. The shadows cast by the Sun on its crater walls suggested to him that, far from being a perfect and unchanging heavenly object, the Moon was a rocky world. Closer observation of earthshine — sunlight reflected by the Earth that illuminates the darker part of a new or old Moon with an ashen glow— gave support to the idea that, rather then being an unmoving centre, the Earth was a planet — in the original sense of a ‘star’ that wanders — just one of several circling the Sun. The new way of seeing, wrote Galileo, drew the Earth “into the dance of stars.”  His contemporary Johannes Kepler was confident where their joint endeavour would ultimately lead. In 1610 he wrote to Galileo:

there will certainly be no lack of human pioneers when we have mastered the art of flight [into space]…In the meantime, we shall prepare, for the brave sky-travellers, maps of the celestial bodies.

Jump cut to July 1969, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin of Apollo 11 are walking on the Moon. Ten astronauts followed over the next three years and the whole thing began to seem routine. Then nothing. Since 1972, no human has travelled in space. At an altitude of 250 miles, the International Space Station orbits well below the ceiling of the Earth’s thermosphere, which is not even the outermost layer of our atmosphere, and is only a little more than a thousandth of the distance to the Moon. Seen in this context, the Apollo missions of fifty years ago have a taken on a mythic status: an astonishing achievement, but also a question mark left hanging.

Looking back, we bring to mind and share our memories of the Moon landings, if we are old enough to have them — or remake and rejig those of others as part of some wider story.  I had just turned six, and I watched on the new medium of colour television with my grandfather — himself a mythic figure to me, born two years before the Wright Brothers’ first heavier-than-air flight, and a hero at Dunkirk — in a haze of smoke from his great pipe.

There was, of course, a complex and troubling context for the landings. The United States and the Soviet Union were locked in confrontation, each with enough nuclear weapons on hair trigger to destroy life on Earth several times over, and the U.S. government had allocated about two and half percent of the country’s GDP to the Apollo programme to show the Soviets and everybody else that America’s technological and military capabilities were second to none. And yet it was possible, and still seems possible, to see the Moon landings another way. For in addition to this harsh reality we could all see this dream, made real, of men hopping about on a place beyond Earthly cares and its standing reserve ripe for exploitation. Around 600 million — one in six people — watched in wonder, and when the astronauts said “we come in peace for all mankind” it was possible to hear it as more than (or not only as)  boilerplate propaganda — as a statement of what, at some level, the great majority of humanity truly wanted to be true.

In his remarkable new book The Moon: a History for the Future, Oliver Morton notes that the four hundred year history of dreams about space flight has always had a strong utopian strand. The photograph Earthrise, taken by Apollo 8 crew member William Anders, played a major role in helping to crystallise what we call, for want of a better term, environmentalism  — a sense of seeing the Earth as a living whole, worthy of awe, love and care. At the same time, the photograph also supported the idea that it might be possible to transcend these limits. Thus, the manned missions into space added new perspectives to two elements in our collective imaginary: on one hand an ethic of care; on the other a possibility of freedom, expansion and abundance. So what comes next?

In the new chapter of lunar exploration, everybody’s at it — not just the U.S. and the Russians and rising China but also India, Israel and others less well known. The Mexican Space Agency, for instance, has plans to send a robot lander sometime this year, and Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese fashion billionaire, intends to take a crew of artists on an orbit around the Moon. Most pressingly, perhaps, U.S. vice President Mike Pence has talked about putting Americans back on its surface by 2024.

The motives for these ventures are as various and mixed as the players. For Pence and his ilk, the aim is in large part military — to “seize the lunar strategic high ground” before the Chinese do. For the Israelis it is in part a matter of glory and identity. Maezawa may be both seeking a sheer thrill and hoping to foster new kinds of art. For commercial ventures, notably Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, the potential to make money may not be irrelevant. “Apollo was a combination of fear and glory,” says former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver; “I think this renaissance is about greed, and I’m fine with that.”

Much has already been said about the vision outlined by Jeff Bezos on 9 May for his venture Blue Origin. (One can read, for example contrasting takes from The Economist and Caitlin Johnstone). Much more needs to be said. One starting point is that Bezos presents as if he believes it is possible for humanity to transcend earthly limits — that “if we move out into the solar system…we have [practically] unlimited resources… We can have a trillion humans , which means we’d have a thousand Mozarts and a thousand Einsteins.” (He did not summon a thousand Bezoses and a thousand Trumps from the vasty deep.)

In the nearer term, Bezos envisages zoning the Moon for heavy industry, and Earth for light industry and residential purposes. This would, he says, make possible both profound care for the home planet and radical abundance in the extraterrestrial realm. “We get to keep this unique gem of a planet, which is completely irreplaceable – there is no Plan B. We have to save this planet. And we shouldn’t give up a future of our grandchildren’s grandchildren of dynamism and growth. We can have both.”

Just how much of this Bezos really believes and how well founded those beliefs in the possible is a good question. The economics of asteroid mining are, at best, unclear (although on the plus side the first old-skool hip hop song about a robot landing on an asteroid has already been written).  O’Neill colonies in space along the lines of the most baroque 1970s imaginings, or the set of the Netflix mini-series The Good Place, do look like a stretch. But there may be a canny mind at work here as well as something uncanny or delusional. At the least, servicing government operations in space, including the quick drawdown of ancient water in the Moon’s polar craters to make hydrogen fuel, may be a nice little earner and cement your place in the military-industrial-surveillance complex. Priapic iron men go to Mars, but Masters of the Universe go to the Moon?

O'Neil Tubes

It is said that shortly before the launch of Apollo 11, NASA received a letter from the Union of Persian Storytellers, begging the agency to change the plan. A Moon landing would rob the world of its illusions, they said, and rob the union’s members of their livelihood. But the stories continue. As W. H. Auden wrote the following month:

Our apparatniks will continue making
the usual squalid mess called History:
all we can pray for is that artists,
chefs and saints may still appear to blithe it.

“What people see when they look at the Moon,” writes Morton, “is, for the most part, a reflection of themselves.” But what do we see when we look inside ourselves? The short film Wanderers (2014) may be unintentionally revealing in this regard. A creation of the digital artist and animator Erik Wernquist, it is a collage of imagined thrills and wonders around the solar system. GoPro frolics such as a leap from Verona Rupes, the giant ice cliffs on Uranus’s moon Miranda, are overlaid with a recording of the late Carl Sagan reading from his Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1994). At one point Sagan quotes from Moby Dick (1851): “I am tormented by an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas.” And Moby Dick is a story of obsession, the destruction of the living world and, ultimately, destruction of the self.

Could the new race for the Moon become something like the pursuit of the white whale? Certainly, its otherness – its non-life – is a disturbing counterpart to our being. Inert as it is, the Moon has the potential to stab us from behind with the thought of our annihilation. As Morton writes, “the Moon’s timescape has no flow; just punctuation… The…rocks are just sitting where they were left. There is a sense of things abandoned. It is the opposite of a pause, not a stasis that interrupts a process but a stasis that is the norm.”   Like a ghost, the Moon, is “an absence present, a death not dead. Something neither entirely of the world nor entirely beyond it. Something like a reflection, but without a mirror.”

Perhaps dark thoughts can be overcome. Perhaps an ethic of care and collaboration will prevail. [1]  Johann-Dietrich Wörner, director-general of the European Space Agency, points to the example of the International Space Station. “If we do this together beyond Earthly borders, beyond Earthly politics, beyond any Earthly crisis, then we do a service for all humankind.”

There are more than twice as many humans alive today as there were in 1969.  New technologies allow some of us vastly greater capabilities than anybody had fifty years ago. By some important measures, the quality of life for many of us is higher than it has ever been. At the same time, climate change and the destruction of endless forms most beautiful threatens to unravel much of what we hold most dear, and depend upon. We find ourselves, as we did before, somewhere between hope and catastrophe.

Caspar Henderson is an Associate at Perspectiva

Image of the Earth’s Moon and Jupiter with its Galilean moons copyright Cristian Fattinnanzi. Reproduced with his kind permission.


[1]: …or tyranny? Oliver Morton quotes Charles Cockell’s An Essay on Extraterrestrial Liberty (2008): “The lethal environmental conditions in outer space and the surfaces of other planetary bodies will force a need for regulations to maintain safety to an extent not hitherto seen on Earth, even in polar environments. The level of interdependence between individuals that will emerge will provide mechanisms for exerting substantial control.”

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