Space, the final frontier, is having a bit of a moment. This year marks the 50th anniversary of man’s first Moon landing. Accordingly, nostalgia for the Apollo 11 mission is everywhere — on TV, in newspapers and magazines, and in an immersive app that promises that “we can all take part in the famous mission”, via augmented reality.
Space is also featuring heavily in the pronouncements of politicians. From India to Britain and the US, space exploration is being used to convey ambition, adventurousness and heroism.
After the successful launch on Monday of Chandrayaan 2, India’s most ambitious Moon mission ever, prime minister Narendra Modi tweeted that it illustrated “the determination of 130 crore [1.3 billion] Indians to scale new frontiers of science”.
Over in Britain, on the cusp of his elevation to the office of prime minister, Boris Johnson wrote a column comparing Brexit to the first Moon landing. “If they could use hand-knitted computer code to make a frictionless re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere in 1969,” he said in reference to the relatively primitive technology available to the US at the time, “we can solve the problem of frictionless trade at the Northern Irish border… It is time this country recovered some of its can-do spirit.”
And on July 4, US Independence Day, Donald Trump promised that his country would be “back on the Moon very soon”. He added that “some day soon, we will plant the American flag on Mars”.
There are numerous problems with both Mr Johnson and Mr Trump’s assertions. Brexit is not comparable to a Moon landing, in technical or political terms. As for Mr Trump’s attempt to conjure up grand visions of 21st-century American space dominance, the two key questions that arise are “how” and “why?”
It is worth noting that the US rapidly scaled back funding for its space programme within a mere three years of its historic 1969 lunar triumph. Having demonstrated its technological prowess by beating the USSR to earth’s closest cosmic neighbour, the US moved on to other Cold War priorities.
Fifty years on, the reasons remain valid. Space missions are enormously expensive. Most countries find it hard to justify the cost. Other than China, India and the UAE, which are all achieving national firsts and exploring a number of practical and scientific possibilities with their missions, governments are not particularly keen to commit resources to launching humans into space.
Accordingly, Japan’s plans to explore the moon seem to hinge on Toyota, its largest carmaker’s efforts to build a state-of-the-art manned rover. Meanwhile, Israel’s failed attempt, in April, to land on the moon, was privately financed, even though the spacecraft was built by the government-owned Israel Aerospace Industries.
Jun Okumura, analyst at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs, recently explained tepid Japanese support for a moon venture as follows: “People are really preoccupied with problems closer to home — the falling birth rate, the ageing population and so on”.
Much the same can be said for the US. A new Pew Research Centre study found little enthusiasm for more manned moon landings. Instead, 63 per cent of respondents said the highest priority for Nasa should be the monitoring of key parts of Earth’s climate system. Unsurprisingly then, Lori Garver, former deputy Nasa administrator, recently declared “Let’s not repeat the past. Let’s try to save our future.”
This is not to discount the possibility of resource generation from space, which many countries and private companies are eyeing. Platinum and other rare metals could lie beneath the moon’s surface. There is talk of solar energy farms on mountain tops at one of the lunar poles. Entrepreneurs dream of producing drinking water from lunar ice. Some have theorised that lunar water harvests will enable human beings to use the moon as a launch pad for missions deeper into space.
All of this is hypothetical and far in the future. It’s fine for countries such as China and India to run inexpensive and efficient space programmes. Both want to showcase their abilities and promote the status of engineering and scientific development at home. These are desirable objectives for developing economies. Some of the same calculations will also be at be at work in plans for the first Emirati astronaut’s voyage in September.
But why should the US want to return to the moon? America’s 21st-century moonshot is not the moon. Now is the time for the US to open up new frontiers, not return to the old.