Columnist Wil McCarthy has given up on the moon

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Like most of you out there, I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up, and like most of you out there, I didn't make it because I never quite got around to growing up. That's my excuse and I'm sticking with it!

Anyway, while I've never personally traveled into space, I like to think my Fake Astronaut credentials are beyond reproach. Not only have I been to Space Camp and worked on a simulated Mars Mission and spent hundreds of hours underwater doing all kinds of things, including complex platform construction, but I actually have worked as an astro-navigator, telling rockets and space probes where to go and how to get there.

This has enabled me to visit launch sites all over the world, and to put my hands on a lot of space hardware—most recently at Johnson Space Center in Houston. In addition, as both a journalist and a science fiction writer, I've frequently been called upon to describe the sights and sensations of space travel. This has forced me—more than most people, I think—to log a vast number of spaceflight hours in my imagination.

It got so bad that a few years ago there was actually talk of my writing a book called Fake Astronaut. The only thing that scuttled the plan was the 11th-hour realization that, with the dawn of space tourism already upon us, the poignant longings of a guy like me were suddenly a lot less interesting.

Anyway, I believe my status as one of the world's premier fake astronauts makes me uniquely qualified to comment on the 40th anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing—July 20th, 1969. I'm just barely old enough to remember the original event—I was three at the time, and rather confused about the images on TV—and in fact these are some of the earliest memories I have of anything at all. I also have detailed recollections of some of the later moon flights, and have since gotten to meet and work with a number of the people involved. So Apollo has been a part of my life since the very beginning, and it never really quite receded into the past, but stayed a part of the "long now" of my professional life, and my daydreams.

But friends, I gave up the dream. After decades of post-Apollo heartbreak, watching the space program shrink and shrink, watching promising programs start up and get canceled, I finally just couldn't take it anymore. I left the space program in 1998, and despite many backward glances I have never seriously considered returning to it. Why? Because the public just doesn't seem to care, and at least for now it's only public support that can keep Buck Rogers off the ground. The anniversary—it's today, people!!—seems to be slipping by with no more attention than, say, the 165th anniversary of the invention of vulcanized rubber (which was June 15th), and a lot less attention than the death of a certain pop star. I've never felt more vindicated about my decision.

Still, we live in a kind of stealth golden age of space exploration. On the quiet, on the cheap, robotic space probes have been combing the solar system at a truly unprecedented level. Part of this is simple longevity; we've been designing our spacecraft for longer and longer missions, rather than simply throwing them away when they've snapped a few pictures. But we're also building more, flying more, and repurposing more of them for new missions, once their primary objectives have been met. As I type this we have robots on or near six different planets, as well as more exotic missions exploring comets, asteroids, the solar wind, and even the edges of interstellar space itself, outside the "bow shock" of the galactic wind.

Now, this is more important than it may sound, because the Earth is running out of helium. Seriously. It's the second most abundant element in the universe, but because it's chemically inert it can't get bound up in the rocks or oceans of our planet, and because it's lighter than air it doesn't stick around in the atmosphere, either. Instead, it rises up into space and gets kicked away by the solar wind. In fact, there is no primordial helium left over on Earth from the gas and dust clouds of its formation. Instead, helium is produced by the radioactive decay of heavy elements (mostly thorium) in the Earth's interior, and rises up through cracks in the crust to become a component of natural gas deposits. Unfortunately, our bottomless hunger for energy means that the Earth's natural gas deposits will reach peak production sometime in the next two decades. After that, production will decline as this non-renewable resource grows increasingly scarce. We're running out of other elements as well. In fact, I could write a whole column on the critical need for space mining to meet the resource demands of the mid-21st century.

However, for now I'll stick to the moon, because as it happens, a newbie director named Duncan Jones—teamed up with a newbie writer named Nathan Parker—have just released a savvy science fiction movie about helium mining on the moon called, simply, Moon.

Helium is found on the moon because as charged particles, released by the sun as part of the solar wind, helium ions readily stick to lunar dust. Now, plain old industrial helium—known technically as helium 4—may not be valuable enough to warrant an extraterrestrial mining operation. However, a lighter isotope called helium 3 certainly would be. Fantastically rare on Earth, this rather ordinary cosmic material has the interesting property that when collided with deuterium atoms (so-called heavy hydrogen) at high temperature, it produces a neutron-free nuclear fusion reaction that yields vast quantities of energy with essentially no pollution or waste. All you would need to do is send robots to the moon to sift through the dust and extract the helium 3, then bottle it and launch it back to Earth by magnetic railgun. A 25-kilogram bottle of this stuff would look just like the tank you use to fill your kids' birthday balloons, but would hold enough energy to replace all the natural gas consumed on Earth between 2005 and 2008. Of course, keeping these robots operational would be hugely important, so you would want a human attendant around to keep an eye on things. And an intelligent computer to keep an eye on him, in case he starts cracking up from the isolation ...

Moon is savvy to all of this, with the additional wrinkle that the human attendants are disposable clones and are expected to die of radiation poisoning in a little over three years. Now, the credits claim this is an original story, which it mostly is, but it does owe a large thematic debt to the 1960 Algis Budrys novel Rogue Moon, in which matter transmitters send duplicate astronauts to the moon, where they face certain death. In that story the threat was from the exploration of a deadly alien maze, not simple cosmic rays, but I don't suppose that matters much when you wake up and realize you—yes you!—are the disposable copy, sent to die while your dopelganger, your original, your templant, lives a safe and ordinary life back on Earth.

Anyway, this is an excellent movie as well as a scientifically accurate one, that leaves almost nothing for me to complain about. Except the venue. Along with maybe fifty other people, I saw this movie at the Landmark Mayan, home of subtitled foreign movies, obscure indie flicks, and the occasional poetry recital. Sadly, we've reached a point in our civilization where a perfectly acceptable hard SF movie with big name actors, quality special effects and uniformly positive reviews, timed to coincide with the anniversary of a major historical event, gets released as an art movie. In this sense, the film means more as a reflection of ourselves than it does on its own terms, which of course begs the question: do we like what we see in that mirror?

Special thanks to Dr. Paul Abell of NASA's Johnson Space Center
Nichols, Peter: The Science in Science Fiction, Knopf, 1983
Energy Information Administration Report#:SR/OIAF/2000-04: Accelerated Depletion: Impacts on Domestic Oil and Natural Gas, 18 August 2000
Cobb, Kurt: "Let's Party Till The Helium's Gone", Resource Insights, 10 May 2009
Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia (en.wikipedia.org): "Apollo 11", "Goodyear", "Helium"
The Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com): "Moon"
www.rottentomatoes.com: "Moon"

Wil McCarthy is a rocket guidance engineer, robot designer, nanotechnologist, science-fiction author and occasional aquanaut. He has contributed to three interplanetary spacecraft, five communication and weather satellites, a line of landmine-clearing robots and some other "really cool stuff" he can't tell us about. His short writings have graced the pages of Analog, Asimov's, Wired, Nature and other major publications, and his book-length works include the New York Times notable Bloom, Amazon "Best of Y2K" The Collapsium and most recently, To Crush the Moon. His acclaimed nonfiction book, Hacking Matter,is now available as a free download.