Space the Nation: Fly Trump to the moon

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Aug 28, 2018, 3:00 PM EDT

This is the second in an unintentional, occasional series on the Trump administration's science priorities. See last week's here.

The headlines:
NASA will put humans on the Moon again, Mike Pence tells space council
Space Council Chooses the Moon as Trump Administration Priority
Trump's 'Back to the Moon' Directive Leaves Some Scientists with Mixed Feelings

Perhaps the most striking thing about the Trump administration’s call for America to return to the moon is how quaint it feels. After all, the moon just isn’t what it used to be. Even in science fiction, creators seem to take it for granted — in a lot of recent sci-fi, the moon is less a destination but a way station, the exit out of Earth’s gravity well or merely a lonely rock to extract resources from. This is the plan actual scientists have for the moon as well.

But for most of human history, the moon was just close enough to inspire our imagination and just far enough away to never supply any answers. It was the perfect canvas for adventures and myths — and its manifest link to our tides made it easy to extrapolate all sorts of mysterious powers: the moon could drive people mad, coax beasts out of the forests (and ourselves). Its power was thought to be subtle — “reflected,” rather than inherent. People speculated about the side they never saw; what monsters and marvels could it hide? No wonder so many cultures have associated it with femininity.

And, much as with women’s bodies, there seems to be no amount of science that can keep some men from mystifying the moon — and wanting to see it colonized. But also as with women’s bodies, there are also people who have taken our advanced understanding of the formerly mysterious and used it as a foundation for further leaps of imagination.

Put another way: since the president is unlikely to read a briefing book on the subject, and incredibly likely to see the moon as just another thing to grab, what hard science fiction explorations of Luna tell him about what life there would actually be like?

Artemis: You would expect the man behind The Martian’s punctilious realism to create a moon setting that’s just as faithful to the possible. Author Andy Weir has said that Artemis is “even more scientifically accurate” than his first book. He’s told interviewers that every technology in it exists today in some form, and all his world-building stemmed from figuring out the economic viability of a city on the moon. For all that detail, readers seem to have latched on his description of disappointing lunar coffee (weak, because it boils at a lower temperature) as an example of literary license: Wouldn’t they just make cold brew?

The Moon and Other: John Kessel asks his readers to make some imaginative leaps in terms of science, but he grounds his story about a matriarchal moon colony in plenty of gritty detail. He manages to portray the idealism inherent in founding such a society without making it a utopia; he gives the same treatment to a rival lunar society based on pure (as anything can be) free market principles. Trump might not like this one.

Luna: New Moon: Where many authors gloss over the daily hardships of life in outer space in order to get on with telling the story, Ian McDonald seems to have started his novel with the premise, What kind of (ahem) lunatic would want to live in such an unforgiving (literal) atmosphere? Who would actually be able to survive in a place where every breath, every bite, every sip, would need to be created from scratch or forcefully wrung from stones themselves? His answer: The most ruthless — indeed, verging on psychopathic — sort of individualists. This lawless frontier’s anarchic libertarianism wasn’t planned, it’s just the natural outcome of intense competition for scarce resources.

A Fall of Moondust: A 1961 classic by Arthur C. Clarke whose whole plot revolves around the technical details of a rescue mission on the moon, when a ship “sinks” in a sea of dust. There’s a lot of anachronisms that could throw you out of the story (people print things out, the racial and gender politics are... not good), but when Clarke digs into what is essentially shipwreck story, it’s as fascinating as Robinson Crusoe or Castaway — or The Martian, for that matter. How humans conquer life-or-death problems is a question that propels a lot of science fiction on a grand scale, and here that drama is played out on a scale quite small.

Scouring my own memory and Google for these examples, it occurred to me that science fiction writers have not just explored the “how” of building a settlement on the moon, most of them expended at least as much energy on the “why.” Tourism is a constant, as is mining. That makes sense. In the real world, “Why should we build a colony on the moon?” seems to be the biggest weight against our suspension of disbelief — and it is a question the administration does not seem interested in answering. Trump himself regularly marvels at how “rich guys love rockets," which suggests a public-private partnership. But, still: Why? The phrase various administration officials repeat? “America will lead in space again.” (Which sounds… familiar. Maybe it would fit on a hat?)

I am not opposed to climbing mountains because they’re there, or pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but I would urge the Trump Administration to consider putting its scientific efforts into problems closer to home (climate change? Or, say, clean water in Flint?) before our plan to colonize the moon turns into a plan to escape to it.

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