Three reasons why the Moon still matters

Next April will mark 50 years since Neil’s one small step teamed up with NASA’s one giant rocketship to bring us the Promethean myth-made-flesh that was the Apollo landings. But what has the moon done for us lately? Build Me a Planet investigates.

It was a giant leap for mankind – or, alternatively, a giant hoax perpetrated by Stanley Kubrick to sell ice cream and massive LEGO kits. The Apollo program vindicated Galileo, proved the Earth is not orbited by a giant block of cheese, and gave Ryan Gosling another crack at the golden statuette.

The trick is to use a super-heavy feather

But at the cost of $100 billion modern dollars and eight American lives, was it really worth it? And with so many problems here at home, is there any reason to go back?

In my professional opinion as the world’s most enthusiastic, least competent planetary science PhD student – yes! And I’m willing to bet all the tax dollars out of my tax-exempt government stipend that by the end of this article you’ll agree with me.

So without further ado – and in listicle form to exploit the modern audience’s deliberately cultivated addictive tendencies – here’s three reasons why we definitely should go to space today.

Because the Moon is brimming with weird stones and boulders

As Nixon famously never said, “Mankind has an unquenchable thirst for strange new rocks.”

Neil Armstrong and friends didn’t go to the Moon just to pose in front of an American flag and say “No cheese”. In addition to albums of happy snaps, the Apollo astronauts between them brought back about 382 kilograms of moon rocks to Earth.

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It would make a good coffee table but please don’t.

Scientists were lucky to get their hands on these: picking moon rocks was not part of the original mission brief. Luckily nerdier heads prevailed and geochemists around the world reaped the benefits. Apart from being quite interesting in themselves – they are both suggestively similar to, and provocatively different from, the most common class of volcanic rocks on Earth – the Apollo samples contain a priceless record of the ancient history of our solar system, preserved through the ages by the sterile and (largely) static lunar environment. Highlights:

  • The relative abundances of metals in the Moon’s surface rocks compared to, say, your average asteroid, prove that our shiny cousin is big enough to sort itself out into chemical layers, just like Earth.
  • The presence both of smooth, dark rocks and chunky, light-coloured rocks on the surface is a sign that the Moon must have been geologically active for billions of years, giving us some clues as to how and why planets get moving – and what forces bring them to halt.
  • At some point in the past, a large proportion of the Moon came to be in a completely molten state. I promise this is a more surprising discovery than it may sound, especially in tandem with…
  • The fact that moon rocks have the same distinctive chemical fingerprint as Earth rocks – a feature that, unlike real fingerprints, is pretty much impossible to duplicate. It proves that the Earth and the Moon are related, and not just chilling out together. These days most scientists reckon the moon formed after the Earth came to blows with a rogue planet we call Theia. The ensuing giant impact fused proto-Earth and Theia together, and a lump of the rocky broth splorted out to form our dear little Luna. If this is true, it has big consequences for the history of life on Earth… which we don’t have time to go into just now. I’ll get to it – don’t worry!

To be fair, there’s quite a lot of Moon geology we can do from afar – especially when you consider the approximately 190 kilograms worth of lunar meteorites we’ve picked up over the years. But there’s really no substitute for the real thing – getting out there on foot, meticulously documenting the surrounds, and taking a pristine sample back to the lab for analysis. Ah, the life!

Rocks aren’t your thing? I can’t say I understand, but I can forgive. Anyway, the Moon has plenty more to offer…

Because it’s halfway to everywhere

The biggest expense – and the most danger – in any space journey comes down to the fact that, cosmically speaking, we humans live at the bottom of a very, very deep hole. Sure, outer space doesn’t seem that far away – an elevator (some kind of space elevator perhaps?) would get you up there in about three hours. But to escape Earth’s gravity, distance isn’t the key. You need speed: over 40,000 kilometres per hour of it. I don’t know what’s in your garage but my partner’s Astra flatlines at eighty. Also it can’t drive directly upwards, apparently unlike some newer models.

Gravity Wells
As usual, nerd icon Randall Monroe already had the last word on this topic… and pretty much every other topic.

Of course, saying you should go to the Moon because it’s closer to space is like saying you should move to the office carpark because it’s closer to work. As much as I’d like to visit the moon, I don’t think I’d like to live there.

But we could certainly put a petrol station up there, which is little less romantic but infinitely more useful. The Moon is rich in pretty much everything a spacefarer needs: oodles of sunlight around the clock, ready-made shelters to kick up your heels in, piles of priceless helium-3 to shovel into your fusion drive, and STOP THE PRESS: what appear to be veritable cataracts of water lurking in the ever-dark craters at the lunar poles.

Also – rocks! Did I mention those?

Every kilo of stuff we can make on the moon is a kilo we won’t have to drag out of Earth’s deep gravity well. Imagine if you had to lug all the petrol you need for your vacation all the way from home. You wouldn’t have any room left for bicycles, children, dogs, or the family flip quiz.

This is why NASA’s latest Mars plan puts the Moon centre-stage, including a permanent surface base as well as a lunar orbiting space station called the Gateway, which sounds like something out of Mass Effect and looks a lot like that one from Space Odyssey.

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NASA’s Mars plan apparently involves the Earth reaching out with giant tentacles made of ideas. Why didn’t I think of that?

But what if you’re not sold on the whole space thing in principle? With so many problems to face on Earth, how can we justify the effort and expense of trekking, so to speak, to the stars?

Because it’s there

Wait, that’s a terrible reason! Anyway, didn’t that guy die in the end?

Because Aaron Sorkin said so

Sam Seaborn’s classic mansplanation of the virtue of space travel is not without its merits, but Sorkin was riffing off a much older speech – one of those singular utterances that stole a march on history and changed the world in a moment.

Because we choose to

He may be yet another dead white man, but in his 1962 speech at Rice University, John F Kennedy put it better than anyone.

“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. … There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. … We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.”

At the time this speech was given, the world stood on the precipice of nuclear armageddon. Economic, social, and political crises wracked the West. It was an age of storms and JFK was selling boats. A lot of people thought it was ridiculous – even more thought it was impossible. Seven years later, whitey’s on the moon. Kennedy never lived to see his prophecy fulfilled.

Modern space advocates can – and will – bend your ear for hours on the practical and economic benefits of exploration. The Apollo program employed almost half a million Americans in satisfying, challenging, high-tech jobs; it spawned new industries and new technologies and injected billions into the economy when it was needed most. Its insatiable demand for talent trod over social and class barriers and made single mums, closeted LGBTIQ persons, and segregated minorities into national heroes – unsung in their time, but cherished today. Apollo did all that for the cost of a pack of cigarettes a week per citizen. It’s a convincing case.

Still, for my money, space advocates are at their most persuasive when they speak what’s in their heart, like Neil Degrasse Tyson did in his testimony before the US Senate in 2012, imploring them not to cut NASA’s budget further:

“Right now, NASA’s annual budget is half a penny on your tax dollar. For twice that – a penny on a dollar – we can transform the country from a sullen, dispirited nation, weary of economic struggle, to one where it has reclaimed its 20th-century birthright to dream of tomorrow.”

I walked past five cents on the street the other day; I think I can spare a penny.

neil-tyson-hearing.jpg
He’s totally wrong about Pluto though.

SPECIAL BONUS REASON: Because it gets me out of bed in the morning

Friends and fans may have noticed I haven’t updated in about a year. You’re owed an explanation, and it’s because I had a close shave with failing my PhD, and I needed time to think.

Before I started my PhD, my job was putting the captions on TV. I’d graduated with a strong honours in geology but I was burned out. I needed a low-profile job that paid fine and kept me busy, and I got one.

That was 2016, and it turned out to be a bad year to watch TV. There were days I cried at my desk, and I wasn’t the only one. Hopelessness was eating us up and all the wit and booksmarts and love in the world couldn’t fix it.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the last story in every news bulletin – after the sport – is always a good news story. It could be a new panda at the zoo, a viral video of a man falling over (don’t worry, he’s unhurt!) or a local charity drive that raised more than expected.

Great news stories tick multiple boxes

But in 2016 I was surprised by how many good news were science stories – and very often, space stories. Planet Nine, Proxima B, and the heart on Pluto got people talking on the tram – I overheard them all the time. Astronomers added thousands of new worlds to the exoplanet database – more than anyone could make sense of, then or since. And I had friends asking me to tell them the story beyond the headlines. We were in the pits, and we had nowhere to look but up.

I knew what I had to do. A couple of emails and half a dozen pints of beer later, I was a PhD student in planetary geophysics.

It’s been a hard road. Science, like art, is meant for the public, but the work itself demands tremendous focus and quietude – even isolation – not to mention integrity, purity of purpose, and a surprising amount of faith. They don’t tell you this when you start, but a PhD is not only a test of smarts – it’s a strenuous examination of personal character too. And a little doubt is a dangerous thing in science.

With a lot of help from a lot of good people, I pushed through – as most PhD students do after the inevitable midway crisis. Like any craftsman lacking inspiration I returned to the source: me as a four-year-old asking what those words were on the portrait of Buzz Aldrin that hung over our fireplace, suited like a Cyberman on the bright lunar surface. Dad never got to see the Apollo landings himself – it was a school night – but he never repeated Grandma’s mistake. I heard the story often, and now I’m telling you.

Even a toddler can take one small step. That’s why we go to the moon.

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Build Me a Planet is back. We’re talking real planets, fictional planets, and everything inbetween. I’ll see you next week with Gallifrey – Home of the Timelords. Can’t wait that long? Why not check out this profile of our weirdest neightbour – Titan, the petrol moon? Speaking of what I did this past year, did you know a play I wrote was featured in COSMOS?

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