Lunacy: how science fiction is driving the new moon | books

TThe moon rises again over the horizon of the imagination, acquiring worldly relevance. Fifty years after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first stepped on what Aldrin called the "magnificent desolation" of the Sea of ​​Tranquility, the possibility of a human return to its dusty stamping ground is greater than it has been in any moment from the Apollo program It came to an end just three years later.

The robotic vanguard has already been proposed. Later this year, India will try to become the fourth nation to land a probe on the moon; An Israeli attempt to get there failed in April, but his supporters plan to try again. China has landed two robot rovers on the surface of the moon in the last five years. One visited the near side, the familiar pockmarked face seen from the Earth; the other went to the opposite side, but never visited before. The Chinese space agency has spoken of sending humans in its wake, perhaps in the early 2030s.

They can be beaten for it. Last year, Yusaku Maezawa, a fashion entrepreneur and collector of Japanese art, signed a contract with SpaceX, the rocket firm founded by Elon Musk, for a flight around the moon. He intends to bring a team of artists not yet specified with him. The chances of this happening in 2023, as theoretically planned, are small; SpaceX has not yet flown any human anywhere. However, the chances of this happening at some point are at least mediocre; For the most part, SpaceX has finally delivered on its promises. Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos is spending part of the wealth he has accumulated as Amazon's boss in Blue Origin, a space company that aims to outpace SpaceX. Earlier this month, he revealed Blue Moon, a landing module designed to place scientific equipment on the lunar surface. After it has been updated, he says, he will also be able to take the people there.

Elon Musk believes that it is vital for humans to become a multiplanetary species.

The founder of SpaceX, Elon Musk, believes that it is vital for humans to become a multiplanetary species. Photography: Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty Images

On March 26, Vice President Mike Pence told an audience at the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama: "The first woman and the next man on the moon will be both American astronauts, launched by American rockets, from American soil." . He challenged NASA to carry out the first of these missions with crew by 2024. One of the clearest reasons he gave for this new commitment was that China had "revealed its ambition to take advantage of the strategic high lunar terrain."

Our imagined moon has long inspired fear, excitement, arrogance and political ambition: facts and myths, science and science fiction have always been intertwined. Some of the engineers who advised Fritz Lang in his 1929 film, Frau im Mond He continued developing the first rocket capable of reaching space, the V-2 of Germany. When they later moved to Huntsville, they took with them not only their know-how, but also Lang's innovative anticipation of counting the seconds before the launch of the rocket.

Science fiction is often seen as an anticipation, a fiction that is expected to become reality. But if the technologies that were once found only in science fiction become real, they do not always stop being science fiction. SF is not, after all, simply a literature about the future; It is a literature on the impact of new capabilities and new perspectives on transcendence, distancing and resistance to the inhuman. Their ideas shape and limit the ways in which technological possibilities are seen, understood and experienced long after these possibilities are tentatively realized for the first time. Illuminate the dreams of Musk, Bezos and all the other new pilots of the moon.

The Apollo 11 astronaut, Buzz Aldrin on the Moon in 1969.

The Apollo 11 astronaut, Buzz Aldrin on the Moon in 1969. Photo: Science & Society Picture Library / SSPL through Getty Images

Take the origins of Pence's reference to the "high lunar strategic terrain". In one of the first novels of the moon written after the Second World War, Robert Heinlein Galilean rocket ship (1947), an atomic scientist and his adolescent team discover, in what they believe is the first mission to the moon, a base from which the rump of the Third Reich tries to rain down nuclear revenge on Earth. Heinlein, an aeronautical engineer who was one of the first science fiction writers in the United States to obtain a majority audience, had seen how the V-2 and the Manhattan Project made the rockets and the overpowering that had been his stock in the prewar period a reality. . Such authors were highly exercised because of the strategic implications. In the same month that Heinlein's book, John W. Campbell, the preeminent American science fiction editor of the time, was published, he published an essay by himself and his friend Heinlein, L Ron Hubbard, about the strategic need for that the United States is the first nation to build a lunar base. for its missiles. A year later, Colliers, a mbad market magazine, was warning of a "Rocket Blitz from the Moon".

The idea rode high for a decade. "The one who controls the moon controls the Earth," Gen. Homer A Boushey told the American press in 1958. The United States Air Force investigated the possibility of demonstrating that control and adding to the craters of the moon. a nuclear test on its surface. , one that would be ominous and spectacularly visible to most of the lower world (Carl Sagan, who later stood out in the struggle for nuclear disarmament, was one of those who worked on the project).

It did not happen. Although the Apollo program was a crucial piece of Cold War strategy, its goal was not to occupy the moon or use it as a missile base. Rather, it was to show the world the extraordinary resources that the United States was willing to invest to advance its technological power; The means, not the end, were the message. But Hubbard's megalomaniac dreams of an Earth controlled from the Moon are still hidden in that idea of ​​the "strategic base."

Galilean rocket ship He used the moon not only as a way of thinking about the prospect of a nuclear war, but also as a way to understand the consequences. ("The people of the moon … ruined themselves, they had too much atomic war").

These visions of existential fear led Arthur C Clarke to discuss Prelude to space (1947), a novel about the preparations for a mission to the moon, that "the atomic power makes interplanetary travel not only possible but imperative. While confined to Earth, humanity had too many eggs in a very fragile basket. "That sentiment informs dreams of today's space travel, Musk, in particular, talks about wars, pandemics, rebels and asteroid astagedies, what makes it vital for humans to become a multiplanetary species, a younger space tycoon from Silicon Valley told me he wants to help build a moon base for the same reason that, before cloud computing, he would make a copy security of your files on a second hard drive: something could happen. (Of course, such plutocratic panic feels dangerously close to the idea of ​​an ox hole for the select).

As active advocates of the new space age, Clarke and Heinlein realized that linking the moon only to a nuclear catastrophe would be a bad sales argument. To attract the public on board, a more fertile idea was the dream of building human settlements on the Moon, which could somehow be represented as wonderful and mundane. In Heinlein's short story, "Space Jockey," the problem facing the protagonist astronaut is not Ming the Merciless or a swarm of comets, but the amount of time he has to spend away from home; The resolution is his decision to accept a desk job in the comfortable city of Luna, built under the surface of the moon. A teenager complains that "nothing ever happens on the moon." This dualism of the familiar and the fantastic is summed up in the reason that the Earth plays the same role in the moon's sky as the moon on Earth, illuminating the darkness of the landscape.

Earthrise ... captured by Apollo 8 in 1968.

Earthrise … captured by Apollo 8 in 1968. Photograph: Bill Anders / NASA / HANDOUT / EPA

It is not a new vision; Galileo realized that the nights close to the moon would be illuminated by the earth, just as the earthly nights are illuminated by the moon. All early lunar fiction draws the reader's attention to the increasing and growing diminution of Earth in the extraterrestrial sky as the clearest possible indication of the revolutionary vision of Copernicus. The heirs of the twentieth century made similar use of the image of inverted worlds. Light of the earth (1955), Clarke's first novel set on the moon, begins with the counter Bertram Sadler, new to the moon, looking out the window of his train at the "cold glory of this ancient and empty land" illuminated by "a light dyed blue and vegetables, an Arctic glow that gave no atom of heat, and that, Sadler thought, was surely a paradox, because it came from a world of light and heat.

Clarke's paradox was evident in the famous image. The exit from the earth captured by Apollo 8: a world of heat and light that rises above the cold glory of ancient emptiness. The contrast was strong enough (the basalts ruined beneath the unsophisticated and unpleasant enough) so that the colonized and normalized moon that Clarke and Heinlein had imagined would fall back into the realm of fantasy, if not absurdity.

So why go back to the moon now seems plausible again? On the one hand, China, or any other country, can put a man or a woman on the moon with much less effort than the US cost. UU In the 1960s: as a way to claim parity with a decaying superpower, that relatively modest effort has attractions And as the effort was reduced, the resources in the hands of individuals increased: Bezos can choose, in the short term, to fulfill his dreams of expansion in space, unlock an incalculable wealth, to the most ambitious ambitions of the USA. UU government. But that is convenience, not necessity. Being the richest person on the planet brings with it its own super-empowerment.

Science fiction has also made space travel space in economic terms, rather than in politics. Once again, it is difficult to avoid Heinlein, this time his novel. The man who sold the moon (1950). Its main character is DD Harriman, a tycoon who, having made his fortune with other technologies, persuades and contradicts investors of all kinds to provide him with the resources he needs to realize his true dream, the foundation of a lunar colony. After the magnitude of the Soviet Union's overcoming, of 2.5% of the GDP of Apollo's effort, became apparent in the 1960s, history seemed strange. The lunar missions were the work of nations, not traffickers who smoked cigarettes. Now he seems strangely prescient.

The lunar module of Apollo 12 Intrepid descends to land on the Moon in 1969.

The lunar module of Apollo 12 Intrepid descends to land on the Moon in 1969. Photo: Science & Society Picture Library / SSPL through Getty Images

If strategic rivalry, existential fear and plutocratic whim were the only stories that science fiction had lent to the Moon, one might feel justified to have a dim view of the whole thing. But there is more. A world without life can provide new knowledge about a living world, as it did with The exit from the earth. It is in these very changed perspectives on the worlds and their peoples where the true promise of science fiction lives. The most successful lunar novel by Heinlein, Moon She is a hard lover (1967), is driven by an exciting plot. But the reason why many still love it, especially in Silicon Valley, is the strange, contradictory, wild but welcoming, polyamorous, Malthusian, libertarian, utopian and prison society that it combines as its cybernetic environment. Similarly, the most surprising recent novel about the moon, John Kessel The moon and the other (2017) is established in the "Society of Cousins", an inspiring and worrying, idealistic, indulgent and somewhat suffocating matriarchy. It is, to borrow the subtitle of Ursula K Le Guin The dispossessed (1974), an ambiguous utopia.

That is all you can expect. The moon, since it becomes a target for politicians, billionaires and enthusiasts inspired by the fictions of the past, must remain ambiguous, longed for and desolate, always the same and surprisingly new, a strange sensation in the sky for all to see.

The Moon: A story for the future of Oliver Morton is published by Economist.

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