A View from July 20th, 2019

It looks increasingly as if people actually will return to the Moon some time late in the next decade. What will people in the future think of the first Moon landing in over a generation? I imagine writing about it a year after the event.

I write this on July 20th, 2019, having celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the very first landing on the Moon. The fiftieth Apollo Day is the first one celebrated during the Second Age of Lunar Exploration. Most times that July 20th had come up on the Calendar, it did so with a kind of wistfulness. Men had stopped going to the Moon in December, 1972. As that date receded into history, more and more people were born who had never seen in life astronauts on the Moon. To them the Moon landings were as much history as the voyages of Columbus and the explorations of Lewis and Clark.

That changed last year, in September, when the Orion space craft carried four people, two Americans, an Italian, and an Indian, to the lunar South Pole, at the edge of the Aitken Basin. The first words spoken from the surface of the Moon in forty six years were, “Houston, Aitken Base here, the Artemis has landed.” Artemis referred to the Lunar Surface Access Module and the words were an echo of the very first words spoken from the Moon, all of those decades ago, “Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.”

Much history had passed between the last Apollo mission to the Moon and the first Orion mission. There have been nine American Presidential administrations. The Soviet Union had flourished, and then fallen upon the ash heap of history. The long, twilight struggle against Islamo Fascism had begun on another day in September, more awful, and, though it has changed the face of the Middle East forever, still flares here and there. The Internet has bound the world together more thoroughly than any empire built on human blood and misery. Diseases that had been the bane of humankind have one by one fallen to the grinding march of medical science. A person born in the West in the year Orion returned to the Moon might reasonably expect to live into his or her nineties.

Even the way that many people experienced the Moon landing was different. In 1969, people would gather around an analog, two dimensional television and watch a news caster describe breathlessly what was happening while the fuzzy, black and white pictures of the first men on the Moon moved across the screen. In 2018, many people were able to experience the Orion Moon expedition through virtual reality, wearing goggles that showed the event from the point of view of any of the astronauts or any of a number of static cameras from a variety of angles.

More information on the expedition could be had on broadband video over the internet, from data feeds, and from video, audio and text blogs by both experts (including the astronauts themselves) and amateur observers. Online discussion groups comprising people from around the world discussed and argued about the meaning of the event.

The media was not the only way that the people of Earth participated in the voyage of the Orion. Even while the second President Bush had announced the initiative that almost fifteen years later would lead to humans returning to the Moon, there was an awareness that some reason in addition to science or national prestige had to be found to justify the expense of such an undertaking. Many people believed that the Moon could be made a money making concern. Helium 3, an isotope not found on Earth in nature, could be mined from lunar soil to power future fusion reactors. Other minerals mined from the Moon could be used to build space and lunar based solar power stations and to feed embryonic industries in low Earth orbit, using the properties of microgravity and hard vacuum to manufacture useful products. The Moon could even be a venue of tourism. Space tourism, which started as suborbital barnstorming in the late 2000s, was already a multibillion dollar a year concern when Orion reached the Moon as the well heeled and adventurous spent vast sums for short trips into low Earth orbit to experience microgravity and the best view in creation.

The problem was that it was unclear that anyone could own anything on the Moon, particularly lunar real estate. The Outer Space Treaty signed in the 1960s forbade nations to claim sovereign power over celestial bodies such as the Moon. Sovereign power was the traditional way that nation states regulated and defended private property rights.

The matter was fixed by the Treaty of Houston in 2012. The Treaty of Houston, initially signed by the United States, Canada, the European Union, Russia, India, and Japan pledged the signing countries to defend the private property rights on celestial bodies of their citizens. The Treaty also established the International Lunar Land Office. The Moon was divided into parcels of an acre each, with areas of historical significance such as the Apollo landing sites exempted and made into “cultural parks.” An initial offering of lunar land was made at three hundred dollars an acre, which would include ownership of the land and control over mineral rights. The initial offering was a stunning success, raising tens of billions of dollars that were used to finance lunar exploration. Everyone from large corporations buying up thousands of acres to individuals buying between one and ten acre lots participated. The Lunar Land Exchange to this day does a brisk business, as prices rise and fall according to market value. The discovery of ice at the lunar South Pole, for example, has greatly increased the value of land in that region. Over thirty other countries have subsequently signed on to the Treaty of Houston.

So far, though, the three Orion expeditions to the Moon have been comprised of employees of various governments. The current Orion expedition, by the way, is comprised of two Americans, an Israeli, and a citizen of the Republic of Iraq, something that would have been unthinkable as recently as ten years before. In any case, that is about to change.

Space transportation companies, which for almost ten years have been taking people and cargo to and from low Earth orbit, are preparing to extend their reach to the Moon. The company that constructed the first private space station, built from inflatable modules, is preparing to erect the first private lunar base. Even NASA is considering a Commercial Lunar Transportation Systems (CTLS) program, emulating the successful Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems (COTS) program that helped to jump start the current private space transportation industry. When NASA builds its own lunar base, it has announced the intention to buy oxygen, water, food, power and perhaps even shelter from private vendors. Technologies to extract oxygen from lunar soil, water from lunar South Pole ice, and growing food in lunar green houses are already being tested by the Orion expeditions.

NASA and her international partners have baselined a lunar base with a rotating crew of four. Some analysts suggest that with low cost, reliable lunar transportation to the Moon, that number could be greatly increased. In any case, sooner rather than later, most believe that government employees on the Moon will be outnumbered greatly by private citizens-businessmen, tourists, miners, and others who will travel to and live on the Moon for their own purposes.

Within the lifetime of a human being, the Moon has transformed from an unknown land to the frontier of human endeavor. What was well begun by Apollo is being well continued by Orion, even though a gap of over a generation lay between them. In the moment of triumph, we remember all of those wasted years, even while we lift our eyes to even greater vistas, to Mars and beyond.

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