In January of this year, the Chinese moon lander Chang’e-4, named after the Chinese moon goddess, deployed a rover on the far side of the moon. India is scheduled to launch its Chandrayaan-2 mission to the moon on July 22. Russia is planning to land cosmonauts on the moon by 2030, and Europe aims to establish a small colony or “Moon Village” there by 2050. And the United States is no longer aiming to return its astronauts to the moon by 2028. Rather, Vice President Mike Pence now says that this must be accomplished by the end of 2024. It is no coincidence that this would fall within President Donald Trump’s potential second term.
Thus, 50 years after humans first stepped foot on its surface, the moon is getting more crowded. At first glance, this explosion of interest in our nearest celestial body may be welcome. Half a century ago, people around the world watched on live television as astronaut Neil Armstrong took his first steps there, hundreds of thousands of miles away from Earth. That was a triumph of human ingenuity, and helped justify our faith in humanity’s ability to tackle major challenges.
The first race to the moon that was launched by President John F. Kennedy is inextricably connected to the Cold War and the attendant rivalry between two competing superpowers: the United States and the Soviet Union. The zeal with which the second lunar surge is now being launched worldwide has a great deal to do with the shifting balance of power in the world: China wants to prove itself as a new superpower; India wants to demonstrate its own global significance; and the United States wants to reaffirm its current lead. Russia also wants to prove that it has not yet been written off. To a lesser degree, the same is true of Europe.
Further, the moon boom serves domestic purposes and boosts national pride. There are also legal dimensions to the race. International law, which has jurisdiction here, has been much maligned in the face of increasing tensions in the disputes between major powers. Take, for example, the U.S. handling of existing trade agreements, or Chinese claims on the South China Sea. Establishing a presence on the moon is also a strategic move.
The costs of these new initiatives are enormous. The Apollo program, the crowning achievement of which was the moon landing, is estimated to have cost around $170 billion in today’s dollars. And then there is the next destination: the planet Mars. That will require investments so considerable that they cannot even be compared with those of the current moon initiatives. It is further away, more dangerous, and less feasible. The difference in the distance between the moon and Mars is comparable to that between the chips in your kitchen cabinet and those on the shelf at the nearest supermarket, or between a drive from The Hague to Utrecht and a rally from Holland to Cape Town.
Of course, it is good that frontiers are being explored. This can help us to achieve technological breakthroughs, stimulate the fundamental sciences and fuel our collective imagination. Space travel reflects humanity’s desire for discovery and to spread throughout the universe. However, until unprecedented breakthroughs are achieved, the sheer magnitude and inhospitable nature of our own relatively miniscule galaxy dictate that human beings will continue to live on our own planet until further notice. And things are not going all that well here.
It borders on irony that manned space travel, which has stood still for nearly half a century aside from flights and research missions aboard space stations in the immediate vicinity of Earth, is being considered the first step toward human existence beyond our own planet. The colossal financial and scientific investments that must be made in order to achieve these goals could just as well be spent to preserve the viability of life on Earth. Why flee when we are able to fight?
This approach appears to be helping exacerbate the problem. That cannot be what is intended. It is better to combine our efforts than to begin a new space race. That will reduce costs and keep the dream of manned space travel alive. After all, from the perspective of the universe, we are not Chinese, Indian, European or American, but human. And that is already exceptional enough.
NRC weighs in on important news in the Commentary section. Commentators write these articles in cooperation with the editorial board.