Alex Steer

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Reaching for the moon again

825 words

News that lunar soil holds more water than previously thought has got journalists looking again to a version of the future that has belonged to the past for a long time now. The Times piece is fairly typical:

The discovery has fanned dreams of establishing a manned Moon base. Scientists have long hoped that astronauts could be based on the Moon and use water found there to drink, extract oxygen to breathe and use hydrogen as fuel.

The moon as a stepping stone for manned space exploration is a familiar one to us, even though it has never happened, because it is part of a narrative of the future that became so ubiquitous in the 1960s and early 1970s that it turned into a mainstream part of public consciousness even in the UK, which played little part in the manned space race. From John F Kennedy's assertion that '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', the expectation that moon landings would be followed by 'other things' - specifically, other similar but more daring things - became an 'official future', a story about the shape of things to come that conditioned the thinking not just of those in Nasa or successive US administrations, but of all those who watched the moon shots and the progress of efforts to put people into space and onto other worlds on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

For a generation and more, manned spaceflight has been a future with the Right Stuff, even though it has failed to come about. It is so prevalent as a cultural motif as scarcely to be worth mentioning. The idea that it might be an oddity is itself seems odd. It's hard to imagine not caring about putting people into space, and the idea that it might never happen again is an uncomfortable one. As Catatonia sang in 1998, we all live in the space age, even though, on the evidence, there is a good chance that the space age is behind us.

Writing as one who is too young to remember the Challenger disaster, let alone the moon landings, but trying to think as a strategist, the moonwater story has got me wondering what signals we missed. Might it have been possible to predict that manned space exploration would fizzle out within a decade? Could someone have called out the space age rhetoric? Hindsight is easy, but the clues are there. They are there in that same Kennedy speech, where he says that the objective of US moon missions is to 'win' against the USSR; there in the makeup of the Right Stuff, dominated by air force personnel although a civilian agency; there in the lack of any stated long-term strategic objectives beyond getting there, despite the gains to science that came almost incidentally. We are used to the idea that the space age was a product of the Cold War, but perhaps we need a more honest assessment: that the space age was a facet of that conflict; that it ended when tensions between East and West began to ease. If we accept that the official future is now in the past, not just delayed, we need to rethink the purpose and nature of work in and relating to space.

Beyond the space industry, the lesson is that ideas and enterprises that seem noble and good and worthwhile in themselves may fail because they become too bound up with contingent circumstances that for a time give them energy. It may be too late to save the space age, but what is next? Now, for example, much public rhetoric surrounds the notion of a 'green new deal' or even a 'green industrial revolution', in which the need to stimulate the recovery of the economy during the present downturn provides a stimulus for innovation that will make economic production more environmentally sustainable. But if economic growth becomes the impetus for sustainable innovation, as outstripping Moscow became the impetus for reaching the moon, what happens afterwards? The idea of a sustainable 'green age' could become unsustainable if it is pinned too fast to shorter-term aims.

If permanently stabilising industrial society's relationship with the natural environment is the work of the century -and it may be - then the energy for that work will need to be found in social and economic futures we cannot yet see. Planning for sustainability therefore means planning for change, finding ways to keep long-term needs on the policy agenda. Preventing the green age from becoming the next space age matters, especially since the demise of the last great dream means we do not have other worlds to escape to.

# Alex Steer (06/10/2009)