Moon Bases

Widespread Lunacy

There’s a lot happening on the Moon, it seems.  In the last several months I’ve read three different novels about the first lunar colony.  And they really are recent:  all three were published in 2017.  “The world is too much with us,” perhaps—but in any case the Moon seems to be very much with us at the moment.

The stories come from very different points of view.  We talked last time about Andy Weir’s Artemis, which gave us a cynical young woman’s view of a thriving lunar city built on tourism, complete with smugglers, mobsters, and mayhem.  As we saw, Artemis illustrates anything but the clean-cut NASA world of its predecessor The Martian.

Walking on the Sea of Clouds, coverGray Rinehart’s Walking on the Sea of Clouds follows two married couples, Stormie and Frank Pastorelli and Van and Barbara Richards, as they train for places at the first Moon base.  The base is bankrolled by the Asteroid Consortium, multinational venture capitalists whose primary interest is in asteroid mining.  The story revolves around the four main characters—how the lunar venture motivates them and affects their relationships.  So much of the book involves training and preparation that it might be called a “science procedural,” on the model of the “police procedural” that focuses on the methodical work of a police investigation rather than the high-profile antics of private detectives.

Moon Beam, coverOur third sample is Moon Beam, by Travis Taylor & Jody Lynn Nye.  This is a middle-grade (MG) novel whose hero, sixteen-year-old farm girl Barbara Winton, is selected to join a group of brilliant young students under the wing of Dr. Keegan Bright, a Carl Sagan-like science communicator with a popular Webcast and a world-wide following.  Bright and his students happen to be based at Armstrong City, the first moon colony.  Barbara ends up taking the lead in a pathbreaking expedition by the “Bright Sparks” to set up a huge telescope on the far side of the Moon.  The young people must cope with unexpected dangers on the way.  (Unexpected by the characters, that is; readers will of course be primed to anticipate something more than mere routine.)

Common Ground

2001 - A Space Odyssey, monolith on the moonDespite their difference in tone, the three books have a lot in common.  There’s a good deal of serious science in each one, though it properly stays in the background and doesn’t slow down the plot.  The science is solid, too:  none of the stories extrapolates far beyond technologies that we can practice, or reasonably predict, today.  Nobody discovers a monolith left behind by mysterious aliens or discovers any exotic principles of physics (unless one counts the hypothetical “E-M” drive mentioned glancingly in Moon Beam).

The stories also share the assumption that private enterprise will play a leading role in creating these moon colonies.  We saw that Weir’s Artemis is founded by the nation of Kenya, but as a venue for private businesses.  Rinehart’s lunar base is funded by private corporations.  Moon Beam doesn’t pay a lot of attention to how Armstrong City as a whole is operated; we spend almost all our time with Dr. Bright and his teenagers, who essentially constitute a private STEM demonstration project.

Enterprising Venturers

What’s with this rash of lunar narratives?  Why is a permanent home on the Moon on our minds at this particular moment?  Three examples is barely enough for a trend, of course.  But half the fun of these observations is the chance to try out a wild extrapolation and see where it leads.

There was a surprising amount of popular interest in last year’s lunar eclipse—but that doesn’t explain why these books were already in the publishing pipeline for 2017.  That astronomical attentiveness probably shares whatever is the cause of the booming market for moon stories.

Nor is the reason likely to be found in the sporadic statements from NASA or the federal government on the subject.  The last several Administrations have been promising us the Moon, or Mars, on a regular basis, and we’re nowhere nearer either planet(oid) as a result.

Dog howls at moonBut one thing has changed over the last five or ten years.  We have a number of private ventures aiming at space travel, spearheaded by wealthy visionaries like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk.  Bezos’ Blue Origin (whose name “refers to the blue planet, Earth, as the point of origin,” according to Wikipedia) and Musk’s SpaceX (whose full name is “Space Exploration Technologies Corporation”) have made significant strides toward actual human spaceflight.  They suggest a new kind of outward path, driven by private enterprise rather than government projects.  That shift dovetails with the United States’ own policy of relying on private companies (or other countries) for launch services in the post-Space Shuttle era:  space as a business venture looks considerably more promising with the government as an anchor tenant.

There’s plenty of science fiction precedent for private trips to the Moon.  The first moon flights are made by private parties in Heinlein’s novella “The Man Who Sold the Moon” (1951) and its juvenile counterpart, Rocket Ship Galileo (1947).  But it was NASA that carried out the real moon flights.

I grew up thinking of NASA as the natural venue for space exploration.  But that was never supposed to be a permanent role.  NASA’s job is to carry out the experimental work that provides the foundation for commercial aeronautics—and astronautics.  Maybe we have arrived at the moment where the venture of expansion into space can be handed off to ordinary business enterprises.  And maybe that’s turning our thoughts toward seeing the Moon as a place to live and work—not just to reach once upon a time.

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5 thoughts on “Moon Bases

  1. Hey Rick! Though I’ve not read any of these books, I’ve long thought the only way we’ll expand beyond Earth is through private ventures albeit with a bit of gov’t supervision. Historically almost all exploration of new lands was done by individuals wanting financial gain for the risks they were taking. Sometimes these individuals were kings or queens, but they still intended to personally profit from such endeavors. As you noted, it feels like we are on the verge of a new expansion. I confess, though, as appealing as I want it to be, it is very hard to imagine that putting humans in space or on other planets will ever be economically viable (especially as AI, VR and remote communications methods are improving). Maybe someday, but to my thinking, it is a long, long way off.

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    • Right; much exploration in the past was driven by economic factors, not just “to boldly go.” We can expect something similar in space.

      I think the crucial issue for human spaceflight is reducing the cost to orbit. Some of this can be achieved by reusing piloted craft and launch vehicles; SpaceX is getting pretty good at that. There are number of other plausible-sounding suggestions for getting payloads up there at reduced rates, such as mass drivers and laser-powered launchers.

      Of course the dream solution would be for someone to come up with a safe, clean fusion drive. It would then be a race for the solar system, with no holds barred. (Actually, there’s a story about that on the drawing board . . . :))

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      • The Atomic Rockets website has a ton of info about potential “rocket” engines of the future. If somehow you don’t know of it yet (but how can that be, I sing its praises on CC constantly), they have a great article on potential fusion drives.

        I linked to the part about Magneto-Inertial Fusion. They claim it’s the best Fusion drive design to date, and I’m convinced 😛

        But yes, as Heinlein (I think) said, if you get into Earth orbit (from the Earth surface), you’re halfway to anywhere. Space elevator when, lol.

        Cheers.

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  2. A brief aside related to the “space exploration by private enterprise”: if space exploration is ever going to be sustained, it will have to be economically sustainable, so I also expect private enterprise to lead the way now that the ball got rolling from the NASA-like orgs.

    Still, I do feel a bit of “nostalgia”. Perhaps as a result of romanticizing a past I did not experience (child of the 80s here), but in my view the Space Race was one of the cool, and wholesome things about the XXth century. I mean, yes, it was dangerous and lives were lost. It wasn’t smooth sailing. But it was two countries (and a few others but who cares ;)) competing non-violently against each other for bragging rights, in one of the nerdiest arenas imaginable. One could look at the Cold War and be horrified by the MAD doctrine or appalled at the countless “hot” proxy wars, but at least the Space Race was the human spirit pushing against itself in a creative way, for the sake of creatively pushing itself forward. We owe it a lot.

    Cheers.

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