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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The Hidden Right Stuff

Astronomy Ascendant

Cassini over Saturn's southern hemisphereIt isn’t surprising that I got a lump in my throat at space probe Cassini’s Grand Finale plunge into Saturn.  What’s striking is that so many other people seem to have felt the same way, as described in the aforelinked article and a Sept. 16 Washington Post editorial titled “The Cassini mission embodies the best of humanity.”  No immediately profitable results, no earthly use—and yet quite a range of people seem to have been moved by the end of this long-running mission.

People watch the solar eclipse from the observation deck of The Empire State Building in New YorkThe Cassini Grand Finale followed immediately upon another widely popular sky event, the eclipse of August 21, 2017.  A total solar eclipse visible in the continental United States is rare enough that dedicated eclipse watchers were naturally excited.  But the level of interest in the general public was quite remarkable.  Libraries, giving away eclipse-watching glasses to the public, ran out of them well before the big day.

Why this sudden upsurge in astronomical interest?  My guess is that at a time when other news is so depressing, and human inhumanity to humans is so prevalent, we long to hear about something that’s both bigger than ourselves, and wonderful rather than terrible.

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures book coverI recently read Hidden Figures (2016), by Margot Lee Shetterly.  This historical-biographical work tells the story of the African-American women who worked with NASA during the “space race,” at a time when neither women, nor African-Americans, were typically considered candidates for science positions.  Their mathematical expertise was crucial in making possible the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions.

Hidden Figures movie posterAn excellent movie based on the book—I’ve seen it twice so far—came out in December 2016, which must set some kind of record for speedy translation of a book to the big screen.  The film, as is usual with historical movies, alters the facts somewhat to dramatize the changes taking place.  But it effectively conveys how the intrepid characters overcame prejudices and organizational impediments to make great contributions.

Part of the lump-in-the-throat uplift I felt in this story comes from the chance, for once, to see people doing the right thing in terms of justice and respect for everyone.  But another part comes from the fact that the achievements of the women depicted in the book and movie weren’t just any successes.  They were specifically in the area of spaceflight, appealing to the science- and science-fiction enthusiast in me as well as the admirer of virtue.  In that respect, I was reminded of an older favorite film, The Right Stuff.

The Right Stuff

A generation ago, Tom Wolfe’s idiosyncratic history of Project Mercury and the test-pilot culture out of which it grew, The Right Stuff (1979), became a 1983 movie by Philip Kaufman.  From the slapstick humor of the medical testing, to the cheerfully cynical depiction of the public-relations machine that went to work on the Mercury astronauts, The Right Stuff took a decidedly down-to-earth look at the space program.  But as the story develops, those mundane aspects merely serve to underline the genuine courage and daring of the Mercury pioneers.

The Right Stuff movie posterThe movie has long been a favorite in my household.  Aided by a soaring score from Bill Conti, The Right Stuff awakens the same sense of wonder we feel from Hidden Figures—with the earthier aspects to remind us that, inspiring as the story may be, this isn’t a fairy tale or even solid SF; it really happened.

Common Ground

These two space race movies obviously have a lot in common.  They share a historical setting, though they approach it from quite different angles, and they cover some of the same events.  Each features an ensemble cast, rather than a single main character.  Some of the characters even overlap; John Glenn plays an important role in both.

Each is a fictionalized movie made from a nonfiction book.  To present their stories, screenwriters and directors have to invent actual dialogue and scenes that aren’t part of the historical record.  Conversely, the books cover more ground than the movies can possibly handle.  The book Hidden Figures, for example, starts its narrative in World War II, while the movie opens around 1960.

More important, I think, is the mood evoked by the two films.  The distinctiveness of that emotion arises from the fact that the U.S. space program is one of the few enterprises in recent history that joins heroic dedication to an aspirational goal, with a visually impressive record that can be readily appreciated by all of us.  (One might point to medical successes, for example, as equally noble—say, the development of the polio vaccine.  But rockets are easier to see and appreciate than bacteria.)

So many of the great heroic efforts we can point to are wars.  The perennial appeal of stories about World War II, the American Civil War, Star Wars, the War of the Ring, show how these exemplars of courage and perseverance continue to move us.  But even when such wars are justified, they are essentially negative efforts.  The participants strive to prevent something—to avert or amend some great evil—and the means for doing so unavoidably involve harm and destruction.

New Horizons launches to PlutoThese stories about the space program, on the other hand, remind us that equally great and heroic efforts can be made for affirmative purposes.  They arouse that heart-lifting sense of people striving mightily together for goals that are not destructive, but wholly aspirational.  To the wonder of discovery and exploration are added the glory of humans exercising their best qualities—intelligence, diligence, boldness, cooperation.  These true stories give us a sense of unity in a good cause, like the “band of brothers” forged in wartime, but without the corresponding division and opposition of a human enemy.

This isn’t Pollyanna territory.  The Right Stuff pays plenty of attention to human foibles and pettiness; but they become trivial in the great achievements of the movie’s second half.  Hidden Figures specifically addresses human vices—and sweeps them aside in the name of something greater.  As with Cassini and the eclipse, we have a chance to focus, for a while, on something that extends beyond ourselves and calls out the best in us.  We don’t ignore human weakness, but we are given examples of how, from time to time, we can transcend it.

These are stories worth telling.