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 Backyard Spaceship

When I was little, my father told me he had a spaceship of his own, hidden back in the woods.  As an ardent space fan, I was wildly enthusiastic.  It was when he told me it was propelled by a hamster running in a wheel that I began to suspect he was putting me on.

But I wanted to believe it.

There’s a certain SF tradition of spacecraft built, more or less, in one’s backyard.  Of course, “backyard” may not be literal.  I’m thinking of spaceships constructed on an amateur basis, privately, and usually—though not always—by young people.Cover, The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet

This was the appeal of a childhood favorite of mine, Eleanor Cameron’s The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet (1954).  Two boys (“between the ages of eight and eleven”) are recruited by a newspaper ad to put together a small rocket ship for the mysterious Mr. Tyco Bass, a small wispy man who turns out to be a “spore person.”  They fly the ship to a previously unknown miniature moon, “Basidium,” inhabited by other spore-based mushroom people.

Cameron is pretty good with her scientific facts—which means she lampshades the impossibilities carefully.  A rocket built by two kids isn’t going to get off the ground without plentiful helpings of what TV Tropes calls “Applied Phlebotinum,” the unexplained stuff or device(s) necessary to make the plot work.  A classic example is the faster-than-light space drive needed by a Star Trek or Star Wars story.  If the authors could explain how it worked, they wouldn’t be writing a story; they’d be off to the patent office and rake in billions.  Instead, the author and reader tacitly agree to postulate the necessary gizmo or substance for purposes of the tale.  It might as well be magic, in the sense of Clarke’s Third Law—“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Here, Mr. Bass supplies several crucial “inventions” needed to make the boys’ ship spaceworthy.  He provides the rocket motor, the special fuel, the clear sealant that makes the hull airtight, and the “oxygen urn” that provides breathable air—not to mention the “Stroboscopic Polaroid Filter” that allows a telescope to detect the otherwise-invisible Mushroom Planet.  These “phlebotinum” features make the boys’ vessel a little more plausible than my dad’s Hamster Drive.Cover, Rocket Ship Galileo

A more believable example (once you’re out of the middle grades) is Robert A. Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Galileo (1947).  The project here is a private enterprise, with the spacecraft modified from an existing transcontinental “freighter-rocket” by four teenage boys.  They are, however, accompanied by one adult, Dr. Donald Cargraves, an uncle of one of the boys.  Cargraves provides the engineering expertise and the atomic drive he’s just invented, which (to paraphrase Doc Brown) “makes space travel possible.”

Starting with an existing well-equipped vessel, and kids who are already experienced amateur rocket-builders, makes the setup immediately more plausible.  Realistically, it takes months of elbow grease to do the conversion.  The Galileo isn’t actually built in a backyard, but out in the desert.  Still, the idea that kids like you or me could help build the first rocket to the moon is front and center in this story, which formed part of the basis for the early SF movie “Destination Moon.”

The notion of private-sector spaceflight was a favorite of Heinlein’s.  That theme reappears in his novella The Man Who Sold the Moon (1951), which also contributed elements to “Destination Moon.”  In that tale, however, the participants were all adults, and the project was a large and highly-publicized corporate endeavor more like the work of today’s SpaceX or Blue Origin.

A fully grown-up version of the backyard spaceship can be found in the widely influential first novel by E.E. “Doc” Smith, The Skylark of Space (1928, originally written about a decade earlier).  When scientist Dick Seaton stumbles upon an unknown substance that can be used to produce immense energy, his wealthy friend Martin Crane underwrites the construction of a spherical spacecraft to harness that power.  The work is started on Crane’s extensive property—not exactly a backyard, but close—and continues secretly in an independent steel plant after skulduggery enters the picture.  No kids are involved, but the private, secret, and essentially amateur operation makes Skylark an ancestor of this space opera trope.cover, Red Thunder

We might consider this theme an artifact of the naïve early days of SF, but for its reappearance in John Varley’s 2003 novel Red Thunder.  The passage of time has made some differences.  The protagonists are young adults, though they compose a motley group that still reads like “kids” to me (or perhaps it’s just that I’m that much older myself).  Their goal is Mars, rather than the Moon.  The requisite adult supervision, or phlebotinum contribution, is supplied by Travis Broussard, a cashiered former astronaut, and his quasi-autistic genius brother Jubal, who has invented a “squeezer” force field that turns out to be a fabulous rocket drive (among other uses).  Varley’s methodical development of the funding, engineering, and planning for the homegrown spacecraft (built out of a railroad tank car) makes the amateur project believable even for a contemporary audience.  Wikipedia describes the resulting adventure as an homage to Heinlein’s juveniles—since it’s essentially a Rocket Ship Galileo for the 21st century.

 

Why are we so fond of the backyard spaceship?

This kind of plot enshrines the long American tradition of inspired tinkering, from the Wright brothers and Edison, to Tom Swift, to 1950s kids with hot rods, to space kids with hotter rods (Luke Skywalker asking to go into town for parts to soup up his landspeeder).  The clever gadgeteer is a permanent part of our mythology, right down to Bill Gates and Paul Allen in their garage.

More than that, the idea that ingenious amateurs could conquer space has a democratic, underdog quality that appeals to our mythmaking imaginations.  We love the idea that spaceflight could be easy and accessible to the ordinary person.  It’s a natural evolution of the way we root for the underdog in politics or war (the Ewoks in “Return of the Jedi”).  We cheer for the underdog just as much in personal life—for Cinderella, whose story exhibits, as Chesterton says, the lesson exaltavit humiles—“he shall lift up the humble.”

The backyard spaceship promises to lift the humble right off the earth, in the ancient dream of flight.  It makes for great inspiration, if dubious engineering.  And after all, the most sophisticated aeronautical engineer starts out as a wondering child and an aspiring teenager.  Our dreams rest among the stars; but the journey begins in our own backyard.