Inspiration in the Sky

Realities of living on the lunar surface.  This edition published by New English Library 1979.  Cover art by Tim White.

Realities of living on the lunar surface. This edition published by New English Library 1979. Cover art by Tim White.

Our Moon is a constant source of inspiration in the drive to develop space travel – a subject that we consider in the latest edition of Odyssey, which has just been issued.  But its impact on our thinking may go beyond spaceflight itself, and extend to the nature of eventual colonization.

Since it represents a location which is visible and reachable, though still remote, it offers opportunities for discovery and exploration, but also for an escape from Earth-bound societies.  There is an element of the American frontier spirit – a separation from a civilization that might be seen as restrictive and limiting – and of the challenge that comes with seeking true freedom.

This was recognised in science fiction such as Jack Williamson and Miles J Breuer’s 1931 novel The Birth of a New Republic, where colonies on the Moon embark on a revolution similar to that of the American colonies in the eighteenth century.  The theme has been a regular vision in the genre ever since, but no science fiction writer expressed it better than Robert Heinlein, whose various stories of life in lunar colonies describe well the entrepreneurial emphasis behind space exploration.

His novella The Man Who Sold the Moon was based on the idea, fairly prevalent in the USA at the time it was first published in 1950, that it would be private enterprise that would be behind the first trip to the Moon, much in the tradition of Jules Verne and HG Wells.  The Apollo programme subsequently demonstrated that only a rich nation could actually achieve something so expensive, yet we now see signs of a sort of reversion to the old approach as the perceived way forward.

In Heinlein’s story, the business entrepreneur DD Harriman maintains that “You’ve got to be a believer!” on the subject of space travel, and sees actual ownership of the Moon as the first stage of colonization and exploitation.  There’s no question about his objective – to make money: “Don’t ask me what we’ll make a profit on; I can’t itemize the assets – but I can lump them.  The assets are a planet – a whole planet…that’s never been touched.  And more planets beyond it.”

The story forms a prequel to Heinlein’s earlier 1940 tale Requiem, which may be considered the beginning of his extensive range of lunar stories.  The same lead character is depicted as an old man who has never achieved his goal of travelling to the Moon, even though space travel is now routine.  But he is determined to make the journey, even though he knows it would kill him.  Heinlein also contributed significantly to the seminal 1950 film Destination Moon, covering the launch of an atomic spacecraft and its journey to the Moon, followed by exploration of the surface, and which was loosely based on his 1947 juvenile novel Rocket Ship Galileo.

His later Hugo Award winning 1966 novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress gave serious consideration to a range of issues related to living on the Moon, mainly in underground cities.  In this story, a lunar colony rebels against rule from Earth and declares independence, with fierce fighting between the revolutionaries and Earth soldiers taking place.  The obvious allusions to the American War of Independence against the British Empire are again fairly clear.

Heinlein’s brand of pioneering, free-enterprise optimism no doubt has much to commend it, but we shouldn’t assume that colonies on other worlds will necessarily follow the pattern that democratic countries such as the USA or, say, India followed once free from their colonial masters.  There are more than enough examples of nations that took an entirely different approach once the Spanish, British or French empires fell apart, and the rigours of survival away from Earth might not be as conducive to a free, democratic lifestyle as we might wish.  Let’s hope they make the right choices.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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