Business or Pleasure?

Reasons to go to the Moon? This edition published by Pan Books 1974. Cover art by Dean Ellis.

Throughout the period of the Apollo programme, we had the clear belief that, one day before too long, travel to the Moon would be a routine and everyday experience.  Who knows – it might still be so.  But often the question of exactly why one would want to go there was left unanswered.

From ancient times until fairly recently, the purpose was clear – to find out what was there.  Budding astronauts from those in Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone of 1638, who found a utopian paradise, to Jules Verne’s 1870 novel Around the Moon (sequel to his famous From the Earth to the Moon), who see a barren landscape, had little idea what they would encounter before they set out.

But nowadays we know what’s there, and we had a pretty good idea back in the 1960s from decades of telescopic observations, along with the results from the unmanned Ranger, Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter missions.  From 20th July 1969 onwards, it was beyond all doubt.  So travelling to the Moon – at least for ordinary people and not the select few chosen as the pathfinders – would be for reasons other than pure exploration and discovery of the unknown, once such journeys became the norm.

In Frederik Pohl and Cyril M Kornbluth’s 1953 novel The Space Merchants, there’s no question that business travel is the main function, as indeed is the aim of most other human activities in that excellent satire.  “It wasn’t a trip for the idly curious or the submerged fifteen-sixteenths of the population.  The Moon was strictly business – mining business – and some sight-seeing.  Our fellow-passengers, what we saw of them at the ramp, were preoccupied engineers, a few labourers in the minute steerage, and silly-rich men and women who wanted to say they’d been there.”

The story is set at a time when human expansion into space covers some of the inner planets of the Solar System, and the Moon is an obvious useful stepping-stone in the process.  It might be assumed that simple tourism is still a luxury that most on Earth cannot afford, or might not even want.

Much the same can be seen, though from a far less satirical standpoint, in Arthur C Clarke’s 1955 novel Earthlight.  The Moon is a place where mining of mineral resources, and all the support services required to keep it going, is essential to the economy, scientific research is a major reason why some people need to go there, and activities such as hydroponic farming are a necessary aspect of the overall functioning of the colony.  But at that stage, even two hundred years after the first Moon landings, there is no indication that many people travel there just for pleasure.

Quite probably, having to live in underground habitats, protected from the radiation and intense heat and cold on the lunar surface, surviving on hard rations and limited air and water supplies, with only occasional trips outside to look around, would not be the most attractive concept to publish in a lunar travel brochure.  And when you’ve seen one crater, you’ve seen them all.

So, setting aside the long-term future of the human race where a fully space-faring civilization thinks nothing of travelling anywhere it wants just for the fun of it, the question remains.  If you’re not going to the Moon for essential business, could there be any other valid basis?  The answer may lie in the reason so many people visit remote regions of the Earth which have already been thoroughly explored – the experience, the novelty, the escape from the mundane.  And the challenge.

President Kennedy quoted the famous reply in a New York Times interview by the mountaineer George Mallory, who took part in expeditions to climb Mount Everest in the early 1920s, as to why he kept trying to reach the summit: “Because it’s there”.  Not a bad reason for any challenge in life.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

With a lifetime’s interest in science, history and human behaviour, Richard Hayes focuses his writing on how the imagination has created the world in which we live, and where it may lead us in the future.  Odyssey, the e-magazine of the British Interplanetary Society, draws on the rich treasury of science fiction to explore many fields of speculation, enabling us to glimpse what might yet be, both here on Earth and out amongst the stars.

For related Odyssey posts, please click here: Capturing the Moment | Unto Dust We May Return

Be sociable; support the BIS!