Bewildering Stories

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Mark Koerner asks...

What use is the near side of the Moon?

Mark asks a question that, frankly, has me stumped. Has it ever really been asked before, either in politics or science fiction? And if not, why not?

Does the "bright" side of the Moon — "our side" — have any practical uses? In other words, could we put something there that would be useful in a tangible way?

The "dark side" would clearly be a good place to put a radio-telescope, as there would be less "noise" from Earth. And artificial satellites long ago proved their usefulness (in communications, meteorology, spying, etc.). But aside from this purely practical/technological angle, what good is the near side of the Moon?

You'll notice I phrase this question to eliminate any possibility that you could give me an answer that smacks of expanding-the-frontiers-of human-knowledge, etc. Let's be practical.

— Mark

Mark, I honestly can’t begin to answer the question. All I can think of is picnics, but somehow that just doesn’t cut it. And yet that’s basically the rationale for the Moon casinos that Robert A. Heinlein mentions in Beyond This Horizon : they’re fun, and the Moon is a cool place to take a vacation.

Ho-hum! That sounds too much like Las Vegas: been there, done that. And Heinlein uses Moon casinos only at the beginning of his novel, as a prop to emphasize that the story takes place in the future; afterwards he forgets about them. No, “fun” is not a good answer. Much as I’d like to go take photos on the Moon, how could I justify the expense?

I think your question demonstrates by indirection the value of history. Why has any civilization undertaken large-scale exploration?

Exploration is not instinctive; it’s not even a typically human trait: it’s cultural, and it has mainly economic and social motives.

I’ll rephrase your question in that light: what is there on the Moon — near or far side — or in space that we know we need? Land? Spices? Resources? No. King Ferdinand made Columbus wait years — till after the conquest of Granada — before financing the expedition. A shrewd politician and investor, King Ferdinand was playing the odds. Hindsight can be the height of irony: if speculating in ocean voyages had been a reasonable risk at the time, he could have bought Granada and anything else he had a mind to. But it’s not the case now: even if the Moon or Mars were made of pure mint gold or something even more valuable, it would not pay for exploration today.

We’re forced to come back to “advancing the frontiers of human knowledge.” What can we learn by going to the Moon? And is it worth risking anyone’s neck to learn it? Technological spin-offs? Sure, but at the price of Moon shots? What kind of investment strategy is that? The logic is as suspect as saying “War brings technological advances. We need more wars.”

What about prestige? Okay, whose? Wasn’t that what the Apollo missions — an avowed technological battle of the Cold War — were all about? Prestige and a fistful of change will get you a cup of coffee; people respect what’s potentially useful.

If an eccentric gazillionnaire finances his own space exploration, that’s fine; that’s his little red wagon. But as long as governments have to do it, the people have the right — even the duty — to ask “What good is it?” As long as there are no clear answers, the project must either be taken on faith, like Egyptian pyramids; or met with skepticism, or left to robots. And those robots had better get results.

Science fiction and politicians will have to answer the question: “Why are we going to the Moon, anyway? What’s in it for us? Are we buying a pig in a poke? Or can we simply not think of anything better to do?”

Copyright © 2004 by Mark Koerner and Bewildering Stories

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