Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Moon and Beyond

Full Moon

We humans are a migrant species—at least most of us. Out of Africa, across the world. There and back again. We have itchy feet and restless natures. That’s what comes of having a big brain, inventive ideas, and a general dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Of course, over the ages pockets of people have settled down and remained content. Consider the West Africans at the dawn of humanity, who found rich valleys around the Congo and Volta rivers and did not follow the rest of humankind out of East Africa’s stark Rift Valley and into the wider world. And since the dawn of agriculture we have seen the rise of various empires based on water or some other natural resource: the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians, the Qin and Han Dynasties in China, the Mayans and the Incas in the Americas. Once you build infrastructure around a resource, like an irrigation system beside a broad river in a fertile plain, some people will stay put to harvest and use it.

But for the most part, humanity has been on the move ever since we learned to walk. We are one species that has adapted itself, through its brains, muscles, imagination, and courage, to environments as difficult and varied as desert oases, rainforest jungles, and Arctic permafrost.

The story of Europe—to take just a small corner of the globe—has been one of successive overruns from outside. From back before the beginning of recorded history, we have tantalizing pockets of unrelated languages in the continent’s far corners: Finno-Ugric in the far north, the Ural Mountains, and the Hungarian Plain; Pictish at the northern end of the British Isles; and Basque in the northern mountains of the Iberian Peninsula, in the awkward corner between France and Spain. These are mostly places out of the way of regular migration routes. For the rest of Europe—and strangely, parts of northern India—we find a common root language, Indo-European, which is the father of the Norse, Germanic, Greek, and Romance languages.

I attribute this spread of common language to what I call a “people pump” operating out of the Caucasus Mountains. For ages since antiquity it has fed restless groups of people north onto the steppes. There they got up on horses and rode west into Europe and east into the Indus and Ganges valleys. The history of the Greek peninsula and Asia Minor, or modern Turkey, is the story of invasion by the Dorians, Ionians, and the mysterious Sea Peoples, who got moving about the time of the Trojan War. The story of the Mediterranean as a whole is the movement west by Phoenicians, Greeks, and perhaps those misplaced Trojans, who fetched up in Etruscan Italy to become Romans. While the Romans were building their empire, the Celts crossed from Turkey into Austria and progressed through Germany and northern France into Britain. And as the Romans were losing their empire, the Goths and Vandals moved out of the Baltic region and Poland to pass through southern France and Spain and sack Rome itself. The story of the British Isles is the invasion of Celtic lands by Frisians and Saxons, Danes, and finally by those Vikings who had settled in Normandy, became Frenchmen themselves, and then went off north to conquer England.

Europe is a restless place. The movements appeared to subside in the Dark Ages after the collapse of Rome, and it looked like people were finally settling down. But then the art of building seaworthy ships—thanks in large part to the Vikings—caught up with people’s yearning to travel, and Europeans braved the Atlantic Ocean starting in the 15th century. De Gama went south around Africa to find a route to India and its riches. Magellan went south around Cape Horn to find a route to Asia. And Columbus, funded by the Spanish crown, sailed due west and discovered the richest prize of all.1

And the migration has continued ever since. Millions of Europeans have left the Old World for the New one across the Atlantic Ocean, starting almost as soon as the first colonies were established in the 16th century. And in later centuries they “discovered” and occupied large parts of Africa, India, and Australia and built enclaves and empires throughout the old, established empires of Asia.

But that doesn’t mean the rest of the world is full of pleasant, peaceable homebodies. The story of China has been one of repeated invasions from the north—the whole purpose of their Great Wall. And their Mongol neighbors conquered and briefly held the largest land empire in history. The Arabs followed the instructions of their Prophet and invaded Europe through North Africa and Spain, and through the Balkans up to Vienna. They moved into Central Asia along the Silk Road and entered India. Everybody steps on their neighbors at some point. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Iroquois of what would become Upstate New York fought the Hurons and Algonquians. And before that the Aztecs tried to conquer the Tlaxcalans, among other groups, in modern-day Mexico. Everybody invades. Everybody fights.

What does all this have to do with the Moon? Simply that we are a restless people by nature. When one place becomes too settled, too predictable, too bound by property rights and rules, too hemmed in with political alliances and charitable organizations, a certain percentage of the people are going to rebel. Some will opt for revolution and social upheaval, but many will just light out for the new territory, the next frontier, the land beyond the mountains.

In the 1960s, we Americans went to the Moon. It was the capstone of a space program begun in the Eisenhower Administration as a response to Russian rocketry and then promoted by President John F. Kennedy—“not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” The Apollo Program was a science experiment, a seed crystal for developing new technologies focused on outer space. In that sense, it was not a migration or colonization effort. It was in the nature of De Gama’s and Magellan’s voyages: go there, prove it can be done, come back.

Since then, we have sent robot probes all around the Solar System and even out beyond the heliopause to interstellar space. We have focused our human presence and efforts on science experiments and scientific and commercial satellites in Earth orbit. But most people, at least in the developed countries, believe we will go back to the Moon and travel to Mars—not just as an experiment or to gather data, but to colonize.

I am one of those people. Whether it’s a government program or funded by private entrepreneurs like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, and whether it’s a base on the Moon or a colony on Mars, those are details. The Moon is nearby and completely airless, washed by the harsh radiation of the solar wind. Mars is farther away and has more available resources, including an atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide2 and possibly water in the form of ice, but it still gets a hard blast of radiation because Mars’s core is dead and no longer generating a magnetic field.

Either choice will be hard and will launch us on a new wave of technological discovery. Given the logistics and the ambient environment associated with either place, it would be easier to build a five-star hotel with an Olympic-sized swimming pool on the peak of Mount Everest—or, say, at Camp 4 on the South Col of the mountain, which approaches the “death zone” and its lack of breathable oxygen. Or you could build the same resort 500 meters (1,640 feet) down in the Red Sea. That would probably be easier, because years of submarine building have taught us how to handle water pressure at those depths.

But we will go, if not in this century, then in the next. Once we were a land-wandering people who only looked out on the deep blue with longing, until we acquired the technology to cross the oceans. Now we are an ocean-faring people—a people who routinely fly over the ocean’s vast barrier—who look at the deep black among the stars with longing.

One day, we will go there. And then it will be easy.

1. Except for the Vikings, who had ventured out long before and discovered and settled Iceland, Greenland, and—so rumor has it—Newfoundland. Of course, the greatest migration into the Americas came at the end of the last Ice Age, when Siberian hunters crossed the land bridge that is now the Bering Strait and flooded both the northern and southern continents.

2. Mars’s atmosphere, however, with a pressure less than one percent that of Earth’s, would qualify as a good laboratory vacuum with trace gases.

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