One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. Neil Armstrong. Apollo 11. Moonwalkers and moon landings. All symbols for the most historic year in space exploration. In 1969 national space agencies sent people and machines into outer space and on the moon for the first time (Athanasopoulos, 2019). “Space 4.0”, the fourth and newest space age, is what’s upon us now, and has the potential to create thousands of leaps for humankind (European Space Agency, 2016b:1). What preceded this age was a global era of inter-agency cooperation which facilitated the establishment of the International Space Station (ISS) (Athanasopoulos, 2019). Space 4.0 builds on this cooperation, and hallmarks a revolution in space activities with open-access participation embedded into its core philosophy (Bohlmann & Petrovici, 2019). The movement is working towards making space accessible to more governments as well as non-state actors like private sector parties and academic institutions (Athanasopoulos, 2019). As part of this open-access revolution, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Director General Jan Worner has come out with his ‘Moon Village’ masterplan. The Moon Village is a proposal for the establishment of the first-ever international and sustainable human-robotic lunar outpost (Crawford, 2017b; Halbach et al., 2020). Humankind would be studying the moon by living on it, similar to the way the human outposts in the Arctic currently facilitate scientific expeditions in the region (Ehrenfreund, 2012; McKay, 2013; Crawford, 2017b). Except, this lunar outpost would be galaxies and thousands of light-years away.
The breadth of scientific disciplines that would benefit from having humans operating on the lunar surface are astronomical (Crawford, 2017b). Planetary scientists could gain access to the lunar geological record, and uncover the mysteries buried beneath its contents. These include the early history of our solar system, the geologic formation of rocky planets, and the origin and development of the Earth-Moon system (Crawford & Joy, 2014). Astrobiologists could gain insights on the conditions for early habitability of Earth (Crawford et al., 2010). They could also advance our knowledge on human survival in the space environment (Glavin et al., 2010). Even explore the existence of technological civilisations and extraterrestrial intelligence in our galaxy (Crawford, 2017b). Life scientists could study the response of life to prolonged exposure to low non-zero gravity. They could harness medical treatments to extreme radiation and dust environments (Cockell, 2010), and explore the parameters of growing food in outer space (Crawford, 2017b). This is just the tip of the iceberg on the wealth of discovery the Moon Village could provide, and it’s right at the edge of our fingertips. What an exciting yet precarious position to be in.
I say precarious because although there is a growing body of research on the potential extraction of lunar resources, the line between exploration and exploitation is razor-thin. Already, we have a precedent set by our species on Earth tending towards the over-exploitation of materials. On the surface, a sustainable Moon Village requires a lot of technical planning on the feasibility of developing infrastructure on the moon (e.g., Labeaga-Martínez et al., 2017; Häuplik-Meusburger & Messina, 2018; Halbach, 2020). This would necessitate the extraction and utilisation of local raw materials, including locally-derived building materials, food, water, and oxygen, to name a few examples (Crawford, 2017a). But there’s a bigger picture here, too. A potentially dangerous one. The development of a human-robotic lunar outpost has the potential to fund a commercial world space economy built on the back of a lunar resource extraction industry (Crawford, 2015). If journeys to an established outpost become routine, then what stops us from exploiting the Moon like we exploited the Earth? After all, moon landings would not solely exist as historic events in space travel, but in the present moment, where resources are ripe for the picking.
What exactly prevents us from making the same mistakes? Would the Moon Village serve as an escape for humankind in facing the consequences of its actions? Is it an opportunity for our species to wipe the slate clean and start anew? Our track record is not exactly stellar. UN space treaties ensure the protection of the outer space environment (Bohlmann & Petrovici, 2019), but is that enough in the long-term? The amount of environmentally-damaging corporations that slip under the radar and elude facing the consequences of their actions are astronomical. And this pertains to our normal, capitalist-based economy here on Earth. The scale of oversight and regulation necessary for an ethical and equitable global space-based economy is a lot to wrap our heads around. If we want the concept of Moon Village to succeed, then we must, henceforth, hold ourselves accountable.
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