The man who sold the moon

When I was about twelve years old I read a science fiction novella by Robert Heinlein called The Man Who Sold the Moon. It was published in 1950. The plot involves a wealthy industrialist — the richest person on earth — who is seized with the goal of becoming the first person to reach, and thereby control, Earth’s moon.

Despite his great wealth, Delos Harriman, known as the “last Robber Baron,” must find additional investors, or at least more money to sink into the venture. He also has to find a way to keep governments around the world from laying claim to the moon.

Harriman’s lawyers come up with a scheme. Under international law, property rights include the airspace above any given piece of real estate. Airspace, of course, is limitless, reaching to the infinite. The moon’s orbit takes it over the Earth’s equator, drifting slightly north and south in a narrow band. So the countries near the equator can all claim some partial ownership of the moon.

Harriman appeals to the United Nations, an institution still in its infancy when Heinlein penned his story, to avoid any future conflicts over lunar ownership by granting him exclusive rights to manage the moon. The UN agrees.

Harriman promptly begins commodifying the moon to raise additional capital for his project. He convinces school children (rather, their doting parents) to make contributions to the project. Every contributor will have their name engraved on a plaque to be installed on the moon. The promotion is a huge success, despite the fact that the names will be microscopic in size once engraved on the monument.

He sells naming rights to various craters and mountains, which corporate publicity departments snap up for vast sums. He issues his own postage stamps which will be postmarked on the moon and thereby become collectors items. The stamps are never loaded onto the ship — too much weight. When the ship lands, the stamps are snuck onto the ship and then unloaded. A similar ruse is planned for “moon diamonds”.

Perhaps Harriman’s greatest money making scheme is to sell advertising on the moon. Huge messages which will be visible from Earth will be written on the moon’s surface using black carbon dust. Soft drink companies rush to be the first to advertise on the lunar billboard.

Heinlein was still philosophically libertarian when he wrote The Man Who Sold the Moon and the story reflects his own belief that space exploration was only going to be achieved through private investment, not government spending.

I was reminded of this story when I read about Elon Musk’s latest space-based venture. Starlink is a plan to launch thousands of small, 500-pound satellites into orbit to form a network capable of bringing high speed internet access to every place on Earth, no matter how remote. His company, SpaceX, will, of course, sell that internet access as a new sideline to his rocket  launching business. It could be quite lucrative. It could also be a real benefit for humanity. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

It turns out there is a huge downside to Musk’s plan. The satellites run on solar power and their solar panels reflect light back to Earth. Astronomers around the world have been the first to sound an alarm about what that might mean.

“This has the potential to change what a natural sky looks like,” Tyler Nordgren told The New York Times. Nordgren is an astronomer and professor of physics. He is also an avid promoter of dark skies, a global movement to limit the amount of nighttime light pollution to insure we humans can keep seeing the stars.

SpaceX launched its first batch of Starlink satellites last month and they are becoming clearly visible around the world as they spread across the night sky. This first group included only 60 satellites. The goal is a continuous grid comprising thousands of satellites, each a new point of light in our night sky.

Astronomers are already referring to the array as a “satellite constellation”. This constellation has the potential to wreak havoc with astronomical observations, both optical and radio.

It is clear from a statement released by the International Astronomical Union that SpaceX acted with all the impunity one might expect of a privately held, privately financed operation. There appears to have been little or no consultation ahead of time with any stakeholders, including those of us who just want to look up at the night sky and see stars.

This should be a wake up call to us all. Musk has more goals for space than the internet satellite network he just launched. He also has plans to colonize Mars. And Musk isn’t the only billionaire with big plans for space. Jeff Bezos of Amazon has launched his Blue Origin project, which aims to colonize the moon. Google’s Larry Page is an investor, along with other billionaires, in the Planetary Project, an operation to mine the asteroid belt for raw materials.

We are living in a New Gilded Age complete with new Robber Barons, an age in which billionaires already exert far too much power and influence. Are they to be allowed to just grab any piece of the solar system simply because they have enough money to do so? Or should we the people have a say in how these natural resources may be used, by whom and for whose benefit?

It is essential that the moon, Mars, asteroids, and whatever else might be out there be viewed as natural resources that belong to all seven billion humans. Or else future generations will surely pay a price, whatever price the billionaires demand.

Can I interest you in a crater?

One thought on “The man who sold the moon

  1. Jason M

    Thanks for the article. Second half in particular I find rings true. One good thing about NASA, as slow and bureaucratic as it has become, is the accountability to a great vast number of individuals…which allows / forces in a sense the dilution of the “individual ego”-driven goals you mention above that tend to seek to circumvent public concerns or interest. The idea of private industry, particularly those controlled by the powerful billionaire execs, sowing the seeds for mankind’s “future” without recompense for the typical amoral approach of said industry is a harrowing one indeed.

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