TCS Daily


By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - September 25, 2002 12:00 AM

In folklore, the moon has long had a reputation for bringing on craziness. And in a way, it does. At least, space and the moon seem to have agitated the loonier parts of the political left into, well, raving lunacy.

Exhibit one is the response to the U.S. government's approval of TransOrbital's commercial moon mission. TransOrbital plans to launch a space probe that will return HDTV images of the Moon (including some of the Apollo landing sites, thus exploding conspiracy theories that the landings were faked) and deliver payload to the surface of the moon (you can send a business card for $2,500).

The reaction was swift. The website Democrats.Com (which is not officially connected to the party of JFK) responded with this rather alarmist take:

Like all the other international laws, Bush is now ignoring those pertaining to space. As America is distracted by 9/11 remembrances and warnings of new threats, His Heinous has turned the moon over to a private, for-profit corporation called TransOrbital that has a far-reaching, frightening agenda for the corporate domination of space. All TransOrbital had to do was promise not to contaminate and pollute the moon - yeah, right. That's what the oil companies say about ANWR. There was no Congressional vote - not even any consultation. Bush simply acted as if the moon were his to give away. The TransOrbital venture could be disastrous for the globe - no scientist today could predict yet how adding mass to the moon via human infrastructure or removing mass, via mining, will impact the delicate gravitational interplay between Earth and its only satellite. The moon belongs to all the people of the Earth - not to George. W. Bush or his friends at TransOrbital.
(Emphasis added).

It's hard to know where to start with such silliness. The part about ignoring international law is just wrong, as is the part about Congress not acting. Actually Congress acted back in 1984, when it passed the Commercial Space Launch Act (here's a link to the current version) that provides for such regulation. Commercial space activity is regulated (as it was under President Clinton) by the Federal Aviation Administration's Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation, whose duties include determining, in consultation with the State Department, whether a licensee will be acting in accordance with the international law obligations of the United States.

As for the notion that lunar mining will impact the "delicate gravitational interplay" between the Earth and its "only satellite," well, that's not true either. (If I'm not mistaken, this idea appears to have come from the recent movie "The Time Machine.") Actually, the "gravitational balance' isn't all that "delicate." The Earth and the Moon weigh (well, technically they don't "weigh," but "mass") as much as, well, planets, and the few hundred pounds involved in Transorbital's plans - or even the larger quantities from long-term plans for Helium3 mining - won't disturb anything. The Earth and Moon each experience substantial influxes of mass on a regular basis - the Earth receives about 100 tonnes of interplanetary dust per day. Yet somehow, the "delicate balance" remains intact.

Sadly, this isn't the only space-related lunacy. The Berkeley City Council has endorsed Rep. Dennis Kucinich's (D-Ohio) "Space Preservation Act," which bans any sort of military presence in space (including satellite-based "mind control" devices). But on Earth First! email lists, some environmentalists aren't happy with Kucinich's bill, because it would still allow commercial activity in outer space: they want to see space kept as a "wilderness" area, completely off limits to human activity.

In their dystopian novel Fallen Angels, science fiction writers Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle created a future world in which environmentalists played on the fears of a public ignorant of science, frightening people with absurd claims that orbiting spacecraft were somehow causing a new ice age. That's not quite the same as satellite mind control or delicate gravitational balances, but Niven and Pournelle's future seems more plausible after the past couple of weeks' developments.

It is tempting to respond to this silliness with derision: tempting, and worthwhile, since such absurdities should never go unchallenged. One might even be tempted to respond the way Buzz Aldrin recently responded to a moon-landing conspiracy theorist: with a punch in the nose. But however appealing such responses might be, they don't address the core problem: a public ignorant enough of science that absurd claims might actually find some traction. Instead of introducing legislation to ban space-based "mind control" beams, members of Congress should take the lead in encouraging people to actually learn about science. "Mind construction," instead of "mind control." The only question is, does Congress think it's better off when the American public is knowledgeable, or ignorant? I'm afraid I know the answer to that one, too.



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