Is the Plan to Go Back to the Moon Inherently Cyberpunk?
NASA has been talking about the moon a lot lately. The idea is to send the first living, breathing humans to touch foot on the ground since 1972. This is not merely to collect some rocks and come back like we’ve done before, but rather to build a permanently inhabited colony. As one official NASA video phases it, “We are going to the moon, to stay.”
The plan is to use the moon as a platform from which to leap to Mars colonization and eventually to the stars. There’s an entire Moon to Mars portal devoted to the topic on NASA’s website that reads as much like an advertisement as it does a scientific summary.
Why Go Back to the Moon?
The pessimist might assume that the core motivation here is merely Donald Trump pushing for his own little bit of immortality by doing something that will be proudly remembered for centuries, no matter how the rest of his presidency turns out. Or perhaps he is doing it as part of a re-election bid. It’s no coincidence that NASA’s target date is 2024.
And while landing the first human on Mars would result in a much deeper mark for the history books, it’s probably not realistic to build a Mars colony within the next four years of a presidential term. That leaves the moon as the second best option. Pessimism about motivation aside, the fact is that the proposal actually makes a lot of sense.
Roughly 8% of lunar soil by weight is composed of aluminum, with oxidized concentrations varying from 15-25% by region. That is to say, nearly a quarter of the lunar surface is composed of rusted aluminum powder that could be recovered by electrolysis, resulting in oxygen in one pile, and aluminum in the other. Having extra oxygen in space is a perk for obvious reasons; aluminum is a choice material for applications where weight is a prime consideration. Like spaceships, for example. An aluminum refinery on the moon would make it a whole lot easier to build an interplanetary network of stations and shuttlecraft because of the potentially billions of tons of material we’d no longer need to pull out of Earth’s gravity well.
A Better Place to Start Interstellar Travel
But that’s not even the most important reason to build facilities on the moon. Remember the old 1990s space shuttles?
Those white-hot blasts of explosive thrust were powered by aluminum fuel in a reduction-oxidation reaction, much like thermite. Now, compare the size of the shuttle to the massive booster rockets that pushed it off the ground. A rocket launch consumes far more fuel than it can deliver into space.
All it would take is an array of solar panels to power the process. Now, the moon becomes a giant ball of oxygen, rocket fuel, and future spaceship hulls already free of the very expensive proposition of launching them into orbit. It’s no wonder NASA wants to go back.
But it also invites us to revisit the eternal question of whether the future will be shiny or gritty. If we’re finally heading to the stars, does that mean the future has at last settled on shiny? In a couple generations, will we all be living in a Star Trek utopia, bouncing happily between visits to the matter replicator and sexual romps with lusty green aliens?
Maybe. But maybe not.
Cyberpunk Already Assumes Space Travel
Space travel has actually been a fundamental given in cyberpunk since basically forever. Back in the 1980s, everyone pretty much assumed that it would become as common as commercial air travel is now. Personally, I expected we’d have a moon base by 2000 that anybody could book a passenger flight to simply by walking into the local space port.
It didn’t turn out that way, but similar assumptions have always been buried at the roots of cyberpunk. It’s such a given that it’s barely noticeable.
The most famous example, of course, is Roy Batty from Blade Runner. He was a combat model replicant built for soldiering on other worlds, and in his final words he spoke of seeing “attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion” and of beam weaponry “glittering in the dark near Tannhauser Gate.” A reference not explained, but implied to be an exotic faster-than-light jump gate.
Blade Runner takes place exclusively on Earth, but the core premise assumes that humanity has become an advanced space-faring race. Another example: the original 80s anime Bubblegum Crisis’ fifth episode Moonlight Rambler is about a pair of unwilling sex robots that escape from a life of entertaining staff on an orbital kill satellite.
These are all core cyberpunk stories from the heart of the genre over 30 years ago. It’s not that space is or isn’t fundamentally part of cyberpunk, but rather space travel was simply assumed to be an inevitable part of our future when the genre was created. Space simply wasn’t the focus. Most cyberpunk stories take place in either Japan or the United States. However, nobody would try to claim that just because the stories happen in those particular settings that China doesn’t exist somewhere else. Similarly, just because any particular story is set on Earth, that doesn’t mean there aren’t millions of human living off-world too.
So bring on the moon base and let’s go to Mars. From there, let’s reach out to the stars.
But if it’s all the same, maybe we can skip the killer satellites.