Tourism on the Moon – Imagination vs. Putting Earth First
To welcome the New Year, many people think about travel. Some people visit family; others may take off on a vacation during the off-season rush. Many people seek out warmer climates in the winter, taking a vacation to San Diego, Mexico or other sunny locales. However, some inspired travelers may be thinking higher.
Humans have always been inclined to explore. As humans, we have reached the highest mountaintops and pushed our way to the bottom of the ocean. Now, thanks to advances in modern tourism, far off locations are more accessible than ever. From organized treks to the steep slopes of Mount Everest to daring safaris through the African savanna, tourism can take people just about anywhere. When deep-sea expeditions and trips to Antarctica are no longer enough, human beings begin to set their sights on more exotic frontiers.–
Space travel is a relatively new idea, and over the last fifty years, only a select number of people have managed to leave Earth’s orbit. However, as technology advances and funding gets privatized, there has been increasing interest in space tourism. During the 2012 election season, potential Republican candidate Newt Gringrich suggested a race to start a colony on the moon. While the idea was understandably panned by the media, the notion still captivates many in the tourism industry.
Humanity has conquered all other earthly feats, so travel to the moon seems like a logical goal, but with the pressing realities of climate change, responsible entrepreneurs have made the decision to put our quickly warming earth’s atmosphere first and have decided to leave moon travel in their imaginations until 100% clean fuels exist, which is not the case today for any apparatus designed to put people on the moon. Who has not looked up and wondered what it would be like? Even movies like James Cameron’s Avatar explore what life would be like on another planet and although a fanciful Hollywood creation, even those film creators show human beings quickly withering in the absence of oxygen and earth-like conditions abroad.
Who owns the moon?
It sounds like science fiction, but the fact is that real world concerns are actually more problematic than technology. Firstly, what about the question of moon ownership? With its orbit around the Earth, people all around the world see the moon and feel their own connection to it. It is not the natural extension of any country or even any continent. In the past, the Western mindset was that of first come, first served, which may lead many people to suspect that Neil Armstrong laid claim to the moon by planting the United States’ flag there in 1969.
Armstrong wanted to leave his mark, but that is ultimately all that he accomplished. His act of planting a US flag on the moon was symbolic and carried no legal weight. This is why some people have made an effort to stake their claims on the lunar surface. An innovative businessman named Dennis Hope in Nevada decided to capitalize on the uncertain moonscape by starting his own intergalactic government and founding the Lunar Embassy Corporation. Hope has lived up to his name, earning a fortune by selling real estate on the moon and other planets. So far, Hope estimates that 3.7 million people now own their share of this intergalactic oasis!
Unfortunately, Hope is either blissfully naive or purposefully obtuse because there is no legal recourse for any country to actually claim the moon. This is thanks to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which was passed by the United Nations and ratified by over 100 countries. The treaty explicitly says that no country can own the moon. Hope may have a loophole, however, since there is no stipulation against individual claims. Besides, the Outer Space Treaty is not the only resolution regarding lunar property out there. This uncertainty leaves plenty of questions, although some experts think that the moon should ultimately be self-governed by its first settlers in order to avoid conflict in the future.
Such a notion is still hard to gauge, especially since scientists see a lot of potential wealth on the moon in terms of its natural elements. The Outer Space Treaty offers no insights into how any revenue from the moon will be shared, making Hope’s aggressive attempts to claim the moon’s surface a bit less radical. Still, it seems unlikely that Hope’s idealistic and lucrative venture will pay off since he faces continual legal hurdles in his quest.
Hope’s quixotic notion may be ripe with false hope and questionable motives, but that does not mean that tourism on the moon is impossible. To the contrary, there are a number of growing movements by more legitimate parties to establish more traditional tourism in the great unknown. One of the leading pioneers in space tourism is Richard Branson, whose day job is to run Virgin Group. Virgin Group operates over 400 companies including well-known brands such as Virgin Atlantic Airways and Virgin Records. Branson’s latest pet project, however, is known as Virgin Galactic and is aimed at taking tourists into space.
When the eco-economics of Branson’s venture are analyzed more closely however, we see many red flags. Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth (based on Gore’s university research) brought our attention to the important work of UCSD’s Roger Revelle who discovered that carbon dioxide emissions were gradually warming the earth’s surface and ocean temperatures. Meteorologists around the world readily admit today that what used to be once-in-a-lifetime storms are now happening every two years. In Branson’s quest for clean energy technologies, he even launched the Earth Challenge, but his company is currently no longer accepting applications. This is their ambitious and very laudable $25 million challenge as posted on their website:
The Virgin Earth Challenge is US$25 million for whoever can demonstrate to the judges’ satisfaction a commercially viable design which results in the net removal of anthropogenic, atmospheric greenhouse gases so as to contribute materially to the stability of the Earth’s climate system. Thank you to everyone who has sent in applications, but we are not currently accepting new checklists. [Source: http://www.virgin.com/subsites/virginearth ]
While the mission and objective is noble, Branson fans and environmentalists are disappointed that his company’s challenge is no longer accepting applications, especially as Branson makes increasingly bold claims like “In my lifetime, I’m determined to being a part of starting a population on Mars. I think it is absolutely realistic. It will happen.” [Source: http://www.dailytech.com/Richard+Branson+Wants+to+Start+A+
Population+on+Mars/article27743.htm] With the amount of fuel needed for a mission to Mars, one would hope that exploratory verve would be balanced by an effort to preserve the planet that we already have. As the saying goes, “Good planets are hard to find.” How about protecting our world’s rapidly warming oceans as well as replenishing and replacing rapidly depleting rain forests instead of exploring Mars?
As lofty as many of Branson’s ideas are, he attempts to have a methodical approach. He has spent the last few years developing a spacecraft capable of suborbital flight. While a suborbital flight is a far cry from the moon, it is an achievable first step, one that Branson hopes to take with his first buyers in 2013. So far Branson reports that over 500 people have reserved their turn on the spacecraft, which he envisions as just the first part of a broader space tourism industry. In fact, Branson has also suggested that he would like to see Abu Dhabi, which has stock in Virgin Galactic, put one of its luxury hotels on the surface of the moon. Maybe our world community should decide to put earth first: no developments in space until climate change is verifiably in check. Even if all global warming emissions ceased today, the amount of warming that has been absorbed by our world’s oceans, which act as a temperature spike buffer, would continue to rise for at least another thirty to sixty years, if not more. A visit to San Diego’s Birch Aquarium reminds visitors of the urgency of sustainable energy use.
Obviously, such a feat is many years away, but the idea of tourism on the moon remains captivating to many. What is important is keeping ethics first, which means prioritizing the responsible use of our own planet’s finite resources in order to preserve a delicate, but quickly changing, atmosphere. Does any one person particularly want to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back when it comes to climate change permanently affecting the ability for humans and life as we know it today to thrive on earth? If summer vacations spent bounding across the moon’s surface means putting nails in the coffin of our own planet, would those vacations really be enjoyable? Tim Pickens, CEO of Orion Propulsion has said in a speech on “greening aerospace” at the International Space Development Conference (ISDC) in Orlando: “I don’t think it’s genuine to say, ‘I am saving the environment by hauling people up for fun.’ [Source: http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1395/1]
What do you think? Is tourism on the moon a good idea? What would early settlements look like? Are you saving up to make your first space flight? Branson’s suborbital flights carry a $200,000.00 price tag and we must all ask ourselves about the morality of intentionally shortening the life-span of humanity and our existing thriving, albeit declining, eco-system on earth, whether a pleasure flight is taken on a spacecraft or on an airplane. What excites you more: settling among the stars or preserving our own magnificent but fragile planet? Share your ideas and please, have a healthy and constructive New Year wherever you may be on Earth or beyond!
- Several ex-NASA officials are behind a company that plans to offer trips by 2020 technologyreview.com (Dec 6)
- (…) private company based in Boulder revealed its plans to launch humans to the moon. denverpost.com (Dec 10)
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