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Wednesday, December 01, 2021

The brave new world to expect with the new race to the moon

The moon is the unexplored seventh continent, a blank slate on which nations now race to write their destiny.

Written by Jaideep Unudurti |
Updated: July 22, 2019 9:18:55 am
astronauts, moon mission, chandrayaan 2, isro, indian express sunday eye Big Steps: An artist’s imagination of a Chinese astronaut on the moon. (Photo: Getty Images)

Tomorrow, the pre-dawn darkness of Sriharikota will be shattered by the roar of booster engines as the GSLV III takes off, trailing clouds of exhaust and glory. At the very top of the giant rocket will be Chandrayaan 2, India’s spearhead to the moon. After a series of gradual manoeuvres, the probe will reach lunar orbit. Then, like a tiffin carrier, it will separate into orbiter and lander, which will descend near the lunar South Pole.

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Once on the surface, the lander will deploy a rover, Pragyan. The Chinese equivalent is the more idiosyncratically named Yutu. The rover will prowl the surface at a brisk pace of 1 centimetre per second. It won’t be too far from the wreckage of an Israeli spacecraft which came a cropper last month. And still trundling on the dark side of the moon will be Yutu-2.

Open the Wikipedia page for “future lunar missions” and you’ll see a flood of spacecrafts and probes. Everyone wants to head to the moon, from aspiring nations to billionaires in midlife crises. The incoming traffic means that the moon shall hardly be the sea of tranquillity that greeted the Apollonauts.

And why not? The moon’s mineral wealth lacks pesky environmentalists, it can be colonised without any distasteful need to exterminate the natives. It is a blank slate on which a nation can write its own destiny, the ultimate lebensraum.

Inspector Matadeen on the Moon, book cover, chandrayaan 2, indian express sunday eye In Harishankar Parsai’s Inspector Matadeen on the Moon (1968), an Indian police officer exports the corrupt practices of India and subverts the honest but simple Selenites.

Like India, a lot of these missions are heading towards the lunar South Pole. This rush is similar to the Race for the Poles, the dogfight to Antarctica between Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott in the early 20th century. Those feats of derring-do, which ended with Scott freezing to death after Amundsen beat him, are far removed from the current race. The new explorers are robots, fuelled by the logic of algorithms rather than king and country. England has long been superseded by India and China. While national pride is still important, the lunar South Pole has riches that might well be what oil and gas is in today’s economy.

In that magnificent desolation, that resource is water. Water in the form of ice. Billions of years of cosmic bombardment has led to deep craters, as well as water from the incoming comets. The peculiarities of lunar geography mean that at the poles, the bottoms of these vast kilometre-spanning abysses have not seen sunlight for billions of years. They are veritable geological museums where ancient ice could survive. These “cold traps” can well be for the Space Age what coal mines and oil wells were for the last two centuries. Water can be separated into hydrogen and oxygen — fuel for spaceships as well as the crew.

Comic book readers, of course, already knew this. Snowy falls into a cavern and Tintin finds enough ice there to go skating. Their waltz on the ice, in their orange space suits (even Snowy has a customised one for doggies) is one of the iconic images of Explorers on the Moon (1954).

Despite Tintin’s heroics, for a long time, the question of water was unresolved. It was the first Chandrayaan that proved it, more than a decade ago. Under APJ Abdul Kalam’s urging, the mission also packed a lunar impact probe. Under Pragyan’s treads will be the pulverised aluminium debris of this predecessor. Kalam’s brainchild made a suitably wings-of-fire dash, hitting the lunar surface at nearly two kilometres per second, detecting water in vapour form on its way down. The smash was commemorated in ways both old and new — the hole it made in the surface was named as “Jawahar Sthal” while the mission earned a Google doodle.

Explorers on the Moon, Explorers on the Moon book cover, chandrayaan 2, indian express sunday eye Explorers on the Moon (1954) book cover.

Most people are unaware that one of humanity’s longest lasting monuments will be, depending on who you ask, obscene diagrams, or a warm tribute to women. The Soviet operators (all men) of the Lunakhod rovers decided to commemorate International Women’s Day in their own way, by driving and braking the rovers to draw huge glyphs on the lunar surface. Officially, they are figure eights to mark the date though they have also been described as “a visual play on an anatomical feature unique to women”.

An apocryphal story has Putin ask a Russian scientist whether it is true the moon is the “seventh continent”. The scientist promptly replies that it indeed is, and that, “about one billion years ago a small planet of Mars size hit the earth …the Pacific Ocean is the place where the earth was hit and the earth’s fragment became the moon”.

While this origin has yet to be confirmed by scientists, it is undeniable that over the next decades, the moon will slowly become a part of the earth system, an extension of the mother planet’s financial, military and surveillance architecture. In the not too distant future, it won’t be any more expensive than, say, flying from India to South America is today. Vast amounts of capital are moving around looking for a place to invest and space is a beckoning high frontier. Just as semi-skilled workers from countries like India and Philippines go today to the Gulf, they may well head to the moon to labour on construction projects. Just another high-paying hostile environment. That’s when you know that the exploration stage is over and the commercial stage has begun.

In a way, this evolution, which will be driven by India and China, is prefigured by how the moon exists in the imagination of the respective nations. The very first Chinese science fiction novel was Tales of the Moon Colony (1905). The colony is established by dissidents from earth escaping a cruel and corrupt regime, as well as the colonial depredations of the West. According to critic Nathaniel Isaacson, “Where many SF narratives find a way of reaffirming the inviolability of planet earth and the superiority of a universal-ised humanity (i.e., western civilisation), Tales of the Moon Colony suggests a narrative trajectory in which the cosmopolitan metropole will eventually shift to deep space.”

chandrayaan 2, isro, chandrayaan 2, sunday eye, indian express sunday eye Now, we are moving from metaphor to reality. Expect to hear the term “cis-lunar” a lot more in the coming years, referring to the kind of lagoon formed between earth and the moon. (Illustration: Sephin Alexander)

The Rig Veda, in its famous Purusha Suktam, states that the moon was born from the cosmic mind. The Prophet Mohammad splitting the moon is one of the foundational stories of Islam in India. In Harishankar Parsai’s Inspector Matadeen on the Moon (1968), an Indian police officer exports the corrupt practices of India and subverts the honest but simple Selenites. Here, the moon and its inhabitants still perform as a backdrop to the themes of colonisation and conquest.

The great Telugu poet Sri Sri in his Sharatchandrika (1966), after first invoking the ancient connection (We poets/Are related to you by blood/Who else can we talk to/But you?), goes on to request the moon to shine on the poor man’s hut and reassure him that a better tomorrow awaits; already the moon was evolving, from a purely romantic role to one that hints of revolutionary possibilities.

British-American industrialist J Paul Getty once famously said, “The meek shall inherit the earth, but not its mineral rights”. There is no reason to believe that will change off the planet either. This is reflected in the Greek and Roman substrate in the naming of the missions; the current American moon shot is named Artemis, after the twin sister of Apollo, or the projected Ares plan for Mars. They reflect a worldview where Zeus rules as a god-like king; who wages war and is lord of heaven only by virtue of usurping it from his father, Kronos. While in the ancient Indian cosmovision, the only ones keen on storming heaven are the Asuras. Hence, the more cautious nature of the Indian mission names, or the official term for a space explorer, “Vyomanaut”.

Now, we are moving from metaphor to reality. Expect to hear the term “cis-lunar” a lot more in the coming years, referring to the kind of lagoon formed between earth and the moon. Already, the Americans have plans to fill this with over a thousand satellites, a layer of surveillance that will precede conquest. Billions of dollars in start-up capital will fill this vacuum, militaries and mega-corporations will vie to exert control. As they say, “watch this space”.

Jaideep Unudurti is a Hyderabad-based writer. This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Brave New World’

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