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Monday, April 16, 2007

Space Race

THE moon appears to warp the minds of some men. In folklore unlucky souls are said to transform into werewolves under its influence. But the malign sway of the Earth’s satellite is evident beyond the realm of fantasy. Despite putting men on the moon in 1969 America seems hell-bent on re-enacting the space race, this time pitting its efforts against those of the Chinese. Now a Russian company claims it could develop a system to exploit the moon’s natural resources and potentially relocate harmful industries there. This is lunacy.

Russia certainly has great prowess in space. In its former guise as the centre of power in the Soviet Union it launched the first man-made satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. In a spectacular follow up, Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space in 1961. Another triumph came in 1968 when the Russians sent a spaceship to orbit the moon with turtles aboard, returning it and its living cargo safely to Earth. An unmanned Russian spacecraft also landed on the moon ahead of the first manned landing by the Americans. Even after Neil Armstrong took his one small step, Russia has proved its superiority in keeping people in space stations orbiting the Earth. The Russian Soyuz rocket is a mainstay of satellite launches and would be used to rescue astronauts should any accident befall the International Space Station.
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Nikolai Sevastianov, head of RKK Energia, the spacecraft manufacturer that helped achieve these Russian successes, this week boasted that his rockets could be used to industrialise the moon. So why were his remarks greeted with such scepticism? Mr Sevastianov told a news agency, “It is time to think about the industrial development of the moon. We are sometimes criticised for making such suggestions too early. But it is time to do this given the limits to natural reserves on Earth and the pace of civilisation’s progress. Nor can we dismiss the idea of outsourcing harmful industries into space.”

One reason for the cynicism is that the idea is absurd. A United Nations treaty passed in 1967 bans potentially harmful interference with the Earth’s original satellite and requires international consultation before proceeding with any activity that could disrupt the peaceful exploration of space, including the moon. A second problem is that landing on the moon has proved beyond the budget of any state other than America and of any private company to date. Russian rockets are perfectly capable of orbiting the Earth’s original satellite—as was proved 40 years ago—but landing involves a lot more capability and expense than is at present feasible. Moreover the proposals for “industrialisation” are woefully short on detail. Mr Sevastianov's claim is all to do with getting more money for his company.
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