Buzz Aldrin, 1969
Beautiful, beautiful, magnificent desolation.
The moon is once again the barren and irresistible desert.
We don’t even need a telescope to see its coarse topography, but rather—squinting—can observe with the unaided eye the bright edge of crater ridges and the relief of sweeping lowlands. Its dark plains are known as maria, named for the wishful thinking of early astronomers who mistook them for lunar seas. On Earth, meanwhile, the scope of our planet’s geologic history began to crystallize when scientists recognized the American desert as a former ocean floor.
The arid surface of the moon is covered in several inches of fine dust. It is the discharge of countless meteorite impacts, several billion years accumulated shrapnel; it’s a violent sediment, but if you’ve ever raised clouds in the chalky drought-scape west of Dallas, you can imagine its texture. Some scientists even suspect that the moon, like our terrestrial deserts, experiences dust storms.
And just as water is hidden in the desert, flowing through aquifers below the apparently parched surface, water on the moon is frozen in polar craters, sheltered from the sun—as much as a trillion pounds or more.
There’s a comparison to be made between the American desert and the lunar landscape that is not limited to their physical similarities, but rather is defined by their overlap in our collective psychology. Both are mythic landscapes. The moon of course, our floating pearl, has starred in the traditions and superstitions of every culture that has walked the Earth. And the American West has been similarly elevated by at least one culture, in the form of its own genre. In 1892, before the frontier itself had even closed in any legal sense, “Buffalo Bill” Cody began entertaining audiences with his outdoor circus of ‘The Wild West’ starring painted horses, sharpshooters, cattle ropers—and real, live, Indians. As Rebecca Solnit put it in an essay on ‘the simulacral west’ as we’ve known it through entertainment, all of a sudden the frontier as an idea had been settled, and the west ceased to be a place—becoming instead a genre.1
The moon has never quite been a place. The tracks of just twelve people upon its surface haven’t done much to pull it from myth; the un-reality of it is such that photographs of men on the moon are regularly decried as forgeries. And of course, where would these lo-fi sci-fi scenes have been shot? Probably somewhere near Ros- well, New Mexico.
If we take any stock in the idea of a repetitive history, then observing the overlap between between these two land- scapes is a way of predicting the future. The settlement of the moon has not been as rapid as that of the 19th century west—which struck out on foot from the East Coast and returned less than seventy years later via transcontinental railroad; but it is our imminent frontier.
The ‘frontier spirit’ is as alive today as in the time of west- ward expansion, when the historian Frederick Jackson Turner claimed that the frontier “furnished the forces dominating the American character.”2 Today the ‘American character’ is as ironic a concept as the Spaghetti Western, but if there is any defining force of people generally it is that we cannot, as a species, shake off the allure of discovery. Frontiers in any capacity are promises of progress: the most hopeful notions of our current conversations are those of scientific, digital, and extraterrestrial frontiers. Thinking in these broad terms, the moon’s gravitational influence on the waters of this planet, its pull on our own bodies, is a fitting symbol for the allure of unclaimed spaces.
It is important, then, to maintain a dialogue with past frontiers. For of course, with unsavory hindsight, we’ve measured the consequences of western settlement in terms of its great human costs. The displacement of American Indians, violence against Mexico, and the exploitation of immigrant railroad workers are narratives that have risen from the ashes of the era’s historiography only in the past few decades. Furthermore, haphazard strip-farming of the delicate midwestern prairie would ultimately result in the Dust Bowl crisis of the 1930s. Today, we may understand the period of westward expansion as an allegory for the rush of the present; it is a model of what is gained and what is sacrificed in the race of making history.
What are the stakes of lunar expansion? The moon, most certainly, contains no native peoples. And it is difficult to imagine environmental fallout of even the most aggressive resource development there, because we do not yet imagine the moon as a real environment. But perhaps we can remember that foresight is always blind, as it was in the case of the 19th century---Americans saw the West as gloriously vacant, a good place to settle and mine and detonate nuclear bombs. It is not the purpose of this writing to evaluate the successes and failures of American expansionism, but rather to point out that the lack of caution with which western advance proceeded was not, in fact, a symptom of the time. Expansion, or if you prefer, exploration, is a visceral force that drives our species, the instinct which first propelled early humans out of Africa and across the modern continents in pursuit of survival and prosperity.
It was in the period of American westward expansion however, when the term 'frontier' as we know it was coined, that the drive to colonize found its grandest slogan---"Manifest Destiny"--words whose brazen confidence and sense of entitlement still ring in our ears. And a study of the period, an assessment of the rallying cry around which it was articulated, may be taken as proof of the imminence of lunar colonization. Shrugging off the religious undertones of the words in their original context, "manifest destiny" means simply that which is apparent, something that will come to pass; that which is the inevitable course of time. It's as plain as the moon against a dark sky.
Apollo 15 commander David Scott on geological training with Hasselblad EDC S/N 1003 in New Mexico, 1971
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