Elon Musk's Moon mission and the depressing near-future of space

Of the 12 people, all of them American men, to have walked on the Moon, only four are still alive. They are all in their eighties. Two of their fellow Apollo astronauts have passed away since the start of the year. In the coming decades, despite relentless scientific progress, we will be faced with a stark fact: we will have regressed to a one-world species, our living link to the surface of another world will have passed into history.

Put bluntly, it’ll suck. Sure, astronauts will still whizz above our heads aboard the International Space Station – which is now closing in on 18 years of continuous human habitation – but we will, in some respects, have faltered. Even the ISS, one of the greatest symbols of human progress, will be cut adrift from Nasa in 2025, with low-Earth orbit left to the whims of commercial operators.

For the time being, at least, our most intrepid explorers will be billionaires, thrust into orbit aboard the roaring rocket metaphors of other billionaires. The future spectacle of Yusaku and his merry band of artists rushing around the Moon aboard Elon Musk’s Big Falcon Rocket might seem like an exciting glimpse into the future, but it is a cold, corporate future reserved for the hyper-rich.

SpaceX’s eye-catching plan also lacks those two most precious of commodities: humility and scientific rigour. It’s all roaring rockets and roaring ego. And artists. With Musk, you wouldn’t expect anything less. 

I was fortunate to meet Harrison Schmitt, the penultimate man on the Moon as part of Apollo 17 and the first and only scientist to set foot on the lunar surface; and Charlie Duke, the tenth and youngest person to walk on the Moon as part of Apollo 16 in 1972. “We certainly didn’t pay for our trips,” Schmitt joked at the time. His point was simple: the Apollo astronauts were flung to the Moon as a daring show of strength at the height of the Cold War, but in the decades since they have rightly become symbols of human progress. And it’s a debt they feel they must repay.

The near future doesn’t look anything like that. If all goes to plan and Maezawa and his cohorts zip around the Moon in 2023, returning safely to Earth through an impossibly small reentry corridor at a giddy 25,000 miles per hour, we will have watched an elaborate repeat. As Buzz Aldrin would say: “Get your ass to Mars!”

Musk’s got a plan for that, too. He’ll be there in 2024 – a full decade ahead of Nasa’s planned arrival in 2034. Though in Musk’s instance, one should use the word “plan” with caution. For beyond the odd flash of hyperbole, there seemingly isn’t one. Taking potshots at the Tesla and SpaceX founder has become something of a spectator sport in recent months, but while Musk could deliver on his sci-fi promises at some point, it would be naive to expect the private sector to out-space Nasa. Or the Chinese.

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