China Moonshot revives ethical spaceflight debate

Rather than discussing the hot topic of the moment—Thanksgiving and cultural appropriation—I’d like to talk about China, which has been out of the news a little bit lately. It has been pushed aside by the crisis in Syria and Black Friday. That a day devoted to rampant consumerism and mass consumption dominates American media surely says something about the state of the United States, but I imagine that none of what it says is particularly flattering. In other news, China sent a rover to the Moon. It is a landing rover, the first to ever be sent by them. It is named “Jade Rabbit” after an old Chinese legend of a rabbit that lived on the Moon.

This is a big step for China’s fledgling space program to take. The rover contains equipment that could lead to a manned mission. If China eventually sends a manned mission, it would be the first since Apollo 17 in December 1972. One of the main difficulties in launching a manned mission to the Moon seems odd: that the capability to do so has been lost. Though technology has advanced significantly, no one remains at any space agency that worked on a moon landing. It’s basically starting from scratch as far as the creation, particularly since China has never sent anyone to the Moon, unlike the United States, China has nothing to look back on for examples save for the work of other countries.

The rover is designed to serve as a test for the possibility of establishing a base or colony on the Moon. It has been suggested that the Moon be used to harness solar power since there is a much thinner atmosphere and lots of empty, lifeless space in which to put the solar panels. It sounds wonderful in theory, but the logistics of doing such a thing are prohibitive, not only in cost but also feasibility. Solar panels are delicate and need maintenance. In addition, the infrastructure to actually harness that energy and get it back to Earth would be complicated, difficult and expensive. It’s not exactly possible to string a wire 238,900 miles long and transmit the energy that way.

The population of the Moon also brings up ethical questions, which so far have not been addressed. First and foremost, do humans have a right to populate and irrevocably alter something because it is unoccupied and therefore unclaimed? It seems that we barely manage keeping the Earth in check, what gives us the right to go and try to do the same elsewhere? The Moon may be dead and lifeless, but I prefer that infinitely to looking up at night and seeing a gray circle in the sky ablaze with lights and logos. After all, once one country lays claim to property on the Moon, what’s to stop everyone else from doing it too?

No country has addressed the rights of space. Humans have been littering our solar system with space trash for years—leftover bits from rovers, satellites and probes, to name a few. After all, once a satellite dies or goes out of range it doesn’t disappear; it just keeps flying off through the depths of space until it eventually collides with something. Are we eventually just going to send ships out into space to dispose of the massive amount of trash that humans are producing when all our landfills and recycling centers are full? There is no law to stop it or regulate it. Space is just a wide-open vacuum where there are no limits. It is, after all, the final frontier.

China didn’t create these concerns; it only brought them to the forefront. What happens now is up to science and our governments. A manned mission to Mars has been mulled over for some time now, and the idea of sending people even farther into space to explore and conquer is always there. For now, all we can do is congratulate China on its successful launch and wait for the rover to land. If it does deem the Moon capable of sustaining life or energy, well, God save the Moon.

—Lily Elbaum ’16 is a prospective independent major.

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