MATTSPLAINED  MSP86  The Race for Space: The Moon at 50.
MATTSPLAINED  MSP86  The Race for Space: The Moon at 50.
50 years ago, man discovered the moon. We know. We’ve tried telling Matt that it’s 50 years since Apollo XI landed on the moon, and that the moon is billions of years old, but he insists it only exists once it’s been colonised.
Produced by Jeff Sandhu for BFM89.9
Play Clip: Polly 1 (Space. The final frontier. These are the voyages of the BFM Enterprise. To boldly explain what no Matt has explained before. Really? I know I’m a machine, but do I have to say this cheesy trash?)
That’s Polly. An AI and occasional guest on this show.
And yes, Apparently, Polly, you do have to say this trash. Because this is MSP and Matt thinks we’re all programmed to do and say what he wants. This week, he wants to celebrate the 50th anniversary of humans landing on the moon with an introduction by a machine.
Play Clip: Polly 2 (Thanks Jeff. I’m really happy you puny humans want to celebrate walking without gravity but next time, don’t call me until you’re running at the speed of light)
Thanks Polly. How do you manage to irritate an AI? She’s been programmed to have no feelings…
It’s a talent.
It’s my commitment to equality, there’s no species I can’t offend.
You should seem my party trick. It’s ruined every party I’ve ever been to.
We’re here to talk about the moon. You do know that it’s not the moon that’s 50 years old this week, right?
What do you mean?
The moon wasn’t discovered 50 years ago. It’s been around for billions of years.
I’m British. So, irrespective of how long something has been there, they only start to exist when we claim them.
You’re seriously saying that the moon didn’t exist before Apollo 11 reached it?
Obviously, it was there. You could see it.
But it only really starts to exist when someone puts a flag up and claims it.
Even if there are people already there who don’t want to be claimed?
I didn’t make the rules.
I just make sure they’re followed to the letter.
So, by your logic the sun doesn’t exist yet?
Yes, it’s merely a hypothetical.
Which is why I’m working on a heat proof suit at home.
Then i’ll borrow one of Tesla’s rockets.
If I can put my flag on the sun and charge people for daytime, I’m going to be very very rich.
I’ve got this vision of sun wardens walking around the globe and giving people tickets if they don’t have their sun permits.
Haven’t countries tried to put agreements together to stop idiots like you doing just that? Why am I even indulging this? This is supposed to be a celebration of one of humanity’s crowning achievements. Not a descent into madness.
I fail to see the difference.
If you said to someone, hey, why don’t you take a ride on this giant bomb and if you survive the journey, take a walk in a vacuum.
People might rightly that was madness.
And a lot of human discoveries need that little spark of madness.
To believe that something crazy is possible and you are going to be the one who achieves it.
Because the moon landings were crazy.
Everything to do with space exploration is crazy.
To hurl yourself out of the protection of our atmosphere and our gravity.
that’s still crazy today.
Let alone 50 years ago in a machine with less computing power than Windows version 1.
But, having said all that, I don’t just want to do a retread of the moon landings.
There will be more than enough of those on every rolling news station over the weekend - and they will undoubtedly do a better job of it.
So I want to start in a different place. Not with one small step for man, but with this:
Play Clip [whole clip: 1m] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yTWeUK8UCSE
Which mission was this?
This was the Apollo 17 mission to the Taurus Littrow valley.
The voice was that of Gene Cernin, the commander of the mission and the last man to walk on the moon.
The most astonishing thing about this is that the recording comes from December 1972.
So this week we’re celebrating 50 years since we reached the moon.
While we overlook the fact that we haven’t been back there for an astonishing 47 years.
So today, yes, we’ll talk about the moon but we’ll also talk about the new space race, the future of moon landings and beyond.
Why haven’t we been back to the moon since that time?
It’s a really good question.
And you can tell from Gene Cernin’s quote there, he wasn’t expecting it to be the last visit for such a long time.
Maybe it was just boring?
Sure, you don’t go up there for the nightlife.
The answer itself is kind of a boring one. And one that listeners to this station are very used to.
Money. Obviously it’s not the only reason but certainly a major one.
The US was spending colossal amounts of money on its space program.
And that program was bound up in the Cold War.
Younger listeners may not really be able to visualise the cultural and military significance of that period.
That the US and its allies were pitched in all these incredible battles with the Soviet Union and its allies.
in a sense. There were lots of proxy battles.
Cuba and Central America. Angola. Egypt I think. Later on, Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion.
But a huge part of that race was to build the biggest and most powerful nuclear bombs and the missiles to deliver them.
And that’s where you had these over-lapping technologies.
Rockets that could speed around the earth by slipping into a low-earth orbit were a great way to bomb your enemies,
but they could also potentially deliver payloads like satellites into space, and of course, human beings as well.
And the USSR shocked the States with the progression of its space program, particularly when Yuri Gagarin became the first human to make it into space in 1961.
So, it became a political priority?
Yeah, it was literally a mine’s bigger than yours competition between 2 superpowers.
And US spending on space accelerated when President Kennedy tasked NASA with a moon landing within the decade.
That seems insane even now. It was a symbol of Empire.
Which empire would plant a flag on the moon first…
Because planting a flag means you own it?
Exactly. You’re starting to get how this international diplomacy stuff works.
It’s a bit like shouting shotgun when you want to sit in the front seat of a car.
Of course, there was all this new computing and electronics technology.
It looks primitive to us now, but it was cutting edge then.
And that helped to propel the belief that it was possible.
We look at cars from that era and wonder how you could get from one side of a country to another.
In the case of British cars of that period, you really couldn’t.
But the idea of that same era’s technology sending people to walk on the moon - and sending them up with their own cars - is mind-boggling.
But then, in the 1970s, the priorities shifted.
The oil crisis?
That didn’t help.
Both the US and the USSR were struggling to fund their military and civilian space programs.
And they started signing warhead and missile limitation treaties.
The US started focusing on its Skylab project, a manned space station, which would eventually morph into the multinational International Space Station which is floating above us today.
And once the US also started to develop its space shuttle program it no longer had the infrastructure for moon landings.
For manned space flight the focus became satellites, and delivery systems and endurance.
While unmanned rovers and orbiters were spun ever further towards the outer edges of our solar system.
Given that space pioneer like Elon Musk are focused on Mars, why has the moon become such a big deal again?
Weirdly, we’re back in the space race.
We’re back to superpowers yelling mine’s the biggest.
China, India and the US are all focused on the moon again.
Private space companies - as you mentioned - are more focused on putting up commercial satellites than with that idea of manned missions to the moon.
And we’re in this weird place where the advances in technology make it cheap enough for very rich individuals to do what entire nations could barely afford in the 1960s.
Which is a good thing, in case that isn’t clear.
When we come back - MSP heads back into space. Unfortunately, Matt won’t be going with it.
I know you want to talk about where space travel, is physically heading, but let’s stick with the technology of that period for a minute. How did NASA know that they would be able to land Apollo 11 on the moon’s surface?
There’s a great article at - where else - The New scientist that talks about the how in great detail.
It’s called Apollo 11 only made it to the moon through diabolically hard practice.
So there’s kind of a spoiler there, in the title.
I wish they wouldn’t do that. Isn’t it annoying?
It’s not very clickbaity.
And it’s kind of simpler and more complex than you can imagine, at the same time.
There was a team tasked with training the astronauts and the ground command team that would be monitoring the missions and helping to keep those birds in orbit.
And what they did was to build the 1960s equivalent of a simulator.
As in, a computer simulator?
Everything had to be literal.
So the simulations would occur in mock cockpits with the flight control staff also at mock command stations
I’m imagining it all looked a bit like an episode of the original Star Trek, minus the ears and the Tribbles.
This training team was tasked with coming up with every imaginable system failure, or combination of circumstances and to have solutions with them.
Don’t forget, that at the end of the 1950s, when work on NASA’s Project Mercury began, it wasn’t known if humans could survive in space.
What the effects of zero G would be - would astronauts even be able to operate the ship’s controls.
When you look at the scale of the task, it was incredible to think that this team were able to problem solve, on the ground, years in advance, many of the challenges that the actual missions would face in space.
To respond to them without panicking and keep those missions on track.
Things that we take for granted for now?
Yeah, because one of the benefits of living in a world of sensors and monitors.
With rapid communications.
Modeling software and AI is that we are almost encouraged to under-prepare because we’re more confident that we can rectify mistakes on the fly.
But for those guys it was impossible to be too prepared.
The training took them to the moon.
That’s not to say that today’s astronauts aren’t trained for every scenario.
And they need to be able to respond when the tech is out.
It’s more a comment on our society. Something goes wrong, we instantly turn to Google for the fix.
We celebrate the men who landed on the moon.
I don’t think we spend enough time acknowledging the importance of the role that these trainers - who were essentially a combination of Google and YouTube how to guides for the space missions - played in getting those craft and those astronauts to the moon’s surface.
Of course, one of the things we discussed before the break was the re-emergence of the space race. Why has the moon become a new frontier again?
I think the answers to that question are also quite complex and wrapped up in geo-politics.
And I guess because it’s a symbol everyone can see.
When you say you’re flying off to Mars, it’s almost imaginary.
Once the launch is out of the way, there’s nothing much to see.
A tiny dot fading into an ocean of tiny dots.
The moon - well, it’s not exactly tangible, but it’s almost tangible.
With a decent telescope you might even be able to see a spacecraft on the surface.
So, we’re back to the fear, greed and glory argument?
Certainly fear and glory were part of the motivations for those first space explorations.
Glory to be the first, but the fear that the other side, which ever side that might be, would develop and have access to military technologies that would leave your own nation weak or undefended.
Now of course, lots of countries have access to dazzlingly destructive weapons. So fear is less of an issue.
Although, earlier this year India flexed its space muscles with a missile launch that destroyed one of its old satellites.
That was a bit of a ‘hey, don’t ignore us’ message.
Especially as it was decried by many space agencies for creating hundreds of pieces of potentially destructive debris.
And India is certainly out for glory.
The Chandrayaan-2 moon launch?
Yes, it can’t be coincidental that India tried to launch an unmanned moon mission during the same week as the centennial anniversary.
Those certainly would have been some glory grabbing headlines for the country.
And it was planning to explore the moon’s southern polar region - an area that Amazon boss Jeff Bezos’ space company had hoped to reach first before 2024.
Unfortunately, the launch was aborted at the last minute. It would have put India into an exclusive club of countries - along with just the US, Russia and China - who have successfully landed craft on the moon.
President Trump, has of course, pledged that the US will return to the moon by 2024.
And there are plans underway for a kind of international permanent village on its surface.
And even plans by some countries and agencies to use bases on the moon’s far side as a staging area for launches to planets further afield like Mars.
Didn’t someone else land on the moon this year?
A couple. China ’s Chang’e 4 made a successful landing in January.
And its rover, the Jade Rabbit 2 took a small biolab onto the surface to try and grow the first plants on the surface.
I know that sounds a bit silly, but it’s an indication about how serious China is with its plans to become the leading space power.
Because any kind of substantial moon presence will have to be capable of self-sustaining.
That means growing food. Not on the surface, of course, but plants have to be capable of thriving in lab conditions.
Like Matt Damon’s potatoes in the Martian?
Pretty much. On the subject of which, we have another story which we’ll get later about Mars and farming.
Hopefully one that doesn’t involve using your own faeces as fertiliser.
NASA confirmed last year that there is water present - in the form of ice - at the moon’s poles.
Which is why the race is on for countries like India to map out the uncharted areas of its south pole, where water is most likely to be hiding.
And the second?
An Israeli start up, called SpaceIL that was trying to win a USD20m prize from Google by becoming the first private company to land on the moon, almost managed it in April.
The Beresheet suffered engine failure during the landing phase and crash landed on the surface.
But that’s still an incredible achievement. Something that took national resources and billions of dollars a few decades before can now be realistically done by - not ordinary people - but you know what I mean.
Beyond the moon, where does space travel seem be heading?
This is kind of the magic thing.
We mentioned earlier that space travel is much cheaper now.
One of the figures I read was that a NASA shuttle launch cost billions.
Private companies have brought those costs down to under 100 million.
And if you don’t mind flight-sharing and your payload is under 100kg, you can get a satellite into space for around USD5m.
Which is practically the price of a business lunch these days.
And this is the area where greed comes in.
As you said, the moon is boring.
But boring on the moon could be profitable.
Even mining that water, which could be refined into fuel for trips back to earth or onward to other destinations.
And going back to that Martian reference earlier.
The potatoes? And yes, you’ve told us the story about you working for Europe’s largest potato grower…
Fine. I’m boring too. I get it.
Yeah, a team at Harvard University has created aerogel sheets made of a kind of silica based gel that mimic the earth’s greenhouse effect.
It’s thought that these sheets would warm the soil enough to unfreeze trapped ice. The sheets would also filter out the harshest UV rays, allowing the plants to photo-synthesize.
It’s a bit like terraforming?
Terraforming is a much bigger and more complicated task.
These sheets are scalable, so you cover anything from a modest vegetable garden to massive fields.
But without messing with the planet’s own atmosphere.
And because you’re creating these little artificial oases that are essentially encased, it’s thought that there would be little chance of further contaminating the planet.
although, apparently there is a load of trash on the moon, including two golf balls.
So we do have to think about how to limit our messy, wasteful impact on the places we visit.
While we’re on the subject of greed, I have a feeling this might bring us back to your rather incendiary comments about colonisation at the start of the show?
Sure. We have this incredible technology.
We have private companies that are looking to exploit space for profit as well as glory.
And the language used has been exactly that: to colonize space.
It’s bad enough when countries do it, but when private individuals and companies use that kind of language it’s kind of worrying.
Because the universe isn’t something that someone should own.
It’s not out there for us to colonize.
For all we know, someone else already does and they’ll hit us with the alien equivalent of a cease and desist letter.
Which I imagine might involve quite a lot of widespread devastation.
You think we should be looking at it as a place to explore?
Yes. Even though the race to the moon was part of the Cold War, when we finally reached there a plaque was placed that commemorated not only the US astronauts who gave their lives to the space program but the Russian cosmonauts who died on those early attempts as well.
I know companies and countries are going to want to exploit the solar system for minerals and other resources they can exploit.
Can you imagine the rollercoasters Disney is planning for the nearest Black Hole?
Let alone the Mickey ears they’ll put around edge of it.
But I think it’s another one of those things we have to make collective decisions about.
Why should someone own an asteroid. Or a moon.
To me it’s really egotistical and crass.
We made decisions about the non-exploitation of mineral resources in the Antarctic.
Maybe we need to make the same decisions about space, or at least, to ensure that they’re shared resources.
We should be looking into space for inspiration, not branding opportunities.