The spectacular discovery no one is talking about

One month ago, NASA made one of the most important discoveries of our lifetimes: water on the moon. Why aren’t we more excited about it?

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics Science & Tech

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One month ago, the US space agency NASA announced an astounding discovery: water on the moon.

‘We didn’t just find a little bit; we found a significant amount’, said an ‘ecstatic’ Anthony Colaprete, the leader of NASA’s project. Twenty-six gallons of water were found after the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) mission exploded a rocket and a probe into a large crater at the moon’s south pole – and there could be lots more water elsewhere on the moon. All of a sudden, a place hitherto thought of as desolate, harsh and inhospitable has become full of potential for humans. It is not an exaggeration to say that this finding could prove to be one of the most important space discoveries in our lifetimes, a turning point in our understanding of the moon and the solar system.

The detection of water on the moon is the realisation of the dreams and hypotheses of the earliest astronomers and writers. In the first century AD, Plutarch, the Greek historian and essayist, believed the dark areas of the moon were seas. When Galileo set his telescope to observe the moon’s craters some 400 years ago he, too, thought he saw oceans in the dark parts. This idea continued through to the nineteenth century, with science fiction writers like Jules Verne (in From the Earth to the Moon, 1865) portraying the moon as having water (1).

Improvements in telescopes over time and, more recently, samples from moon landings and other direct observations, led to a consensus understanding that the moon was dry. But some astronomers still pursued the notion of water on the moon. In 1999, NASA’s Lunar Prospector detected traces of water deposits in the permanently shadowed craters at the moon’s poles. And in September of this year, tiny amounts of water were sighted by a NASA-built instrument on board India’s Chandrayaan-1 probe, although they were bound to the dirt and dust of the lunar surface, rather than in craters in the polar regions. The LCROSS mission, which fired its rocket and probe into the Cabeus crater in October, has now confirmed these earlier findings. The moon is now better understood to be like one of Earth’s deserts – very dry, but nevertheless containing water.

Finding lunar water is a giant leap towards fulfilling one of our collective fantasies, something only dreamed about in science fiction: humans living somewhere other than Earth. Up until now, lunar settlement has been considered doubtful, not least because of the prohibitive cost of transporting water and other equipment from Earth ($100,000 per pound of weight). But harvesting the newly discovered water would provide water to drink, air to breathe and the ability to grow food. Moreover, the finding makes it much more likely that the moon can be used as a base for manned missions to Mars and other parts of the solar system. The locally found water can be broken into hydrogen and oxygen, providing the powerful components for rocket fuel.

Even more important than the setting up of human settlements is simply the knowledge that can be gained from pursuing the potential from the discovery of water on the moon. ‘If the water that was formed or deposited is billions of years old, these polar cold traps could hold a key to the history and evolution of the solar system, much as an ice core sample taken on Earth reveals ancient data’, says NASA (2). The far side of the moon is entirely shielded from the Earth’s radio noise, and thus would be a superior site from which to explore the universe via radio astronomy (3). Maybe the most exciting thing is that we don’t know what we may find.

For these and other reasons, the discovery of water on the moon is hugely important. And yet as amazing as this discovery is, what’s remarkable is just how little public discussion it has generated.

This is particularly true of the major general-interest media in the US and UK. The news story itself was carried on the day after the NASA press conference, but since then there has been very little written about it. In the US, there have been three opinion-page articles – two in the New York Times and one in the Wall Street Journal – by outside contributors, but no editorials (leaders). And there have been no opinion articles at all in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek or Time. In the UK, it’s even worse: not one opinion article or leader in any of the major ‘quality’ newspapers or The Economist.

The otherwise noisy blogosphere has also been relatively quiet when it comes to the moon. Even most greens, who are generally against expansion like space exploration, have not found the latest discovery to be worth arguing against.

Is it because society in general cares more about other subjects? Perhaps. But I was surprised to learn that, according to Yahoo!, ‘water on the moon’ was the sixth most searched item in UK news in 2009 (following Michael Jackson, Barack Obama, Jade Goody, Jordan and Peter, and Madeleine McCann) (4). This would indicate that the public is more interested than the intellectuals in the punditocracy, who haven’t lifted a finger to type a word on the topic.

Maybe there’s a sense that there is a good chance that the moon’s potential will not be realised; an ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ attitude. This would be understandable, given that the US is certainly not fully committed to its space programme. Five years ago, George W Bush announced plans to return Americans to the moon in 2020, and to Mars after that. But plans were behind schedule as Bush left office, and President Obama, mindful of the cost, ordered a review upon entering the White House. This review, known as the Augustine Commission, has recommended an additional $3billion per year for the space programme, but the Obama administration is balking. In the meantime, NASA faces the embarrassment of relying on Russian Soyuz spacecraft next year as its shuttles are cancelled, while China is making plans to put men on the moon (5).

But the lack of attention paid to the lunar water news reflects more than a lack of confidence in the authorities to see the job through. For decades now, there has been little enthusiasm for space exploration. As James Woudhuysen noted in spiked earlier this year, opinion began to turn in the Seventies against the space programme, and in the Eighties the Reagan Strategic Defence Initiative and The Right Stuff gave way to conservative criticisms of wasteful spending. ‘By 2009, with the end of left and right, the rise of environmentalist rebukes for technology and the spread of risk consciousness, reaction against space is stronger than ever’ (see Let’s go back to the moon – and beyond, by James Woudhuysen).

The recent history shows that our views of space reveal more about us on Earth than they do about whatever is going on up in the sky. Today there is a fundamental scepticism about the need for progress, a downplaying of human achievement and an inability to see the value of exploration for its own sake (as George Mallory said of Mount Everest, ‘Because it’s there’). This outlook is bound to affect how we view the potential of the moon and space exploration generally. Travelling to the moon goes against the grain today. We’re supposed to be restrained, worried about preserving this planet (or, in an extreme version, fearing its end). In contrast, moon exploration suggests expansion not retraction, not only handling Earth but confidently going forward to conquer, and prosper on, new lands too.

Proponents of space exploration are hoping that the discovery of water on the moon will lead the Obama administration (and other governments) to invest more in space. Unfortunately, the discovery in itself will not win the argument – to do that, we need to tackle the generally low horizons that exist.

The moon has for ages been a source of inspiration for scientists and poets alike; not only because it is a thing of beauty, but because it is a way for us to talk about human aspirations and our capacity to surprise ourselves with our discoveries. We need more of that kind of discussion today.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

Previously on spiked

James Woudhuysen urged a return to the moon, and looked back on the launch of Sputnik, and with it, the beginning of US self-doubt. Henry Joy McCracken reckoned that there should be more to space travel than delivering groceries to the international space station. He also advocated a a mission to Mars. And in 1997 he wondered why we still haven’t walked on Mars?  Joe Kaplinsky criticised Stephen Hawking for his fear-mongering defence of space travel. Or read more at spiked issue Science and technology.

(1) A Permanent Outpost on the Moon?, New York Times, 25 November 2009

(2) NASA press release, 13 November 2009

(3) The wet side of the moon, New York Times, 20 November 2009

(4) Yahoo!: Big Brother most popular search of 2009, Telegraph, 1 December 2009

(5) Over the moon Economist, 16 July 2009; and Aiming high, Economist, 22 October 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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