Forty years since first moon walk
Was going to the moon the greatest event in world history? Jack Conrad argues that the left would be mistaken to fall for the hype
On July 20 1969 Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the surface of the moon. Supposedly a defining historical moment. The planets and then the stars are said to be next.
Joining the 40th anniversary celebrations, the BBC is far from alone in proclaiming the Apollo 11 mission humankinds greatest achievement.1
Certainly a massive media success. An estimated 500 million people watched the event live on TV. A record audience for an outside broadcast at the time. In Britain that meant sitting up all night - Armstrong made his giant leap just before 4am. Normally TV shut down in those days around midnight.
The pictures transmitted 250,000 miles away from the moon were in grainy black and white and to begin with were extremely hard to interpret. In the first few seconds or so they appeared upside down. We relied on Cliff Michelmore, Patrick Moore, and above all the wonderful James Burke to tell us what was going on.
A total of 12 men have walked on the moon - three making a return trip - all of them American. The last Apollo mission took place in December 1972. Since then no-one has been back.
However, the space race did not finish with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin or the US victory in the cold war over the Soviet Union. China, the European Union, India, Japan and Russia are all spending considerable sums in the name of catching up with a still pre-eminent US. Total state spending on space is due to reach $50 billion annually in 2010.2
China in particular has taken great strides forward. In October 2003 Yang Liwei became the first taikonaut. China thereby joined the US and Russia in the elite club of manned space flight. And on the second anniversary of Yang Liweis 21-hour mission China put another two men into orbit. The Chinese government now plans to put a robot lander on the moon in 2012 and has made well publicised noises about a highly improbable manned moon landing in 2020. Albeit in even vaguer terms, so too have Japan and India. Russian space officials have even spoken of getting to Mars ahead of America - also improbable.
The US, of course, is committed to building a permanent moon colony and springboarding from there to Mars. George Bush II first outlined these ambitious plans in January 2004. And during the 2008 presidential election campaign Barack Obama, not wanting to alienate space fans, deftly pledged to fulfil the Nasa mission.3
An ageing US space shuttle will fly just eight more missions. In 2010 this technological marvel is due for final retirement. Five years later the Constellation programme is scheduled to take the US to the next mission level.
Constellation relies on two hugely powerful multi-stage launchers, Ares I and Ares V, both with tonnage lifts far greater than the shuttle (which is incapable of deep space journeys). Perched on top of the smaller Ares I stack of rocket power there will be the Apollo-like Orion, which will carry a crew of between four and six.
This 25-ton command module is designed for near-earth flights and docking with the International Space Station. However, the much more powerful Ares V launcher is to put into orbit the additional, much heavier modules, which would allow manned moon and Mars landings. Orion will link up in earth orbit with these other modules, the pinnacle of the Constellation programme being Mars in 2030 or thereabouts.
Naturally there are to be a series of intermediary staging posts towards that goal. The US already has its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter digitally mapping the moon. The first images were transmitted back to Earth on July 2. Robotic landers will follow in about a years time in order to survey the surface in even finer detail. Just over a decade later, Orion astronauts are meant to head for the moon. Then work begins on establishing a permanently manned colony. Here on moon base, engineering, endurance and survival techniques and equipment will be tested and perfected before the great voyage to Mars.
Frustratingly for Nasa, Constellation is not due to be in working operation till March 2015. That has led to worried talk in the US of a space gap. For five years, while others are busily pressing ahead with their space programmes, the US will have to rely on crew and cargo services from other countries. Basically that means Russian rockets launched from Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
The US Apollo and now the Constellation programme almost comes straight off the pages of Niccolò Machiavelli: Nothing brings a prince more prestige than great campaigns and striking demonstrations.4 The Mars mission powerfully resonates with American national mythology. When captain James T Kirk of the USS Enterprise spoke of space being the final frontier, he not only looked expectantly towards his next intergalactic adventure, but referred approvingly to Americas past.
After 1783 and the Peace of Paris the Americans shifted from being a seaward-orientated people, with European preoccupations and a reliance on Atlantic supplies to looking west and the interior - that vast, tempting, unexplored wilderness.5 From then on the US welcomed successive generations of poor and downtrodden Europeans to its shores ... and western frontier lands.
While many migrants settled in the great cities of the east and north-east as proletarians, others, perhaps the majority, headed west: To the west, to the west, to the land of the free.6
The native population was forcibly driven from the best lands by wave after wave of these incomers - trappers, merchants, gun slingers, prospectors, loggers and prostitutes, but above all small farmers. And alike the Jacksonian slavocracy, Abraham Lincolns Yankeedom and Hollywood epics turned this class into a national icon: hence Daniel Boone, Davie Crockett, Bill Cody and the films of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. Dominant American ideology lauded individualism, movement, expansion and internal colonisation ... and the search for the final frontier has now projected itself into the endlessness of space.
Announcing his Mars mission, George Bush invoked another American icon - John F Kennedy and his famous May 25 1961 speech: I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.7 Kennedy spoke during the cold war. And in the feverish atmosphere of superpower rivalry every success for Apollo and the moon programme - annual cost: around one percent of US GDP - generated rapturous enthusiasm. American national pride left behind all rationality when the Eagle lander set down on the Sea of Tranquillity and Armstrong and Aldrin planted the stars and stripes in the moons dusty grey soil.
Going to Mars will undoubtedly prove hugely expensive. Mainstream estimates vary from $150 billion to $250 billion over the course of the whole Constellation programme (though I have come across figures for getting to Mars as high as $1 trillion and as low as $30 billion - the latter coming from the wacky free marketeer, Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society).
Because of the huge cost there is already a big question mark hanging over the programme. Without renouncing the Mars objective, Barack Obama has appointed a 10-member commission of experts, chaired by retired Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine, to review the US manned space flight programme and make recom-mendations. They are instructed to report back at the end of August. There is insider speculation about cheaper rockets, a smaller moon base and endless Mars delays. So cost could completely scupper the Mars element of the Constellation programme.
The US economy is in the midst of a severe downturn. Everyone knows that. There has been nothing like it since the 1930s. The 2008 financial crisis forced the US state to shell out huge sums of taxpayers money in order to prevent a complete meltdown. Added to which there have been the rescue of the auto industry and a massive Keynesian stimulus package. Meanwhile unem-ployment is inexorably heading towards 10% of the working population and tax revenues have steeply fallen. As a result the US federal deficit now tops $1 trillion for the first time and could reach $2 trillion this autumn. Spiralling deficits are fuelling concerns about higher interest rates, inflation and the weakness of the dollar.
Despite mounting criticisms of the cost of mission Mars, Nasa is banking on the undiminished popularity of all things space to maintain and increase its budget. Generations of science fiction writers - from HG Wells, Jules Verne, Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov to Frank Herbert - and TV shows and films such as Star wars, Space 1999, Babylon 5 and Star trek - have created a mass audience for Americas version of bread and circuses. Eg, the arrival on Mars of Nasas two rovers in 2004 and the stunning film they are still sending back of boulder-strewn foregrounds, craters, valleys and towering mountains proved extraordinarily popular. Within the first month Nasa reported four billion web hits.8
Not least due to sci-fi, space is nowadays commonly thought of as ripe for human colonisation. It is the new America. Supposedly space is humanitys manifest destiny, but one for which the US claims a special responsibility. It is the quintessential frontier nation. Moreover, without moving into space there is the supposed risk that problems here on Earth will continue to multiply, and, according to Rick Tumlinson, president of the US-based Space Frontier Foundation, humanity could begin to slide into a new dark age.9
In my opinion all this is bunk. The suggestion that space is the modern equivalent of crossing the Atlantic Ocean and discovering the New World in 1492 is altogether unconvincing. The Americas, perhaps even before the end of the last ice age, supported abundant human life. Estimates of first habitation vary widely - from 11,500 to 50,000 years ago.10 Either way, whenever people arrived, they flourished and settled everywhere from Alaska in the far north to Tierra del Fuego in the far south. They also produced the indigenous beginnings of civilisation: eg, the Aztec and Inca empires.
Christopher Columbus and the conquistadors who followed him over the next 30 years claimed vast swathes of territory and within next to no time allowed the Spanish monarchy to amass unprecedented riches. The native people were enslaved and gold and silver flooded into the bulging coffers of Madrid. America, confirms the distinguished French historian, Fernand Braudel, represented the treasure of treasures.11
There was, however, a fundamental problem: labour. Everything comes back to labour, Karl Marx stressed in Capital. Because of Eurasias much greater population densities the Spanish had developed a relative immunity to a wide range of diseases: measles, typhus, tuberculosis, smallpox, flu, etc. Not native Americans. European conquistadors came with their writing, flintlocks, horses, wheeled cannons, steel armour ... and germs.
Hernando Cortés (1485-1547) beat the fiercely militaristic Aztec empire not only because his tiny force of 500 men possessed immense technological advantages. In 1520 half the Aztec population, including the emperor, Cuitláhuac, died from a raging infection, which miraculously spared the Spanish. By 1618, writes Jared Diamond, Mexicos initial population of about 20 million had plummeted to about 1.6 million.12 The same thing happened when Francisco Pizarro (c1471-1541) and his motley band of 106 foot soldiers and 62 horsemen took on the millions of the Inca empire in Peru. Smallpox arrived just ahead of them and decimated the native population, killing both the emperor, Huayna Capac, and his designated successor. Throughout the Americas it is estimated that around 95% of the native population died from European diseases.
Germs facilitated European conquest, but destroyed virtually the entire potential workforce. And without labour the Americas were as good as useless (what remained of the native slaves would annoyingly take flight into what was for them the familiar surrounding hills, marshes and forests). Labour therefore had to be recruited from the outside if the Americas were to be transformed from an ever diminishing object of plunder into a self-expanding source of profit.
After indentured European labour was tried and generally found wanting, the richest classes amongst the colonialists - and their Old World investors and state backers - turned to systematically buying black slaves. They were typically seized from the most advanced areas in west Africa (peasants made the best slaves; hunter-gatherers tended to go native and in the Caribbean become Maroons in the dense forests and remote highlands). And, though you might not realise it, given the self-righteous ballyhoo pumped out in 2007 in order to sanctify William Wilberforce and mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, it should never be forgotten that Britain played the lead role.
Between 1500 and 1870 some 12 million Africans were transported across the Atlantic (one and a half million perished during the middle passage and an unknown, but surely even greater number died prior to embarkation). These poor wretches substituted for the absent native Americans. African slaves were central to the hugely profitable plantation system - sugar, tobacco, coffee, etc - which made innumerable aristocratic fortunes. Overwork, pitiless exploitation and malnutrition took a terrible toll. Up to a fifth of the slaves died within the first year. No problem: the labour force could be replenished by further slave purchases.13
Nevertheless, only after two or three centuries of superhuman efforts - half driven by base greed, half by desperate yearnings for freedom - were the Americas reinvented and transformed into Europes outer skin. Europe and the Americas fused into a single system. But one whose centre of gravity inexorably shifted from east to west. By the dawn of the 20th century the precocious US child had already surpassed its aged parent. The defeat of the Germany-Italy-Japan axis in 1945 certainly saw the final transfer of world hegemony away from the exhausted British empire and the beginning of the so-called American century. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left the US as the sole global power.
Neither the moon nor Mars are in any way modern equivalents of the Americas. Leave aside the lack of atmosphere and the absence of flora, fauna and running water. There is no native labour. Nor is there a realistic chance of substantial population transfers. Hence all the fancy projections of fabulous economic returns are quite frankly risible.
There is no chance of plunder, let alone profit. The chatter about industrial start-ups is just that - chatter. Plans for mining rare metals, the manufacture of pure crystals, the beaming of solar energy back to Earth, etc, etc owe everything to technological quackery and nothing to the rational investment of labour time. Relative unit costs of doing virtually anything on the moon or Mars would be a thousand, a million, times greater than on Earth. Ferrying labour into space is technologically feasible, of course, but prohibitively expensive. Getting a moon or Mars colony to produce anything on a scale for export to Earth makes no sense whatsoever - except as hype designed for the gullible.
Nor do these missions stand in the noble tradition of Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein - a grotesque suggestion. All that the Apollo astronauts did on the moon was plant the stars and stripes, leave footprints and carry back a few bags of rocks. Apollo was neither about economic returns nor scientific investigation. Showing what the moon is really worth to people back on Earth, Nixon generously insisted that America would make no kind of territorial claim. Going to the moon was an engineering triumph over the Soviet Union. A propaganda coup. Americas mission Mars is essentially no different.
Let me cite three trusted members of the US space establishment. Doug Osheroff - a Nobel prize-winning physicist who sat on the committee investigating the 2003 shuttle accident - is perfectly candid: Right now there is no economic value in going to Mars.14 Ed Weiler - assistant advisor of Nasas office of space science - says virtually the same: These missions will not be driven by science.15 Neil deGrasse Tyson - astrophysicist and member of the Mars commission - admits that if pure science was the purpose, it would be vastly cheaper to send robots.16 Compared with astronauts, robots are 50 or 100 times less expensive.
Mars is the most Earth-like of all of the other planets and moons in the solar system. But that is not saying much. Barren, pitted with craters, prone to gigantic dust storms, Mars is virtually airless. The mainly (95%) carbon dioxide atmosphere is 100 times less dense than that of Earth. Nor is there an ozone layer to shield the planets surface from the suns deadly ultraviolet radiation. To make matters worse, Mars is hellishly cold. On average the temperate zone is 60°C below zero. True, there is iron and a little aluminium. But, as far as we know, nothing exists there that cannot be made or obtained infinitely more cheaply on Earth.
No-one with a modicum of scientific knowledge ever doubted the sources of water at the Martian poles. We do not need Constellation astronauts to tell us that. There also appear to be substantial frozen water deposits under its rocky surface. But why travel in a cramped metal capsule - a two-and-a-half-year trip, including six months there and six months back - across 60 million miles of deep space for that?
Yes, a few eminent scientists speculate about the possibility of terraforming. The Martian atmosphere could conceivably be artificially oxygenated, the density dramatically upped and thereby significantly warmed. Water might then once again flow down its wide valleys and into new seas and oceans. However, creating a self-sustaining ecosystem, one supporting plant and animal life, would take quite a few years - roughly a million.
There are more modest schemes. If 100 nuclear-powered terraforming factories were established on Mars - proposed jointly in a paper by Margarita Marinova of MIT and Chris McKay of Nasa - specifically in order to pump out perfluorocarbons (super-greenhouse gases), the time span is much less awesome. At a Nasa-sponsored conference on terraforming Mars held in October 2000, it was estimated that it would take 100 years to raise the Martian temperature by 6°-8°. However, to get to the point where some water melts would need another 700 years. A greatly thickened carbon dioxide atmosphere would then retain heat. But Mars would remain cold, alien and thoroughly inhospitable to life as we know it on Earth - except perhaps for microbes.
Worshippers of a fetishised science doggedly insist that going into space is the one sure way of overcoming the mounting problems found here on Earth: eg, hunger, poverty, global warming, energy shortages. By the same measure the huge exertions required for space colonisation would encourage humanity to leave behind parochial concerns.
Isaac Asimov (1920-92) touchingly hoped that cooperation in something large enough to fire the heart and mind - like a Mars mission - would make people forget the petty quarrels that have engaged them for thousands of years in wars over insignificant scraps of earthly territory.17 The politically inverted Revolutionary Communist Party - a 1980s ultra-leftist flash in the pan and nowadays a rightwing libertarian coven - echoes this scientism. Writing on the Spiked website, Stuart Atkinson impatiently urged the US on to Mars in the name of an ahistorical human nature: We are a curious species. A big idea like Mars would inspire and show what could be done here on Earth.18 Ray Bradbury, author of The Martian chronicles (1950), is equally embarrassing: The moment we land on Mars all the people of the world will weep with joy.19 Nor does the Socialist Workers Partys China Miéville want to be left out: We socialist sci-fi fans cant bring ourselves to oppose space programmes I think it says something exciting about humans that we want to explore space. I think theres something wonderful about rocket ships.20
Nothing could be more misplaced or naive. Ever since Adam Smith, the ideologues and apologists of capitalism have insisted that the systems contradictions and the attendant curses of war, unemployment, ecological destruction, gross inequality and poverty could be overcome through accelerating capitalist progress. The subsequent history of capitalism should have taught a lesson or two. Obviously some will never learn.
Marxism does not question the existence of human nature. But attributes such as curiosity and an eagerness to explore must be examined historically and contextualised socially; not treated in a manner which universalises Nasa-man and the modern American ideology of constant technological innovation, individual enrichment and restless expansionism.
Scattered around the Indian Ocean coast, in India and Pakistan, the Philippines and Malaysia - marking the southern route out of Africa and the beachcombing trail to Australia - there are genetically distinct remnants of the original homo sapiens.21 Having arrived between 80,000 and 75,000 years ago, they often liked what they found very much. With the subsequent expansion in population numbers and pressure on natural resources, some immediate descendants would trek off to the next suitable location along the coast. But enough were perfectly happy to stay firmly put.
It should not be forgotten that till recent times many groups of hunter-gatherers contentedly enjoyed what some would describe as a primitive existence. Others might be tempted to call it idyllic. Such was their mastery of the local environment - yes, through curiosity and exploration - that necessary labour could be reduced to a couple of hours. The rest of their day was spent eating, story-telling, playing with the children, dancing, etc. Why move under such benign circumstances?
Nor should technological progress be viewed as linear. After 1450 China scuppered its ocean-going fleet of big treasure ships and dismantled its shipyards (mechanical clocks and water-driven spinning machines were also abandoned). Between 1600 and 1853 Japan virtually eliminated what had up till then been a lucrative line in the production of guns. In the 1880s legislation put a stop to the introduction of public electric street lighting in London. Jared Diamond provides other examples of technological reversals which occurred during prehistory. Aboriginal Tasmanians abandoned bone tools and fishing, aboriginal Australians abandoned the bow and arrow, Torres Islanders abandoned canoes, Polynesians abandoned pottery and polar Eskimos abandoned the bow and arrow, bow drill and dogs.
There are materialist explanations for all such seemingly aberrant behaviour; but clearly teleological notions of an inevitable progression from flint axes to landing humans on Mars are quite erroneous.
Of course, Marxists have always had a positive attitude towards science and technology. But we do not privilege science and technology or take an uncritical view. Motivation, application and consequences must be thoroughly interrogated. Neither science nor technology is neutral. So it is wrong to conflate scientific and technological progress with social progress (a mistake common to Eduard Bernsteins Fabian reformism and fourth period Stalinism alike).
The main locomotive of history is class struggle and the constant striving for human freedom: eg, the Athenian citizen-peasant revolution of 508-07 BC, the 73-71 BC Spartacus uprising, the 1381 peasant revolt, the Hussites of 14th century Bohemia, the 1775 American revolution, the 1789 French revolution, Chartism, the First International, the 1871 Paris Commune, the late 19th century democratic breakthrough in Europe, the 1917 Russian Revolution.
The development of the productive forces and the rational application of science create the objective basis for generalised human freedom and the rounded development of each individual. But capitalism does not do that. Capitalism skews progress - it performs technological miracles, while simultaneously plunging millions into abject squalor.
Capitalism perverts science - not only by bending it to the lopsided, narrow and demeaning diktats of profit, but by turning it against humanity to the extent of threatening our very survival. The insights, ingenuity and resources of science have been channelled into ways of killing and destroying on an almost unimaginable scale: carpet-bombing, gas chambers, nuclear warheads, chemical and biological weapons. Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), the German Marxist literary critic and philosopher, cuttingly remarked that our rulers perfect not so much the means of production: rather the means of death.
And the fact of the matter is that Nasa and the whole US space business is a branch, or extension, of the military-industrial complex. What is true for the US is true for Russia, China, the EU, Japan and India too. Satellites, launcher rockets, etc owe far more to military requirements for spying, pinpoint targeting, the delivery of WMDs, real-time command and battle communications than so-called pure science. Loring Wirbel, a peace activist and expert in space technology, shows that from the 1950s onwards, the US civilian satellite programme served as a cover for a wide-ranging spy satellite programme.22
Today the global positioning system (GPS) of satellites allows motorists, seafarers, airline crews and even hill walkers to locate their whereabouts to within a few feet. But, however welcome, this is merely a by-product. It should never be forgotten that GPS has overriding military functions. When a Taliban training camp in the North West Province of Pakistan is destroyed by an American drone, that is GPS at work. When a car suspected of carrying Hamas militants in Gaza is blasted to pieces by an Israeli missile, that too is GPS at work. When precision bombs slammed into a selected Baghdad ministry, once again that was down to GPS.
Indeed the US military boasts that during the 2003 invasion of Iraq 60% of all aerial bombardment was accounted for by GPS bombs. The US deployed not so much airpower, but space power. As former US airforce secretary James Roche triumphantly announced, concluding an April 2003 speech, The war in space has already begun.23
Behind mission Mars and the highfalutin language of discovery, human adventure and manifest destiny lurks a sinister agenda for ensuring total US domination of near-earth space. The US military-industrial complex has space-to-earth lazar and kinetic weapons, space-to-space and earth-to-space anti-satellite and anti-warhead missiles ready on the drawing board and Lockheed-Martin and Boeing are clamouring for the go-ahead.
As we have pointed out before, there is another aspect to mission Mars which cannot be ignored. The Mars project, like the rest of the military-industrial complex, constitutes a so-called third department of production (the other two being the production of the means of production and the production of the means of consumption). Department three allows capitalism to guarantee maximum self-expansion from the firm basis of the minimum consumption of the relatively impoverished masses.24 Their limited ability to purchase the means of consumption no longer constitutes a barrier.
Turning the production of the means of destruction into a system of profit and self-expansion through state purchase effectively obliterates the distinction between consumption and destruction. This is feasible precisely because for capital the purpose of production, the end aim, is not human consumption of use-values according to need: rather it is self-expansion for its own sake.
Problems of real use, and therefore real consumption, are overcome (though not eliminated) through the unlimited ability of the state to generate artificial demand and purchase waste - ie, the means of destruction - through credit and taxation. This innovative response to capitalist overproduction - initially tried before World War I and then after the 1929-33 world economic crisis - was made into a model of normality after 1945. The US arms budget for 2010 is expected to be $534 billion - four percent up on the $513 billion set aside by the Bush administration for 2009 and certainly well up from the $323 billion spent in 2000.25
The state legitimises this perverse and obscene squandering of human and material resources through patriotism. A real or imagined enemy is singled out and thoroughly demonised: eg, kaiser Germany, European fascism, communism, Saddam Hussein, bin Laden and Afghani and Pakistani islamic terrorism.
Voting in favour of the endless production of waste therefore becomes a national duty and imposes a welcome internal discipline over the American working class. Spending on Nasa and the space programme is essentially no different. Except that, besides patriotism, it is able to harness another misplaced idealism - the Quixotic belief that space represents humanitys destiny and promises solutions to almost every problem.
Back here on planet Earth, the United Nations estimates that over a billion people have no access to clean drinking water or sanitation, some 840 million have to survive on significantly less than the recommended daily intake of calories and over 30 million are infected with HIV/Aids.26 There is nothing inevitable or natural about any of this.
With organisation and political will humanity has within its reach the ability to easily meet all basic needs. The wealth exists in abundance. Simply diverting the US arms budget to such real uses would do that - almost at a stroke. But such a turnaround can never happen through the useless platitudes and essentially diversionary calls of the NGOs, mega-rich popsters, religious notables and disorientated leftwing reformers for rich governments to do their moral duty and make greed history. The modern state palpably exists to defend, serve and promote the self-expansion of capital - the two are inextricably and increasingly interwoven and interdependent.
Social problems demand social solutions. Humanity - which can viably only be led by the revolutionary working class - faces an epochal challenge of putting accumulated wealth under the control of the associated producers. Capitalism long ago outlived any usefulness it once possessed. Now this most alienated of social relationships threatens our very existence - through economic crisis, endless regional wars and ecological destruction.
Once humanity has superseded capitalism and become properly human, who knows what we might choose to do? Mars, along with other planets and moons in the solar system, could be explored by self-replicating robots or terraformed in an attempt to make them habitable. Perhaps one day in the far future our descendants might reach nearby stars.
Now, however, the main subject of humanity must be humanity - as we find it, here on this planet. Our mission is transforming Earth.