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Trashing the Moon
Moon in Smog The space race is back on and this time the contestants are India and China. The prize is Helium 3, a key potential fuel for nuclear fusion. 24 tonnes of helium 3, a shuttle load 24 would keep America powered up for a year. While the earth has only an estimated 15 tonnes of helium 3 the moon has about 5 million tonnes. Once more the moon is exerting its power and we are in the grip of a new lunacy, a madness that could cause us to destroy the moon itself.

The seeds of this madness were planted thirty nine thousand years ago, in the Lembombo Mountains in Swaziland. There, one of our ancestors painstakingly carved a lunar calendar into a piece of bone.
Three thousand years later another ancestor carved the phases of the moon into a bone taken from an eagle's wing. To make the carvings they would have had to rig up a system of rocks or sticks with which they could observe and mark the movements of the moon. They would have had to devise a way to make notes and records of their observations or perhaps they achieved it through a phenomenal act of memory. The job would have taken years. Those ancestors started something which we have obsessively gone on doing ever since.

We do not know how those Stone Age moon watchers made their lunar observations or why they bothered. Perhaps they thought that by understanding the cycles of the moon they would be able to harness it's power. Sixteen thousand years ago deep in a cave in Lascaux in France, a painter, whose expertise daunted even Picasso, daubed hunting scenes onto the rock walls. Those paintings include two sets of dots that are thought to represent lunar cycles. Again the effort to acquire this knowledge and then translate it into pictures must have been very considerable. Was it worth it? Did the cave painter believe he or she was working magic into the picture. Or was it just record, a calendar to remind them of the passing of the seasons, an image of the one thing in their lives that was certain, the monthly passage of the moon.

By seven thousand years ago lunacy had taken a very powerful hold on the mind of man. We begin to build megaliths that are positioned to reflect the moon's movements. Some of them are huge. At Locmariaquer in France there is a stone that has been shattered into four pieces. It once stood 20 meters high and weighed 280 tonnes. It had been put in place a thousand years before the comparatively puny 25 tonne rocks of Stonehenge. It stands at the centre of a complex of stone markers that is over twelve miles in diameter. The complex is aligned to mark the extremes of moonrise and moonset in the summer and winter. The data needed to build the complex would have taken hundreds of years to gather. And again the unanswered question is: why bother.

By 1500 BC in Mesopotamia Babylonian astrologers are keeping the most meticulous records of the moon's routine. The information is scientifically sound but was used for the purposes of prophecy. Since then mankind has given the moon many names, has given it male and female identities, has called it god in many languages and has ascribed fantastical magical powers to it.

We inhabitants of the 21st century have learnt a thing or two. We know that in reality the moon is a huge, almost inert and airless, rock. Getting there and living there is very difficult and impossibly expensive. Oddly this knowledge has not stopped us trying. The moon race in the 1960's was as time consuming and obsessive as anything undertaken by the people who erected the 280-ton monolith at Locmariaquer. A computer screen showing an analysis f the moon's orbit describes a pattern very similar to that drawn on the eagle's wing over thirty five thousand years ago and has a similar power to derange. It was not necessary to send men to the moon. The information could have been acquired using remotely controlled robot craft. Such an enterprise would have been infinitely easier and cheaper and of course, a lot less exciting.

At today's prices the USA spent $135 billion dollars on the Apollo programme. The astronauts bought back less than half a ton of moon rock at a cost of over $160 million dollars a pound. The moon had proved to be quite an expensive god. Now, in our lunar madness, we are going to take our revenge. We are enlisting the help of another god, Mammon. We are going to mine helium 3. The stakes are high. 1 tonne of helium 3 will be worth $4 billion. It is estimated that there is enough helium 3 on the moon to power the whole earth for 8,000 years. Helium three is easily mined, it is found in the lunar regolith, the dust that covers the moon's surface. All you have to do to get a tonne of the magic substance is heat a million tons of regolith to 800 degrees centigrade. India reckons to be on the moon by 2020, the Chinese are close behind. The arguments have started as to who owns the lunar real estate. We are poised to trash the object that has obsessed us for so long. The moon will become the next rain forest. Billions of dollars will be spent in the process. The surface will be scarred by strip mines. The moon's unique vacuum environment will be destroyed by the explosives used to excavate the regolith. Moon tourists will leave there polluting junk just as they now do in the Antarctic or on Everest. This will all be a great distraction to the people on earth who will still fight each other and find it impossible to mobilise the resources to give everybody clean drinking water.

Rick Stroud
Autumn 2008
Review: Fly Me To The Moon

On Stage with Buzz Aldrin

Essay: Trashing the Moon

Why I wrote The Book of the Moon

Video: Man & the Moon

IQ2 Space Festival

Moon Magic - Great images of the Super Moon

Rifleman, A Front Line Life
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