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  • Thomas Cheney

Armstrong is Amundsen not Columbus

“What if Columbus had gone to the New World and no one had followed up” (or similar sentiments) is a common refrain from the space community in relation to discussing the Apollo lunar landings. The inference is that the failure to send humans beyond Earth orbit since 1972 is a failure to exploit a ‘New World.’ On the face of it this sounds like a good analogy, however the Columbus analogy is just the wrong one. Neil Armstrong was not a 20th century Columbus but a Space Age Roald Amundsen[1], the first person to reach the South Pole. The Moon (and Outer Space) is not America but Antarctica. This is more than just a matter of competing analogies but goes to the heart of how the space community sees the path forward for human development of space. In this post I will attempt to argue that a shift in analogy will help make our advocacy more effective, as our vision will be more realistic and therefore more saleable.

A corollary to this is that we should be talking about McMurdo not Jamestown as our analogy for human settlements in outer space. Antarctic exploration is a better analogy than the English colonization of North America. For starters, Antarctica is a much more ‘space like’ environment in terms of its desolate hostility to human life. Additionally, the economic rationale for colonizing space is not there. Arguments for colonizing outer space usually rest on an existential threat to humanity which is too distant or large to work as an effective argumentative foundation (besides moving to the Moon doesn’t fix climate change and moving a hazardous asteroid is easier than terraforming Mars and abolishing nuclear weapons is a better way of avoiding the extinction of humanity by a nuclear war...) The economic rationale for the likes of Roanoke and the Plymouth Bay Colony were certainly flawed, and most colonies failed, went bankrupt, and wound up having to be bailed out by the State (even the Dutch and British East India companies suffered that fate, the only ‘successful’ private colonial venture was the Hudson Bay Company which pretty much avoided establishing anything other than small trading posts.) McMurdo doesn’t really have an economic rationale, it is a scientific research base, but it’s successful.

McMurdo was opened in February 1956 and built by the US Navy. Today it is capable of housing a population of over 1200 (usually about 1000 during the summer and 250 in the winter). It serves as the focal point of all US activities in Antarctica. It receives about 42 million litres of fuel and 5 million kilograms of supplies every year as part of an annual delivery (Operation Deep Freeze).[2] US facilities in Antarctica cost just over $260 million in 2016.[3] Though, while Antarctica is a good analogy for many reasons, cost is not one of them. The annual operating cost of the ISS through 2024 has been estimated at around $3-4 billion and the US has already invested approximately $75 billion in the station,[4] which presumably dwarfs the lifetime costs of McMurdo several times over.

However, Antarctica is a model that works, literally. It is remarkably successful at fostering scientific research and international cooperation.[5] 50 years after Apollo 11 we are lamenting that no one has returned to the Moon since Apollo 17. 50 years after Amundsen reached the South Pole Chile, the UK, France, Australia, the USA, and the Soviet Union all had permanent research bases on the continent. Granted, as evidenced above the costs involved in building a lunar base undermine the comparison but there is perhaps a further consideration, the motivation behind the efforts. According to Stephanie Barxzewski there was consideration of colonization of Antarctica despite it having no “obvious economic or strategic value” it was about prestige and competition.[6]

Similar arguments are made today about colonizing the Moon or Mars by the likes of Zubrin, Musk and Bezos, albeit with a more US centric ‘frontier’ mentality echoing Fredrick Jackson Turner. But no one today talks seriously about colonizing Antarctica, but that is what we have done. A McMurdo on the Moon would be considered a great success, but it should be presented as a scientific research base, not a colony. It will undoubtedly enhance the reputation of the country that builds it but be more easily justifiable. And we need to think about how we are trying to justify these efforts and moderate our expectations. As has been argued the Apollo ‘ideal’ tends to lead us astray. We’re unlikely to see another ‘Apollo moment’, and more to the point we probably don’t want one. Apollo was a crash effort, if we’re serious about building a future for humanity in space we need a sustainable effort.[7] We need to be the tortoise not the hare.

Furthermore, a more modest, incremental approach to the development and settlement of outer space would free the endeavour from being dependent upon government. As the last fifty years should have demonstrated to every space enthusiast while politicians might love to talk about space and pose for photos with astronauts getting them to pay for a Moon base is probably next to impossible. But it’s not all despair as Alexander MacDonald’s recent book, The Long Space Age, would suggest if there is sufficient private interest in space then the money will be found. Space enthusiasts (from you and me to Musk and Bezos) don’t need to be convinced of an ROI or economic ‘viability’ we’re free to dig into our pockets and fund a kickstarter, make a donation to organizations like the Planetary Society or indeed the Centre for a Spacefaring Civilization, or if we’re lucky enough to be ‘High Net Worth Individuals’ like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, found our own space companies (or have a viable business idea able to attract investment, see any number of exciting space companies like Reaction Engines, Astroscale or Open Cosmos). As MacDonald writes

personal, intrinsic value gives spaceflight activities an enduring robustness. As long as there are individuals who desire to fulfil the vision of a space-faring future for themselves and for humanity, and who possess the requisite resources, talent, and willpower, the Long Space Age is far from over.[8]

If 50 years from now there are 1000 people living and working on Armstrong-Aldrin station in the Shackleton Crater we should consider it a colossal success. Antarctica is a better analogy for human space exploration and it furnishes achievable goals. So as we celebrate the achievement of Apollo 11 50 years ago lets rethink how we conceptualize and analogize space exploration. We are exploring a ‘new world’ a ‘new frontier’ but it’s Antarctica in space not America in space. Armstrong isn’t Columbus he’s Amundsen. That’s not a knock against him, it took great courage to explore the ‘desolate’ frozen wastes of the southern continent just as it does outer space, and Antarctica is a triumph of science and international cooperation, which cannot be said about the ‘exploration’ and settlement of the Americas by Europe. So lets make McMurdo in space (or as a Brit Rothera in Space) our creed as we commemorate the Apollo 50th and look forward to the Apollo centenary.

The opinions expressed in these blogs posts are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Centre for a Spacefaring Civilization or anyone else.

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[5]James D. Hansom and John E. Gordon Antarctic Environments and Resources: A Geographic Perspective (Longman 1998), 184

[6]Stephanie Barczewski, ‘The Historiography of Antarctic Exploration’ in Dane Kennedy (eds) Reinterpreting Exploration: The West in the World (Oxford University Press 2014), 217

[7]Bleddyn E. Bowen, ‘The Problem With Apollo’ https://astropoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2019/07/15/the-problem-with-apollo/

[8]Alexander MacDonald The Long Space Age: The Economic Origins of Space Exploration from Colonial America to the Cold War (Yale University Press 2017), 209-210