Saturday 20 July 2019

The Moon and Capitalism

The Moon landing 50 years ago today ranks as the most audacious and spectacular event of the 20th century. Billions watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin goofing about the surface, and for a moment it appeared - at least transmitted by retrospective commemorations - that the human race was united in awe. For the first time members of our species escaped the gravity well of our world and took our first steps onto a body other than the Earth. It represented the pinnacle of human ingenuity, and was testament to the courage of the men prepared to risk a lingering, public death had it all gone wrong. Rightly, and despite the motives of the US government who put them there, for as long as there are people the flight of Apollo 11 is and will be celebrated among our greatest collective accomplishments.

We should salute the army of NASA technicians, astronauts, admin and support staff that made the Apollo programme possible, acknowledge the spin offs and engineering know-how - later largely harnessed by the computer industry - and the inspiration it provided tens of thousands of scientific careers. It also has to be stripped down to its bare essentials. The space race was super power politics, of accomplishing an ambitious technical feat that would burnish the victor's soft power around the world, and demonstrate to the other side just what it was capable of. Though even this reading needs picking apart. The USSR were the first to place a satellite in orbit and send a cosmonaut into space, but the competition to get to the Moon was pure American theatre. They needed to be bolder and better than anything the Soviets had achieved. Who cares about the laurels for the first interplanetary flyby if you can land people on the Moon? The USSR, for their part, weren't terribly interested in playing this game. Soviet missions to the surface were robotic and sample return affairs. They were the first to reach the Moon, return images of its far side, and put a mission into orbit, and they did have a secret programme looking at crewed missions but it was never conceived in competition with the Americans, and for the rest of its existence the USSR confined nearly all its efforts to Low Earth Orbit. The race then was non-existent, and the whole premise was contrived in terms of US triumphalism. And, as we know, once the spectacle of the first landing was done the Apollo programme was discarded as an inconvenience by the Nixon administration and the plug was pulled. Nevertheless, in terms of domestic politics because there was a nationalistic underpinning to the whole enterprise, the Republicans have, since the early 80s, positioned themselves as the Moonshot's ideological heirs. Dear old Ronnie had the Strategic Defence Initiative, or 'Star Wars' - a means of militarising space to make safe the American homeland from nuclear attack. Dubya in 2003 unveiled a vision of space exploration for NASA, with the aim of returning astronauts to the Moon by 2020. Um. And Trump and Mike Pence have talked up America's return to the lunar surface with an ambitious target of achieving it within the next five years. These are not people who come in peace for all mankind. They only have the interests of the US state front and centre.

Though now, the context is different to 50 years ago. There are multiple space faring nations. As I write, the International Space Station is crewed by one Russian and two Americans, and will shortly be joined by another Russian, an American, and an Italian. The Chinese Chang'e 4 probe is currently sat on the Moon's surface, and seven spacecraft are operating in orbit around Mars from NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Indian Space Research Organisation. Japan has orbited and successfully landed twice on the asteroid Ryugu with the object of returning samples. And even Israel almost became the fourth country in history to accomplish a soft landing on the Moon. NASA are by far the most advanced of the space agencies, but its dominance isn't what it was. With space getting more crowded, a declining superpower with a paranoid cast of mind might feel it necessary to demonstrate who's boss with another spectacular mission. Who controls the heavens will have the Earth, after all. Yet while space is the new arena for powers great and small, there's a new player on the block: the market.

To get a grasp of the relationship between states and markets, examining the political economy of space while our adventures off-world are in their infancy is a good place to start. During the post-war period, a number of mainstream and radical economists drew attention to the importance of military spending. Indeed, in his final address as President, Eisenhower warned Americans about the power of the military-industrial complex, such was the close relationship between capital and arms. In the US, it was the war time economy that ultimately shook off the doldrums of the depression, and throughout the Cold War period military spending provided a guaranteed market for sections of capital. Between the start of the Korean War and the fall of the Berlin Wall, US military spending peaked at 12% of GDP and (unevenly) fell to around six per cent. These were still astronomical sums, and provided guaranteed markets for defence contractors, strategic industries, and thousands of smaller and medium-sized businesses. The multiplier effects Keynes wrote about, of how public spending puts money in people's pockets which, in turn, put cash in the registers of businesses helped ensure there was a stable element underpinning the post-war boom. We saw similar in most of the other advanced economies, though nowhere near to the same scale, leading some - particularly those associated with Tony Cliff, the guru of the Socialist Workers Party - to argue capitalism was propped up by a permanent arms economy and that military competition with the USSR offsetted crisis tendencies and kept matters on an even keel. For a while at least.

Space programmes, at least in the West, have traditionally been a subset of military spending. The array of NASA programmes are supplied by many of the same outfits you would find competing for defence contracts, and as the technology has become more reliable and costs have fallen, we're starting to see companies muscle in to more areas. Having long built communication satellites, private capital is getting into the launch game. Following the patterns of innovation examined in Mariana Mazzucato's The Entrepreneurial State, the leading space companies - SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin - are based on and refine technologies that are with us thanks to decades of publicly funded research. SpaceX is used to launch cargo to and from the ISS, a market Blue Origin is keen to get into with cheaper and reusable launch vehicles, as well as providing landing craft for Moon missions. Virgin on the other hand are trying to tap directly into crewed missions with a twin track approach of ferrying astronauts to orbiting science facilities and lowering the barrier of entry to space tourism. All, however, depend on state investment and the state-as-consumer for their viability. In and of themselves, even with the billionaires behind them and their visions of setting up shop on Mars, space markets are not viable without state initiative - and this will be the case for quite some time.

Nevertheless, the introduction of for-profit operators adds pressure to cost reduction, which comes with all that implies. Though the customer at the moment is in the position of determining the regulations and standards of space flight. Moving on from Low Earth Orbit to the Moon, driven by state agencies, will nevertheless offer further market opportunities. If NASA's present plans come to fruition - the establishment of a permanent station in orbit around the Moon, followed by landings, and the erection of a base on the surface - these require resupply, new materials, new construction technologies and so on. The state makes and continues to make the strategic investment, and the market effectively works around the edges in tendering for contracts. And once the base or bases are established, a new research and development economy develops. Chief are supplying and extracting resources to live off the land, the building and maintenance of viable biospheres, and the spin offs this can have for settlement efforts elsewhere in space and conservation at home. Also important will be lunar prospecting and mineral exploration. A supposed abundance of helium-3, a potential fuel, is certainly seen as a potential resource by the Indian, Chinese, and Russian space agencies. Though even without a mining bonanza though, the Moon offers an attractive way station for further missions. Its ample water resources for rocket fuel and oxygen production, and smaller gravity well makes it a better location to reach deeper into the solar system than the Earth. All this is speculative, of course, but well within existing capacities, and is possible because several states are stumping up strategic investment.

And the prize? Capitalism needs new markets; it has to accumulate or die. The exploration of space, visiting and settling the Moon, fanning out and spreading the human presence to the planets and asteroids represent stupendous technical challenges, but it is something else. It's about the industrialisation of space. States, with the USA leading the pack, are providing an infrastructure around which new industries and markets can grow, and once the resources of other worlds - be they asteroids or planets - can be mined profitably, then the commodification of the solar system will be rapid and possibly chaotic.

The last crewed mission to the Moon departed its surface in December 1972. If we do return in the next five years, or by the end of the next decade, or whenever, it is very unlikely the Moon will be left to simply abide for an extended period of time ever again. Geopolitics is making our satellite a place of interest, and with big companies scenting big dollar, there is a strengthening of the commercial imperative to get in on the ground floor and shape the markets to come. If the Americans do not do this, then someone else sooner or later will.

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