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Moon River: What Water in the Heavens Means for Life on Earth

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In case you missed it, one of the most profound discoveries in decades was made a few weeks ago. NASA intentionally crashed a satellite into a shadowy cratered region of the moon, and the resultant debris contained what project scientists called "a significant amount" of that most precious of resources: water. And there's likely a lot more there; as NASA has noted, lunar water "could be more widespread and in greater quantity than previously suspected." The potential implications of this find are staggering -- including the possible near-term development of a viable lunar colony -- and yet the discovery has received scant critical attention thus far.

A recent New York Times op-ed did give minor voice to a few of the nascent concerns cropping up from interested corners:

"Cynics are already talking of humans polluting the Moon's water, while wags are joking that it's only a matter of time before bottled water companies get involved in harvesting lunar water, if not physically, then somehow in marketing campaigns."

Additional critiques were leveled by subsequent NYT letter writers, including that plans for human expansionism are akin to a "cheap sci-fi movie strategy;" that perhaps "it is just a coincidence that NASA discovers water on the Moon at the same time that the Obama administration is reconsidering manned spaceflight;" and furthermore that "even if the Moon holds water for the taking, why should we treat it as the coal companies have treated West Virginia?"

These are fine points to consider, but they merely scratch the surface of the issue. Aside from what the presence of significant lunar water might do for future human endeavors in outer space, and the inherent politics in any major news item, we ought to consider how this monumental discovery could alter the fabric of life on earth right now. To wit:

Zero-sum Doesn't Add Up: We don't live in a closed system -- never have, and never will. The discovery of lunar water makes this more concrete than the Earth's perpetual bombardment with cosmic rays or occasional meteorites ever could. The standard logic of both economics and ecology presumes (for all intents and purposes) that we live in a closed, zero-sum system in which dwindling nonrenewable resources necessitate either (a) conservation or, more likely (b) conflict-based acquisition. While we still should reduce, reuse, and recycle as much as possible (good practices to embrace no matter how much one has on hand), the notion that conflict is the inevitable result of resource competition needs to be consigned to history's dustbin.

Apocalypse Not Now: Perhaps, after all, humankind isn't on a self-inflicted path to annihilation. This most potent of Western prophecies -- indeed, the defining motif of civilization itself -- needs to be reconsidered if there are other potential options for human habitation in the not-so-distant future. Whether we get there or not remains an open question, and no doubt if we simply carry our exploitative and consumptive ways out into the heavens with us things will likely end badly before too long in any event. But for now, maybe we can take our foot off the gas (literally and figuratively) for just a moment, and appreciate that the dots of history and ideology needn't leave us on a predestined path to self-destruction. Whew! Let's all take a collective deep breath, okay?

Flowing Down the Gravity Well: Here's a quick physics primer: Gravity is not a force of attraction but one of reshaping. The Earth sits in space like a bowling ball on a trampoline; objects are drawn to it not by some unseen magic but because they are following lines leading down a "gravity well" that is really just a warping of space (and time). Coming up out of that well and thus overcoming gravity is challenging, and it's why leaving the planet is no small task (about $100,000 per pound of payload at current rates). But flowing down the well is much easier, and if resources such as fuel and water are to be found in near space they could make their way here almost on their own steam if guided properly. It also makes feasible the notion of launching future missions from the moon's low (1/6 of Earth's) gravity, opening up that proverbial "final frontier."

Is There Whiskey on Mars?: Next stop, the red planet! We likely can't get there from here, but we probably can do so from Luna. Sometimes in the science fiction (and fact) pantheon there's a tendency to look out beyond the solar system to the stars for wondrous new worlds and ideas. But rest assured, what we find in our own little remote spiral-armed corner of the Milky Way will delight and perplex for generations to come. The moons of Jupiter and Saturn alone might keep us occupied for centuries! Impossible worlds of proto-Earth appearance, mineral-rich vistas of mountains and craters, vast underground oceans -- maybe even the secrets of life itself. If it's true that "whiskey's for drinkin' and water's for fightin'" then we may well find ourselves back where we started if we approach space as a new "gold rush" frontier -- but the myriad wonders we'll discover out there will, in my view, quickly put an end to such trifling notions.

Debunking the Myth of Scarcity: The essence of our economics is built on a mindset of scarcity. Value is created and attributed by a process of psychological inducement to consider a thing desirable enough to require wage labor and/or subsequent payment. This even applies to basic goods like food and water, which, although not often thought of as "rare items" like coins or stamps, are unquestionably scarce commodities when considered against their availability for many of the Earth's inhabitants. More obviously connected to the idea of induced scarcity are "precious" items like gold, diamonds, and even oil that underlie key aspects of international trade. If the material pillars of economy are no longer to be truly scarce due to their potentially obtainable presence in near space, then the psychological underpinnings must be reexamined too -- meaning that attitudes and practices of competition, consumption, and acquisition could soon become scarce commodities in their own right.

Life, the Universe, and Every Little Thing: If there's water in the heavens, the inevitable metaphysics at work here tell us that we are not alone in the universe, and that life is a widely-cast phenomenon. Indeed, water is life, and so we need not wait until ET arrives in order to beat the Christmas rush on revising our various theologies. While it remains to be seen if (a la Star Trek) a large portion of life in the heavens is of the bipedal hominid variety (chalk that one up to a dearth of actors with differing physical makeups, I guess), there's a palpable sense that once we find lifeforms of any sort anywhere, we will begin to notice them everywhere. Every piece of cosmic dust, every seemingly-dead planetoid, every methane-laden atmosphere -- all will contain at least the potential for life and perhaps even intelligence itself. Once this knowledge is sufficiently acquired, the subtle wisdom that the universe itself is alive will be deeply felt and understood. And thus ends the mechanistic "dead Earth" ideology that has entrapped us for centuries in a mindset of conflict and conquest. The new paradigm will be magical and real all at once.

Please forgive my momentary reverie over a few buckets of lunar "blue gold" -- a lifetime of perusing sci-fi can do that! But more to the point is that the discovery of significant water on the closest body to us in space, once thought to be utterly lifeless and inert, shouldn't just be relegated to a mere blip in the news cycle while everyone blithely turns to their holiday shopping. Water is a key aspect of many of our current socio-political dilemmas, and locating it in near space is a potentially revolutionary find. While its full import remains to be seen, for now we might at least begin to consider how the envelope of our ideology is being pushed beyond the material limits we've imposed upon ourselves. Let's drink it in -- for the heavens will assuredly abound with water as we continue our explorations, and life itself will never be quite the same again.

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