Why are we not on the moon? -- Fusion Breakthrough

(contains mild spoilers for For All Mankind)

I recently finished the AppleTV+ series For All Mankind, where the viewers watch an alternate history with only one change: The Soviets are the first to land on the moon. After the first crewed flight was successful, the Soviets got the first man and the first woman on the moon. So the series follows the events of “what would have happened if the global space race had never ended.” 

After finishing the thrilling three seasons that are out already, I asked myself, why are we not doing this? Why are we not discovering space? Why are we still not going to the moon? The obvious answer is money. Without an external push like the Cold War and the Space Race, governments decided not to spend money on prolonged programs like the Space Program, especially since these programs take a longer time to accomplish while politicians have two four-year terms. However, For All Mankind offers a picture of the flip side of this expense and how space exploration could help life on earth.

IRL: No woman has ever walked on the moon.

FAM: Nixon kicks off a program for women astronauts. Most high positions at NASA are filled with women as the seasons progress.

Let’s start with the women (as the show did) – changes begin to happen once the Soviets send the first woman to the moon. Episode 3, “Nixon’s Women,” introduces our badass female astronauts. Of course, it takes a while for the perspective at NASA to change and for them to not see women as fragile and unfit for space. But over the course of the series, we see a mindset shift. It is difficult for the pioneers, but they make it easier for all other women who follow their paths. Even though we don’t see it on the screen, it’s fair to assume many technical jobs would be more likely to accept women and for gender ratios in STEM jobs to be better than what is true today.

I believe part of the reason is the vision going to space gives us. Watching rockets fly off to space is, to this day, an exciting moment. It was true in 1969; it’s true in 2022. Maybe if our eyes were locked to the future of our civilization, we wouldn’t have much time to dwell on the little things we get upset about on earth. Imagine if we had hubs on the moon, if we were building settlements and planning on going to Mars. I wonder if we would have this many problems on the surface.

One aspect we see a difference in the show is with nuclear power. It is perceived as one of the greatest dangers to humanity in our world right now. Nuclear produces cleaner (than fossil fuels) energy as well as dangerous (nuclear) waste. The aftermath of World War 2 (and plant meltdowns) gave a bad rep to nuclear, thus pushing our energy to rely on fossil fuels. In the imagined series, NASA investments lead to nuclear fusion, cleaner powerful energy, and more research into nuclear energy, enabling safer atomic plants. Last week, US scientists revealed experiments at Lawrence Livermore National Lab achieved net energy gain in a controlled fusion reaction for the first time ever. This means more energy was released than was used to initiate the reaction. While it would take decades for this breakthrough to have any impact in our current crisis, it’s still beyond exciting.

Also in our current reality, a lot of research into solar power came from the space program; now imagine the show’s world where solar and batteries got way more investment. As a result, electric cars became popular in the 1980s, and fossil fuel usage was dying in the 1990s. By then, the series’ renewable energy capabilities are way beyond ours, thanks to the advancements made on the moon. What advancements, you may ask?

In the show, private space company Helios mines helium-rich lunar regolith, providing oxygen, CO2, and Helium-3 for those who live on the moon and sending it to Mars. These are needed to sustain life on another planet. The show explains fusion: while fission splits an atom, fusion fuses two atoms while producing much less nuclear waste. It is said that solar winds deposited an estimated 1.1m tons of Helium-3 on the surface of the moon. We would need 25 tons to power the entire US for a year. Normally, I’m not one for exploitation and mining of everything we see, which is a great (!) quirk of humanity. But, I’m always for cleaner energy, especially during this time where it’s almost certain that we are going to suffer really badly from the adverse effects of climate change. So, why are we not getting this powerful resource from the moon?

We can imagine the most brilliant people working at NASA and developments there helping the scientific community at large. We can imagine findings on the moon telling stories about the solar system. We can imagine life on Mars, giving insights into how life emerged in our home. We can imagine all of these having effects on our collective psychology in a positive way.

A side effect of the space race is the longer it continues; the more countries will join. We see in the series a news clip telling North Korea dropping its nuclear focus to work more on its space program. Perhaps with new frontiers to discover and plant flags, we would care less about borders on earth? A ‘healthy’ competition between countries enabled faster progress. As technology gets better in the show, social issues follow.

Better human rights

Better vision towards our future

We get to see developments in social issues such as LGBTQ+, mental illness, and disabilities going from high stigma to a better understanding over time in the show. We get female NASA administrators, astronauts stepping up to support their fellow astronauts’ mental issues, and one of our favorite characters going slowly blind yet keeping her position as head of astronauts. For All Mankind doesn’t just tell these different perspectives but searches for chances to tell these stories.

As the show’s creator said in LATimes, “If we really cared about certain investments — if we really cared about trying to make a difference — we could achieve great things. That’s the angle we’re coming from.” It seems like helium-3 could be a solution to our worldly problems and climate change. I’m aware that we need wholesome solutions, and we don’t have time to implement everything that happens in the show today as a solution to climate change. But this will always be 20 years away if we don’t start.

I wonder if I would be an astronaut in 2022 if we went to Mars in the 1990s. Most likely. I always loved space, even going to space camp at age 10. Think about this: Millennials never saw a person on the moon. Nobody has done so since 1972. Nobody has ever seen a woman on the moon. So, how could a little girl imagine herself on the moon?

This show inspired me in ways I didn’t know. Now that we learned there is water on the moon, can we go? 

Season 4 is coming next year.

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