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No lunacy, this

For a thirsty Earth, the temptation to tap moonwater could be irresistible. But hopefully India will not pioneer the race to exploit this resource, writes Gopalkrishna Gandhi.

india Updated: Apr 09, 2010 22:55 IST

Caliban: Hast thou not dropp’d from heaven?

Stephano: Out o’ th’ moon, I do assure thee, I was the Man i’ th’ Moon, when time was.

Tempest, William Shakespeare

Not everyone using ‘out of the moon’ knows it was Shakespeare who coined the expression. Nor do many know the Bard had ‘put’ man on the moon before Neil Armstrong got onto that trampoline surface. Shakespeare also talked of the moon being watery. The greatest of these descriptions is in Macbeth: ‘Upon the corner of the moon there hangs a vaporous drop profound’.

The reference to ‘the corner of the moon’ came back to me when I saw an announcement by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on November 13, 2009, about lunar water being located on the moon’s south pole. Water had, in fact, been found earlier — in rocks brought back by the Apollo Missions.

Shakespeare’s other descriptions of the moon such as in Hamlet as a ‘moist star’ and in A Winter’s Tale as ‘the watery star’ are better known.

But Shakespeare was unaware of another ‘watery moon’ perception that had originated far away from where he wrote, both in space and time. He was unaware because when he was lowered to his rest at Stratford-upon-Avon, the first English translation of the Bhagvad Gita was some 180 years into the future. The bard , who had a sense of ‘Ind’, of ‘Indies’, ‘Indian’ and ‘Indians’ would have been gripped by a half-line in the Gita (Verse 13, Chapter 15): ... having become the sapid moon, I nourish all herbs.

That line was composed some contested centuries before Christ and several more centuries before modern astronomy took shape. For its author to have gone beyond the obvious linking of the moon with tides to its inherent wateriness, is astounding.

Ancient India’s sense of a sapid moon makes it appropriate that the first proof of water on the moon should have come from an Indian spacecraft, Chandrayaan 1.

Will India keep the lead and be the first in establishing the right equation between an increasingly water-scarce earth and the watery moon?

Not so easy, this, as scientists, geologists, astro-physicists and space scientists are not the only ones thinking about our future in space. As the world becomes water scarce, the thought of hidden aquifers and lakes of cool waters will excite human imagination. But this excitement is not limited to lunar water: indications of jets of ice grains and water vapours shooting out of great geysers on Saturn’s largest moon, Enceladus, have also generated ideas for the enlisting of that water wealth.

There’s nothing wrong in that for it is natural for a species under threat to reach out to and clutch at anything for survival. And yet isn’t there something ‘yuck’ about seeking to appropriate something merely because it is unguarded?

Humankind has an incredible example of self-restraint to turn to, in the Antarctic Treaty of 1961 which has guarded the only continent on earth without a native human population, turning it into a science reserve. But is today’s world likely to see a space resource independent of the market back home?

But is today’s world likely to see a space resource independent of the market back home? The temptation to ‘tap’ moonwater is more likely to be irresistible.

Can the watery moon’s lakes have plants be put up alongside, drills be bored into them, pumps installed, temporary storage arranged, then low-weight bottling be done and the pure aqua lifted and removed for consumption by a thirsty earth except through the agencies of the techno-market? And can this be done non-competitively?

These are not some space-mad fantasies, for moonwater is real, as is earth-thirst. And we are already being, as the originators of Missions to the Moon, feeling properly proprietorial about it.

A Blue Rush, a destructive race for the first crater of pristine water, for the largest one, the deepest one, the one with the easiest molecule to process and bottle, is more than likely to emerge.

Visualising life beyond the orb that holds our world, Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and Member of the House of Lords says in his classic Our Final Century: “Long before the Sun finally licks Earth’s face clean, a teeming variety of life or its artifacts could have spread beyond its original planet...” I find Rees’ use of the word ‘artifacts’ most significant.

It is not difficult to picture our aerated drink bottlers drawing up plans for getting to lunar water and their marketing divisions working on strategies to get there fast and get there big. And their advertising departments have most certainly begun work on brand names with the front-runner being Soma.

Rees says if first explorations with non-scientific intent were governmental (or international), then Antarctic-style restraint might be feasible. On the other hand, he argues ‘if the explorers were privately-funded adventurers of a free enterprise (even anarchic) disposition, the Wild West model would, whether we liked it or not, be more likely to prevail.’

How can adventurism be prevented?

The ‘Antarctic-style restraint’ shows the way. Earth’s southern icecap belongs to nobody. Will the watery moon fare better and belong to everybody? Not to be slaughter-dried but conserved and used with sensitivity? Better still, will ‘victorious’ humans ensure that the earth’s child-satellite continues to belong to itself, but visited by humans on her terms?

How is the moon to set her own terms?

By being given the best, the widest, the most uncompromisingly conservationist interpretations of ecological intelligence.

If that does not happen, and adventurers with or without the backing of States try to establish their commercial hegemonies on its resources, especially water, we would be no better than those history has branded as colonisers.

But hopefully India with its ancient perceptions of the moon’s nourishing sapidity will pioneer not a Blue Rush, but a Blue Balance.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi was the Governor of West Bengal from 2004 to 2009

The views expressed by the author are personal