Fly Me to the Moon: There's Money in Them There Craters. or So Some People Think. (Space)

Article excerpt

If the priorities for would-be property speculators are truly "location, location, location", then Francis P Williams would seem to have got things wrong on three counts. Because the real estate that he's offering for sale to the British public is literally no nearer than the moon.

"When you buy property on the moon," enthuses Williams, in his role as Lunar Ambassador to the UK, "you can look into the night sky and say: 'I own a piece of that!'"

Williams heads the UK branch of the company Lunar Embassy, the brainchild of Dennis Hope, an American who in 1980 filed an official declaration of his ownership of the moon. This was not quite as daft as it sounds. The 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty had stipulated that no government could own extraterrestrial property - but it forgot to extend this veto to individuals. Twelve years later, the UN Committee for the Peaceful Use of Outer Space (COPUOS) drafted the Moon Treaty, declaring that all lunar wealth should be shared equally between rich and poor countries. Naturally, very few of the former were tempted to sign up. Nine nations have underwritten the pact - they include Uruguay and Morocco - but none is exactly noted for spacefaring missions. Thus the treaty might as well be moonshine.

But does anybody actually want the moon? After all, this December it will be exactly 30 years since Harrison H Schmitt returned from the last manned moon trip in Apollo 17. "I didn't expect to see that long a hiatus," admits Schmitt, now an aerospace consultant and adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin. Indeed, nobody did.

The moon dominated the public imagination in the 1960s. Stung by Sputnik l's usurpation of their right to do all things technological first, Americans resolved to beat the reds to the moon. The space race was the ultimate displacement activity, a sublimation of the simmering mutual aggression that char-acterised the cold war.

But for mankind, it was only one small step from fascination to disenchantment. Once the flag had been planted, the spectre of lunar communism banished, and some rather dull rocks collected, there remained no telling answer to the question: "What's the moon for?" By the early 1970s, interest had waned, not so much because of the near-disaster of Apollo 13, or even because of the brain-boggling budgets, but rather in the cosmic spirit of "been there, done that". The public imagination began to crave other, more exotic destinations -- Mars, the gas giants (whose diverse moons mostly have surfaces more intriguing than our own dusty, airless grey rock), the outer reaches of the solar system and beyond--and to develop an interest in the search for extraterrestrial life.

But now it seems that our love affair with the moon is reviving. People have begun to look for useful things there. For example, were the moon to act as a staging-post or fuel station for further-flung missions, water would be a vital resource. Moon-shuttling spacecraft would be able to reduce their wet load by 50 per cent -- halving water-transport budgets that reach up to [pounds sterling]14,000 per kilogram. But so far, the search for this liquid gold has proved inconclusive. NASA's 1999 Lunar Prospector slammed into a crater in search of evidence of water and sent back a resounding "maybe". There appear to be reserves of hydrogen around the lunar poles, but nobody is sure if this is bound up in water or exists as free hydrogen. Engineers at the Surrey Space Centre (based at the University of Surrey) are developing a mini satellite system -- which they expect to launch within three years -- that will be able to reach lunar orbit. Once there, the craft will take images of the lunar south pole to look for co nclusive evidence of water ice. …