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Militarising the Moon

  • 17 April 2019


A few nights every week I grab my beverage (hot or cold, depending on the season) and wander outside to stare at the Moon. Suburban light pollution aside, it never fails to move me.

Our trusty hanger-on governs the tides and much besides, and it was literally fiction until recent history to think we'd ever set foot on its surface. That changed on 12 April 1961, when a Russian cosmonaut by the name of Yuri Gagarin conducted the first human space flight. That may seem a small thing these days, but a man in an extra-terrestrial can, instead of an ape or a dog, was big news back in the 60s.

Gagarin's achievement was recognised by the UN in 2011, with 12 April listed for annual observance as the International Day of Human Space Flight. That sounds more noble and 'brotherhoody' than the International Day When Russia Scared the Yanks to Death. Gagarin's wild ride was a seminal milestone in the space race, getting the US all het up. The Russians followed up in February 1966, when their unmanned Luna 9 craft became the first to achieve a soft landing on the Moon.

While Kennedy's NASA was feverishly preparing for American lunar ripostes, the very next year, the UN brokered a significant treaty declaring that 'the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind'.

It added, significantly in its Cold War context, that 'States shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner', as 'the Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes', and that 'astronauts shall be regarded as the envoys of mankind'.

Our American cousins, inspired by JFK and driven by fear of the Russians getting there first, put on their Moonface. The Apollo 8 mission took astronauts into orbit in 1968, as did Apollo 10. It was Apollo 11, however, in July 1969, that saw Neil Armstrong taking his famed steps 'for all mankind'.

I was only a year old at the time, so I can't say walking on the Moon made an immediate impact on me (the first toys I remember were cowboys and police cars; sci-fi-themed offerings and obsessions came later). But upon humanity? Breaking free of our own