The Cultural argument of going to the Moon: Religion, Colonialism, and One World

Posted By Pamela on Mar 9, 2008 | 5 comments

NASAFollowing the small group break-out session, they brought us all together (with coffee… They are doing an great job feeding and liquefying us) so each group could go over their group’s discussion.

One of the themes that keeps coming up over and over is the cultural sensitivity. This is a complex issue and I can mentally hear Phil Plait jumping up and down in Colorado. As we look to build a permanent manned presence on the moon we need to remember:
– To many the moon is a sacred object and mining the moon is to some a desecration of a sacred object.
– The moon is in everyone’s sky – it can be seen by everyone on the Earth – it is not uniquely the property of super powers.
– The research we are doing is based on the knowledge (strangely, not excepted by all)

Related to this are several cultural uglinesses. Is this going to be a case of world powers taking the moon and exploiting it while other nations sit on the sidelines? This isn’t exactly a “White guys on the moon” problem – China will probably land astronauts on the moon before NASA gets people back to the moon. This is a world power versus not world power problem. I don’t think any African nations are working on manned space missions, however, and this is problematic.

I’m struggling with how to explain this problem. Imagine you are a child growing up in a small village in Africa. Your personal culture may see the moon as a sacred object that plays into your religious holidays and key dates in your year. In your schoolbooks, you learn that Russia and the US have landed metal bits on this sacred object. In the news you hear that China, India, Japan, and the US – (with varied levels of funding) are all hoping go back and walk all over your sacred object. You may see the US as white people representative of the colonists who subjected your nation, “ruined” your cultural, and forced artificial national boundaries on your people, forcing you to share a nation with tribes that are your historic enemy. Now, you see these white people looking to colonize your sacred object! Sure, there are Asian nations also looking to go, but… They are still other, and they are others who already have ample food, ample educational systems, ample – well they are nations with major industrial complexes and opportunities. Here you are, someplace where vaccinations, clean water, and access to education (heck access to ample hygiene!) are a day-to-day struggles in many areas of your country, watching the wealthy take over more potential resources.

You can tell the same story of someone growing up on some Native American reservations here in America.

This is a complex issue. How do we approach people from a position of respect and say, “Hey, I’m going to turn your religious symbol into an industrial complex and you don’t have a say in it.” If I were that kid, my response would probably be, “Not cool dude. Not cool. I don’t spray paint all over your church/synogog/temple/university do I? Why you gotta go mucking up the moon, man? Why you gotta do it?” We need to have a culturally sensitive answer.


  1. I don’t buy it. The moon isn’t any more special than the Earth. May religions feel the Earth is sacred too.

  2. Hi Palzeta – The moon isn’t more special than the Earth, and many people’s are saddened by what we’ve done to our planet. They (myself included) don’t want the money to become as scared as the Earth.

  3. Should we just build on the far side of the Moon where no one sees it?

    Look at all the junk we have thrown into orbit. That hasn’t been well thought out.

    There aren’t easy answers here. But I don’t see it so much as a cultural and religious problem as one of considering and discussing the consequences of what we do before we jump in and do it. We need to have an informed discussion with decisions made by people who listen and understand rather than people who are pushing their own agenda. That’s why we need people who understand science.

    But we shouldn’t be restricted to what will offend no one. We’d do nothing. You and I wouldn’t have been to college much less graduate school if some people had their way. So I think one way of approaching this is to consider being good stewards of the resources.

  4. I agree with Beth. Someone is always going to be offended no matter how careful you are. The question needs to be more along the lines of:

    Is what we’re doing going to benifit society, the human race, and all other life on earth, or are we just doing this to prove we can.

    That African kid doesn’t spraypaint the church/mosque/temple/whatever, but he could. If he did it just to show that it was possible, then yeah, “Not Cool.” But I’d dig up the wailing wall myself if I knew the cure for cancer was buried underneath it.

  5. Sorry, Pamela. We need to make an effort, certainly, to not JUST to offend people. To offend, for offending’s sake, is certainly not cool. However, if someone’s religion says that the Moon is sacred enough that we cannot explore and exploit it for human benefit, they lose, pure and simple. Science trumps religion. Yes, we need to find a way to say it better than that, but that’s the baldface truth. We are not going to the Moon to disrespect anyone’s beliefs or religion. If that was the point, that would be bad. But if advancing humanity’s factual knowledge comes at the price of having people change their beliefs, then that is the price that has to be paid. I think western history bears out that knowledge that has come to us from science has turned out to be more beneficial than knowledge that comes from religion. That is not to say that religion is not valuable! It is to say that, increasingly, science and religion must serve different purposes, and as harsh as this may sound, people who look to religion for a majority of their answers will have to change.

    From an economic perspective, I believe that spreading out the cost and spreading out the responsibility and participation as far as is practical is the way we should go. This way as many countries and peoples as possibility have a hand and direct benefits from the results. As for the rest, I have to retreat to the “trickle down” theory of technology, being a recipient of that theory myself.

    My issue is who to trust with such a project? Who has the long term vision and stability to do such a thing? A corporation that doesn’t see past the next quarterly report? A government that doesn’t see past the next election? These are the things that I fear.

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