Brexit: The View from the Moon

Edgar Mitchell steps onto the powdery grey surface, plumes of dust swirling around his feet. The land, empty except for rocks and shadows, stretches to rolling hills and a close horizon. Above him, the huge blue and white disk gleams in the black sky.

‘You develop an instant global consciousness,’ he told people after he’d returned to Earth. ‘From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, “Look at that, you son of a bitch.”’

The Brexit referendum has encouraged some of us in Britain to see, like Mitchell, the world from a new perspective. If we are not going to be part of the European Union, what should we be part of? If we are to remain inside the EU, what are our reasons for subverting the vote? Where is our home — Britain, Europe, or the world?

Earthrise, taken by Bill Anders during Apollo 8 (1968). Image © NASA.

In January 2017, Theresa May spoke of ‘a truly Global Britain,’ and Brexit as a vote to ‘embrace the world,’ but only referenced an increase in the number of trading partners when describing the nature of this embrace. The pro-Brexit report from think tank The Henry Jackson Society (September 12, 2017) also used the phrase ‘Global Britain,’ but only when arguing that the country is a potential ‘leader of nations.’ There is no sense of global unity in either of these visions; only a desire to be important in a world divided into nation states.

In his speech on the future of Europe (September 26, 2017), Emmanuel Macron talked about an ‘open world’ in which European identity and values are constructed. But for Macron, as for May, the world is still only considered in terms of trade; he framed his ideas ‘within the context of globalization,’ rather than within the concept of a single world with shared issues to tackle.

We may have to wait until politicians visit space before we hear a speech with a truly global perspective. That day, however, may not be far away; by the time Britain leaves the European Union and begins its transition phase in 2019, SpaceX plans to fly tourists around the moon. By 2020, one year into the transition phase, Blue Origin aim to run their first cargo trip to the moon’s surface. Around 2025, when Britain will have established its new relationship with the rest of Europe, the European Space Agency (ESA), ChinaNASA, and Russia intend to begin construction on their permanent moon bases.

SpaceX plan to use their Dragon2 craft for their commerical moon missions. Image © SpaceX.

These projects will change human perspective. For the first time, anyone — not just scientists and astronauts — will be able to see our planet from a distance, so long as they can pay for it. We will have Instagram posts and tweets from the moon, and each Earth-rise and comment on the fragility of life’s existence will be shared by millions. Most importantly of all, by establishing a lunar base, and later, visiting Mars, we will become a multi-planetary species. Will we still be thinking of our place in a hierarchy of nation states, then? Or will we instead be considering our place in the universe?

Britain can play a role in reaching this new global perspective, by contributing to space exploration. For some science-fiction writers, European unity and space exploration go together: Eoin Colfer describes a rocket ship painted in ‘European Union blue’; Andy Weir’s The Martian features a German astronaut with the EU flag on his space-suit; and in Ben Bova’s Mars, the English character justifies his place in the first team to land on the red planet, when so many other nationalities were not included, by explaining that ‘England represents the European community.’

We do not have to remain part of the EU to contribute to space exploration, but to be influential we do need to collaborate with other countries on issues other than trade. Continuing to contribute to ESA is one way of doing this.

The value of global collaboration and perspective should not be forgotten during the Brexit negotiations; maintaining and strengthening the links Britain has made across national borders will not only help advance space exploration and science, it will keep the country relevant, even as the boundaries between countries become less important, in an increasingly interconnected world and solar system.

Edgar Mitchell planted an American flag on the moon. Decades of solar radiation have since bleached the markings of that flag, wiping away the stars and stripes to bare white.

And above it, the world.

Look at that.


· Anatoly Zak, ‘Russia Will Team Up with NASA to Build a Lunar Space Station,’ Popular Mechanics, 21 September 2017.

· Andy Weir, The Martian (New York: Random House, 2014), p. 134.

· Ben Bova, Mars (New York: Random House, 1992), p. 91.

· Christian Davenport, ‘An Exclusive Look at Jeff Bezos’s Plan to Set Up Amazon-Like Delivery for ‘Future Human Settlement’ of the Moon,’ Washington Post, 2 March 2017.

· David Grossman, ‘China, European Space Agency Plan to Collaborate on “Moon Village”,’ Popular Mechanics, 26 April 2017.

· Edgar Mitchell, ‘Bio: Edgar Mitchell’s Strange Voyage,’ People Weekly, April 8, 1974, pp. 20–23 (20).

· Emmanuel Macron, ‘Sorbonne Speech of Emmanuel Macron — Full text / English Version,’ Ouest France, 26 September 2017. French text.

· Eoin Colfer, The Supernaturalist (London: Penguin, 2004) pp. 200–1.

· James Fincannon, ‘Six Flags on the Moon: What is Their Current Condition?’ The Apollo Lunar Surface Journal, ed. Eric M. Jones and Ken Glover.

· James Rogers, ‘Towards “Global Britain”: Challenging the New Narratives of National Decline,’ The Henry Jackson Society, [September 12] 2017.

· SpaceX, ‘SpaceX to Send Privately Crewed Dragon Spacecraft Beyond the Moon Next Year’SpaceX, 27 February 2017.

· Theresa May, ‘Theresa May’s Brexit Speech in Full,’ The Telegraph, 17 January 2017.

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