Bitcoin On The Moon

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This article originally appeared in Bitcoin Magazine’s “Moon Issue.” To obtain a copy, visit the . store.

West of the Andes Mountains in Chile lies the Atacama Desert — the driest place on Earth. Extreme aridity in this desert preserves Earth’s oldest known mummies and makes sure that all flora & fauna, even the most resilient, die quickly. The same equipment that failed Mars life detection gave identical results when tested on Atacama’s soil. The landscape is so similar to the distant red planet that NASA scientists and science fiction filmmakers alike visit it to make movies and test space rovers. High elevation coupled with virtually nonexistent light pollution and moisture produce perfectly clear skies more than 200 nights a year, making the Atacama region mankind’s premiere destination for observing the heavens.

Some 38 years before Earth’s largest ground telescope was built there, political prisoners of the U.S.-backed dictator Augusto Pinochet contemplated the same night sky above a concentration camp. One of them, a doctor with a good knowledge of astronomy, led his fellow prisoners in nightly study of the constellations. Reflecting on these lessons in a 2010 documentary, survivor Luis Henriquez remembered, “We all had a feeling … of great freedom. We felt completely free, looking up at the stars and constellations, as we were able to observe the sky and see the stars. The military soon outlawed these astronomy lessons because they feared that prisoners would use their knowledge of the constellations in order to escape.

For thousands of years, mankind has looked to the skies to find his place and chart his course towards the unknown. The moon was formed from a powerful cosmic collision approximately 4.5 billion years ago. It has since been incorporated into almost all of the world’s religious icons. Around 428 BC the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras deduced that the moon was a giant spherical rock which reflected the light of the sun. Some 2,397 years later, our pale blue dot met the gaze of two men standing on the lunar surface. This moment was widely regarded as the greatest scientific achievement of mankind.

But 24 hours before the Apollo 11 launch, White House staffer William Safire was preparing for a different outcome. In the speech President Nixon would have delivered had Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin perished on their expedition, Safire wrote:

“In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man. In ancient times, people looked at stars to see their heroes in the constellations. Modern times are similar, but our heroes today are heroic men of flesh and blood. Others will follow and find their way home. Man’s search for meaning will never be denied. These men were the first and will always be the most important in our hearts. Every human being who gazes up at the moon in the night to come will see that there is a corner of another world that is forever man. “

The position of the U.S. was clear: Regardless of the outcome, the mere act of reaching toward the unknown would count as success. Failure meant submission to the limits of the present. This was the consensus of crowds from Merritt Island to Central Park, who erupted in joy when Armstrong took his “small step for man.”

Yet that same day, just blocks away in Harlem, The New York Times reported that a “single mention of the [lunar module] touching down brought boos” from the crowd of 50,000 Black Americans gathered for a concert. With nearly one in three Black families living below the poverty line at the time, the U.S. government spending more than $120 billion in today’s dollars to put men on the moon illustrated perfectly what civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy called America’s “distorted sense of national priorities.”

Harlem musician, poet and activist Gil Scott-Heron captured the essence of the critique:

“A rat done bit my sister Nell with whitey on the moon. Her face and arms began swelling and whitey’s was on the moon. I can’t afford to pay any doctor bill, but whitey’s on moon. In ten years, I’ll still be paying while whitey’s on moon. The man just increased the rent last night because whitey’s on moon. There is no hot water, no toilet, and no lights, but whitey’s on moon. “

While Harlem may have been the epicenter of outrage, its residents were not alone. Throughout the 1960s, a majority of Americans believed NASA’s Apollo spending was not worth the price tag. On the day of the launch, one poll found approval had just barely crossed 50%. The program was justified by appeals to America’s pioneer spirit, American pride, as well as the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. Many felt that the space race was a non sequitur to the daily inadequacies of Earthly life.

Although the Apollo program was not the greatest demonstration of human achievement it was a powerful piece of Cold War propaganda. People in Merritt Island, Harlem and elsewhere couldn’t have imagined how the mission could change mankind’s relationship to technology and lead to groundbreaking advances in engineering, medicine, and technology — from fuel cells to the modern computer. David Mindell stated that “Apollo” began in a world where hardware and electronics were still suspect and could fail at any time. It ended with the realization that as electronics became integrated, computers could become reliable.” Between 1969 and 1972, 10 more men would follow in Armstrong and Aldrin’s footsteps.

Almost 50 years since the last Apollo mission, in the summer of 2021, Atlanta was the host of TABConf, a Bitcoin conference for some of the most dedicated enthusiasts of the technology. An Atlanta bartender watched in disinterest as conference attendees gathered near the end of her shift. Her customer explained that it was for bitcoin. “Bitcoin,” she says, and then adds, “Bitcoin?” Any sense of bemusement is replaced by disdain. “How am I supposed to feed my kids bitcoin?”

She will likely react to the news that we’re sending bitcoin to the moon the same way she did then, along with the overwhelming majority of Americans. I suspect she would agree with sociologist Amitai Etzioni who, five years prior to Apollo 11, argued that all resources used for space exploration should instead be spent on healthcare and education. Perhaps her main criticism would not be about the expedition’s expense but its apparent vanity. She might be able to join Lewis Mumford, the philosopher who called Apollo “an extravagant feat in technological exhibitionism” and compared Apollo’s command module to “the innermost chambers and the great pyramids, wherein the mummified body and the Pharaoh were placed, surrounded by the miniaturized technology necessary for magical travel from Heaven to Heaven.” However, she may also feel sending bitcoins to the moon is not only wasteful but distracting us away from real issues. Etzioni, who saw space racing as an act of escapism would likely agree with her. He wrote, “By focusing only on the Moon, it delays facing ourselves, both as Americans and citizens of the Earth.” Perhaps escapism is a side of introspection.

For as long as man has looked at the moon, its mystery and distance have provided us a tabula rasa. It is a place where we can express our hopes, fears, and visions of a world that is different from ours. Philolaus, a Greek philosopher, believed that the moon would have people, plants and animals, as well as scenery, similar to Earth’s, but much more beautiful. Since then, visions of lunar utopias were common. 15 centuries after Philolaus’ death, Bishop Francis Godwin described a moon paradise where sin-free inhabitants lived in complete abstinence. Four decades later Cyrano de Bergrerac wrote a novel about the moon to challenge society’s rigid axioms. Bernd Brunner, a Lunar scholar, wrote that in Bergerac’s satire, “Old folks obey the young… trees philosophize, payment is made using self-written poetry rather then coins.” Many authors throughout history have attempted to imagine a better Earth. They hoped to find out which aspects of modern life are more quaint than necessary.

“Old people obey the young… trees philosophize, and payment is made with self-written poetry rather than coins. “
-Bernd Brunner

The year is 2022 now, and bitcoin is on the moon. This will also be criticized. With bitcoin on the moon, seven hundred million people can live on $2 per day. Every five seconds, a child dies from preventable causes. But bitcoin’s on top. Political polarization and income inequality are all at an all-time high.

Bitcoin, too. Bitcoin is also on the moon.

Many people, especially those who could think of better uses for the money, undoubtedly will question the worth of sending bitcoin to the moon. Most will dismiss the mission as a marketing stunt. A few will be delighted that their favorite magazine and investment now call the lunar surface home. All of these are perfectly normal reactions. No matter what your views are on the subject, it is clear that we are limited in our ability to imagine the future. Our current understanding of the world and its social institutions shapes our perceptions. This makes it difficult to imagine a world that is different from our own. Scholar, poet and prison abolitionist Jackie Wang wrote that “unthinking” the prison requires “a mode of thinking that does not capitulate to the realism of the present.” Nearly 13 years ago, mankind’s first digital, stateless money was merely an idea. Satoshi Nakamoto, the anonymous creator of Bitcoin, clicked “send” to send an email containing the white paper. This set off one of the most ambitious human endeavors: the creation of universally accessible, peer–to-peer digital money that is owned and operated by users, not governments. This act required a way of thinking that was unconstrained by the past. Bitcoin invites its users to imagine a better future, even though the project is still in its infancy.

If there is a case to send bitcoin to the moon it is this: to charge those who gaze up at the night sky with the task to imagine a more just and equitable world that is completely different from ours. To echo Safire’s words: Every human being who looks at the moon in the night to come will see that there is a corner of another world that forever hosts an act that defies the boundaries of the current and a dream for better society. Part of me believes that Pinochet’s soldiers banned astronomy lessons because they could not navigate desert prisoners. But, because Pinochet recognized that it was impossible to imagine a world beyond our current reality, challenging power is impossible.

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