How We’ll Mess Up The Environment on the Moon

Turns out it’s possible to pollute outer space, too

Clive Thompson
6 min readJun 19, 2023

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A footprint of a space suit on lunar soil
Photo by NASA on Unsplash

If you’re an old-school space-travel nerd like me, the prospect of humans going back to the moon (and beyoooonnnnd) is thrilling. I was in elementary school in the 70s, when children’s books rang with praise over NASA’s Apollo missions.

But then, as a young adult, I watched space travel dry up. It devolved into the expensive and weirdly-specced Space Shuttle (an “airplane made of glass”, as critics dubbed it), which did nothing more than circle the planet, until two tragic missions scotched it entirely in 2011. Me, I was the kind of deep-space geek who wanted to see humanity stretch out further, back to the moon and unto the inky void.

In recent years, though, I’ve become excited again. Companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin have made space launches far, far cheaper; NASA is gearing up to send people back to the moon, and possibly even further, and so is China. India’s planning robotic lunar probes. Cool, yes?

Sure. Except even as I still dig seeing rocket launches, I’m increasingly wondering about the unexpected side-effects we’ll see from this new boom in lunar travel.

Specifically, the environmental ones.

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Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”. @clive@saturation.social clive@clivethompson.net