West of the Andes Mountains in Chile lies the Atacama Desert — the driest place on Earth. There, extreme aridity preserves Earth’s oldest mummies and ensures all but the most resilient flora and fauna quickly join them in death. The same equipment that failed to detect life on Mars yielded identical results when presented with the Atacama’s soil. Fittingly, the landscape so closely resembles the distant red planet that science fiction filmmakers and NASA scientists alike converge there to shoot 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, a doctor well-versed in astronomy, led a small cohort of his fellow prisoners in nightly studies of the constellations. Reflecting on these lessons in a 2010 documentary, survivor Luís Henriquez remembered, “We all had a feeling … of great freedom. Observing the sky and the stars, marveling at the constellations … we felt completely free.” The military soon banned these astronomy lessons, fearful the prisoners would use their knowledge of the constellations to plan routes of escape.
For thousands of years, man has looked to the heavens to determine his location and chart course toward the unknown. Formed out of a violent cosmic collision roughly 4.5 billion years ago, the moon enthralled the earliest humans and has since made its way into the iconography of nearly all of the world’s religions. 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. The moment was widely celebrated as mankind’s greatest scientific achievement.
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 days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood. Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts. For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.”
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 was submission to the boundaries 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 to swell and whitey’s on the moon. I can’t pay no doctor bill but whitey’s on the moon. Ten years from now I’ll be paying still while whitey’s on the moon. You know, the man just upped the rent last night cause whitey’s on the moon. No hot water, no toilet, no lights but whitey’s on the 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 justifications for the program centered around appeals to the pioneer spirit, American pride, and the quest for knowledge and understanding. But for many, talk of the space race felt like a non sequitur to the harsh inadequacies of daily life on Earth.
The Apollo program may not have been the ultimate demonstration of human achievement, but it wasn’t just an expensive piece of Cold War propaganda either. The crowds in Merritt Island and Harlem alike could not have imagined how the mission would alter mankind’s relationship with technology and facilitate groundbreaking advancements in engineering, medicine and technology — from the fuel cell to the modern computer. David Mindell wrote that “Apollo began in a world when hardware and electronics were suspect and might fail anytime. 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. Near the end of her shift, an Atlanta bartender watched disinterestedly as a crowd of party-going conference attendees gathered. “It’s for something about bitcoin,” her customer explained. “Bitcoin,” she murmurs, then, more forcefully, “Bitcoin?” any sense of bemusement eclipsed 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. Or perhaps her core condemnation would center not on the expedition’s cost but on its apparent vanity. She’d find company with philosopher Lewis Mumford, who denounced Apollo as “an extravagant feat of technological exhibitionism” and compared the rocket’s command module “to the innermost chambers of the great pyramids, where the mummified body of the Pharaoh, surrounded by the miniaturized equipment necessary for magical travel to Heaven, was placed.” Of course, she may also feel that sending bitcoin to the moon is not only wasteful and vain, but yet another spectacle distracting us from genuine issues. Etzioni, who saw the space race as an act of escapism, would likely share her view. “By focusing on the Moon, we delay facing ourselves, as Americans and as citizens of the Earth,” he wrote. But perhaps escapism and introspection are two sides of the same coin.
For as long as mankind has gazed at the moon, its mystique and distance have provided us with a tabula rasa, a sandbox for the imagination with which we may depict our hopes, our insecurities and our visions of a world detached from our own. Greek philosopher Philolaus theorized that the moon would boast people, plants, animals and scenery familiar to residents of Earth, only much larger and more beautiful. Visions of lunar utopias have followed since. Fifteen centuries after Philolaus, Bishop Francis Godwin described the moon as a paradise whose inhabitants perfectly refrained from sin. Four decades later, Cyrano de Bergerac set a novel on the moon in order to question society’s rigid axioms. Lunar scholar Bernd Brunner wrote that in Bergerac’s satire, “Old people obey the young … trees philosophize, and payment is made with self-written poetry rather than coins.” Russian author Vasily Levshin imagined the moon as “a world of absolute equality with neither soldiers nor sovereigns.” A century later, as the Industrial Revolution swept across France, Alexandre Cathelineau wrote of a moon without “murders, wars, or sickness.” In their attempts to envision a better world on Earth, authors throughout human history have dreamed of lunar societies to determine which fixtures of modern life might be more vestigial than requisite.
“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, too, will not be without criticism. Seven hundred million people live on $2 a day, with bitcoin on the moon. A child dies every five seconds from preventable causes, but bitcoin’s on the moon. Political polarization, income inequality and the prison population are at all-time highs.
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 likely dismiss the mission as a silly marketing stunt. But a small number will be thrilled that their favorite investment and magazine now call the lunar surface home. All are perfectly reasonable reactions. Regardless of one’s views on the subject, it’s clear that we are stunted when we imagine future life on our planet. The economic, political and social institutions du jour shape our understanding of the world as is, in turn prohibiting us from imagining a world too 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. When its anonymous creator, Satoshi Nakamoto, pressed “send” on an email containing the Bitcoin white paper, he set in motion one of mankind’s most ambitious endeavors — the creation of a universally accessible, peer-to-peer digital money owned and operated not by governments but by its users. Such an act required nothing less than a mode of thinking unconstrained by the present. Today, with the project still in its relative infancy, Bitcoin asks each of its users to engage in a collective imagination of a better future with better money.
If there is a case for sending bitcoin to the moon, then it is this; to charge those who look to the night sky with the task of imagining a more just world, radically different from our own. From now on, to echo Safire’s words, every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that forever hosts an act of defiance to the boundaries of the present and a dream for a better society. Part of me thinks that’s why Pinochet’s soldiers banned those astronomy lessons — not because the stars could navigate escaped prisoners out of the desert, but because he recognized that challenging power is impossible when we are restricted from imagining a world beyond reality.