Books

A satellite of love: the history of the moon's future

Our astronomical near-neighbour is back in the sights of space explores, writes Oliver Morton.

Illustration: Joseph Joyce

The moon is the thing that everyone who can see has seen. It doesn’t matter where you were born, or when. If you see, you have seen the moon. It is a basic fact of the sky.

So, of course, are the sun and the stars. But looking at the sun wounds you, and the stars are just points of light. Looking at the moon is safe, and reveals detail – the same unchanging features, some bright, some darker, that everyone else sees. The angle at which it is lit changes as it orbits the Earth; sometimes it is full, illuminated head on; sometimes it is a barely visible backlit crescent. But the thing itself never changes. Science suggests that the last time the moon looked discernibly different was about 100 million years ago.

Was it really possible, children reared on Star Trek asked, that the grown-ups went to the moon, and came back, and that’s it?

That said, although everyone looks at the same features, they don’t necessarily see the same things. Some see a man in the moon. Some a woman. A lot of people see a rabbit. In the middle ages, they saw a man gathering sticks. Some said he was Cain, the brother killer. Some people said he was just a guy who needed some wood. There was a monk who saw a dragon. My wife sees someone yawning.

Scientists see half a continent’s-worth of bare rock, bereft of water, ice or air, pummelled by asteroids and comets long ago, still pockmarked by the scars and scabs that resulted.

There is another thing people almost all share about the moon. They cannot remember the first time they saw it. That revelation almost always happens before you have reached the age where you can lay down memories that can be accessed later. You can have a good guess as to how you first saw it, though. It was probably shown you by a parent happy to delight you with a light in the sky. Which means, I like to think, that most people are given the moon with love, and sometimes feel an echo of that love when they look up at it.

I remember learning at university that there are people who, blind from birth, achieve sight as adults through medical intervention. If I had thought of this while writing my book, The Moon: A History for the Future, I might have scoured their case histories to see if any ever described seeing the moon for the first time. Did it amaze? Did it disappoint? I wish I knew – but the idea only struck me after the book was done.It seems that even after years of work, there are always new things to wonder about the moon.

Fifty years ago, the new thing to wonder at was that the Americans had stepped out on it. Then, three years later, they stopped doing so – which over time also became a source of wonder, this time tinged with worry. Was it really possible, children reared on Star Trek asked, that the grown-ups went to the moon, and came back, and that’s it? That we don’t get to go – let alone to go further? That the space age happened and we missed it?

Those children didn’t understand that the Americans had not gone to the moon because of the moon. They went to the moon to show that they could coordinate the work of 400,000 people into a pyramid which, at its very top, had a tiny cone with three men in it which would do something almost impossible. What the impossible thing was didn’t matter all that much. What mattered was that America alone could do it. Once it was done, that was pretty much that. No need, or desire, for encores.

Until now. Making a moonship still isn’t easy. But it is nothing like as hard as it was in the 1960s. China is apparently making plans to send people to the moon. India isn’t quite ready yet, but it is talking about it. Afraid of losing its laurels, America is rushing to get back first. Billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk talk about going, too, maybe for profit, maybe for fun.

the moon

One way or another, a return is on the way. There are only four men alive who have walked on the moon. But there are quite a few more than that who are going to walk on it, and quite a few women, too. You might even be one of them – and if that turns out to be the case, do let me know how it goes – but I’m afraid with nigh on eight billion earthlings the odds are not good.

The presence of people might change the way the moon looks, at least to some. Will you see it as somehow diminished – or enhanced? Will you look up at a waste of money? Or an opportunity you envy? Will it change what you say to your children when you point it out?

Or will you just look up, feel a moment of wonder, and move on, just as people always have?

Oliver Morton’s The Moon: A History for the Future is out now (Profile, £20)

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