As celestial objects go, our moon is kind of dull. It’s desolate, rocky, and devoid of life, liquid water and clouds. These days astronomers rarely study the moon - and in fact their telescopes actively avoid it, as its reflected light disrupts observations of more distant, captivating features of the universe. And the rest of us? As Oliver Morton observes in his new book, “The Moon,” our nearest neighbor is “often seen but rarely looked for.”
But with the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” this coming week, the moon has orbited back into the popular imagination. And for good reason, Morton says. He makes the convincing case that there’s no more important object above our heads - other than the sun. The moon “completes the Earth,” he writes. Its gravitational pull creates tides, ordering biology and hydrology across the planet. Lunar phases, meanwhile, have “defined time since time was first defined.” In the 17th century, observations of reflected “earthshine” on the moon - in which the earth reflects the sun’s light upon the lunar surface - challenged the Aristotelian geocentric model of the solar system. “In Galileo’s words,” Morton writes, “it drew the Earth ‘into the dance of stars.’ “
Morton celebrates what he calls the Return to the Moon - the effort of nations and private companies to deploy robotic landers on the lunar surface in preparation for a new round of human visits. “The first tickets for the Return have been booked,” he writes. “Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese billionaire, has purchased a trip to the Moon for sometime in 2023, though he realizes that the flight may be delayed, what with the relevant spaceship not yet having been built or tested.” Yet, Maezawa has made a significant down payment in the belief that Elon Musk’s company SpaceX will get him there. Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos, who is spending billions on his space company, Blue Origin, also has grand ambitions beyond Earth. “Bezos talks of a future a few decades hence in which a million people live in orbit, at least for some of their time, running industries that no longer have a place on Earth,” Morton writes.
Morton’s science writing is compelling and clear. Sections on the formation of the moon and the history of lunar science are engrossing, if sometimes excessively detailed. He provides a gripping account of a hugely consequential event more than 4 billion years ago. “In one of the most violent acts in the history of the solar system,” Morton writes, the planet “Theia collides with Tellus. The resultant mess eventually resolves itself into a new arrangement of mass and motion - a planet a bit bigger than Tellus, spinning rapidly, with a satellite much smaller than Theia circling it in an orbit only hours long ... Tellus and Theia are gone. The Earth and the Moon have been born in their place.”
Morton, whose other books include “The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World” and “Eating the Sun: How Plants Power the Planet,” has a gift for synthesizing science, technology and culture. His chapter on the Apollo landing captures its historic importance and the might of the craft’s rocket engines. “For a couple of minutes,” he writes, “the five F-1s generated almost 60 gigawatts of power. That is equivalent to the typical output of all Britain’s electric-power plants put together.”
Small, unexpected details are just as wondrous, like the “tissue-thin aluminium walls” of the lunar module that “flexed in and out” under fluctuating air pressure and revelations about the astronauts’ spacesuits. They are “made of soft fabrics sewn together by women working with Singer sewing machines not unlike those found in half the houses of America, working not for a defense contractor but for the International Latex Corporation, makers of Playtex bras and girdles.”
Though grounded in science, Morton’s tale also conjures the world of science fiction. He reminds us that rocket pioneers such as Hermann Oberthand Robert Goddard were inspired by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Musk and Bezos were moved by Isaac Asimov and “Star Trek.”
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Robert Heinlein’s influential 1967 novel, “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress,” forms the spine of Morton’s final, forward-looking chapter on the biological and political obstacles facing lunar human settlements. His narrative, like Heinlein’s, questions the idea of a moonbase utopia as depicted in imaginings of the future. “More humans have gazed in wonder at the surface of the Moon than at any other solid object in the universe,” Morton writes. And yet the most influential contemporary image of the moon - and to some, the most important picture of the 20th century - is “Earthrise,” snapped by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders, capturing a blue Earth floating above lunar desolation.
Future moon colonists, however, not need merely gaze back home. Morton endorses an audacious concept to harvest solar energy to power moon-based lasers driving tiny, ultrathin spacecraft toward other suns. Traveling at a fifth the speed of light, as he projects, it would take only a few decades for the sentinels to probe for life, maybe sending pictures. As surely as “The Moon” reflects back on Earth, it also looks to the stars.