THE BLOG

The Year of the Moon

"January 10, 1610--Galileo abolishes Heaven" Before he turned his telescope on it. The moon was thought to be made of glass. Or something with similar properties. But then the telescope was invented, and that was the only tool we had to see the heavens. Fifty years ago today, that was still the situation. The first thing to orbit the Earth had only gotten there a little less than two years before, and while the theory of sending a rocket to the Moon was sound, In practice, it was a lot harder. America's Pioneers 0-3 fell back to Earth before getting there, and the Russian Luna 1, which had a far more powerful rocket, missed by tens of thousands of miles.

Then, came Luna 2, which did what it was supposed to do, hit it dead on. There was almost no data, but that was the first time something manmade hit another heavenly body. The active exploration of the of the Universe had begun. Then the Russians decided to do something slightly different: No one had seen the moon's far side (cartoonist Gahan Wilson did a thing in Playboy showing it didn't have one), and they decided to put a camera in Luna 3 and take a picture of what no one on Earth could ever see. The results:

Yeah, I know, it's totally lousy compared with what we can do today, but the achievement is enormous. In the next ten years, we went from a couple of crude satellites to actually sending people there, something that is even more mind boggling.

But not everything was beauty and excitement. The exploration of the rest of the Solar System was a huge disappointment. Life on Mars was a given, they said so in all the textbooks. It was possible that there might be life on Venus as well, but that was far less likely. Still, the Universe was supposed to be bristling with life, just not the Moon.

The Mariner 2 and 4 probes in the early 1960s changed all that. Mars had craters like the Moon and Venus was literally "hotter than Hell" No life. What a disappointment! It wasn't until 1971, when Mariner 9 went into orbit around the red planet that Mars became interesting again. Life on Mars was again a possibility, but on a much more modest scale: Germs.

After Apollo's premature demise (they still could have done 18-20, the hardware had already been built), interest in the Moon waned. There were a few more probes by the Russians, but they stopped in 1976. We knew all there was to know about it, or so we thought. We didn't send another probe, a military experiment called Clemantine, until 1994. But we are now. Some really interesting science is being done.

Tomorrow is the anniversary of Apollo 11's landing on our Moon. In another ten years, most of the people involved with it will be dead. They say a year after that, someone will set foot on it again. Here's hoping.