From December 2018 through July 2019, the world is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first missions where humans orbited, then landed, on the Moon. A total of nine Apollo missions went to the Moon and returned safely to Earth. Two of those remained in orbit, six landed, and one other negotiated a return trajectory with a badly damaged spacecraft.
We humans love stories. The best are the ones where we identify with the characters or events, or detail heroic deeds. As a culture, we recognize past events and the characters who played important roles in them. From an educational perspective, these events and stories serve to inspire young learners to aspire to something beyond the ordinary. This year and next, enthusiasts and educators will honor two such events in the history of space exploration: the fiftieth anniversaries of the first time humans traveled to the Moon, and then set foot on its surface.
The recently released film First Man chronicles the history of lunar exploration, seen through the eyes of Neil Armstrong, the first human to personally experience what Buzz Aldrin called a “magnificent desolation.” In some ways the film also reminds us humans have not returned to the Moon since 1972. While the later landings, and much of the Space Shuttle and International Space Station programs have maintained a human presence in space, in some ways they have become ordinary, falling short of the inspiration we found in the flights of Apollos 8 and 11. Much of our progress in science education has taken place with inspiration from, and in response to the heroic deeds undertaken in pushing the boundaries of human knowledge and capabilities.
A few years ago, the theme for the annual International Observe the Moon Night was “What does the Moon mean to me?” Expressing meaning can take a lot of forms, most of them in the form of stories. Humans have long told stories about the Moon and what it means to them, and their culture. As we learn more about the Moon, it turns out the story incorporates much more than the personal or anthropomorphic aspects we impose on this object in the sky. The story is one of exploration and science, as the Moon has its own story to tell about its creation and relationship to the solar system and beyond. From this perspective, exploration is really just learning the story a place has to tell. And at this point in history we are starting to learn the language the story is in, and discovering how to ask the right questions.
It is unknown who first looked up and pondered the Moon. There are no records. As their art attests, the Moon was important to ancient peoples. Cave drawings over 20,000 years old are the first definitive representations of the Moon and its cycle of phases. Bone carvings from 10,000 years earlier have groupings of 29 distinct notches, possibly marking the days of the lunar cycle. People needed to mark time, a means to predict the movements of the herds they hunted, and the ripening of the wild plants they gathered. As people started to live a more agrarian lifestyle it became necessary to track when to plant crops and harvest, or when to move livestock before the onset of winter storms. The lunar cycle formed the basis for early calendars, an artifact we continue to use every “moonth.”
The importance of the Moon to early civilizations led to its inclusion in their religions, with deities and celebrations tied to the Moon and its cycle. People told stories about the Moon, attributing its presence and phases to the actions of gods and heroes. They saw images in the pattern of craters and maria on the Moon’s surface, and imagined they were there to help in the telling of their stories. The Moon became important in the myths and legends and deeds of adventurers and monsters on Earth, as the Moon, particularly when full, brought on transformations both physical and psychological. In our modern age we still tell such stories, and though generally recognized as fantasy, the Moon has a prominent role in many movies, with humans transforming into werewolves at the sight of the full Moon, and the light of the Moon having magical qualities. People continue to have a sense of the magical when finding themselves on a dark night lit only by the Moon. Romantic scenes in real life as well as in film commonly involve a moonlit night. The Moon is also associated with human psychological behavior, as we commonly refer to irrational acts as “lunacy.”
The story of the Moon emerging from modern science and the explorers, human and robotic, which have landed and/or orbited the Moon is every bit as exciting and fantastic as those our ancestor told sitting around their fires. In late December 1968, Apollo 8, with a crew of three, orbited the Moon ten times and returned safely to Earth. This success was followed with the landing of Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969. Both of these events have entered into modern lore, with people remembering where they were when they watched the view of Earth from the Moon during TV broadcasts from Apollo 8, and the grainy images of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on to Moon. Today there are fewer people who were alive to see those events, than were born after. The days of human exploration of the Moon are now, for most of us, no longer a part of our personal stories.
When I was young, my father brought home from work a poster of a photograph with the caption “Historic First Photo of Earth from Deep Space.” This image taken by the Lunar Orbiter 1 reversed the perspective we normally enjoy, showing a crescent Earth suspended above a lunar landscape. While significant, this initial look at the Earth from space did not enter the collective human consciousness with the same depth as a similar image the astronauts aboard Apollo 8 took a little over two years later.
The Moon has meant many things to, and inspired many people throughout history. The Moon’s meaning to societies has evolved as technology and our ability to explore have become more sophisticated. However the meaning of the Moon to us as individuals has remained fairly constant. For most of us the Moon is a place of wonder, an anchor and participant in the stories we tell and in our dreams. The Moon is our first introduction to the wonders beyond Earth, and has the potential to serve as the first step towards the universe.
At some point in the hopefully not too distant future, humans will again walk and work on the surface of the Moon. Turning their gaze upwards, they will see the shining Earth in the black lunar sky, and ponder. As it turns out, the question that really matters is what does the Earth mean to me?
This is an updated version of a post originally appearing in this blog in September 2014. A version also appears as the Education Matters column in the fall 2018 edition of Mercury magazine, a publication of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.