It is about what the Moon is, how people have thought about it and what those two things mean for what happens next. “Next” here, as you may be aware, means pretty soon; humankind’s decades of not going to the Moon are drawing swiftly to a close.
The book ranges through science, history, politics, art, science fiction, speculation and more besides. It has already had some nice reviews. But the real test will be whether you like it, too. To help you decide, here is the beginning of the introduction. My presence in the foreground of this extract is the exception, not the rule — some of the book, indeed, is deliberately depersonalised. But all books should, to some extent, be personal to both the writer and the reader; and so this one begins with me:
June 19th 2016, San Mateo County, California
THE CALIFORNIA sky was warm and blue, its light still bright but softening. Shadows lengthened across dry grass towards San Francisco Bay as the train trundled south. In London, though, it was four in the morning, and it was in London that I had started my day. I was a third of a planet from home and I was tired.
I had come to Silicon Valley to talk to people about space and technology. In preparation, my head resting against the window of the carriage, I was reading a scientific paper on places where one might site a moonbase. I was not taking in the arguments all that well, but I was impressed by their breadth. The paper’s Moon was mapped by laser, camera and radar, the shadows in its craters and sunlight on its peaks modelled by computers, its minerals assayed using electromagnetic radiation of every frequency — and neutrons, to boot. The data were as varied in source as in type; some came from Chandrayaan-1, India’s first lunar mission, launched in 2008; some from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which was launched the following year and had, six years later, sent its handlers a startling 630 terabytes of data. Some were older: from the Soviet Union’s Lunokhod rovers, from America’s Apollo landings, from the Lunar Orbiter missions that had paved the way for them.
From the range and weight of this material came pros and cons for various possible locations; a communications relay here is better than one there, this crater is more easily traversed than that one, the richer thorium deposits there do not make up for the more favourable solar power conditions here, and so on. The paper was not just making a case for this spot on the rim of Peary, a crater near the North Pole, versus that spot between Shackleton and Sverdrup, near the South. It was a performance — a demonstration to a world in general little interested in the Moon that, now all this detail was available, this was the sort of argument people could and should be having.
And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it, rising full.
I didn’t catch the moment it broke the horizon; you very rarely do, unless you have planned accordingly. But it was still at the bottom of the sky, down where the logic of landscape requires the mind’s eye to invest it with a size beyond that of its image as subtended on the retina. It looked as big as it looked distant, washed blue by the still-light sky, a depth as much as a brightness. You would never suspect that its spectral face was as stone-solid as the raised-up sea rocks of the California hills below.
It was, I realised later, a wonderfully apt place from which to see it. The train taking me from San Francisco airport to Mountain View was passing Menlo Park, where in the 1960s making maps of the Moon had been a rite of passage for the newly minted “astrogeologists” of the US Geological Survey. On Mount Hamilton, in the hills over which it was rising, is the Lick Observatory, where a pioneering photographic survey of the Moon was undertaken more than a century ago, and where those Menlo Park geologists would be sent, some eager and some unwilling, to inspect the object of their study.
Up ahead of me was NASA’s Ames Research Center, the reason for my trip to Mountain View, home to the wind tunnels used to define the blunt re-entry-ready shape of the Apollo command modules, and home for a while to some of the rocks those modules brought back. Behind me, in San Francisco, was the home of Ambrose Bierce, author of one of America’s great tales of the fantastic, “The Moonlit Road”. Many gothic writers had used moonlight for unearthly effect before. In his story of three seemingly contradictory accounts, Bierce created a scene in which the flat, spectral light illuminated three truths, or none. A smooth light of inconsistencies; a single Moon of many stories.
The links were not all in the past. The little cluster of space-business start-ups outside the Ames centre had, until recently, housed Moon Express, a company which planned to launch the first commercial payload to the Moon. A few kilometres closer, on Bay View Boulevard, were the headquarters of Google, which was at the time the sponsor of a $30m set of prizes for landing a rover on the Moon which Moon Express, among others, was trying to win. On the other side of the tracks, in the hills above Stanford, was the home of Steve Jurvetson, a venture capitalist who had been an early backer of Elon Musk’s SpaceX and nurtured his own plans for the Moon. It was at a meeting in that house that the moonbase-siting study I was reading had been conceived.
And beneath those hills, in the depths of the San Andreas Fault, the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate were responding to the full Moon’s spring tide, just as they do every month. Tides do not, in general, trigger earthquakes, but they pull strongly and insistently enough for the supremely sensitive instruments of the seismologists to feel the Earth creaking gently at their touch.
But as the train took me down the valley towards the matte-silver-blue Moon, I thought about none of that. I was simply struck by how extraordinary it felt to be seeing the same object, at the same time, in two such strikingly different ways — to be surprised while reading the science by the beauty of the thing itself outside. It was not the feeling Walt Whitman expressed in “When I heard the learned astronomer”, contrasting the drone of dry proofs and stale columns of figures with the silent, sublime power of the starlit night itself. It was its reverse: a deep sense that the different ways of seeing reinforced each other. A cognitive consonance of Moon as many stories, Moon as might be and Moon as always was, Moon longed for and Moon happened upon.
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