Monday 17 June 2019

Moonstruck - two new books chart our fascination with our nearest celestial neighbour

The Moon: A History of the Future

Oliver Morton

The Economist, hardback, 293 pages, €23


Apollo 11: The Inside Story

David Whitehouse

Icon books, paperback, 309 pages, €15

One small step: astronaut Eugene Cernan walks on the Moon in 1972
One small step: astronaut Eugene Cernan walks on the Moon in 1972
The Moon: A History of the Future by Oliver Morton
Apollo 11: The Inside Story by David Whitehouse

Almost 50 years since the first Moon landing, Darragh McManus looks at two books that explore our fascination with our nearest celestial neighbour

Moonlight, someone once wrote, is not so much a form of light as a state of things. It transforms, it enchants; there's an inherent dreaminess to the Earth's only natural satellite. It looks, and feels to us, in some way magical or uncanny. It's certainly beautiful.

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Of course, if you want to be a factual absolutist, moonlight is just electromagnetic radiation within the visual spectrum. The Moon doesn't even give off its own shine: it's either reflecting the Sun or, in a double whammy of reduction, the Earth's reflection of the sun.

And the Moon is merely a lump of rock, with an iron core, hanging in mostly empty space, spinning around another lump of rock. It's the inevitable by-product of gravitational forces, a Lego set assembled by dumb fate from the building-blocks of cosmic detritus. The end.

But what a dull, utilitarian world it'd be if everyone thought like that. Thankfully, most people don't: the Moon has cast its dark spell over humanity since we were first conscious of being human, and will surely continue to do so until the Sun expires or we do. This enduring fascination with all things lunar is the subject of two new books - The Moon: A History for the Future by Oliver Morton, and Apollo 11: The Inside Story by David Whitehouse - released just in time for the forthcoming 50th anniversary celebrations of the first moonwalk.

As you'll infer from the titles, the latter focuses on that iconic moment in July 1969 when Neil Armstrong took his "one giant leap for mankind", and the half-century or so of space exploration which preceded it. The former is much broader, being a sort of cross between natural history, cultural history, philosophy, cosmology and futurology (specifically, the likelihood of people returning to the Moon, and how that might be achieved).

Of the two, Morton's is better-written: he crafts elegant, witty prose and the book is full of interesting observations and insights. Whitehouse's book is pretty functional, stylistically, but this shouldn't overly bother its core target audience: space nerds eager to find out about the nuts and bolts of the whole thing. (Of which I am one).

And Apollo 11 isn't without its moments of lyrical flight: Whitehouse describes the eponymous moon missions as "the greatest voyages possible… a waypoint in the evolution of our curious, explorative species… a hope for our survival… a moment when we achieved greatness".

One of the few positives of the colossal insanity of the Cold War was that both sides - competing ideologies - drove each other to new, well, heights. The lunar triumph was ultimately America's, but the Russian contribution wasn't far off.

Indeed, they registered many seminal "firsts": first artificial satellite (the famous Sputnik); first animal in space; first man in space (the even more famous Yuri Gagarin); first woman in space, and the first object to reach the Moon, Luna 2, which pre-dated Apollo 11 by 10 years.

But while the USSR began the sprint faster, the US finished the marathon stronger. They landed a man on the Moon - fulfilling JFK's 1960 promise that it would be done "by the end of the decade" - because of ingenuity, national will, the astronauts' incredible personal courage and, most pertinently, the fact that their system wasn't quite as dysfunctional as the Soviets'.

It wasn't all plain-sailing; after one disastrous fire, for instance, it was realised that nobody had thought to inventory all the parts which assemble a rocket. But stories of Russian apparatchik interference, stupidity and ridiculous demands are legion: their scientists were spancelled from the beginning.

Morton's book, meanwhile, spans the solar system's whole existence. It used to be assumed that our satellite was formed when a large asteroid, or something similar, crashed into Earth and the resultant debris coalesced into the Moon.

A more recent - and rather thrilling, in a sci-fi blockbuster movie kind of way - theory, the Giant-Impact Hypothesis, contends that there were actually two planets in our neck of the cosmic woods during the so-called Hadean Age. Tellus, which would become Earth, and the slightly smaller Theia, drew too closely together and collided with tremendous violence. The Moon was born of what remained of a shattered Theia.

The geological science backs this up, to some extent; and besides, it feels entirely appropriate, in the sense that this isn't too dissimilar to some of the lunar-creation myths which The Moon details. Near-identical twins going at each other's throats and bringing ruination on themselves: it's like Romulus and Remus in outer space.

The Moon has been imbued with many other types of myth, of course. Morton recounts how people once believed that it contained life, even intelligent life. The old wives' tale about how the Moon can make you crazy - hence the word "lunatic" - has no basis in evidence.

Then there's the more recent vintage: Hitler escaped to the Moon and plotted his revenge from there; the Russians planned to establish missile bases on the Moon, and best (or worst) of all, the Moon landings never happened. Tell that to Buzz Aldrin, second man to step on an extra-terrestrial object and still going strong as a living legend at 89 years young.

There are, Morton reckons, far more people alive today who will walk on the Moon, than have done in the past. The return, he argues persuasively, is pretty much inevitable. Unlike the Cold War space-race, it's likely to be gung-ho billionaires such as Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos who get us back up there, though new national players - China, India, Israel - have lately joined the game, too.

There's an argument that we don't have the moral right, that we should leave the Moon as pristine (more-or-less) as it is. That won't happen, though: to return to Whitehouse's excellent phrase, "our curious, explorative species" can't let it.

John Gillespie Magee Jr famously coined the line "I have slipped the surly bonds of earth" to express the freedom, excitement and sublimity of flight - and he was only talking about an aeroplane. Multiply that feeling, that primordial desire, when it comes to going into space.

As with Mount Everest, people will travel to the Moon "because it's there"; and to quote JFK's 1960s' exhortation, they do this "not because it's easy, but because it's hard".

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