A thoroughly sporadic column from astronomer Mike Brown on space and science, planets and dwarf planets, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the joys and frustrations of search, discovery, and life. With a family in tow. Or towing. Or perhaps in mutual orbit.

Lunar dreams

Forty years is a long time, particularly if you are only a smidge over forty yourself, like me. When I was a kid, I wanted nothing more than to be an astronaut and go to the moon like those guys did 40 years ago today. The father of everyone I knew – mine included – was some sort of engineer working to build the Saturn rockets to send men to the moon (for a while as I child I thought that when you grew up you became a rocket engineer if you were a boy and you married a rocket engineer if you were a girl; few other options in the world appeared to exist). When Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, I was pretty sure that that was exactly what I was going to eventually be doing, too. I drew picture story books of rockets and command capsules and lunar modules and splash down. I made cardboard models of Lunar Rovers and designed outposts where, I was pretty sure, I would eventually live.
The moon landings have faded into history as simply one of those amazing things that happened a long time ago that we don’t do any more, like dog treks to the south pole, first ascents of unscouted peaks, and world wars.
Every once in a while, though, something happens that pulls the moon landings out of the abstract haze of history and makes me remember: these things were real! They really happened. Here are two:
A few years ago I was giving a talk in New York City at the Hayden Planetarium, and I decided to spend the afternoon visiting the Planetarium itself and the Museum of Natural History. I was particularly interested to see how they were dealing with all of the controversy over Pluto, the then-embattled 9th planet. And I was mesmerized by the best example I had ever seen of a Pallasite meteorite – a chunk from the boundary between the inner iron core and the rocky mantle of a little dwarf planet in the asteroid belt which got smashed to little bits, one of which I was staring at. But the part of the visit that unexpectedly took my breath away was staring at the pictures that were strewn on the walls of the hallways of the Planetarium with little fanfare. These were full sized prints of pictures taken by the Apollo astronauts, prints so large that you could stick your face right up to them and see details that you would never seen in the typical book or TV show or anything else. And most of them I had never seen before, anyway. There are only a few canonical moon shoots that we have all seen over and over and over but most of the hundreds and hundreds of pictures have not gotten much light of day. And oh what pictures. Standing and staring at those pictures took me back 35 years to when I wanted to be an astronaut. They were really there. You could almost taste the moon dust.
My favorite of all of the pictures, and the one that made me suddenly re-remember how spectacularly far-fetched the whole idea of going to the moon was, was a shot where you could see the lunar rover in the near foreground and way way way way way in the distance was the lander. And suddenly I realized: these two men are so far removed from home that the chance they will ever make it back alive seems miniscule. They are hundreds of yards from the rover, which is miles from the lander, which has to take off from the surface of the moon, rendezvous with the command module, return to the earth, drop out of the sky, and splash down into the ocean. And it all has to work. What were they thinking?
I stumbled across one of my other favorite Apollo moments a few years ago through some sort of random web surfing, looking for I-can’t-remember-what. My eye was grabbed by a link to an annotated transcript of the Apollo 11 landing. I clicked and started reading. I looked up 30 minutes later in a sweat, my heart pounding, and, again, thinking: who possibly thought that this would work? These guys were insane. I was too young at the time of the Apollo 11 landing to have known at the time whether or not people paid attention to how close Apollo 11 came to not making it. And how nail-bitingly suspenseful to know if they were going to land or crash or abort or something else entirely. I won’t give away the ending (perhaps you know it already), but instead simply point you in the right direction. I can read the whole thing over and over again (and pause for all of the audio clips and film clips), but if you feel the need to cut to the chase, start at 102_48_08 with “Eagle, Houston. You’re Go for landing. Over.”
I just did it again. To get the link right here I searched for the page again and while I was at it I read the whole thing. And my heart rate is still going strong.
Just in time for the big anniversary there are a slew of new books about the moon, of course. I recently got two of them to whet my lunar appetite. They both have that ability to make me re-remember my astronaut-yearning days, but each in very different ways.
Who could not like the idea of Moon 3-D: The Lunar Surface Comes to Life? As long as you can get over reading the book while looking through built-in 3D glasses (and thus looking pretty silly to anyone around you, including even 4 year olds), the book is a pleasure to look through. I never realized that the astronauts purposefully tried to take 3D image. They didn’t have any of the bulky dual camera stereoscopic equipment that people usually use, they simply took a picture and then moved left or right a few feet and took another. The results range from hard-to-figure-out to spectacular. And the 3D really works most of the time (enough so that after the 4 year old was finished making fun of me for the funny glasses she wanted to look through them herself and she made ooohing and ahhhhin sounds and kept taking off the glasses to make sure nothing funny was happening). A personal favorite of mine is an Apollo 15 picture looking back at the lander with desolate mountains in the background and footprints all around the base. Even with 3D none of the pictures quite has the impact of the large prints on the wall of the Hayden Planetarium, but if you’re not headed into New York anytime soon, this might be the way to relive the moon.
The other book takes a special type of space geek to enjoy. Missions to the Moon, a big glossy book chock full of geeky things like reproductions of Wernher Von Braun’s design for a space station, somebody’s schematic sketch of how an Apollo mission would work, a schematic of the Apollo console with all of the lights and switches indicated, and, my favorite, the lunar module descent monitoring chart, which the astronauts would have used to look out the window and know they were going in the right direction. Couple that with the transcript of the landing itself and see if you can follow the whole thing.
After Lilah got done playing with the 3D glasses she, of course, wanted to know what all of those other things in the other book were, and I explained all about landing on the moon to her. Today, on our drive in to school, we listened to Buzz Aldrin on the radio, and I told her, again, that he was an astronaut who went to the moon.
“Why is everyone talking about the moon today, Daddy?”
And I explained about how on this day, 40 years ago, astronauts landed on the moon.
Forty years is a long and arbitrary time in some ways, but to me, and to Lilah, this was even more meaningful. I am 40 years and 1 month older than my daughter. I remember when Armstrong and Aldrin stepped on the moon 40 years ago today; the things I saw and the things I read and talked about affected the direction of the entire rest of my life. Lilah is, finally, the same age as I was then. What will she remember? Where will she go? No way to know, but I’d like to ask her in 40 years if she remembers a day we looked at books and listened to the radio and tried to remember what it was like 40 years before that when I was a 4 year old watching people on the moon for the first time.


  1. Thanks for the link to the Apollo 11 transcripts, Mike. Fascinating stuff! I've done a bit of programming on resource-constrained embedded systems, but nothing compared to the computer they had on the LM. Still, the work I have done certainly helps me to appreciate the engineering that went into developing their software. Wow. 1202!

  2. Howdy, Mike :)

    I timed my leave from Vietnam to coincide with the Moon landing. By that time I had figured out that war is a mistake, that it brings out the worst in people. I wanted to see Our Country achieve something that brings out the best in people.

    This was the most important event in the history of planet Earth. Everybody knew it, too. The networks responded by overcoverage, yes that was possible. The technicians & such were really busy, they were kind of fidgeting to get back to the job during the interviews. So the networks, knowing the importance of the event, decided to interview important people. And the important people knew this was more important than they were.

    "If we can go to the Moon, why can't we do (your favorite social program)?" I'll admit I had an incorrect reaction to that, I could see these people were promoting their agendas and viewed this statement as a logical fallacy, a comparison between apples and oranges.

    Though I couldn't make it to Florida I somehow felt a solidarity with the million people who lined the beaches to watch the show. Beneath the sound of the rocket you could hear the great cheer as the multitude urged the beast on.

    TV has an advantage, though. We could see into the capsule! They got into orbit, checked everything out, then fired the engine up to leave for the Moon. When the now-silent rocket had finished, they turned the capsule to look back at Earth. At that point, a highly significant event occurred which is rarely recounted in people's descriptions, yet was of great significance to the future of the Space program.

    "Houston, there is a cyclonic storm south of East Pakistan".

    There it was on the screen. A warpage in the fabric of existence, ominous and silent.

    "Could you give us a location on that?"

    "We'll need to get the telescope with the reticle on it."

    The eye of the storm gazed steadily as you could hear the astronauts rummaging around in the background. The hypnotic stare continued as they read numbers back and forth to each other, punctuated by seemingly long periods of silence.

    "OK, we got it" and the astronaut read the coordinates off to the ground crew.

    Then there was another long silence.

    "Who are we going to report this to?"

    "I don't know, maybe the State Department, I guess..."

    Somebody at the network's monitor finally snapped and broke the hypnotic eye's steady stare. They had a camera in East Pakistan! There weren't very many TV sets in the impoverished country and a huge crowd had gathered around one of them. They looked sober and silent and very, very concerned.

    My uncle Pat didn't like the show. He kept saying, "In a thousand years, nobody will remember this" and "It's so unimportant in the overall scheme of things..." I really resented that. Here I was, seeing Our Country doing something good and he was denigrating it. This continued even as the astronaut was carefully climbing down the ladder.

    I was about to slug him when my grandma yelled, "PAT, SHUT YOUR !@&~~& MOUTH!!".

    I think sniping at the Moon program was a product of jealousy. Uncle Pat I think felt his religion was being overshadowed by the significance of the event. The agenda of the apples-and-oranges guy was being submerged, but it was only for briefly. The astronauts landed, I went back to Vietnam, and life moved on. The apples-and-oranges guy actually achieved his impossible goal thirty nine years later as his people reached their ultimate pinnacle.

    "I have a dream..."

    We all have dreams. If you see somebody achieve his impossible dreams, don't get jealous, get even! Your dreams are important too. Nobody else's stunning acheivement should make you feel insignificant, instead it should inspire you to create your own significance.


    -Michael C. Emmert