“If you want to write a song about the human race / Write a song about the Moon” sang Paul Simon, and so begins the National Maritime Museum’s captivating ‘Moon‘ exhibition. Despite having much sympathy with Gil Scott Heron’s more contemporaneous lyrical critique (“I can’t pay no doctor’s bill / But whitey’s on the Moon”), I can’t help continuing a life-long fascination with the 1960s Space Race, and so a trip to Greenwich was somewhat inevitable. And it was worth it..
The exhibition takes a chronological look at human interaction with our the Moon, from the earliest recorded naked-eye astronomy, through the enlightenment that came with with telescopic observation, ending by celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 landings.
As Earth’s closest celestial neighbour it is unsurprising that the Moon has long captivated homo sapiens. Its regular phases helped early civilisations keep track of time and the seasons. The Harvest Moon that Neil Young later sang so beautifully about, for example, has provided a signal to farmers for millennia that summer is over and it’s time to take advantage of extended light from a full moon coinciding with the autumn equinox to bring in the crops.
While the Moon’s goes through repeated metamorphosis, shifting from crescent to sphere in the eyes of Earthbound observers, it has always been there, a fixture in the sky and it waxes and wanes in a recurring pattern. Perhaps because of this general reliability, when the Moon appeared to behave erratically – disappearing altogether for seconds or even minutes – it provoked great historic consternation. Political leaders thus placed great store on having fore-knowledge of such momentus events, which is what inspired the astronomer, Apianus, to produce the complex mathematical calculations of lunar eclipses contained in his ‘Astonomicus Caesareum’ in 1540, a beautiful copy of which is on display in the exhibition.
One of those things that I feel I should have known, but didn’t until visiting the National Maritime Museum, is that it was a British astronomer, Thomas Harriot, not Galileo, who made the first telescopic observations of the Moon, just a few weeks earlier in 1610 than his Italian counterpart.
The explanation of why one man has become one of the most famous scientists in history and the other largely forgotten is, according to exhibition, something of the inverse of the usual class story. Harriot enjoyed a comfortable sinecure as astronomer to an aristocratic family in England, while Galileo needed to make discoveries to earn a living. Thus, the former was in no rush to publish his observations, while couldn’t wait to publish his sketches of the Moon and its craters. I also note, however, that Galileo’s drawings were far superior, as was his telescope – achieving a 20 times magnification, compared to Harriot’s six.
Harriot is not the only lunar observer to have been largely forgotten by history. Hundreds of male astronomers made attempts at naming the features of the Moon, but the first scientist to achieve a standardised nomenclature that could garner universal acceptance was Mary Blagg. One of the first women to be admitted to the Royal Astronomical Society, Blagg stands in a long line of women whose major contributions to our understanding of the universe have been obscured by their male counterparts. Caroline Herschel, for example, made all the mathematical calculations that helped discover a new planet, Uranus, but it was her telescope-maker brother, William, who took the plaudits, as Professor Ruth Watts has written about ‘Women in Science‘ (OK – it’s a shameless plug, but it’s a great book and it is by my Mum!).
I didn’t find so much that was new and interesting in the actual Moon landing section of the exhibition, but perhaps that is not surprising given the amount that I have watched, read and listened to about it already this year, not least in the excellent film, ‘First Man‘, and the strangely captivating podcast ‘13 minutes to the Moon‘, which stretched out analysis of the final quarter of an hour’s descent to the Moon over 12 gripping episodes.
Then again, I did get genuinely awestruck a few days later looking through the Moon landing memorabilia collected by amateur astronomer uncle, whose garden telescope inspired me to take an interest in the stars as a kid. Chief among the clippings was a ‘Spacecraft Commander’s Briefing Kit’ by Geminiscan from 1960, which promised to “put you inside Apollo to share every hour of the flight and lunar exploration”.
As I discovered over several hours of working through the material last night, the pack includes an incredibly detailed ‘Lunar landing mission profile’, delineating 85 separate stages of the lunar mission. I won’t go through them all, but Number 20 is my favourite – ‘Translunar injection’, when Apollo 11 left Earth’s orbit for a slingshot to the Moon.
Also included is a copy of a press release from President Nixon, issued in advance but embargoed until the astronauts had landed safely on the Moon, and which proffered a personal message to Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins: “You carry with you our national need to prove that we can invest in freedom and an ever increasing knowledge of man’s limitless capabilities”.
I imagine that that the message really chimed at the time, although it’s hard now not to wince at the casual sexism of “man’s” achievement, or reflect on the crazy Cold War competitiveness that led to 5% of the income of the richest nation on Earth being devoted to being the first country to plant a flag on a rock up in the sky. Moreover, Nixon’s implication that humanity is the god of all things and that all development is progress, sounds not just like hubris but an explanation of why, fifty years and countless technological developments further, we face an existential threat from human-induced climate breakdown.
Accompanying the briefings in the Geminiscan pack was a 7-inch single, ‘Man on the Moon’, providing “the story in sound of the Apollo 11 landing – July 20, 1969”. I’ve listened to much of the dialogue between the astronauts and NASA ground control countless times already this year alone, but there was something spine-tingling about hearing it preserved on a scratchy ’45 piece of vinyl.
However, it was the typed memo on orange paper headed ‘Rebriefing: Apollo Landing’ that most captured my attention in Uncle Malcolm’s Moon landing memorabilia. It is often said that the space race spawned the environmental movement, and this NASA missive explains why:
“The astronauts’ clarity of vision will be stark, since he is not looking through an atmospheric haze that distorts and clouds celestial objects. Earth will appear to be near…and very unreal. The psychological impact of the moment will be profound, even frightening.”
This proved true not only for the handful of people (all men) lucky enough to go to the Moon, but also for billions of others back on Earth, then and now. While Neil Armstong’s “A small step for [a] man, a massive leap for mankind” became one of the most famous phrases ever uttered, it is a photography of Earth-rise that has provided the most enduring image of the space race.
Bill Anders, an astronaut on the Apollo 8 mission, put it best: “We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth“. That’s my excuse for being a lunar fanatic anyway.