Fifty years ago today, Apollo 11’s Saturn V rocket was launched from Cape Canaveral towards what most English speakers call “the Moon”. The US government had also tried to include the Soviet Union in the mission, but Khrushchev turned them down. I can’t remember the first landing at all although I do remember listening to the reel-to-reel tape recordings my father had of the whole mission. It was very much in the air of my early childhood and I do remember later ones, in particular the last one, Apollo 17, and I’ve had the experience I expect many people share of looking up and thinking, there have been people walking around up there.
I need to get a couple of things out of the way first. One is the issue of nomenclature. I call “the Moon” Cynthia and refer to her in the feminine, just as I call Earth Earth as a proper name, not “the Earth”, and use “she”. I also use gendered pronouns to refer to all planets in the Solar System. First the names. Although the word “moon” usually refers to the body most closely associated with Earth in her orbit around the Sun, she’s arguably not really a moon at all and the word “moon” is also used to refer to any natural satellite of a planet. Using it specifically as a proper name is parochial, and makes it seem special in a way which restricts our perspective on the Universe. A restricted perspective contributes very much to our predicament as a species. Every other moon in the Solar System has a name or a serial number. As far as I know, there are no serial numbers in use right now but there used to be before certain objects got names, for example 1979J1, the first moon of Jupiter discovered in 1979 by Voyager 2 now known as Adrastea. Therefore I call “the Moon” Cynthia, which is one of several options in the Greco-Roman tradition, including Selene, Diana and Artemis. In fact there’s a planned mission called Artemis right now, which plans to return humans there by 2024. I chose the name Cynthia because I have a slight preference for Greek over Latin, which I realise is not reflected in my name, but in any case it’s an epithet of Artemis, meaning that she was born on Mount Kynthos on Delos in the Cyclades. Artemis and Diana are hunting goddesses, presumably because it was easier to hunt by the light of the full “moon”. It really grates with me, incidentally, to call her “the Moon”. This does reflect a Western bias, but then we don’t use the Chinese terms to refer to planets in English so I don’t really see this as a problem.
And also I refer to her as “she”. I do this with all planets and moons in the Solar System, using the gender of the associated deities. This means that of the oft-mentioned objects, Venus, Earth and Cynthia are “she” and the rest “he”. This is not because of personification, although being panpsychist I believe that consciousness is present in all matter and therefore that in some sense they are all conscious. I realise it makes me sound like Francis of Assisi. The reason I use gender to refer to celestial bodies is to subvert the idea that pronouns are specifically associated with people of particular gender, and I also do it with other referents such as ducks, cats and dogs because the unmarked noun for each is, in these cases, female, female and male respectively. I don’t use the word “bitch” at all, so this means it sounds like I misgender female dogs but the real reason I do that is to restore grammatical gender to the English language and reduce its human significance. Hence there’s no astronomical significance to it, it just tends to be more noticeable.
The other issue that comes up a lot regarding Cynthia is whether humans really went there. The answer is, of course, that they did, six times, and that twelve people walked on her. The website clavius.org is the usual place I direct people to when they ask because they do an excellent debunking job, but I would put people who doubt in the same category as flat-earthers and creationists, and of course flat-earthers are more or less constrained to deny the visits too. I’m not going to spend much time on this except to observe a few things. There are laser reflectors there placed by Apollo astronauts used by observatories to measure the distance to them from Earth, although there are also two from the Lunokhod automatic rovers put there by the Russians, so in theory the Apollo ones could’ve been put there without humans doing it. In general the astronomical community is aware of these and some of them will have done it, which I think reflects one issue which might explain why people doubt the landings: they feel excluded from academia and perhaps envy the supposedly well-educated, and are therefore unlikely to know any professional astronomers, and of course there’s the Dunning-Kruger Effect that the less one knows about something, the less one realises how much there is to know about it. A few other things I find somewhat baffling. Some of these are the claims made about photographs having crosshairs disappearing behind objects, the absence of stars and the presence of letters on rocks. I’m not by any means an expert photographer. In fact, I take fewer photographs than most other sighted people in the world because I don’t use mobiles much and don’t own a working camera nowadays, but even I know the answers to those. You wouldn’t expect to be able to see stars in a fully sunlit scene like those in the Apollo photographs because if the exposure, aperture or whatever (see, I told you) was sufficient to show them, the glare from the surface would bleach all the details out. Similarly, you can’t see crosshairs in front of brightly-lit rocks because of the glare, and the likes of the letter C on them is pareidolia – seeing patterns where there are none of significance. The Van Allen belt argument is also easily explained by the route the spacecraft took and the short time they spent in the belts and there would in any case have had to be a huge conspiracy involving hundreds of thousands of people at a time when people didn’t trust authority with no whistleblowers. But I don’t want to go on too much about this because it’s been allowed to dominate things already, except to say one more thing: many doubters believe there was only one apparent landing rather than six and for some reason are also aware of Apollo 13, so they’re not that reliable.
I mentioned above that “moon” may be an inadequate word for Cynthia, which is a bit unfair because the original referent was her. She has various oddities which don’t apply to the other bodies associated with planets in this solar system. The mass is about 1/81 of Earth’s, which if Pluto is not considered a planet is far larger than any other mass ratios. The largest moon:planet ratio is about 1/4500 for Triton and Neptune. Among the inner planets only Mars has moons, and those are temporary captured asteroids about the size of the Isle of Wight. This worries me.
I’ve said before that one thing which would make it difficult for me to worship God would be if it could be demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that there was life elsewhere in the Universe, because I would then have to contend with a deity who had created a vast, empty Cosmos with us on just one planet in spite of all the countless others which exist. If it does turn out there’s anything special about Earth, this could lead to that conclusion. It doesn’t mean I’d stop believing in God, just that her ways would be not only beyond my own understanding but also absurd to me, so it’s more like a deal-breaker. Cynthia may be such an anomaly, because she’s responsible for the Van Allen belts. The magnetic field of our planet is generated by tides being raised in the iron-nickel core which then traps charged particles radiating from space, mainly the Sun, in belts around us. If we were to go to Mars or elsewhere, one way of protecting the astronauts would be to generate such a magnetic field to keep such particles away from them. The significance regarding living things generally here is that it prevents organisms from being killed by hard radiation. There are several things I’m unclear about with this. I don’t know, for example, if photosynthesis would be impossible on a planet without Van Allen belts because the upper layers of the ocean would be too irradiated, or whether organisms could survive underground running their metabolism on geothermal energy, or if ice would protect them. It’s also possible that a roughly Earth-sized moon orbiting what I might call a “warm Jupiter”, that is, one within the “Goldilocks Zone” at the right distance could be protected using the planet’s magnetic fields. As far as Jupiter himself is concerned, this constitutes a problem for any humans wishing to land on Io, Europa and Ganymede, all of which orbit within such a belt. Second-hand information regarding optimism about the idea of life on Europa in particular suggests to me that a thick layer of ice ought to be enough to keep life safe from such a threat.
Another oddity about Cynthia is that the gravitational pull of the Sun on her is stronger than Earth’s, which is not true of other bodies associated with planets elsewhere in the Solar System. Therefore, in a sense she isn’t so much orbiting us as that the two bodies are twisting around each other in their orbits around the Sun. This is another reason for not referring to her as “the Moon”, because strictly speaking she isn’t one.
I expect you know this already, but I’m going to mention it anyway. It appears that Earth was hit by a Mars-sized body now called Theia soon after being formed which chipped off the outer layer of this planet, leaving it to form into a separate globe. The density of Cynthia is only 60% of this planet, possibly because the lighter materials were nearer the surface. Theia was possibly originally a Trojan with Earth, meaning that she formed an equilateral triangle with us and the Sun. I personally wonder if she actually is Mars. Mars has a similar density to Cynthia’s incidentally, unlike Venus and Mercury, whose densities are similar to ours. If this hadn’t happened, Earth wouldn’t be much bigger than she is today, so life wouldn’t be ruled out for that reason, but if the Van Allen belts are essential, these would at least be weaker if they existed at all. There would be a weak pull from Theia but I don’t know how much difference that would make.
Gravity pulls apart objects less than 2.44 radii from a planet’s centre, which places a minimum orbital radius for a genuine moon orbiting this planet of 15562 kilometres. For that to exert the same gravitational pull as Cynthia, the mass of such a moon would only need to be about 1/600 of her mass. This is only a fifty thousandth of Earth’s mass, which places the ratio below that of Triton for Neptune. This makes the prospect of life on an Earth-like planet more feasible, but it still leaves a mystery: why have we got such a large associated celestial body?
There’s another mystery about Cynthia, which is that because she’s a four hundredth of the diameter of the Sun and four hundred times closer, solar eclipses are possible. This is apparently a coincidence, but it’s a very odd one because it means this may well be the only planet in the Milky Way where there are such eclipses. Elsewhere, moons will either blot out their suns completely or show a wide ring of the photosphere, but on Earth, although there are annular eclipses where some of the Sun’s surface shows, there are also total eclipses where only the corona, the solar atmosphere, is visible. This would make Earth a good tourist destination and it’s even been suggested that solar eclipses would be a good time to look for alien spacecraft!
As I mentioned before, the Artemis project plans to send more people there in the next decade. This opens up a further quandary for me. I’ve previously mentioned that the Doomsday Argument seems to establish a 50% probability of human extinction by about 2130. I’ve written about this elsewhere so I’ll just go through a few highlights of my argument. It partly depends on when you decide something is able to wonder if it’s one of the last people to be born, and also could be reinterpreted as a measure of whether the thought of human extinction is going to disappear rather than actual humans. The Singularity might be one way this thought could vanish without necessarily causing us to disappear, or a drastic increase in the longevity perhaps combined with a very slow reproduction rate could do the same. However, if I take the Doomsday Argument at face value, I have to conclude that Artemis will not lead to wholesale settlement of the Solar System or the construction of large space habitats, because the longer that goes on for, the less likely it is that the random sample of human existence which is my own life would be this early in human history. This thought opens up a new avenue of Artemis Hoax conspiracy theory.
There’s little doubt that if Artemis happens, there will be internet conspiracy groups which will claim that it’s faked. Strangely, there’s a corollary of the Doomsday Argument which leads to the belief that it will be a hoax, or that it will be half-hearted or abortive, or even that it predicts the imminent passing of our species before it can happen. This is how that thought works. If Artemis goes ahead, it could lead to lunar bases, and a jumping off point for human exploration and eventual settlement of other planets in this solar system. If this involves any large-scale construction of space habitats, settlements on Mars or the eventual terraforming of Venus and settlement there, this would have to be a short-term project. The “simple” act of rendering Venus habitable to an eventual population of a thousand million, less than today, with a generous generation time of four decades with mere replacement would only give the human race three thousand years more of history assuming Earth’s population quickly falls to zero. Projecting that backwards only takes us to the start of the Iron Age, so it’s not long and still means we’re near the end of human history. Space habitats have greater potential than terraforming or settling planets and moons, so this argument would effectively completely rule out their existence.
Early plans for visiting our nearest neighbour in space were somewhat different from what ended up happening. One idea was to send one astronaut who would spend a year or so building a lunar base which would then be inhabited by others. This would have given humanity a toehold on the place, but it wasn’t put into practice.
The trip there is only equivalent to ten circumnavigations of the globe. There are cars which have been further than the round trip. Although I don’t want to talk down the achievement, I do want to emphasise the idea that it might not be that difficult to go back. But there is one thing in particular which does make it harder than it seems.
Imagine you have a Betamax video recorder today which you want to repair. You’re unlikely to be able to find anyone easily who would be able to fix it or even find the necessary parts. Now suppose that repair person had only mended seventeen video recorders in their whole career, because there were only seventeen video recorders ever made. Suppose also, and this is probably true, that all the Sony employees who worked on designing and manufacturing Betamax recorders had moved on to other projects, retired or died. Your task would then be to manufacture a new Betamax recorder from scratch, and when you’d done that you still wouldn’t have a new TV set to hand you’d be able to plug it into, any video cassettes or even any TV signals which would enable you to record onto the non-existent video cassettes. This is basically the problem with going back. It’s really not that easy because it’s been so long that people need to start from scratch from a different starting position.
To conclude, I share the general frustration that nothing much happened after Apollo 17 and I see it as a general malaise of humanity, or a symptom of it, that we haven’t done anything since. But I would welcome going back, perhaps as the first step to something more.
An End Note
I word processed this one!