BOOKS, FILMS, AND EXHIBITIONS DISCUSSED IN THIS ARTICLE
The Moon: A History for the Future
Apollo’s Muse: The Moon in the Age of Photography
American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race
The Apollo Chronicles: Engineering America’s First Moon Missions
Reaching for the Moon: A Short History of the Space Race
Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys (50th Anniversary Edition)
High and preposterous and separate—
Lozenge of love! Medallion of art!
First it was a heavenly body—a beacon, or a world, a place where no one could possibly go. Then, from 1969 to 1972, twelve people landed there in spaceships. On behalf of all humanity, they said. Is it time to go back?
Moon fever is rising. The fiftieth anniversary of the first lunar landing has stirred dormant memories and produced a bounty of books, films, and exhibitions. Meanwhile, technocrat billionaires have helped catalyze a new moon race. Elon Musk is marketing moon trips to the superrich, and Jeff Bezos says we should colonize the moon to save the earth. China landed a robot called Jade Rabbit 2 on the far side in January, and India is trying to get a water-seeking rover, Chandrayaan-2, to the lunar south pole.
“The Return to the Moon is coming,” says the British science writer Oliver Morton in The Moon: A History for the Future, “and it will be undertaken by men and women from many more places, and with more agendas, than were in the American vanguard of 50 years ago.” Early in his administration, Donald Trump promised a new moon landing in his Space Policy Directive 1—a two-sentence amendment to Barack Obama’s comprehensive fourteen-page National Space Policy—declaring that “the United States will lead the return of humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and utilization.” (On the other hand, he recently undermined his own policy by tweet, on June 7: “For all of the money we are spending, NASA should NOT be talking about going to the Moon—We did that 50 years ago.”)
The first moon landing was at once a historical inevitability and an improbable fluke. Inevitable because we had already done it so many times in our storytelling and our dreams. Astonishing, even in hindsight, because it required such an unlikely combination of factors and circumstances. “The moon, by her comparative proximity, and the constantly varying appearances produced by her several phases, has always occupied a considerable share of the attention of the inhabitants of the earth,” remarks Jules Verne in his fantastic tale From the Earth to the Moon (1865). The French fabulist imagined that the pioneers of space would be none other than Les Yankees: “They had no other ambition than to take possession of this new continent of the sky, and to plant upon the summit of its highest elevation the star-spangled banner of the United States of America.”
To get there, Verne proposed a projectile fired from a giant gun. He had probably read Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” (1835), in which a Dutchman journeys to the moon…
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