Book World: Exploring the moon’s past and its future

|     Eli Kintisch, The Washington Post     |

The Moon: A History for the Future By Oliver Morton

AS CELESTIAL objects go, our moon is kind of dull. It’s desolate, rocky, and devoid of life, liquid water and clouds.

These days astronomers rarely study the moon – and in fact their telescopes actively avoid it, as its reflected light disrupts observations of more distant, captivating features of the universe. And the rest of us? As Oliver Morton observes in his new book, The Moon, our nearest neighbour is “often seen but rarely looked for”.

But with the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s ‘giant leap for mankind’ this coming week, the moon has orbited back into the popular imagination. And for good reason, Morton said. He makes the convincing case that there’s no more important object above our heads – other than the sun.

The moon “completes the Earth”, he writes. Its gravitational pull creates tides, ordering biology and hydrology across the planet. Lunar phases, meanwhile, have “defined time since time was first defined”.

In the 17th Century, observations of reflected ‘earthshine’ on the moon – in which the earth reflects the sun’s light upon the lunar surface – challenged the Aristotelian geocentric model of the solar system. “In Galileo’s words,” Morton writes, “it drew the Earth ‘into the dance of stars’.”

– PHOTO: WP-BLOOM

Morton celebrates what he calls the Return to the Moon – the effort of nations and private companies to deploy robotic landers on the lunar surface in preparation for a new round of human visits.

“The first tickets for the Return have been booked,” he writes. “Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese billionaire, has purchased a trip to the Moon for sometime in 2023, though he realises that the flight may be delayed, what with the relevant spaceship not yet having been built or tested.”

Yet, Maezawa has made a significant down payment in the belief that Elon Musk’s company SpaceX will get him there. Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos, who is spending billions on his space company, Blue Origin, also has grand ambitions beyond Earth.

“Bezos talks of a future a few decades hence in which a million people live in orbit, at least for some of their time, running industries that no longer have a place on Earth,” Morton writes.

Morton’s science writing is compelling and clear. Sections on the formation of the moon and the history of lunar science are engrossing, if sometimes excessively detailed. He provides a gripping account of a hugely consequential event more than four billion years ago. – WP-BLOOM