The Moon: an in-depth study of our closest celestial companion

The moon has inspired us to reach for the heavens. Could it be our next home?

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Oliver Morton’s 2007 book Eating the Sun is a brilliant exploration of how that single star in our solar system, via the processes of plant photosynthesis, has driven the entirety of life on our planet. With The Moon he offers an equally in-depth study of the Earth’s other great celestial companion.

The moon may be our only natural satellite and, at a distance of 373,000 kilometres, it is by a vast margin our nearest cosmic neighbour. The waxing or waning of its eerie glow has mystified and inspired humans for the entirety of our history. But just as that cold lunar light is a mere reflection of the sun’s own, so has it inspired in Morton a lesser work than Eating the Sun.

He is an author, however, hugely qualified to make the case for the moon. A scientist and journalist, Morton blends a profound grasp of astrophysical technicalities with a gift for precise, often poetic prose. He has equally rich insight into the philosophical implications of outer space upon human lives and in The Moon he has left no stone unturned in drawing out its psychological significances.

What very old stones they turn out to be. The most ancient strata existing on Earth, some of which are 4 billion years old, are younger than “all but the very youngest features on the Moon”. The lunar surface, made of a degraded material called regolith, is also remarkably unchanging. Every human has seen precisely the same lunar features. “The great bright craters,” Morton writes “and dark maria [seas] discernible to the naked eye have not changed one bit over the time that there have been humans to look at them.”

The moon may be virginal and sterile but it seems its own birth was highly dramatic. Largely based on evidence provided by the Apollo space missions, scientists have developed a lunar creation myth that is set 4.6 billion years ago in an eon named the Chaotian. It involves two celestial bodies – the proto-Earth and proto-moon, respectively called Tellus and Theia – which collided one fateful day in what Morton identifies as among “the most violent acts in the history of the solar system”.

His imaginative recreation of these events is superbly done and packed with mind-stretching data. The collision of Tellus and Theia, for example, sent out plumes of red-hot magma thousands of kilometres from the point of impact and unleashed an explosion that released more energy in a single second than all the world’s nuclear weapons combined.

Morton is very good at the basic Newtonian physics associated with moon motion. He explains in simple terms the multiple effects of lunar gravity upon the tidal patterns on Earth, as well as the more technical issues of angle, orbit and alignment that give rise to the moon’s monthly cycles and the various kinds of eclipse.

What is more unexpected is the moon’s part in overthrowing the older Ptolemaic cosmology that placed the Earth and humans at the heart of God’s universe. Leonardo da Vinci was the first among a group of Renaissance stargazers to realise that when there is a crescent moon, the darker lunar parts are still visible. These are lit not by rays directly from the sun, but by an ashen reflection of sunlight bouncing off the Earth. What Copernicus and later Galileo realised was that both moon and Earth were themselves in shared rotation about our singular star.

If the moon helped relegate us to secondary status, it later inspired us to reach for the heavens. Much of Morton’s book is taken up with a detailed historical overview of the moon race and its place in superpower politics. Such was the moon’s importance to the US government that it was spending 4 per cent of its budget and employing 400,00o people on moon landings at a time when the Vietnam War was at its height.

Morton does a great job of recovering the excitement – and, for their time, astonishing technical accomplishments – of the various Apollo missions. He is plainly of that post-1970s generation defined as “orphans of Apollo”: those whose hopes of an extra-terrestrial future were dashed by the faltering nature of the various space programmes.

Morton is now pinning his hope for humankind’s “return” (to space), not so much on Nasa or government effort, but on the private enterprise and cosmic egos of multi-billionaires such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. Where I differ with the author is on the prospect of living in some deep cave at one of the moon’s two poles. Cave-dwelling is apparently necessary to escape the thermal swing of 100°C to -150°C and the pervasive lethal effects of a dust made from splintered glass.

Here’s a thought. Rather than a new life in a permanent spacesuit on an utterly sterile rock, where the solar radiation and absence of atmosphere and gravity are completely inimical to life, let’s make do and properly restore the old home instead. 

Mark Cocker’s most recent book is “Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before It Is Too Late?” (Jonathan Cape)

The Moon: History for the Future
Oliver Morton
Profile Books, 352pp, £20

This article appears in the 07 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump alliance