A History of the Moon

By Tim Lambert

Observing the Moon

The Moon has always been visible of course but the Ancient Greeks were the first people to begin to understand it. About 450 BC an Ancient Greek called Anaxagoras realized that the Moon does not shine with its own light. Instead, its light is reflected from the Sun.

Another Ancient Greek named Aristarchus (c 310-230 BC) measured the relative distances of the Sun and Moon. He realized the Sun is much further away than the Moon. He also attempted to measure the size of the Moon relative to the Earth but overestimated its size. He thought it was about 1/2 the size of the Earth when in fact it was about 1/4. About 150 BC a Greek called Seleucus of Seleucia realized the Moon causes the tides on Earth.

However, no further information about the Moon could be gained till the telescope was invented. Galileo turned his telescope on the Moon. The ancient Greeks believed that the Moon was smooth. Looking through a telescope Galileo could see the Moon’s surface is rough, with mountains and craters.

Following the invention of the telescope, people began to make charts of the Moon. In 1647 a Polish astronomer called Johannes Hevelius published an ‘atlas’ of the Moon called Selenographia. (Selene was a Greek goddess of the Moon). The first photo of the Moon was taken in 1839 by Louis Daguerre.

The Moon in Science Fiction

In the 2nd century, a man named Lucian wrote a book about a ship that is lifted on a waterspout to the Moon. The great astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote a story about a trip to the Moon called The Dream, which was published after his death, in 1634. Later in the 17th century, Cyrano de Bergerac wrote a story called Voyage to the Moon.

The first realistic story about traveling to the Moon was a book called From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne published in 1865. It was followed by a book called The First Men in the Moon by H G Wells. In the late 20th century science fiction novels about human beings colonizing the Moon became common.

Many films have been made about the Moon. Among them was Moon Zero Two in 1969. In the TV program, the Moon was blasted out of its orbit and wanders through space.

Exploring the Moon

In January 1959 the Russians launched the first space probe, Luna I (Luna was a Roman Moon goddess). It flew within 5,000 miles of the Moon. Also in 1959 Luna 2 crashed onto the Moon. In October 1959 Luna 3 took the first photos of the Dark Side of the Moon. Then in 1964 Ranger 7 sent back detailed photos of the Moon. Finally, in 1966 Luna 9 achieved the first soft landing on the Moon. It was the first of several Soviet probes to land on the Moon.

Meanwhile, in 1961 President Kennedy proposed to land a man on the Moon ‘before the decade is out’. The first step was Apollo 8, which was launched on 21 December 1968 carrying 3 astronauts. The spacecraft orbited the Moon 10 times and returned safely to Earth. Further preparations followed with Apollo 9 and Apollo 10 in 1969.

There were 3 astronauts on the Apollo 11 mission, Neil Armstrong, Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin, and Michael Collins. The Apollo 11 mission was launched on 16 July 1969. It went into Lunar orbit on 19 July 1969. On 20 July the Lunar module, Eagle separated from the Command module, Columbia piloted by Collins. The Eagle landed on the same day. Then on 21 July 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the Moon. The astronauts returned to Earth on 24 July 1969. Apollo 12 landed in the Ocean of Storms in November 1969.

Apollo 13 was launched in April 1970. However, the mission was aborted after an oxygen tank exploded. The next mission to the Moon was Apollo 14 in February 1971. Apollo 15 followed it in July 1971. It carried a lunar roving vehicle. Apollo 16 landed on the Moon in April 1972 and finally, Apollo 17 landed in December 1972. No human beings have landed on the Moon since then.

However, in 1994 Clementine probe mapped the Lunar surface from orbit. In 1997 Lunar Prospector went into orbit around the Moon. In 1999 Lunar Prospector crashed near the South Pole of the Moon in an attempt to find water – it didn’t find any.

In 2003 Smart 1 was sent into orbit around the Moon. It deliberately crashed onto the Moon in 2006. In 2007 China sent a probe called Chang’e 1 into orbit around the Moon. It was followed by Chang’e 2 in 2010. In 2008 India sent a probe to the Moon. It was called Chandrayaan-1.

Meanwhile, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter was launched in 2009. So was LCross (Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite). In 2011 Grail (The Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory) was launched. Then in 2013, China landed a robot craft called Chang’e 3 on the Moon. In 2019 China landed a spacecraft called Chang’e 4 on the dark side of the Moon.

In 2024 Odysseus became the first privately owned spacecraft to land on the Moon.

One day human beings will return to the Moon.

Last revised 2024

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