Some nights, when I’m taking out the trash and the lunar light beams through an empty sky so brightly it casts my shadow on the lawn, I admire the moon’s gloomy surface as if for the first time. That ancient wonder. I am not surprised that this heavenly body has inspired veneration since the dawn of worshipers.
As I study again the familiar pattern of craters another thought recurs that threatens to paralyze my mind with awe: we have walked upon that lonely surface.
What was it like, not just to rattle through the stratosphere hoping your vessel will hold up, not just to watch the firmament blacken as if the whole earth was fainting, not just to watch out the window as the only home you and every creature in this corner of the universe has ever known shrinks into a marble and drifts spaceward, not just to witness that silent host approaching and expanding until it fills the window, not just to embrace the vertigo and reorient to a new up and down, not just to hope your module doesn’t smash into the surface and kill you after coming this close, but to finally open the latch, descend the ladder, and push the bottom of your boot into the powder?
Was it like sand? Powdered sugar? Something in between? Buzz Aldrin said it was “fine, talcum-powderlike dust.”
What did it feel like to step forward, like a child on a yard of untouched snow, and to trespass a surface undisturbed by humans for all eternity? Would you have felt like a guest? This isn’t your home, but whose is it? You can’t be a guest to no one.
Aldrin, in the same interview, says, “I think the visual scene was described by my words on first landing—‘magnificent desolation.’ Magnificent for the achievement of being there, and desolate for the eons of lifelessness.”
Eons of lifelessness.
I’ve seen oceans, the Grand Canyon, the stars in the wilderness, and I’ve felt the awe that renders you useless for all else but gazing. How long must this feeling have clung to those astronauts, and how difficult was it for them to remember they had come to work and not to worship? “Mission” was the right word, insinuating the ambition of modern man and the reverence of pilgrims.
Imagine tracing over the monochrome horizon with your eyes and telling yourself this isn’t a dream. Imagine the silence. Nothing you do makes a sound in the vacuum. You know the science, you expect nothing, but still you glance up from your work now and again to make sure what you just heard was radio static and not a warning from the haunted farside.
As you romp around the surface collecting samples and snapping photos you see pebbles and rocks and boulders, hills and valleys hewn of violence—furious meteorites that barreled in from who-knows-where, set in motion by who-knows-what. Asteroids from the belt, of course. Still the mystery nags at you. You wonder: how long did they travel before they arrived? Is one coming now, even just the size of a grain of sand, and will it ram through my helmet at 160,000 miles per hour with no forewarning? Unlikely, but who’s to say it couldn’t happen? If this place is anything like home, it’s possible for it be friendly, cruel, and random all in the same moment—friendly enough to welcome you here safely; cruel enough to execute you with a bullet from an impersonal space sniper; random enough to have squeezed the trigger by a collision of asteroids at the far end of the galaxy a thousand years before you were born.
You look over your shoulder into the eternal midnight thinking you might see your destiny before it arrives. Then you remember there’s no atmosphere and there would be no friction or streak of light as it raged toward you. Only a dazzling and silent explosion as it made impact and killed, cremated, and buried you in the same nanosecond.
Back to work. You scoop up basalts to bring back home, the remnants of long-dead volcanoes. As you look across the surface you consider the ugly rubble at which every human has, at some point, directed their gaze. How many eyes have looked upon this dreary rock and hung their hopes and disappointments upon it? How can it be that a thing so common to all of humanity has been touched by only you? For all of the things the human race keeps from each other, this is one thing they have always shared and always will. And here you are, walking upon it, touching it, learning it like a child learns a shoreline.
How can it be that at one time you were a child, comforted only by the embrace of your mother, dependent upon her for every part of survival, and now you stand upon the moon! How can it be that you were the chosen child of a million generations? Billions of hours of scientific pondering, experimenting, revising, and discovering all rest upon your feeble shoulders. How could it be you?
When the shuttle has landed back on the carbon planet and the first interviews are over and you’re back in your house lying in your bed, you look through your window at the celestial light and have a thought you can’t shake:
Was that real?
Do you know it any better now than you did before?
You realize that while you have seen something no one else has seen, you’re not any closer to comprehending it all. You are like a child who, after seeing the ocean only in pictures and going to one beach on one day and feeling the waters of the Pacific around his ankles, clutches seashells and hangs his drowsy head as Dad drives home.
The moon stares back at you through the window, throwing the sun’s reflected rays upon your face, hushing you like a child to sleep.
- Buzz Aldrin interview.
- Project Apollo Archive. – The source of all photos in this post. High-resolution Apollo imagery scanned by NASA’s Johnson Space Center, available to the public domain.
- NASA’s Asteroid Fast Facts.
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