David H. Levy
Back to the Moon
I shouldn’t have been surprised by the complete success of the Artemis mission last fall. NASA’s A team of engineers really know what they are doing. The mission was fun to watch, particularly the brilliant light when the msain engines lit up, and it provided some hope that we may actually return to the Moon, someday soon. But somehow, it isn’t the same. Something is missing.
For those of us who were alive and young in 1961, do you remember President Kennedy’s poignant speech to Congress on May 25, 1961, when he asked the nation to commit itself to landing a person on the Moon? Only three days after my 13th birthday, this was a call I heard distinctly. I did miss the fact that this was the second of three speeches. The fireest call was during his inaugural address: “Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science, instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars…” And at Rice University he gave his third: “We choose to go to the Moon.”
On August 25 of the summer of 1960, I observed a 99.2% partial eclipse of the Moon in which the shadow of the Earth covered almost all of the Moon. I remember, a few years later, setting up my first telescope, Echo, across the street to time the Moon passing in front of star, and explaining to a priest who was passing by, that what I was doing might actually assist the Moon mission planning. Or not.
I have already written about where I was on July 20, 1969, during that emotional moonwalk. I listened attentively as the astronauts on Apollo 13 somehow managed to return safely home after the near-disaster of Apollo 13. And I watched the interminable countdown hold when, on December 6, 1972, the countdown was stopped just thirty seconds before launch. About two hours later the lunch was completely successful, and the program’s only geologist, Jack Schmidt, conducted a field excursion 240,000 miles from Earth, in the Taurus-Littrow valley of the Moon’s southern highlands. Í was enormously pleased and proud of Jack,” recalled his teacher Gene Shoemaker, “but I was also wistful. There but for a failed adrenal gland, went I.” Because of Addison’s disease, Shoemaker never made it to the Moon, at least not in life. After he died in 1997, some of his ashes landed on the Moon aboard Lunar Prospector.
In the 1960s, I used the Apollo project to intensify my own passion for observing the Moon through telescopes and binoculars. In 1961, Kennedy set the goal. Eight years later, humans walked the lunar surface in one of the high points of human civilization. That passion I carry to this day. I still enjoy watching the Moon, looking at its well-known craters and mountain ranges. The Moon is not just a thing in the sky. It is a place. Twelve people have walked across its surface, and with luck, more people will someday stroll across its surface.
I will never walk on the Moon. But through my telescope, I shall continue to view the Moon from southern Arizona. And when my eye touchers the eyepiece of my telescope, I will be as close to the Moon as I ever hope to get.