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Lost Moons

July 15, 2019

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first landing of a manned spacecraft on the Moon on July 20, 1969, during the Apollo 11 mission. About 3-1/2 years later, Apollo astronaut Eugene Cernan (1934-2017) took mankind's last steps on the Moon on December 14, 1972; so, a few years hence will mark the 50th anniversary of man's last presence on the Moon.

Edwin Aldrin lunar footprint

Lunar footprint, July 21, 1969.

Astronaut, Edwin Aldrin, of Apollo 11 was the second person to walk on the Moon, following Neil Armstrong (1930-2012) on July 21, 1969.

Aldrin photographed his own footprint in the lunar regolith, demonstrating the mechanical properties of this very fine, dry material.

(Wikimedia Commons image, via NASA.)

It's likely that our primitive ancestors conjectured about the nature and purpose of the Moon, but it wasn't until the advent of written language that such ideas were shared. While the Greeks and Romans associated deities with the Moon, the goddess, Selene, in Greek mythology and the goddess, Luna (from which we get the adjective, lunar), in Roman mythology, Lucian of Samosata (c.125 - c.180 AD) wrote about the Moon as an abode of life in his book, A True Story (Αληθης Ιστορια).[1-3]

Lucian's works were popular, and that popularity resulted in the survival of more than eighty of his works. A True Story was his most popular book, and it's the earliest science fiction novel. A True Story includes space travel and interplanetary warfare between alien lifeforms. In the story, Lucian and his shipmates are blown off course by a storm to an island in which the trees resemble women. After this, they are taken by a whirlwind to the Moon, where the king of the Moon is attempting to colonize Venus in competition with the king of the Sun. A battle ensues between these alien lifeforms, but a peace agreement is later reached.

Giant spiders in 'A True Story' by Lucian of Samosata (c.125 - c.180 AD)

Giant insects are a popular element in science fiction, and the giant spiders in "A True Story" by Lucian of Samosata (c.125 - c.180 AD) are its first instance. (Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley from the 1894 edition of Lucian's, "A True History."[2-3] Click for a larger image.)

As I wrote in an earlier article (Planetary Biosignatures, March 12, 2018), German astronomer, Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) speculated that the Moon could harbor extraterrestrial life in his novel, Somnium, published in 1634 after his death. Long before Charles Darwin's ideas of natural selection, Kepler had the idea that such creatures would have adapted to the long, cold lunar nights by hibernating or developing hard shells as protection.[4]

Kepler could not imagine any physical way of reaching the Moon. It was, instead, described to him by a daemon who revealed that daemons could at times transport humans to the Moon. Kepler thought that the distance from the Earth to the Moon was 50,000 miles, while it's actually about 240,000 miles. Kepler understood the lack of lunar atmosphere and the frigid lunar temperatures. He wrote that humans could breathe on the Moon through damp sponges, but they needed to be protected from the cold by the daemons. A century later, French mathematician, Bernard de Fontenelle (1657-1757), wrote a book, Entretiens sur la Pluralité des Mondes (Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds) in which he assumed that the Moon was lifeless.[4]

Frontispiece of the 1659 German edition of The Man in the Moone by Bishop Godwin

Francis Godwin (1562-1633), a bishop of the Church of England, wrote the novel, The Man in the Moone, that was published posthumously in 1638 under a pseudonym.

The frontispiece of the 1659 German edition, shown here, has the unintentional astronaut of this book ascending to the Moon in twelve days through the help of a group of wild swans

Godwin's astronaut finds that the inhabitants of the Moon live in a Utopian society. Homesick after six months on the Moon, he returns to Earth, landing in China.

(Via Wikimedia Commons.)

Cyrano de Bergerac is famous, not just for his nose, but as the author of "The Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon (L'Autre monde ou les états et empires de la Lune)," which begins,
"After many experiments I constructed a flying machine, and, sitting on top of it, I boldly launched myself in the air from the crest of a mountain. I had scarcely risen more than half a mile when something went wrong with my machine, and it shot back to the Earth. But, to my astonishment and joy, instead of descending with it, I continued to rise through the calm, moonlight air. For three-quarters of an hour I mounted higher and higher. Then suddenly all the weight of my body seemed to fall upon my head. I was no longer rising quietly from the Earth, but tumbling headlong on to the Moon. At last I crashed through a tree, and, breaking my fall among its leafy, yielding boughs, I landed gently on the grass below."[5]
Closer to our own time is the voyage to the Moon depicted in H. G. Wells' 1901 novel, "The First Men in the Moon," a story depicted in several theatrical films starting with a 1919 silent film production.[6-7] The method of rocket propulsion in this story is the unique anti-gravity material, cavorite. Cavorite enables the two principal male characters to journey to the Moon in a spherical spaceship that's steered by movable sheets of cavorite. A 1964 film adaptation has an additional female character.[7]

The idea of women on the Moon was taken to an extreme in the 1953 film, Cat-Women of the Moon, in which the lunar inhabitants are a race of women, some named as letters of the Greek alphabet (Alpha, Beta, and Lambda).[8] This film is notable for having a musical score composed by Elmer Bernstein (1922-2004), who is known also for the score to The Magnificent Seven. This film, too, has some gigantic spiders. This movie was remade from a slightly different premise as the 1958 Missile to the Moon.

As our scientific knowledge of the Moon advanced, so have the plots in lunar science fiction. While Lucian had a whirlwind bring him to the Moon, and Kepler thought that a journey to the Moon was possible only through the intervention of a supernatural creature, H.G. Wells imagined a spacecraft, and the 1950s films featured rocketry. Lunar landscapes were fanciful until Galileo's telescopic observations limited their scope. That's why H.G. Wells imagined the Selenites to be adapted to their harsh environment and living underground.

Sunil Chebolu, a professor of mathematics at Illinois State University ( Normal, Illinois), has recently revisited Galileo's estimation of the height of mountains on the Moon.[10] The Greek astronomers and their successors didn't believed that there were mountains on the Moon, since they subscribed to the Aristotelian idea that all heavenly bodies were perfect spheres. Galileo's telescopic observations in 1609 showed that the shading of the Moon arose from its topography, which included mountains.

Galileo realized that at the first quarter and last quarter lunar phases, the Sun will illuminate the mountain peaks before their sunward terrain on the spherical Moon.[11] Since the Moon's radius (1737 km) was known to the ancients, simple geometry and the Pythagorean theorem are all that are needed to calculate a lunar mountain's height when this condition is observed. The calculation is illustrated in the following figure.

Measuring lunar mountains

Measuring lunar mountains. When a mountain peak is just illuminated, a simple calculation will give the mountain's height. (Created using Inkscape. Click for larger image.)

With reference to the figure, if h is the mountain height and r is the lunar radius, and d is the ratio, r/|AB|,
h = |OB| - |OD|

h = (|OA|2 + |AB|2)-1/2 - |OD|

h = |OA|(1 + (|AB|2/|OA|2))-1/2 - |OD|

h = r(1 + (|AB|/r)2)-1/2 - r

h = r(1 + (1/d)2)-1/2 - r
The ratio d is easily obtained by measurement of a sketch, as Galileo did, or from a photograph. From his own telescopic observations, Chebolu found a mountain that's 2.39 miles high. For reference, Mount Everest is 8.848 km (5.5 miles) high, and the highest point on the Moon is 10.786 km (6.7 miles) above the mean radius.[12]


  1. A Voyage to the Moon: Science Fiction in Ancient Greece, A Classical Blog, August 1, 2015.
  2. Lucian, "A True Story," Greek text at WikiSource.
  3. Lucian's True History, Francis Hickes, Trans., 1894, A. H. Bullen Publisher (London, 1902).
  4. Ron Miller, "Early Ideas About Extraterrestrial Life: What Might Inhabitants from Other Planets Look Like?" ancient-origins.net, November, 17, 2017.
  5. Sir John Alexander Hammerton and Arthur Mee, Eds., "The World's Greatest Books — Volume 01 — Fiction," from Project Gutenberg.
  6. The First Men in the Moon, 1919, Bruce Gordon, and J.L.V. Leigh, Directors, on the Internet Movie Database.
  7. First Men in the Moon. 1964, Nathan Juran, Director, on the Internet Movie Database.
  8. Cat-Women of the Moon, 1953, Arthur Hilton, Director, on the Internet Movie Database.
  9. Missile to the Moon, 1958, Richard E. Cunha, Director, on the Internet Movie Database.
  10. Sunil K. Chebolu, "Measuring Mountains on the Moon," arXiv, May 15, 2019.
  11. Galileo Galilei, "Sidereus Nuncius," Venice, 1610, Albert Van Helden, Trans., University of Chicago Press (Chicago, Illinois, 1989), PDF file at Reed College Website.
  12. Highest Point on the Moon, NASA Website, October 27, 2010.

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