After all this time, the moon still manages to surprise us

“Look at the moon!” How many times have I said that when it surprised me, rising huge and orange at the end of the street, scudding behind icy winter clouds or floating serenely in the evening sky? I know I’m not alone in the joy I feel each time its nocturnal show stops me in my tracks. How something so constant and predictable continues to enchant us is an enduring mystery. In the course of our work to create this special issue commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, I learned that the moon has many more surprises in store.

For starters, scientists are still discovering new things from the rocks that astronauts scooped from the lunar surface so many years ago. Astronomy writer Lisa Grossman traveled to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, suited up and entered the laboratory that protects the lunar samples. She reports on recent discoveries including that the moon, contrary to its parched appearance, is actually wet.

Astronauts also left a lot of stuff behind on the moon. Some was abandoned by the necessity of hauling heavy rocks back to Earth, and some was placed by intent, including astronauts’ mementos and messages for potential future visitors. And, of course, the astronauts set up scientific experiments on the lunar surface, as staff writer Maria Temming reports. One of those experiments is still in good working order, and researchers are using it to test a key aspect of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. And we’re not the only creatures under the moon’s spell. Managing editor Erin Wayman explores moonlight’s sway on Earth’s creatures.

And in Science Visualized, we look at how humans’ renderings of the moon have evolved. My favorite was drawn by William Gilbert, physician to Queen Elizabeth I, who sketched what he could see with the naked eye. He thought lighter areas were water, which is incorrect. But we still call some darker areas seas, including Apollo 11’s landing spot in the Sea of Tranquility. 

There’s personal history here, too. Science News covered the space race obsessively (Page 38), from the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 (SN: 10/19/57, p. 243) to the tragic loss of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee during a simulated launch in 1967 (SN: 2/4/67, p. 112) and then on to the historic landing on July 20, 1969 (SN: 7/26/69, p. 72). The goal of our reporting then was to resist hyperbole, explain the science and provide context. We remain true to that mission today.

Back in the 1960s, the Apollo program was not without controversy; critics questioned spending billions getting to the moon when the United States was beset with social unrest and the Vietnam War. In 1972, then-editor Kendrick Frazier wrote of his hopes that “in a future and less buffeted age,” those critiques would be forgotten (SN: 10/21/72, p. 259). Our age may not feel any less contentious, but there’s no question that our trips to the moon endure as extraordinary achievements of science and technology.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.

More Stories from Science News on Astronomy