The Man in the Moon
Part One (~4.5 billion years ago to present)
Let me introduce myself. I am the Man in the Moon.
Like most of you I presume, I don’t remember all that much about my birth. I used to imagine all kinds of ways I might have gotten here. Once I had the idea that I had been captured by the gravity of my sister, Earth, as I was passing by. But I’m smarter now that I’ve seen so many close encounters like this in my life. The atmosphere of Earth would have had to be fantastically thick and deep to slow me down enough to catch me; I would probably have been going pretty fast. After that I thought maybe we had grown together from the very beginning, made from the same material and spinning around each other until gravity finally formed two encircling globes. But the problem with this idea is that I am lighter than Earth for my size, just 61% as dense. I have only a small inner heavy iron core and weigh much more like the light rocks that sit on Earth’s surface. It was possible, I suppose, that Earth was spinning so fast when it first formed that I simply flung off the surface by the centrifugal force. But no, that would have had to be one mighty spin, and that amount of spin, shared between the both of us, would have to be the same today because there is nothing in space to cause the friction that could slow us down. The thing I believe today is really amazing and kind of beautiful considering Earth has been my only companion for 4.5 billion times around the sun. I now believe a small planet, about the size of Mars, crashed right across the surface, like a giant asteroid, causing a fantastic explosion! The impact would have released so much energy that both objects would have melted from the heat. Most of the heavy iron would have fallen to the center, the Earth’s spin could have tilted from the collision to its present position laying about 23 degrees on its side, and the surface material would have mixed up just enough before the momentum of the “Mars like” object flung it out around Earth, making me. This amazing story is the only one that fits all the evidence I see today.
So when I was young I was actually orbiting much closer to Earth than I am now. Now I am about thirty Earth diameters away from the my sister, but then I was only four Earth diameters away. I must have looked huge in the sky from Earth – she sure looked huge to me! I was going lickity split around Earth at that time too. And I bet you are wondering one crazy thing about now. Why didn’t (and don’t) I just fall right back down on her after I bounced away? Well, are you sitting down?….I am falling down on her! – straight down right now. Ah, but there is a trick of course. I am also moving straight out into space in a perfect right angle to where I’m falling to Earth. And the amount that I’m moving away from Earth every second almost exactly equals the amount that I’m moving toward the Earth every second by falling into it. Add them both up and what do you get? That’s right. My orbit. Any orbit is really like this.
But I said “almost” didn’t I? Actually I’m drifting away from Earth about two inches/one time around the sun. Why is that? Well, it’s a bit tricky to explain. Gravity doesn’t just pull me toward Earth, it also pulls Earth toward me. This causes the water on Earth’s surface to draw up on the side nearest (and farthest) to me, which is called the tides. Then, as this bulge of water crosses the Earth in exactly the opposite direction from her spin, that friction causes her to slow down just a teensy bit. Now, the total energy of the spin of Earth and me can never be changed, as I said before, so that means I must go faster! But, if I go faster, then I must recede farther from Earth to stay in orbit. Imagine that. The tides on Earth are slowly causing my sister and I to drift away. Sad but true. I bet your head is spinning now!
Well, how did Earth get so much water anyway? Some of it I saw slowly drifting out of the rocks as she cooled off and some fell as rain out of the earliest atmosphere. I had some water too, but most if it was burned off by the Sun. I don’t have enough gravity to hold in an atmosphere. Those little molecules just get all energetic and fly off. But that’s not how Earth got most of her water. Let me tell you, the solar system was a crazy place back then. For about a billion and a half times around the sun we were both bombarded by asteroids (big rocks) and comets (mostly water). That was the most interesting time in my life really. The time that made my face! The dark areas are where I had magma flows (I was still hot then) and the white areas are where asteroids hit me. Earth had an atmosphere that was largely hydrogen at first, but soon became mostly nitrogen and methane and carbon dioxide. Anyway, back to the water! The comets just kept raining water down on the earth and gradually the oceans formed. It seems like a lot of water too, from way up here by me; about 2/3s of Earth is covered with it. But really, it’s only a small part of her total mass.
Things are much calmer now. There aren’t many asteroids or comets in our path anymore. I have gotten a bit boring. I haven’t changed much in billions of times around the sun. The most interesting thing that has happened to me is that the side of me with my face is heavier than the side with the back of my head, so gradually Earth’s gravity stopped my spinning until I only spin around just once each time I go around her. That means Earth only sees one side of me, my face, but that I get to look at Earth all the time. And how fortunate that is because, wow!, she changes all the time and is great entertainment for me. Early on in our lives the sun was dimmer than it is now and we didn’t get as much energy from her. A couple of times the water on the Earth’s surface actually froze over completely. The last time this happened was only 600 million times around the Sun ago or so. I’m not sure why that happened then, but she looked like a giant snowball. “Snowball Earth” I called her. Other interesting things happened too. For example, the bits of land don’t stand still. They float around on top of the hot fluid rock underneath the surface. Sometimes all the land comes together as one, and then it breaks up into pieces that drift around again. All this causes mountains to form, which gradually erode away from all the rain on Earth, and there are great volcanic explosions where the hot rock actually comes up and pops out of the surface. It has been fun watching all this activity even though the movement is kind of slow. It takes millions of times around the Sun to notice much difference.
But by far the most interesting thing that I have been able to witness on Earth started about 3.5 billion times around the sun ago, after all the asteroids stopped hitting us so much. Amazingly, parts of the blue ocean started to turn green(!), and if I looked really hard I could see it was some kind of life! I was amazed when this very unexpected thing happened. Over the next billion times around the sun the Earth became so beautiful, covered in white clouds of floating white water, blue and green oceans, and even the brown land became green in spots.
Gradually over this time I noticed that the atmosphere started to change and that a lot more oxygen was coming from somewhere…this new life? Now, you would expect that oxygen, being so reactive, would kill off any kind of life, like a type of poison. But that’s not what happened at all. What happened was that even more life came, only this time I saw that it could move. Creatures were living down there now! And periodically, when something happened like the Earth freezing over 600 million times around the Sun ago, or when a particularly big asteroid hit Earth, the life would seem to go away for awhile. But it always came back, usually even more than before. From about 200 million times around the Sun to 60 million times around the Sun ago, giant creatures walked around the surface, and they lived that way until the last big asteroid hit.
Recently, it has been interesting watching how ice has been coming and going across the top and bottom of the Earth; like little Ice Ages. But not nearly as interesting as what I saw happening during and just after this last icy time. Believe it or not, some new creatures had appeared that looked like they could cooperate. It was as if they knew what had happened in the past, and could tell their children, and that they could predict and prepare for what might happen in the future. They understood time and cause and effect. It has always been a bit boring for me when I was encircling the back of Earth. Just completely dark and not much to look at. But just 120 times around the Sun ago, lights started to grow in clusters around the dark side of Earth. From this I could see where it was that these new creatures were living in the day. Now, make sure you are paying attention to this next bit. Forty-two times around the Sun ago, these creatures built a kind of ship that shot up out of Earth’s atmosphere, flew up, encircled me a few times, and then came right down and landed in my face! My left eye to be exact. Now in all my billions and billions of times around the Sun I never would have dreamed such a thing could happen! Since they were in my eye, I could see them really well, and they looked pretty ingenious to me. They even carried little bits of Earth’s atmosphere in special suits so they could breathe.
And they could talk to each other too, about complicated things, which is actually how I know some of the things I do, like that I’m only 61% as dense as Earth. You can’t imagine how happy I felt to get visitors from Earth after watching her for my whole life. So far they have come to see me a total of six times.
Speaking of which, I’m about halfway through my life. About 4.5 billion times around the Sun from now, the Sun will grow very large and swallow both me and the Earth. I wonder what crazy things I’ll see on Earth in that time still to come. But my time has passed so quickly – it seems like only yesterday that I was young and asteroids were hitting me all the time. Ten billion times around the Sun isn’t really all that long. But then I think about those intelligent creatures that came up to visit me. Each one lives only 70 or 80 times around the Sun and then they die! How can they possibly find meaning and purpose in a life so brief as that, and motivation to do such amazing things like build ships to fly up here to me?
That is a question that I’d really like to know.
Part 2 (July, 1969)
I’m going for a midnight swim!
We had arrived late on a sultry Friday evening. I was hot and anxious to take in the crisp, but warm, air at the Hull’s big log cabin cottage called “The Leaning Pine.” If I played my cards right, I could get lost in the arrival confusion and wouldn’t be missed by my Mother and called out for being anti-social. I loved the Hulls, don’t get me wrong! But tonight I had a special agenda.
While the others greeted each other and unpacked, I grabbed my swimsuit and a towel, and headed downstairs to the changing room, a room in the walk out basement built with ancient stones, cool and smelling of must. I quickly put my suit on and headed to the large doors leading outside, opened them with a loud creak, and scuttled down the cement boat ramp that led into the water. Budd Lake was warm because it was rather shallow, and I wasn’t cold at all.
The waxing moon shone brightly in the clear sky and created a lighted pathway across the water out to my goal: a raft floated by six empty steel barrels and where we kids played games during the day. But tonight I was anxious to be alone.
I swam out to the raft quickly and positioned myself on the far side where I could not be seen. I took off my suit, set it upon the raft and felt my naked body beneath the black water. I imagined fish and turtles around my feet and occasionally brushed a toe past some seaweed that grew up from what I knew to be a mucky bottom. Just three years earlier I had been terrorized by a Baptist Bible School teacher about how Satan was coming to steal me down into Hell. But now I had no such fear, as mysterious and dark as the water looked. I’ve never had a fear of water or what lived in it. I love everything about water.
I looked up at the Moon above me. It was three-quarters and growing rounder each night and I tried to imagine the face on it that people claimed they saw, formed by craters and lava fields. But I was never very good at seeing a face there. It was easy to spot the Sea of Tranquility though, the Moon’s “left eye,” where the Apollo astronauts would land in 48 hours. They were already getting close, and I tried to imagine I had super vision and could see them. I felt lucky to live on a planet with a big bright moon. I understood its feminine symbolism; how it inspired lovers and poets through the ages; how it influenced the lives of people at night before the electric light; how it’s eclipses, both lunar and solar, provoked acts of religious atrocities among ancient people; how it had become the basis for many calendars; and how it unified all mankind by its presence in everyone’s night sky.
My Mom called out finally, ending my reverie with the moon and the water. She was perturbed, but already used to such behavior on my part. That night I slept in a sleeping bag on a cot in a screened in porch over the boathouse. I dozed off as the moon slowly made its trek across the sky. It was so peaceful with the natural sounds from the lake and the smell of pine needles, but inside I was a bit anxious whether the Apollo mission would go smoothly over the next few days.
The next morning, breakfast consisted of boxes of Dunkin Donuts that one of the adults went to get. All of us kids, three Browns and four Hulls, piled in around a built-in kitchen table surrounded by cute cottagey hangings like “We live on a lake. Why don’t you drop in?” A TV had been set up on the back porch which ran the entire length of the house. It was mostly turned off, only occasionally turned on, mostly at my suggestion, just to make sure everything was going well. Otherwise, it was a typical day at the Hull’s cottage, centered around the water. I tried to swim and water ski with the rest of the group, though it was a bit hard being so preoccupied by the moon mission.
In the afternoon, I went up to the porch and looked at the blank TV and lay on a couch or a day bed, knowing that the astronauts would be entering moon’s orbit right about then. I drifted off into a delicious afternoon nap, the soft summer air drifting through the open windows and with the raucous sounds of the families at the shore below and, more distantly, from the state park on the opposite side of the lake.
It wasn’t until the next evening, the 20th, that the TV was turned on permanently as the actual moon landing was about to take place. I don’t recall whether it was a new “color” TV, but the broadcast was certainly in black and white. In retrospect, everything seemed so ancient compared to today. Telecommunications and computers were in their infancy. The amount of computer power NASA possessed would probably fit in my smart phone now. It felt a bit like a “moon landing” party at the Cottage that evening, with people coming and going, checking out the progress. I was pretty much anxiously glued to the television set, and everything seemed to take forever in my ten-year old brain. First, there was the detachment and descent of the lunar module (LM) called “Eagle” from the orbiting vehicle (“Columbia”). This part was particularly harrowing for me, as I was almost certain that something would go awry. In fact, there was indeed a small malfunction at about 6000 ft. altitude – the on board radars, one monitoring Columbia and the other the landscape below, both starting working at the same time and overloaded the computer. A fix was jiggered and the descent continued smoothly, although a bit to the west of their ideal location in a more rock strewn area. I stood fascinated, watching the moon come up to meet the Eagle. They landed at 6:17pm EDT with 25 seconds of fuel remaining!
It then took an agonizing two and a half hours for EVA (extra-vehicular activity) to begin. During this time Buzz Aldrin made the following statement, which forever stuck in my ten-year old little atheist mind:
“This is the LM pilot. I’d like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way.”
Then a short time later Neil Armstrong began his descent to the surface, further delayed by the fact that the opening of the hatch was barely big enough with him all suited up. He back down the stairs and planted his foot on the surface of the moon at 10:56pm EDT. At this point he uttered the famous line: “That’s one small step for [A] man. One giant leap for mankind.” I was a bit appalled by his leaving out the “A”. Ah, but no matter! Flawed humans doing incredible things.
Armstrong was followed by Aldrin, and over the next few hours they performed various experiments and some childlike hijinks too. They collected 49 lbs. of moon rocks and left a plaque on the moon that read “Here Men From the Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We Came in Peace For All Mankind” and a disk that contained messages from 73 world leaders. Once back in the Eagle they slept and finally took off to rendezvous with Columbia at around 2pm Monday EDT. The ascent also went smoothly.
During the astronauts’ time on the moon I remember drifting over to the window, looking down on the lake where I had swam two nights before. Then I looked up at the moon knowing that people were walking on it for the first time, and I wondered – how was it that I was lucky enough – in all the eons of time in the past, and of all the generations to come, to be alive to witness such a seminal human achievement as this?
So. Much. Gratitude.
Epilogue (35 years later)
I am standing in the First Class galley on a 777 at Chicago’s O’hare airport before boarding, a flight attendant now, we are getting ready for the passengers on a trip to London. I rarely work First Class, I am not particularly posh, and I usually enjoy coach people more. A gate agent comes on board and informs the lead flight attendant and myself that we would be having Buzz Aldrin as a passenger in 2D. My side!
“Wow!,” I say. “Who is that?” asks the purser (head flight attendant). “An astronaut,” says the agent. “The second man on the moon,” I elaborated (a bit appalled).
I didn’t care about them though – this was going to be my best on board celebrity ever! I worked the flight as normal, except for occasionally looking over at him and thinking “that man walked on the moon.” He drank pretty heavily–scotch and water, if I remember correctly–adding some heft to his already extroverted personality. NASA would have done better choosing him as the first man on the moon rather than Neil Armstrong. He became a huge promoter of NASA and space exploration in the ensuing years after Apollo 11, while Neil Armstrong became a recluse. He sat next to his even more flamboyant wife in 2G, who catered to his every whim. He was looking very much more like a normal man than the hero of my childhood, but this did not temper my awe in the slightest. On the contrary, it made me think of what a normal man can do.
I always treat celebrities very professionally on the plane and act as if they are just regular people. I’m loath to do things like ask for an autograph. They are probably annoyed enough without being bothered by staff. But I felt compelled to say something to him in this case. But what? Everything that I tried to conjure up sounded so corny. And then it hit me! But would he get it in his alcohol tainted mindset? Would he remember his own words?
As we approached London, in our final preparations before landing, I knelt in front of him and said: “Mr. Aldrin, a few hours from now,” – a lump suddenly appeared in my throat and water began to gather in my eyes and I felt a bit panicked by this – “I will be in my hotel room and I will contemplate the events of the past few hours. And I will give thanks in my own private way.” He stared at me blankly and red-faced for a second. Was he uncomprehending? Astonished? Then he broke out into a gigantic smile and reached out to shake my hand. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you,” I replied. And then I stood up and turned away before the teardrop could fall over my eyelid. Water that, for all I know, came from comets falling upon the earth billions of years ago.