It has been fifty years since Neil Armstrong took a giant leap for mankind and stepped onto the moon. In celebration of this anniversary, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London is currently staging the UK’s biggest exhibition dedicated to our celestial neighbour, The Moon. With over 180 objects, including artefacts from NASA’s Apollo 11 mission, the exhibition explores what the Moon has meant to us from the beginning of time to the original “Space Race” and the potential plans for the future.
We have all seen the Moon: we have seen it when it is full and we have seen it when it is only partially visible. It is general knowledge that the Moon orbits the Earth but what is it? Why is it there? What is its purpose? What are its secrets? The exhibition opens with a look at the workings of the Moon and how we began to discover everything we know now.
The Moon is Earth’s natural satellite and formed roughly four and a half billion years ago. Throughout this time, it has been visible to the naked eye and observed by billions of people. Different cultures have related to the Moon in various ways, however, by the constant study of the Sun, Moon and Earth, philosophers, scientists, and astronomers have come to understand the Moon’s relationship to our planet.
One of the earliest artefacts in the exhibition is a fragment of a Mesopotamian tablet dated 172 BCE. Inscribed in cuneiform, the tablet describes the rituals that took place during a lunar eclipse. Today, a lunar eclipse is an exciting phenomenon and is usually advertised and talked about long before the event. For the Ancient Mesopotamians, however, a lunar eclipse represented evil forces and bad omens. Astronomers relied on the Sun and Moon to regulate their calendars and interpret signs from their gods. Darkness caused by a lunar eclipse was something to be feared and the natives spent the day banging kettledrums and singing funeral songs to chase away any evil spirits.
Suffice it to say, the Mesopotamians did not understand the occurrence of a lunar eclipse, therefore, it was only natural that they were afraid. A lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon, Earth, and Sun are exactly or very closely aligned; the Sun on one side of the Earth and the Moon on the other. The Earth completely blocks any direct sunlight from reaching the Moon; the only light it reflects comes from the Earth itself, giving the Moon a reddish glow.
A solar eclipse, on the other hand, must have been equally, if not more, scary for the ancient population. When the Moon perfectly aligns between the Sun and the Earth, a small portion of the Earth is engulfed in shadow. From Earth, the Moon can be seen to pass over the Sun, completely covering it for a couple of minutes. Unaware of the astronomical explanations, to the Ancient Mesopotamians, it would appear that the Sun had disappeared, which they attributed to supernatural causes.
By 1000 CE, astronomers were beginning to understand the movements of the Moon, however, they still used it to make predictions. In The Principles of Astrology by the Persian astronomer Abū Rayḥān Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad Al-Bīrūnī (973-1050), the different phases of the Moon are explained to be caused by reflected sunlight. Initially, people believed the Moon produced light, like stars, however, this was eventually found to be false.
It takes the Moon 29.5 days to make a complete orbit of the Earth. During this time, the Moon appears to change shape each night, going from full to a tiny slither and back again. The shape we see is the shape of the directly sunlit portion of the Moon as viewed from Earth. The angle of the Sun, Moon and Earth’s position, dictates the amount of sunlit Moon we see, as shown in James Reynolds’ diagram.
There are eight key phases of the Moon that have been named. When we can see a full circle, the Moon is aptly called a Full Moon. A half-circle is either the First Quarter or Last Quarter of the cycle, and complete darkness is called a New Moon. Between the New Moon and the First Quarter, the shape is known as a Waxing Crescent, and between the Third Quarter and New Moon, a Waning Crescent. The phases between a Full Moon and the Quarter Moons are called Waxing Gibbous and Waning Gibbous respectively.
James Reynolds also published information about the Moon’s influence on the Earth’s tides. The Moon has a slight gravitational pull on the planet, causing the oceans to rise towards it, thus causing high tides. When the waters are not directly in line with the Moon, they remain low. The Sun also has a gravitational pull on the planet, so when the Moon and Sun align, which they do twice a month, the tides are at their highest. These are known as Spring Tides, deriving from the concept of the tide “springing forth,” and has nothing to do with the time of year. During the First and Third Quarter Moon, the tides are at their lowest. This is called a Neap Tide.
Whilst studying the Moon and Sun, astronomers began to look further out into space, discovering other planets and stars. By watching these astronomical bodies, it has been possible to work out the relative motions of the planets in our solar system. An orrery, such as the one on display made by John Addison, represents these motions. When moving, the model planets revolve around the sun at the same ratio as the real planets. This model also contains the Moon, which rises and falls, mimicking the tilt of its orbit.
Endymion and Selene – Pollet, 1870
Before the world learnt about the Moon’s function, many theories and beliefs developed that usually tied in with various religions. When looking at the Moon, particularly when it is full, it is possible to see different shapes and shadows, which we know now to be craters and highlands. Before this was common knowledge, people made up stories about the shapes they could see, the most famous being the “man in the moon”. Others claimed to be able to see a woman in the moon and others a “banished man” carrying a bundle of sticks. The latter comes from a European story about a man who was banished to the Moon as punishment for collecting sticks on the Sabbath, the day of rest.
From the Pacific Northwest Coast of America, people believed they could see the shape of a toad on the Moon. A story claims that a wolf fell in love with a toad, however, the toad did not trust the wolf and in an attempt to escape, leapt onto the Moon. In China, on the other hand, the shapes take the form of a rabbit with a pestle and mortar. This rabbit, named Yutu, was the companion of the Moon Goddess Chang’e, who was banished to the Moon for stealing the elixir of life.
In Hinduism, the moon god is known as Chandra. One story claims he was cursed by twenty-six of his wives for spending too much time with his twenty-seventh wife. Plagued by illness, he waxed and waned in a cycle similar to the lunar phases.
In Greek Mythology, the Moon goddess Selene fell in love with a mortal, Endymion. To preserve their love forever, Selene put her lover into an eternal sleep so that she could visit him every night. A scene from this myth is shown in a painting by the French artist Victor-Florence Pollet (1811-83).
Pagan’s often celebrated the Full Moon, believing it was the perfect time to cast spells. Witches and wizards gathered on the night of the Full Moon to perform incantations around a cauldron of flickering flames. Other cultures also used the Moon as a cause for celebration. The Kwak’wala speaking tribes on the Northwest Coast of Canada hold potlach gatherings where high ranking members of the community wear carved Moon Masks and compete in ceremonial dances. The dancer who earns the audience’s approval is the “better” Moon. An example of a mask dating from 1983 is on display as part of the exhibition.
As well as worshipping the Moon in various ways, ancient civilisations used the Moon as a guide to the passing of time. Religious festivals were marked by the Moon’s phases and many of these traditions are still in use today. The majority of the world uses the solar (Gregorian) calendar to determine the date and time of year. Some cultures, such as Chinese and Islamic, continue to use the lunar calendar. Unlike the solar calendar that consists of 365 days, the lunar year lasts 354 days. Due to being shorter, each year begins eleven days later than the previous in relation to the solar calendar. This is why the dates of Muslim festivals, such as Ramadam, occur earlier each year. The first sighting of the Crescent Moon is a sign of a new Islamic month.
In China, traditional events occur concerning the position of the Moon. For example, Chinese New Year happens on the second New Moon after the Winter Solstice (21st December). Events such as these were recorded in almanacs, such as the ancient manuscript on display at the museum. Customarily, old almanacs were burnt to release their powers back to the Moon, however, this manuscript (877 CE) was discovered in a hidden cave in China at the beginning of the 20th century, thus has been preserved for posterity.
Many cultures gave the Full Moons names in relation to the weather or festivities held during those seasons. Before calendars were invented, people could keep track of the time of year by counting the Full Moons. In some North American communities, the twelve Full Moons were known as Wolf Moon, Snow Moon, Sap Moon, Worm Moon, Planting Moon, Strawberry Moon, Thunder Moon, Grain Moon, Harvest Moon, Hunter’s Moon, Beaver Moon, and Cold Moon. The Planting Moon, which occurs in May, and the Harvest Moon (September) were guides and instructions for farmers. Snow Moon (February) and Thunder Moon (July) warned of extreme weather conditions.
Harvest Moon – John Linnell
The Thames and Greenwich Hospital by Moonlight – Henry Peter
Netley Abbey by Moonlight – John Constable
Journey of the Private Moon – Leonid Tishkov
The old names for the Full Moon have mostly been confined to the past, however, the Harvest Moon is occasionally still referenced. The Harvest Moon is traditionally the Full Moon that takes place closest to the autumn equinox (21st September). Unlike the other Full Moons of the year, the Harvest Moon rises closest to the sunset, allowing it to shine brightly all night. Before artificial lighting, farmers were able to use the moonlight to continue harvesting crops after sunset. John Linnell (1792-1882), an English landscape artist, painted families returning from the fields with the Harvest Moon lighting their way.
The Moon has been a regular feature in artworks throughout the centuries. As well as Linnell’s Harvest Moon, the exhibition features a handful of paintings by a variety of artists, including J. M. W. Turner’s (1775-1851) Moonlight on River. Landscape artist Henry Pether (d.1865) also produced a painting of the Moonlight reflecting on the river. The Thames and Greenwich Hospital by Moonlight highlights the blueish glow the Moon casts across the water. John Constable (1776-1837) used similar blue shades in his painting of Netley Abbey by Moonlight. The colours give Southampton’s medieval monastery a melancholy, mystical air.
Contemporary artists continue to feature the Moon in their artworks, such as Leonid Tishkov (b.1953), who created the giant mobile installation of a crescent moon that hangs in the centre of the gallery. The Russian artist takes his installation around the world, photographing it in a variety of landscapes and city spaces. When the photographs, such as one showing the Moon in bed, are placed together, they tell the story of a man who discovered the Moon in his attic and decided to spend his life with her despite being a rather unconventional couple.
Of course, these artworks featuring the Moon are not scientifically accurate. The first drawing of the Moon from telescopic observations was produced by Thomas Harriot (1560-1621). The mathematician and astronomer who founded the English school of algebra noticed the various contours and shapes on the Moon and produced the first lunar map based on these. We now refer to the shaded lunar plains on the map as seas.
Whilst Harriot was celebrated for his achievement, it was the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) who received the most praise for his telescopic observations of the Moon. Galileo interpreted the shadows on the Moon as craters and mountains, claiming that the Moon had a similar landscape to Earth. This led Galileo to make the groundbreaking announcement that the universe was not Earth-centred. Through his observations of the Moon, planets, and stars, Galileo published Sidereus Nuncius containing his theory that the planets revolved around the Sun and not around the Earth as previously believed. Despite these findings, it took the population of the world a while to accept his ideas. The Catholic Church condemned Galileo for “vehement suspicion of heresy”.
The English artist John Russell (1745-1806) who produced portraits during the day, spent the night making detailed images of the Moon. Using a telescope, most likely an earlier version of James Nasmyth’s (1807-1890) on display in the exhibition, Russell spent twenty years making pencil sketches of the Moon. Later, using pastels, Russell produced a series of Moon portraits showing the various stages of the Moon, which included all the visible shapes and shadows. Russell preferred Gibbous Moons because they gave off the strongest contrast of shadows.
Russell’s detailed studies of the Moon allowed for the Moon’s libration – the slight wobble of the Moon on its axis – to be modelled on a globe known as a Selenographia. The brass globe also maps out the various shapes and shadows that Russell observed and painted.
Images of the Moon became more accurate after the invention of photography in the early decades of the 19th century. The first lunar photographs are believed to have been taken in the 1840s, however, not many survive. On loan from the Science Museum Group are two daguerreotypes of the Moon taken in approximately 1850. Daguerreotypes were an early method of photography made on specially-treated silver surfaces. The examples on display were taken by John Whipple (1822-91) and George Bond (1825-65) and were seen by millions of people at the Great Exhibition in 1851.
Through the aid of telescopes and photography, astronomers were able to produce fairly accurate maps of the Moon. Working from hundreds of drawings, the amateur astronomer Hugh Percy Wilkins (1896-1960) was able to produce the most detailed lunar map ever made. This map was used by the Soviet Union and NASA during their “Space Race”.
The Space Race began during the Cold War in 1957 and lasted until 1969. Whilst the Soviet Union and the USA could not attack each other violently, they competed to prove their superiority and technological power by racing to become the first nation to reach the Moon. In 1955, the USA announced their plans to launch an artificial satellite into space, however, once the Soviets learnt of the plan, they fought to beat them to it, launching Sputnik 1 in 1957. The satellite orbited the Earth for three weeks after which the Soviets launched Sputnik 2, with Laika the dog on board. Sadly, the dog died within a few hours of the launch, however, that did not deter the Soviets or the USA who began sending various animals into space.
The Soviet Union became the first nation to land a man-made object on the Moon. Their robotic probe Luna 1 travelled close to the Moon at the beginning of 1959, however, half a year later, Luna 2 (crash)landed onto the surface.
In 1958, the US government founded the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in order to compete with the Soviet Union. NASA’s first space program, Project Mercury, launched two chimpanzees into space to test the future of human space flight. Once again, the Soviet Union beat them to it and on 12th April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (1934-68) completed one orbit of the Earth. A mere few weeks later, Alan Shepard (1923-98) became the first American man in space.
Once they knew human beings could be successfully launched into space, NASA launched its Apollo Space Programme, the programme that would eventually see humans walk on the Moon. Before that, the Soviet Union launched the first woman into space. To date, Valentina Tereshkova (b.1937) has been the only woman to fly solo on a space mission. She spent three weeks in space during which time she orbited the earth 48 times.
The Soviet Union also became the first nation to launch the first multi-person crew. In 1964 Vaskhod 1, carrying three people, reached an altitude of 336 km (209 miles). Two years later, the Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov (b.1934) completed the first space walk. To prove the Americans could do it too, Ed White (1930-67) achieved the same feat three months later.
Although the Soviets were the first to launch a multi-person crew, on Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8 became the first crewed mission to orbit the Moon. They were the first humans to see the far side of the Moon and were witness to the Earth rising beyond the Moon, as photographed by Bill Anders (b.1933).
Finally, on 21st July 1969, the USA won the “race” when Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong (1930-2012) stepped out onto the Moon. Watched by millions of people on television back home on Earth, Armstrong became the first man to walk on the Moon, shortly followed by Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin (b.1930).
Neil Armstrong – Paul Calle
It took over 400,000 people to get Armstrong and Aldrin on the Moon, as well as the ten men that followed. The photograph of the Cape Kennedy Space Launching Station taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) in 1967 shows only a small section of the Mission Control Center.
The hype surrounding the Apollo missions increased the closer it got to the reality of men walking on the Moon. Toys, magazines, books and films were produced and sold in honour of the momentous event. British textile designer Eddie Squire (1940-95) was inspired by the lunar landing and produced designs in commemoration. This includes a denim jacket (on show in the exhibition) and Lunar Rocket furnishing fabric.
Before the launch of Apollo 11, American artist Paul Calle (1928-2010) was granted privileged access to the astronauts. He watched them go about their preparations to enter the spacecraft, making on the spot sketches all the while. Apollo 11 was a mission full of danger and the astronauts were aware these could be their final moments on Earth.
Thankfully, the astronauts returned to Earth as heroes. Armstrong and Aldrin explored a small portion of the Moon for 21 hours whilst Command Module Pilot Michael Collins (b.1930) orbited the Moon alone in the spacecraft Columbia. Whenever Collins flew behind the Moon, all communication signals were cut off with Earth; he was truly alone.
The crew kept in contact with NASA’s ground control via special headsets, such as the “Snoopy Cap” worn by Buzz Aldrin. Named because it resembled the head of the beagle Snoopy in Charles M. Schulz’s (1922-2000) Peanuts Cartoons, the dog also became a mascot for the mission.
The astronauts left the US flag and a note saying, “We came in peace for all mankind,” and returned with a sample of moon rock. President Richard Nixon (1913-94) ordered that all nations on Earth be given a sample of moon rock as a diplomatic gift. Although 270 “goodwill” moon rocks were presented, 180 are now unaccounted for, either lost or stolen. Fortunately, the United Kingdom is still in possession of their particles of moon rock embedded in plastic, which is on display as part of the exhibition.
There have been a total of 17 Apollo missions and twelve men have walked on the Moon, however, no one has been there again since 1972. The first Apollo mission resulted in disaster when a launch test in 1967 went wrong, causing a fire and killing all three crew members. After this, Apollo missions 2 through to 6 were un-crewed and stayed relatively close to Earth. The first successful crewed Apollo mission took place on 11th October 1968. The crew stayed close to the Earth’s orbit and tested command and service modules for almost eleven days.
As mentioned earlier, Apollo 8 became the first mission to orbit the Moon. Setting off on 21st December 1968, the crew reached the Moon on Christmas Eve, returning to Earth six days after launch. Apollo 9 spent 10 days in low-Earth orbit so that the astronauts could test engines, life-support, and navigation systems. This was all in preparation for the eventual touchdown on the Moon. Apollo 10 was a dress rehearsal for the Moon landing; the craft stopped 15.6 km (9.7 miles) from the surface of the Moon before returning home.
The entire world celebrated the first Moon landing in 1969, however, the Apollo missions did not stop there. In November of the same year, two more men walked on the Moon. Apollo 12 focused on extracting rock from the Moon’s surface.
Apollo 13 was aborted after an oxygen tank exploded, leaving the crew with limited life-support. With help and advice from the ground crew, the astronauts put makeshift repairs in place and returned safely to Earth. In January 1971, Apollo 14 successfully reached the Moon where they stayed for two days. During this time, the astronauts conducted experiments and had a game of golf.
In July 1971, the Apollo 15 team were able to explore 17.5 miles of the Moon’s surface. Before returning, they left a memorial on the Moon to commemorate the fourteen astronauts and cosmonauts who died during the Space Race. Apollo 16 brought back more samples of moon rock, and one astronaut left a photo of his family on the Moon. Finally, Apollo 17 broke records with the longest stay on the Moon, the longest moonwalk and the largest collection of lunar samples. There were plans for Apollos 18, 19 and 20, however, significant budget cuts meant they had to be abandoned.
“The Moon is a mysterious world to us. We have a responsibility to explore and understand it.”
– Wu Weiran, Chinese Lunar Exploration Program, 2019
The exhibition ends with a look at the plans for a future visit to the Moon. It may take another 15 to 30 years to get humans back on the Moon, but a British team are building an experiment to fly on the Luna 27 in 2023.
The future for the Moon is uncertain. Will humans walk on it once more? Will we be able to live on the Moon? Many signs point to the answer “yes”, however, this leads to further questions, such as, “Who owns the Moon?” and “Would we end up causing damages?” Most importantly, the moral debate as to whether it is right to experiment with the Moon causes us to wonder if we should leave it alone.
The Moon exhibition takes visitors on a journey from the ancient past to the distant future. From myth and legend to scientifically proven fact, the National Maritime Museum has succeeded in delivering the biggest, most interesting exhibition about the Moon. With an in-depth look at the Apollo 11 mission, it is a perfect way of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing.
With tickets priced at £9 per adult and £4.50 for students, The Moon can be visited up until 5th January 2020.
My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: Anchor, Breaker, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts and Spotify.
If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!