On July 20, 1969, humans set foot on the moon for the first time. It was the famous "one giant leap for mankind" that made our official footprint on our galaxy as a species: specifically, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. It's officially the anniversary of that moment this Wednesday, but even though it's one of the most notable episodes in the history of human science and the beginning of space exploration, it's not actually the most unusual thing that humans have ever done to the moon.
The moon has had a fundamental role in human culture. One of the first hugely successful silent films, George Méliès's Le Voyage dans la Lune, was all about a trip to visit the lunar surface, and a famous (and hilarious) epic poem from 1516, Orlando Furioso , includes a section on which a character flies up to the moon to recover somebody else's wits, which have been lost, and brings them back in a bottle. We look to the moon to diagnose our astrological fates, determine the future of space travel, and produce figures in folk tales and myth; but we've also had arguments about whether it's a billiard ball, wondered if it's inhabited by blue goats, and proposed it's actually an entirely hollow malevolent spaceship. We probably shouldn't be trusted with astronomical phenomena, as a species.
Here are five ridiculous things you likely didn't know about the moon, from hoaxes to very real possibilities about colonies on its surface.
1. People Have Argued About How It Works For Thousands Of Years
Humans have been scanning the night skies and establishing their own theories about cosmology for as long as they've been upright; but classical philosophers have had some very interesting arguments about what on earth the moon is for, what it's made of, and how it works. Aristotle believed it was perfectly smooth, rather like a pool ball, because the heavens by definition had to be perfect. Theories also included the idea that it was so smooth it "reflected" things on earth, and the possibility that some kind of mist between us and the moon distorted the way we saw things.
The invention of the telescope, obviously, put a stop to all that, as Galileo pointed out that the moon in close-up was hugely pocked and uneven (the result, we now know, of a combination of planetary disturbances and comet impacts). But some others had thought it was a bit strange beforehand; the Roman writer Plutarch wrote an entire dialogue about the "face in the moon," in which he made fun of people who thought the moon was a ball of air and fire and declared that the irregularities of its surface were likely due to depths and chasms as they were hit by the light on the sun.
2. One Of The First Works Of Science Fiction Was Written About It
The first science fiction writer in history predated HG Wells by thousands of years; it was the Greek writer and humorist Lucian, who wrote an incredible bit of fiction in the 2nd century including an extensive (and very silly) account of a trip to the moon. According to Lucian, the characters get caught in a whirlwind that lifts them to the moon, where they proceed to meet men riding on giant vultures and enormous fleas, all of whom were in service to an apparent war between the kings of the sun and moon. Lucian's account of moon civilization is a bit concerning; all they eat is frogs, and all the inhabitants can remove their eyes if they want to. It's a very strange bit of writing, and not perhaps an ideal place for a vacation.
3. The Great Moon Hoax Of 1835 Made People Believe It Was Inhabited
The idea that the moon could in some way be inhabited bubbled up in popular culture constantly, as Lucian proved; but it wasn't until 1835 that a newspaper really started an (accidental) frenzy about the idea. The New York Sun published a series of articles, purporting to be from a prestigious Scottish journal, that detailed the lunar discoveries of Sir John Herschel, the son of famous astronomer Frederick Herschel. The Sun journalists concocted all kinds of ridiculous things apparently "found" by Herschel as he looked at the moon through a telescope, including giant human-shaped bats, blue goats, and unicorns. Much to their surprise, the articles were taken seriously, Yale sent a delegation of scientists to investigate (whom the Sun journalists basically had to flummox), and the newspaper had to publish a gentle explanation that it was meant to be satire. It became known, hilariously, as the Great Moon Hoax.
4. Two Soviet Scientists Claimed It Was Actually An Alien Spaceship
Most people concede that the moon is actually a planet, but this idea isn't universally accepted; a slender portion of observers instead subscribe to one of the strangest theories in astronomy, in which the moon is a hollowed-out spaceship possibly used for observation of Earth by alien life. The idea was first put forward by Soviet scientists Michael Vasin and Alexander Shcherbakov (the official name for it is "the Vasin-Shcherbakov theory"), who suggested in 1970 that the moon was "the creation of alien intelligence" and was orbiting the Earth for no apparent reason. One of their big pieces of "evidence" was that craters on the moon tend to be shallow, apparently suggesting that they're hitting some immensely dense material, like, say, an inner shell constructed by alien life to be impenetrable.
5. We Could Colonize It By 2022
In 2015, a revolutionary new idea about colonizing the moon was proposed: mine various elements from the planet's surface to convert into fuel, and use that fuel in reusable rockets to help humans get to and from settlements on the moon. It wasn't suggested by some idle crackpot in a bar, either; this was a proposal commissioned by NASA to get their projected colonization costs, estimated at $100 billion, down to something viable, and was conducted by the National Space Society and the Space Frontier Foundation.
And their cost-cutting idea seemed to slash the budget: they projected the need for just $10 billion in investment, and proposed that it could probably happen by 2022. The base in question could start with just 10 people and grow to up to 100 inhabitants by 2032; equipment could be powered by solar power, and food could be produced through converting human waste into fertilizer. Plus, 3D printers might create new tools and necessities that couldn't make it over on the first trip. Basically, the future of the moon may well be the reduce-reuse-recycle lessons you learned in primary school; but in this case, we wouldn't be saving the Earth — we'd be exploring another surface altogether.
Images: NASA, Hevelius, Émile Bayard, New York Sun, Hope Dunlap /Wikimedia Commons