A Walk on the Moon

Occasionally, I while away sleepless nights turning the pages of Zdeněk Kopal’s A New Photographic Atlas of the Moon. I discovered it in a second hand bookshop on the Isle of ManIt’s an intriguing book,  packed with full-page photos of the lunar surface, photos  dating from the earliest unmanned Russian missions to the Apollo programme. Especially interesting are the images of the elusive far side of the moon. (One cannot  help but be reminded how much the Russian space programme achieved where the moon is concerned,  despite the fact that no cosmonaut has yet set foot on it).

Reading it at night, on the verge of sleep, it is easy to imagine yourself dropping into the pages and walking on the surface, trecking, for example,  across the floor of the crater Ptolemeus, towards its distant,  mountainous rim, or traversing the uncanny,  double-walled basin of Schrodinger on the far side. Since the gravity of the moon is one sixth that of the Earth, it seems reasonable to assume one could cover, roughly,  six times the distance on a moon walk as one could walking on Earth.

However,  despite the fantastic landscape and the starlit sky, there is something missing from my moon walks.  They lack something I inevitably encounter on my real walks across the earth’s surface: signs of human activity.  It strikes me as interesting that,  although I seek out wild places,  there is a satisfaction to be found in encountering faint paths, ruins, the traces of earthworks and so on.

Thinking along these lines, I happened to pick up Robert  Macfarlane’s book, The Old Ways and read this quote from Emerson:

All things are engaged in writing their history… Not a foot steps into the snow, or along the ground, but prints in characters more or less lasting,  a map of its  march.  The ground is all memoranda and signatures; and every object covered over with hints.  In nature,  this self registration is incessant,  and the narrative is the print of a seal. 

Perhaps when out walking I’m seeking not wilderness but a wildness where my species’ presence feels not overwhelming but proportional, like the presence of  one species among many. And perhaps, although history can seem nightmarish when written or spoken about,  perhaps there is comfort to be found in the unspoken history, the traces. It strikes me that,  whether  or not I care to admit it, were I walking on the moon in real life,  even though I had travelled through space for days to get there,  to encounter the landing site of a probe or an Apollo mission would be a highlight of the trip.


A View from the Rock

When I was very young I remember the grown-ups around  me would often talk about the scale of vast things -seven-figure numbers, the solar system, the galaxy and so on- as “unimaginable”. Even the earth seemed vast. I’ve often reflected on this since, usually thinking to myself that as I’ve got older such things have become more and more “imaginable”.

This reoccuring line of thought popped up again recently. The International Space Station has been making regular passes over Britain during June. One evening, I’d been watching the ISS Live Stream online. The stream was showing the earth as seen live from the ISS: below the station, the world was in daylight. Ahead, the “sunset line” was looming up, beyond which the world faded into darkness. I left the computer and stepped outside. I was seeing the same view, only from below. The sun had recently set and sunlight glowed from behind the hills. The ISS appeared over the horizon travelling from the light into the darkness, just as it appeared on the laptop screen. Obvious, really – but to see both views at the same time, one from space and one from earth, was uncanny. Another night I tried to photograph it. It was a last minute job. The expected pass was quite late and, I must say, it had been a long day. I was tired. I felt like going to bed. Five minutes or so before it was due to appear over the horizon I finally stirred myself to dig out the tripod, camera and cable release and lug it all into the garden. Five minutes. Everything would have to work first time.

It did. Fumbling in the dark with the controls on the camera, I set it -quite randomly but luckily- to make a 30 second exposure.

iss10june14So, that’s how far the ISS is seen to travel across the sky in 30 seconds. Looking at the photo, that old train of thought kicked in. It takes about 90 minutes for the ISS to orbit the earth. It took 4 minutes in all to cross the sky visible from our house. By my calculations, that means that 23 people evenly distributed around the earth would have been able to observe its entire journey. OK, so half would be in daylight, but you know what I mean – it made the world seem very small. The line in the photo represents 30 seconds of that journey. It’s just a matter of another simple calculation to work out that 180 such lines joined end to end  would represent one entire orbit. That didn’t seem a lot to me.