What is it about the Moon that captures the fancy of humankind? A silvery disk hanging in the night sky, it conjures up images of romance and magic. It has been counted upon to foreshadow important events, both of good and ill, and its phases for eons served humanity as its most accurate measure of time. Since ancient times, people have watched the Moon wax (appear to grow larger) and wane (appear to shrink) and wondered at its beauty and mystery. The Moon holds an important place in many of the world’s religions, and once had a part in other religions—such as Christianity—that no longer assign it special significance. Many of those religions see the Moon as a deity, with many names and many incarnations.
The Moon is by far the most dominant and changeable element in the night sky. It has kindled enthusiasm, joy, lust, fear, and horror upon generations of peoples of all races and cultures who have lived out their lives under its silvery reflected light. Defined differently from culture to culture and age to age, humankind remains captivated by its power. We have characterized it by its features, by its phases, and by its influence over Earthly entities whether they are animate or not. Moongazing remains one of the oldest pastimes in the human experience.
Ancient civilizations assigned the Moon dominion over their lives through supernatural intervention; others have envisioned it as a home for extraterrestrial life. It inspires poets and artists, scientists and engineers, creators and destroyers. With the invention of the telescope at the turn of the seventeenth century—coinciding with the rise of the scientific revolution—the Moon took on new meaning as a tangible place with mountains and valleys and craters that could be named and geological features and events that could be studied.
The first truly modern science fiction writer, Jules Verne, specifically focused on the Moon in his novels. For example, in 1865 Verne published De la Terre a la Lune (From the Earth to the Moon). The scientific principles informing this book were very accurate for the period. It described the problems of building a vehicle and launch mechanism to visit the Moon. At the end of the book, Verne’s characters were shot into space by a 900-foot-long cannon. Verne picked up the story in a second novel, Autour de la Lune (Around the Moon), describing a lunar orbital flight, but he did not allow his characters actually to land.
The Moon is often seen as a gift of intense romance from one lover to another. This is a part of our cultural heritage and accepted as an expression of intense affection. For instance, in the classic Frank Capra motion picture, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), the leading character George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart tells his future wife, played by Donna Reed:
George: What do you want, Mary? Do you want the moon? If you want it, I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down for you. Hey! That’s a pretty good idea! I’ll give you the moon, Mary.
Mary: I’ll take it! Then what?
George: Well, then you can swallow it, and it’ll all dissolve see, and the moonbeams would shoot out of your fingers and your toes and the ends of your hair…am I talking too much?
As spaceflight became a possibility in the twentieth century the Moon took on added meaning as Earth’s nearest astronomical neighbor and a relatively easy place for humankind to visit and explore. The Moon was early on an attractive target for both the United States and the Soviet Union in their rocket-propelled space programs during the latter 1950s and 1960s because it was so comparatively close. There were also numerous opportunities every month for a launch from the Earth to the Moon.
In a desperate rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War it held enormous potential as a public relations coup for the nation reaching it first. The number of spaceflight “firsts” associated with the Moon in the 1950s and 1960s clearly demonstrates the significance assigned to various lunar exploration efforts during this first heroic era of the space age. From the first clear images of the Moon to the last landings in the 1970s and to the present the body has held a fascination that propels the space program.