The space race had seemed a bit pointless. The first orbiting satellites were mainly there to demonstrate the capability of the carrying rockets – whose real task was to deliver missiles to whoever was deemed to be the enemy. Jodrell Bank became famous not by detecting the first Sputnik – anyone with a radio could have done that – but by detecting the carrying rocket, thus proving its value as the UK’s primary missile early-warning system. The first astronauts were brave test pilots sitting on top of a missile aiming at the horizon while deciding whether its task of the day lay in putting its cargo above it, into orbit, or below it, into collision with the ground – each one a real-life Dr Strangelove. Even worse, the US was falling rather badly behind in this pointless space race and the US space program had difficulty getting off the ground, literally so in the case of the 1957 Vanguard TV-3 rocket, which reached a record altitude of just over 1 meter, before falling over and exploding. Amazingly, the (unmanned) satellite it carried survived and send its desperate signals from behind the bush where it landed. The press called it the ‘kaputnik’ – the world just laughed. (Vanguard was a good example of how not to do it; out of 11 launch attempts only 3 succeeded.) President Kennedy galvanised the nation by declaring the target to be a man on the Moon – having lost the near-Earth race, he redefined the goals. The famous part of his speech was that these should be the goals not because they are easy but because they are hard, thus claiming the Soviet Union had only won the ‘easy’ race.
Looking back, 60 years after the beginning, we see that both sides lost. The Soviet Union crippled its space program trying to match the US goals, and although even now it still has a fairly reliable rocket, it no longer does much useful (i.e. non-military) in space. The US made it to the Moon, but at what cost. The expenditure caused race riots, and after reaching the goal that was set, the program was rapidly abandoned. The US has been floundering in space ever since. The space shuttle was a mistake, and the space station a white elephant. We could have been on Mars, except for those two projects. Next year it will be 50 years since the first men orbited the Moon. No one has even been further, a sad indictment of the backwards travel since those heady days when anything seemed possible. We no longer could land people on the Moon even if we wanted to: that technology has been abandoned and lost. The US can’t launch anyone into space: it has to hitch rides on Russian rockets. We went too quickly, and after the Moon, started to pursue status rather than dreams, using dead-end technology. As one person expressed it: I always knew I’d see the first person on the Moon. I never dreamt I’d see the last. Both the first man and the last man on the Moon have now died. And still we haven’t found our way back.
There have been robotic missions to the Moon, ranging from a Chinese lander to US and Indian orbiters. If nothing else, the robots in space have become more international than the humans ever were. But they haven’t come close to the magic of the early days. Adventure should be for humans, not solely for robots.
The Apollo program had a terrible start. Everything was newly designed, but nothing seemed to work. The early tests were littered with problems, some minor, but some major. The disaster that followed could perhaps have been foreseen: during a test the crew module caught fire, and the crew quickly suffocated in the toxic fumes. The Apollo program survived, after major redesigns. Apollo 13 later showed how many undiscovered technical issues were still left. There were three unmanned launches to test various aspects of the rocket as well as the heat shield. These were numbered Apollo 4 through 6, the ground failure being given the honourary Apollo 1 designation. There were also four manned tests launches, Apollo 7 through 10, before the actual landing.
The first of these, Apollo 7, was launched in October 1968, a long-duration test lasting 11 days. Apollo 8 was meant to test the lunar module, the LEM (on view in the Smithsonian in Washington), but it was badly delayed leaving the mission with nothing much to do. The idea to change Apollo 8 to a lunar mission, in August 1968, arose from this dilemma. The NASA chief, James Webb, was very negative but came around fairly quickly. The decision was kept secret, by a NASA weary of potential problems. Only after the Apollo 7 was a success, giving some confidence that the system was performing, was the change in plan announced to an electrified world, on November 12, 1968. (Although deliberate leaks had been made for some weeks to ‘prepare the ground’.) The USSR in the mean time had put various animals in orbit around the moon, including bizarrely two tortoises who survived the return and re-entry. They were thought to be close to sending a human cargo next, but in fact were planning nothing of the sort. The Soviet program had had a major set back with the death of Yuri Gagarin, just before he was due to take over as chief of the space program. The people in charge in the USSR thought that there was a 75% chance of failure for Apollo 8. The USSR, more risk-averse, never attempted manned missions beyond low earth orbit. They had a point: of the three Saturn V launches up to that point, two had worked well but one had had several problems. An unmanned trial might have been preferable, but for all its sophistication, the Apollo spacecraft was not fully automated and could not do the scheduled tests unmanned. In hindsight, the failure rate of Apollo missions was 10% (14 launches with 1 failure and 1 partial failure) – completely unacceptable even in those days. The race to the Moon was that important.
Apollo 8 was a leap into the unknown; the jump in distance from Earth was staggering. Apollo 8 would travel 1000 times further away than any previous manned flight. It was as if the Wright brothers on their second flight had attempted to circumnavigate the globe. Those were days of madness.
The three astronauts undertaking the mad mission were Frank Borman, James (Jim) Lovell, and William (Bill) Anders. Borman could have been the first man to walk on the Moon, but he opted to retire from the space program after Apollo 8. Jim Lovell became famous as the unflappable commander of Apollo 13. Bill Anders was part of the back-up crew for Apollo 11 but also never went to space again. All three still survive.
In the end, the astronautical madness paid off, with a success that exceeded all expectations. There were a few minor glitches during the Apollo 8 mission. The hatch window frosted over and could not be used, and two other windows had similar visibility issues: the sealant used leaked water. This left only three windows useful for photography, and the Moon and Earth were not often visible through these. The telescope used for locating stars (used for orienting the spacecraft prior to a burn of the rocket to adjust the trajectory) had some problems, and visibility was obscured by venting from the booster rocket; the back-up, a modernized version of the sextans, was found to be more accurate. After all, those were pre-computer days. But these were minor haggles. Perhaps potentially more serious, after separating from the booster rocket, while they were already on the way to the Moon, the astronauts managed to set themselves on a collision course with the booster, rather than moving away from it as was intended. Ground control helped them to fix this.
On Christmas eve, the crew disappeared behind the Moon, and during the radio silence they fired the rocket to bring them into an orbit around the Moon. It was a relief to ground control to hear them re-appear at the right time, and to know that the rocket had worked fine! In truth, anything could have happened. Later that day was the famous Christmas broadcast from space which earned the crew the immortality of an Emmy award.
The rest of the mission was exciting, with unbelievable views of the Moon, but also uneventful. Apart from testing out the in-flight systems, a major task of the mission was photography of selected areas of the Moon. For this, the crew had Hasselblad 500 EL cameras, with 80-millimeter and 250-millimeter (telephoto) Zeiss lenses. The cameras had been modified so that they could be used by astronauts in pressure suits. The film was in magazines that could easily be replaced mid-roll. During the orbiting, the back side of the Moon was in the light and thus best placed for photography; they also obtained good images at low illumination angles of the selected landing sites. Both colour and black and white film was used, with a variety of sensitivities, but for the lunar photography black and white was preferred as this gave better resolution. In any case, the lunar surface was rather lacking in colour even using Kodak ektachrome.
They left the lunar orbit as scheduled and flew back to Earth. The landing was perhaps the most dangerous part: they had to get rid of an incredibly high velocity, much higher than any manned mission before, by braking through the atmosphere. The heat shield was designed to cope with the extreme temperatures which occured while the spacecraft was enveloped in a bubble of plasma, and in fact one of the unmanned trials had deliberately done a re-entry at an accelerated speed to make sure it worked. The astronauts later talked about the white light which penetrated the cabin – presumably through the defrosted windows! The landing in the sea was bookwork; they landed in stable position 2 (position 1 is the right way up) but quickly righted themselves. Forty minutes later the rescuers came: NASA ruled that recovery was only allowed during daytime hours so they had to wait for sunrise. The mission which made the Moon part of our Earth ended by waiting for the Sun.
In hindsight, with the advantage of 50 years of subsequent history, the biggest impact from Apollo 8 came from an unscheduled opportunity. For the first two lunar orbits the craft was oriented such that the windows looked backward. During the 3rd orbit it was rotated the other way, and suddenly the astronauts saw their very first Earthrise. It was unbelievably impressive and they immediately started to take unscheduled, but black and white, pictures. Only Bill Anders managed to get two colour pictures; the first of these two became an icon of the age. The Apollo-8 astronauts were the first ones to really see the Earth as just a planet, small enough (four times the width of the full Moon) to impress the fact we only have one world. But how could they possible convey that impression to people back on Earth? An image needs a context, a contrast. The first colour photo they took of the rising Earth did that as no other, showing the small, dazzling globe rising over the stark greyness of the Moon. It is ranked as among the 100 most influential images ever taken, on par with works of art such as the migrant mother of the great depression. To me, most of the other ninety-nine are just history – Earthrise depicts our future. It helped spark the phenomenon of Earth Day: as I write this, visiting Hong Kong, two Chinese students, two floors below me, are collecting signatures in support of ‘Earth Hour’. Apollo 8 left a legacy throughout the world, not just in the nation that built and sent it. We visited our satellite to show-case our ability, and in this way we exported our rivalries, our competitions, and our struggles for supremacy. In return, the Moon presented us with space-based vision, and a sense of our humanity. This image was Apollo’s gift to Earth.
For more photographs of Planet Earth, see Views of Distant Earth.
Island in the mare: Mount Marilyn
One of the tasks of Apollo 8 was to check out the site for the landing mission, and identify landmarks along the approach route. The mission found that the major craters which had been planned to be used were just too large to be easily identified from lunar orbit. Smaller features were more useful. Many of the pictures they took were for that purpose.
Jim Lovell, in the role of navigator, identified one particularly useful feature, easily recognised from space and on the route towards the likely landing site. It was a small mountain with a triangular appearance. NASA obliged by putting it on its route maps. Lovell called it Mount Marilyn, in honour of his long-suffering wife. And this was the name adopted by NASA.
Mount Marilyn became an important landmark, used by Apollo 8 (on their later orbits), Apollo 10 during the test decent to the surface (they stopped at 14 km altitude – the astronauts must have been so tempted to undershoot and land!), and finally for the real thing, Apollo 11. At that time, Aldrin’s words were We’re going over Mount Marilyn at the present time, and it’s ignition point. It was used to check the orbit insertion at the moon: at the lowest approach it should be visible through the window – if so, they could fire the engine to slow down and circularize the orbit. If not, the astronauts were off-course and in trouble. Of course, GPS was still undreamed of. The Apollo astronauts really did travel to the Moon using a map!
Mount Marilyn is located on the boundary between two dark mares, Mare Tranquilitatis and Mare Fecunditatis. Its irregular surface peaks at 1400 m above the surrounding basalt plains. It is a sizeable mountain! The mountain is easily recognizable because of its projected shape. At the northern end there is a deep impact crater. This was where the descent to the surface would begin. The photograph is of the Apollo 10 command module (called Charlie Brown), and it is taken from the Lunar Module (called Snoopy) shortly after they separated. It shows the now-familiar triangle of Mount Marilyn in the background (north is to the left; the scene is 80 km wide). Comparison with the NASA trajectory map shows that they were indeed close to the central (drawn) line of approach, on course for a landing they were not allowed to complete.
We understand the craters on the Moon very well. In the days of Apollo, there was still discussion whether the multitude of craters had come from impacts or from volcanism. Now we know: there is (or rather, was) volcanism on the Moon but it didn’t leave craters: the craters came from impacts of objects ranging from tiny specks of dust to sizeable asteroids. Anything that flies directly at the Moon will hit it, and the resulting explosion forms a crater. On Earth, smaller meteors, up to a few meters, are intercepted by the atmosphere and do not reach the ground. This prevents small craters, and as a result Earth only has larger craters – any terrestrial impact crater less than 100 meter across is an ‘alternative fact’. The Moon has no atmosphere and as a result is pock-marked in a way that the Earth never was. But not all areas were equally hard hit. The back side of the Moon is terrible, covered in rough craters of all sizes, resembling the worst case of acne you have ever seen. The mammoth of lunar craters is the Aitken basin, at the south pole. The front side has some regions similar to the back, but also has the smooth dark areas called the mare – seas of the Moon. Their surfaces have far fewer craters. Why this dichotomy, and how did the mare manage to repel or heal impacts?
It turns out that, as on Earth, beauty is for the young. The mare are smoother and less cratered, because their surfaces are younger than the rest of the Moon. They have suffered less from flying debris by not being around during the early, worst days of the bombardment.
We now think that the various mare originated from a brief period about 4 billion years ago, called the Late Heavy Bombardment – a time when a disturbance in the solar system send huge asteroids and comets towards the centre. The storm of impacts left large craters on the Moon, some thousands of kilometer across. Where are they now? They in turn were obliterated, not by subsequent impacts but by self-inflicted damage. They had damaged the lunar crust and left thinned crust, cracks, and ring faults. For some time there were large pools of magma below the lunar crust: the damage done allowed magma to come up and pour out as lava. These were true flood basalt events, flooding the large impact basins and leaving a smooth surface. The phase of intermittent volcanism may have lasted a billion years or more. At the end, we had the dark, smooth, basaltic mares, forming the ancient feature of the man in the Moon – a name that mocks our own inability to actually go there.:
Why are there no mares on the back side of the moon? It turns out that the crust is thicker on the back, and therefore the huge impacts did less damage there and the volcanism failed to break through. Why is the crust thicker there? That is not known. One suggestions is that major impacts removed crust from the front side (this is a slightly circular argument). An intriguing option is that it arose from the formation of the Moon itself. It is thought to have formed from a Mars-sized planetoid slamming into Earth, at a shallow angle, and ejecting much of the earth’s surface layers into orbit. The Moon coalesced from the orbiting debris. But the Earth would have been left with a boiling surface of molten rock, radiating heat. The radiation heated the side of the young Moon facing Earth. The back side cooled faster and through a slightly complicated process ended up with a thicker crust. Thus, the front side of the Moon was a victim of Earth shine! That would have been some photograph.
Mount Marilyn is a survivor. It is the old surface, possibly thrown up by the major impacts and dating to at least the Late Heavy Bombardment. When the flood basalts came, it was high enough to be left sticking out above the lava, like a nunatak above a glacier. Its smaller neighbours are now deeply buried, but Mount Marilyn still shows us the pre-volcanic surface, an ancient amidst the young.
What is in a name?
Sadly, the name Mount Marilyn did not survive. It turned out that the wider region already had a name: the mountain chain it is related to is called Montes Secchi, and within this chain various peaks were assigned greek letters, on a map dating from the 1930’s. Mount Marilyn was assigned the greek letter Theta. The name Secchi comes Fr. Angelo Secchi, a 19th century astronomer and Jesuit, with doctorates both in physics and in theology. He well deserves his fame, from decades of working at the forefront of the science of his day; he was the first to classify stars and is the discoverer of carbon stars. He also worked in meteorology, oceanography, and in his spare time (what spare time?) surveyed the Appian Way. Secchi has a crater named after him both on the Moon and on Mars (and also an asteroid). The one on the Moon, partially buried, is close to the mountain chain and the mountain chain took its name from the crater. Thus, Secchi now has both hills and holes as his legacy, befitting a surveyor. The lunar Secchi crater is in the northwest of Mare Fecunditatis. The crater was flooded and buried by the lava of the mare, leaving only part of the crater wall above the flows. Thus, Secchi crater is older than the lava, but it must be younger than mare-forming impact as it is located inside of the basin. This makes Mount Marilyn older than Secchi crater – but in its name it became subservient.
The convention of using greek letters was abandoned in 1973. This was done by the organisation in charge of naming the Moon’s surface features, the International Astronomical Union (IAU). This august body which meets once every three years (in August) has a committee which assigns the official names to all areas of the solar system apart from Earth. It has validated the name Montes Secchi for the mountain chain, but the individual peaks no longer have names or numbers. With one exception: for unclear reasons, the one greek letter surviving on their maps is Theta. Thus, Mount Marilyn is officially still called Theta Secchi. (Some have suggested that Theta Secchi actually refers to the crater on the north side of the mountain. The IAU map is not clear on this. The craters were designated using the roman rather than the greek alphabet, but if an exception was made here it might explain why Theta survived the bonfire of greek characters.)
An attempt was made in 2013 to get the IAU to adopt Mount Marilyn as the accepted name, but this did not succeed, possibly because it did not follow the right procedures in the IAU. But perhaps it is time to renew the challenge. After all, the name Mount Marilyn was used on NASA maps and thus has some claim to legitimacy. It also has a claim to historical importance, as the place where Apollo 11 entered its lunar orbit, in preparation of what Neil Armstrong called a small step. When the greek letter naming was abandoned, Theta should have been removed too, and this would have freed up the name. Secchi has enough named after him, and as a Jesuit wouldn’t mind sharing. The next meeting of the IAU, where names can be adopted, is in August 2018. The IAU should discuss there whether for this one mountain to adopt the name Mount Marilyn, in view of its historical significance. The rules of the IAU which describe how to propose names, specify strict limitations on commemoration of people in Solar System names, including the requirement that those people should have been deceased for at least three years, although that convention has not been followed for asteroids. But in this case of Mount Marilyn, the name commemorates not a person, but a mission, a stepping stone in the history of space exploration. Feel free to write to the IAU!
In 2018 it will be fifty years since the legendary flight of Apollo 8 to the Moon. In the mean time, we seem to have stepped back from the stepping stone and turned our back on the Moon. This is indeed a backwards step. The Moon, in the images and experiences of Apollo 8, taught us about humanity and about our place in the world. That Jim Lovell named a mountain after a loved-one is part of this humanity, a sign post to what we can do and could still be. The crew and families of Apollo 8 gave us a world. Please don’t let this world be lost. I would encourage you, sometime when the Moon is up and the sky clear, to go out and take a good look at this forbidding world (perhaps using binoculars if you have a tripod), to see what we have given up. One day we will turn around, start to look outward again, and go back to the future. Until that day, the least we can do is to name a mountain. It will give a little bit of the Moon back to the merry men of Apollo 8 – and their maid Marilyn.
/Albert, March 2017