Today, we map the moon. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
Mapping the moon became a
matter of widespread fascination right after it'd
been viewed through the first telescopes in 1609.
Galileo made the first really good drawings of the
moon -- a set of beautiful sepia renderings of the
moon in its several phases. They could be called
maps. He even made topographical estimates based on
the length of shadows.
The telescope improved rapidly. By 1747 Johannes
Hevelius of Danzig had produced a fine map. It not
only showed all the major features, but it also
took account of something many of us may not
realize today: although the moon is in synchronous
rotation with the earth, and it shows us only one
side, its axis of rotation doesn't stay parallel
with ours. We get to see just a little bit over the
top and under the bottom. We actually get to see 59
percent of the moon's surface from Earth.
Four years after Hevelius, a Jesuit named Riccioli
made a lunar map and assigned many of the names we
use today. He accepted the idea that the dark
regions of the surface might be oceans. He gave us
those wonderful names: Sea of Tranquility, Sea of
Serenity, Sea of Fertility, and Ocean of Storms. He
also continued the earlier practice of naming
craters after scholars.
In 1665 Robert Hooke finally realized that the seas
weren't seas at all. They were sandy regions that
reflected less light. Hooke reduced the moon to no
more than desolate earth. For the next three
hundred years, improvements of lunar mapping
followed improvements of telescopes and
mathematical methods. Only that unseen 41 percent
of the surface lingered to tease the human
imagination. And tease us it did, until we finally
saw pictures of the far side of the moon in
October, 1959. They were given us by an unmanned
Russian satellite only two years after Sputnik.
Lunar mapping was stepped up enormously in the mid
1960s in preparation for moon landings. But surely
the most dramatic moment in the whole enterprise
was in December, 1968: Astronaut Frank Borman rode
his orbiter around the far side of the moon -- the
first living creature to gaze at that surface. It
was Christmas Eve when he read to us from Genesis:
"In the beginning God created the heaven and the
Suddenly, the magnitude of this human
accomplishment was clear. Suddenly we saw the moon
whole. A few months later Neil Armstrong actually
set foot on the moon and, by the oddest twist of
human psychology, we were once again reduced to
mere ants crawling about a surface.
Today we know the moon too well. The age-old
mysteries have been removed. Today we have to look
to Mars -- and, I suppose, to Andromeda.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds