A fine romance with The Moon

Incredibly, it is 50 years since Apollo 1 and astronaut Neil Armstrong (1930 to 2012) took ‘one small step for man’ on the moon. By way of celebration a new exhibition called simply ‘The Moon’ will open tomorrow at The National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, London.

Human beings’ external romance with all things lunar dates way back and is nothing less than a love affair. The exhibition explores how throughout time civilisations have observed the moon and interpreted its many facets in some surprising and intriguing ways.

The exhibition opens with an exploration of how the moon has been embedded in our culture in so many ways from art to navigation, from medicine to spirituality. Poems, art, love letters, fashion and popular songs have all been inspired by the moon. The oldest object on display – showing how lunar eclipses were thought to portend bad omens – is a tablet from Mesopotamia 172 BCE on loan from the British Museum.

Orrery made by John Addison 1823 to 1827 represents the relative motions of the plants in our solar system

There are 180 objects on display as well as some fun and helpful interactive displays. Although I had vaguely grasped how the moon waxes and wanes, it became crystal clear through a touch screen which illustrates it all perfectly.

There are way too many artefacts to describe – you will simply have to see for yourself – and from many different cultures and countries. Some of my favourites include books by 19th century science fiction giants, writer H G Wells and Jules Verne. Both writers were commentators of the politics of their time through their works. I was passionate about Wells as a child, and nothing has changed there.

The ‘Snoopy cap’, a headset worn by iconic astronaut ‘Buzz’ Aldrin in space to communicate back to earth during Apollo 11, is one of the artefacts on loan from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. The name requires no explanation for fans of author Charles M. Schulz’s brilliant creation.

The Snoopy cap worn by astronaut Buzz Aldrin

The photographs taken by Command Module Pilot, Michael Collins, were taken using a Hasselblad camera. Collins orbited the moon while his Apollo 11 colleagues explored the lunar surface. Each time he reached the far side of the moon contact with all humanity was lost. “I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life”.

Photographs taken by Command Module Pilot, Michael Collins

A video counting down the key events from 1959 when NASA was founded to the 1969 landing, includes footage of Present John Kennedy who promised to ‘land a man on the moon before the decade’ ended.

Astronomer Mary Blagg worked to develop a standardised map of lunar features 1935

A vinyl record – a historical record of the first crewed space-orbit flight by Major Yuri Gagarin from 1962. Gagarin was a hero and I remember the media frenzy around the’ world’s first spaceman’ in Britain as well as the rest of the world. Interesting, that we could put a man into space but had not yet invented the internet. Imagine if social media had already been invented!

Pop Art – Space Walk fabric design by Sue Thatcher Palmer for Warner and son 1970

I was delighted to discover a Brit in the exhibition. In the 1950s, Francis Tom Bacon, a British chemical engineer, ‘provided’ NASA with the first alkaline fuel cell. These produce a current directly from a chemical reaction and were used on board a space craft for electrical power.

British chemical engineer, Francis Tom Bacon, provided the first alkaline fuel cell

 “We came in peace for all mankind,” says the plaque left by Apollo 11 on the moon in 1969.

21st century race

As I say, too much to describe and wax lyrical about. The exhibition, though, brings the visitor up short at the close. Renewed interest in the moon focusses on its natural resources and how to mine these. The moon is no longer the domain of superpowers as it was in the Sixties. In the 21st century there is significant interest from many international space stations, private companies and entrepreneurs. The exhibition poses the question ‘how will we look after the moon’, and particulary when considering how we have treated planet Earth?

The Moon is the UK’s biggest exhibition dedicated to Earth’s love affair with its nearest and dearest neighbour. It is a rare chance to see a collection that is made up from objects, artwork and documents from national and international museums, as well as private collections. So it is worth the trek out to Greenwich on the DLR. www.rmg.co.uk/moon50

…and the last word goes to H G Wells

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