Sunday, August 26, 2012

Ave Aqua Vale

The whole floor of Mendeleev crater had fractured into blocks in the biggest quake ever recorded on the Moon, and lava had flooded up through dykes emplaced between the blocks. Lava vented from dykes beyond the crater rim, too, and flowed a long way, forming a new mare. Other vents appeared, setting off secondary quakes and long rock slides. The Moon shivered and shook uneasily, as if awakening from a long sleep.
Small teams were sent out to collect the old Rangers, Lunas, Surveyors, Lunokhods and descent stages of Apollo LEMs from the first wave of lunar exploration. Mike and I went out for a last time, to Mare Tranquillitatis, to the site of the first manned lunar landing.
When a permanent scientific presence had first been established on the Moon, there had been considerable debate about what to do with the sites of the Apollo landings and the various old robot probes and other debris scattered across the surface. There had been a serious proposal to dome the Apollo 11 site to protect it from damage by micrometeorites and to stop people swiping souvenirs, but even without protection it would last for millions of years, everyone on the Moon was tagged with global positioning sensors, so no one could go anywhere near it without being logged, and in the end the site had been left open.
We arrived a few hours after dawn. A big squat carrier rocket had gone ahead, landing two kilometres to the north, and the robots were already waiting. There were four of us: a historian from the Museum of Air and Space in Washington, a photographer, and Mike and me. As we loped forward, an automatic beacon on the common band warned us that we were trespassing on a UN heritage site, reciting the relevant penalties and repeating itself until the historian found it and turned it off. The angular platform of the lunar module’s descent stage sat at an angle; one of its spidery legs had collapsed after a recent quake focused near new volcanic cones to the south-east. It had been scorched by the rocket of the ascent stage, and the gold foil which had wrapped it was torn and tattered, white paint beneath turned tan by exposure to the sun’s raw ultraviolet. We lifted everything, working inwards toward the ascent stage: the Passive Seismometer and the Laser Ranging Retro reflector; the flag, its ordinary, wire-stiffened fabric faded and fragile; an assortment of discarded geology tools; human waste and food containers and wipes and other litter in crumbling jettison bags; the plaque with a message from a long-dead president. Before the descent stage was lifted away, a robot sawed away a chunk of dirt beside its ladder, the spot where the first human footprint had been made on the Moon. There was some dispute about which print was actually the first, so two square metres were carefully lifted. And at last the descent stage was carried off to the cargo rocket, and there was only a litter of cleated footprints left, our own overlaying Armstrong’s and Aldrin’s.
It was time to go.

From 'How We Lost The Moon, A True Story By Frank W. Allen'
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