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Apollo 11 Just One Chapter in Long History of Lunar Science

Anaxagoras crater in the north polar region of the Moon. Cropped version of computer generated image by PDS MAP-A-PLANET.
NASA space probe Clementine (USGS PDS MAP-A-PLANET)

July 20th marks fifty years since the Apollo 11 moon landing and those fateful words: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” The Apollo missions advanced our understanding of the moon by leaps and bounds, but they were far from the first forays into lunar science.

“We can go all the way back to the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras,” said David Warmflash, author of Moon: An Illustrated History. “He had an idea that the moon was a rock from Earth that was flung out from Earth somehow. He had no idea how that could have happened.”

That was almost 2,500 years ago, and scientists still aren’t sure exactly how the moon formed. But the study of rocks brought back by Apollo astronauts has led modern scientists to ideas similar to Anaxagoras’ - that the Earth and moon formed from a single body.

Anaxagoras also realized that the moon did not make its own light, but that the sun and stars did. And he was the first to figure out why solar and lunar eclipses happen.

Warmflash says the history of lunar science is full of geniuses, working without modern technology and making major contributions to our understanding of the solar system.

Some of that history is enshrined in the names of features on the moon. A crater near the moon’s north pole is named for Anaxagoras.

“In fact, when it comes to Eratosthenes and Copernicus, we’ve got entire periods of lunar history named for them,” Warmflash said. “The Eratosthenian period of lunar history is named for the quintessential crater that formed in that time period – the Eratosthenes crater.”

Of course, lunar history is far from finished. NASA has said Americans will return to the moon in 2024.

“The last time that we really had an administration say ‘We're going to the moon. We're definitely going, and we're going by such and such a date’ and we actually did it, that was President Kennedy,” said Warmflash.

Still, he says returning to the moon is not a matter of if. With private companies and multiple nations all in the running, it’s a matter of who and when.  

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.