Hi, I’m Marley, the Astronomer here at the Space Centre
With a lunar eclipse later this month (May 26, 4:18 am) I’ve been thinking about the Moon and its role in science and science fiction. Before humanity started dreaming about venturing to Mars, we thought about going to the Moon. The Moon, the inspiration for legends and stories, was the only celestial body aside from our Sun that we could see in any detail. And that detail improved greatly in 1609 with Galileo’s lunar maps, drawn with the aid of his new and improved telescope. Finally, humanity had a detailed landscape for the setting of their stories.
One of these stories, Somnium (The Dream) by Johannes Kepler (yes, that Kepler) , the German astronomer best known for his Laws of Planetary Motion, and a contemporary of Galileo) is one of the first works of science fiction. It is a remarkable publication in that Kepler wove his theories about lunar astronomy and geography into the story, avoiding some of the debate of the time about heliocentric and geocentric views of the solar system.
Stories about the Moon have continued to change as we learned more about it; from the journey, to colonizing, to, as the recent movie Ad Astra depicts, a fully colonized Moon that is a but a brief pitstop to the far edges of the solar system. What science fiction rarely covers is the how of Moon colonization. What’s really cool, is that humanity is in the beginning of this now.
In 2018, NASA announced their Moon to Mars initiative, a program that will send astronauts to the Moon and eventually to Mars. The Artemis program, the lunar phase of the initiative, will result in Gateway, a science outpost orbiting the Moon. We are currently in the first phase, Artemis I, testing new technologies to journey to the Moon using a new rocket, crew capsule, and spacesuits!
The rocket, called the Space Launch System (SLS) is a super-heavy vehicle. The SLS used for Artemis is a little smaller than Saturn V, the rocket that took the Apollo astronauts to the Moon, but it will have 15 percent more thrust. The SLS will carry the Orion spacecraft. Orion includes a crew module for the astronauts to travel in and the Launch Abort System, a component that will pull the capsule away from the SLS if there is an emergency during launch.
The spacesuits for Artemis will be redesigned too. The suits worn in Orion, the Orion Crew Survival System (OCSS), has a fire-resistant outer layer, a lighter helmet, and touch screen compatible gloves. Each suit will be custom-made for each astronaut and the helmets even come in multiple sizes. The spacesuits for use on the Moon will look like the suits currently worn by astronauts on the International Space Station, but they’re much more advanced. The new Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU) suits have been modified based on our understanding of the dusty lunar surface, covered with tiny shards of glass-like material. The new suits are designed to limit dust contamination of the suit’s life support system and the spacecraft. The suits also have improved communications systems with multiple, built in, voice-activated microphones in the upper torso of the suit—the astronauts will have much better communicate with their crewmates on Gateway.
That’s right, astronauts are going to live on Gateway. This orbiting lunar outpost will provide support for lunar surface missions and eventually will be a port for deep space exploration. As a lunar outpost Gateway will provide lab space for scientific experiments, storage space for samples, a docking space for the Orion capsule and lunar landers, communications relays, and a home for astronauts and robots. Gateway’s robots will be able to maintain the station, even in the absence of astronauts.
Gateway is another example of the international collaboration in space exploration. Canada will be contributing external robotics—Canadarm3. This new robotic system will be able to complete tasks without human intervention. Not only do we have this new technology to look forward to, but a Canadian astronaut will get to use it! A Canadian astronaut will be part of the first crewed flight back to the Moon.
All of this new technology is super cool, but it is still being developed. Humanity won’t return to the Moon until the later 2020s. In the meantime, keep an eye out for how our current quest to return to the Moon inspires a new generation of storytellers—maybe you will write the next great Moon-inspired story!
I hope this has inspired you to think about our future and the Moon. We’ve pulled together a playlist of resources to hopefully inspire you further. Choose your own order and explore the playlist at your own pace.
The Moon frequently appears in popular culture. Here are a few science fiction movies that explore themes related to the Moon, humans and artificial intelligence.
A Grand Day Out with Wallace and Grommet (1989) – Cheese loving inventor Wallace builds a rocket to resupply his cheese (the moon is made of cheese, of course). With his trusty canine companion Gromit, they have a close encounter of the robot kind. (Family Friendly)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – Travel to the Moon is routine and the launch point into the solar system. Hopefully HAL isn’t foreshadowing the future of automation on Gateway (“Open the pod bay doors HAL.”)
Moon (2009) – This lunar miner runs the space station with just his, mostly helpful, computer for company, or does he? Is this what our future on the Moon might be like?
And have a look at this list of the best science fiction books featuring the Moon. Do you have a favourite?
Ask yourself: What do you think it is about the Moon that makes it a compelling setting to explore aspects of humanity through science fiction?
Watch this short overview of the Artemis mission.
And then bring the spirit of exploration into your next family and friends Zoom session with a Moon to Mars bingo game. Download the resources here and email the bingo cards to each player.
Ask yourself: Do you think your family have what it takes to be space explorers?
Ask yourself: What do you think would be the most challenging part of working in a spacesuit?
Ask yourself: Do you think future improvements in robotics and artificial intelligence will mean humans don’t need to make the dangerous trip into space?
Start to think about what it might take to colonize the Moon. Look through these lunar colonization activities and this activity about designing a lunar habitat.