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A Brief History of the Exploration of the Moon 
 
by Mark R. Whittington June 07, 2005

The first great age of lunar exploration is one of the great epics of the 20th Century. It looks like, with any luck, there will soon be a new age of lunar exploration, with profound implications for human civilization.

The Moon and Human History

The Earth’s Moon has had a profound effect on the entire history and development of human civilization. Many cultures used the cycle of the Moon’s phases to measure time. The Moon has been venerated in various forms throughout history. The Greeks worshiped the Moon goddess Artemis. The Romans called her Diana. The Celts called her Arianrod. The Egyptians considered Isis a goddess of the Moon. Indeed, in virtually every culture, the deity associated with the Moon has always been female, possibly because of associations of the lunar phase cycle with the female menstrual cycle.

Galileo first discovered, through his telescope, that the Moon was a world, with mountains and dark areas that he called “Mare” or “Seas” which we now know are relatively flat areas that are nevertheless drier than the most arid Earthly desert. Nineteenth century astronomers thought that the Moon might be an abode of life, much like the Earth.

Journeys to the Moon have been the subject of literature for centuries. Cyrano de Bergerac wrote of traveling to the Moon, buoyed up by jars of dew. In the 19th Century, Jules Verne wrote of Civil War era astronauts flying to the Moon in a ship fired by a massive cannon. H. G. Wells has his explorers travel to the Moon in a ship built of an impossible gravity shielding material he called Cavorite.

With the advent of motion pictures, voyages to the Moon became the subject of film as well. The very first was the French film, Le Voyage dans la Lune. Others included the German film, Frau im Mond, and the George Pal classic, Destination Moon.

Rocket pioneer Robert Goddard made one of the first serious suggestions for sending rockets to the Moon. He was attacked by the New York Times for this idea in 1920. The Times loftily explained that space travel was impossible, since without atmosphere to push against, a rocket could not move so much as an inch. Professor Goddard, it was clear, lacked "the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools." Nearly fifty years later, the Times published a retraction and an apology soon after men actually did travel to the Moon.

After the end of the Second World War, as rocket technology advanced and the Cold War began to rage, the United States and the Soviet Union turned their attentions heavenward. It was only natural that space would become a venue for super power competition and that the Moon would be a destination. Fleets of probes, Soviet Lunas and Zonds and American Rangers, Lunar Orbiters, Surveyors, and Apollos, were sent to the Moon between 1959 and 1976 during the first great age of lunar exploration.

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