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Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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Falling Off The Moon

Jan 25, 2013
Originally published on January 25, 2013 5:42 pm

I didn't remember this, but back in the early '70s, Apollo astronauts had big-wheeled, golf-cart-like vehicle on the moon. They called it an "LRV," or Lunar Roving Vehicle, and on the Apollo 16 mission, John Young and Charlie Duke drove over 16 miles, collecting rocks, looking around. At one point, they turned on a camera fixed to the front of the car, so if you look at this video, you can sit, as they did, in the front seat, riding across the lunar surface. It's kind of a kick, with this extra surprise: Because the moon is so much smaller than the earth, the horizon seems much, much closer. Take a look.

Now I understand why all those pre-Columbus sailors thought they might just fall off the Earth into the void. On the moon, that horizon seems like a perpetual cliff. It's different on Earth. On a clear day, the Earth's horizon — say you are standing on the edge of Lake Erie looking at the water and you are six feet tall — the horizon is about three miles away. On the moon, it's dramatically closer: 1.5 miles away. The horizon on the moon looms closer because it is closer, plus the lunar ground is bright and shiny, the sky menacingly inky and black. Living on the moon would feel elementally different from living on Earth. You'd always know you were on a ball. Deep space seems to be waiting, just a few miles in front of you.

Beware The Sunshine

One more thing: Moon driving, especially when you are going over a hill, can be dangerous, because there is debris everywhere, and on ridges you can't see what's coming, and when you do, (I found this on NASA's audio version of the trip) Charlie Duke noticed that boulders look extra-sharp, extra scary, because there's no atmosphere, nothing to soften edges.

124:49:30 Duke: ... the blocks stand out like black spires.
124:49:42 Young: It's just like driving on snow, Houston. By golly!
124:49:48 England [Houston, Ground Control]: Gee, I know all about that.
124:49:53 Young: I know you do; but us Florida boys (chuckling) don't know much about it.

Sunshine was a problem. Charlie Duke had a space helmet with gold-plated visors (he calls it his "thing") that he could flip down to shade his eyes, but he forgot about his rear view and side mirrors and every so often they blazed reflected light — and blinded him. The astronauts did get a little giddy, took a few hot-rod runs, whooping (Duke: Yahoo!! Look at that thing dig in. Young: Boy, we just missed a baddie!") and then, after collecting 211 pounds of moon rock, they dumped some trash, got back in their module, took off, and left the Lunar Roving Vehicle, parked, unroving.

It's still there.

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