Blood Moon Lunar Eclipse – credit Justin Foley
by Kristy Jansen
On January 20, 2019, the total lunar eclipse and resulting blood moon captivated millions in the western hemisphere. My husband and I took our dog to an open space near our house to watch it. Staring up at the night sky and witnessing the bright, full moon first being covered by shadow, then transforming to a bright orange-red globe while the starscape behind it suddenly popped into sight, I was awestruck.

January’s blood moon brought me back to myself as a young graduate student in India, away from family, friends and familiarity. Although I was studying people, not stars, I found comfort in watching the moon and imagining its light shining on my loved ones. As it put me to sleep at night, the moon felt like home.  

The Moon – Earth’s Silver Mistress

An inspiration for human beings from the beginning, the Moon is the Earth’s only natural companion. Worshiped as a deity by countless cultures, the Moon has captivated poets, lovers, lunatics, and werewolves alike. The brightest object in the night sky, the Moon lights the night to ease our darkest fears.  

On the other hand, the constantly changing orb creates anxiety and makes us wonder.  Light and dark, day and night, male and female. Regularly disappearing from the sky, its body waxing and waning with certain regular and recurring rhythm, it reflects our own inner mysteries: the feminine menstrual cycle, the tidal swell, and retreat of the oceans, the processes of birth and growth, decay and death.

The Vedas say the moon is the world of ancestors, a symbol of recurrence, repetition, rebirth. In some Hindu traditions, the moon (Chandra) is where souls go to wait before they are reborn.  Children in India call the moon Chandamama (Moon Uncle), its reassuring presence a soothing distraction. Perhaps it was Chandamama who provided me solace while I watched the night sky from Rajasthan.

“We choose to go to the moon…”

In his famous 1962 “Moonshot” speech, John F. Kennedy characterized space as a new frontier destined for the American pioneering spirit to master:   

We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.  

The race to get to the moon was America’s way to prove itself in opposition to rival Russia, rhetorically expressed as American ingenuity and thirst for achievement.  Kennedy would not live to see the success of this aspirational plan, but it was achieved on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon and took the first steps on the surface of another world.  It was an audacious goal, but managing to put a man on the moon and then bring him back safely captured the world’s imagination.

The Moon Today

During his State of the Union speech on Tuesday (Feb. 5), President Trump acknowledged NASA astronaut Buzz Aldrin as he commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

NASA, Getty Images

“In 2019, we also celebrate 50 years since brave young pilots flew a quarter of a million miles through space to plant the American flag on the face of the moon,” Trump said. “Half a century later, we are joined by one of the Apollo 11 astronauts who planted that flag, Buzz Aldrin.”  Aldrin responded by saluting and giving two thumbs up. 

While Trump was giving his speech in Washington, I was speaking with Deana Weibel, a cultural anthropologist at Grand Valley State University who writes about space, travel, and religion. She was on her way to the Kennedy Space Center to interview retired astronauts when I caught her on the phone.

I asked about what people at NASA say about the Moon. The most common reaction is an expression of nostalgia over past triumph, and for some, a desire to go back. “In a weird way the Moon is this sort of memory that we have, but we also feel we’ve lost it,” Dr. Weibel explained.  

According to one astronaut interviewed, the Republicans want to go back to the moon, but the Democrats want to go to Mars. The Moonshot was perhaps the last time in recent history that we shared a common purpose, and we did something so radically huge and unconservative — to push humans to another world.  Maybe questionable from an economic or safety perspective, but it resulted as a thrilling sensation felt around the world. Not matched since, man’s walk on the moon is a brilliant piece of symbolism. It has been over four decades since Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan completed his walk on the moon, and no one has stepped foot on it since.

The Moon as a Destination

Due to tidal locking, the Moon rotates on its axis only once in the time it takes for it to rotate around the Earth.  This means that one side of the Moon – the “dark side” or “far side” – is always facing away from us on the Earth’s surface.  On January 3rd (Beijing time), China’s Chang’e 4 lunar module landed on the far side of the moon, which had only been observed from orbit until that point. Because there is no direct line of sight from the earth, Chang’e 4 had to make its landing with no input from mission control.

A few weeks later, there was a media frenzy over the cotton seeds that had sprouted in the specially engineered internal environment inside the Chang’e 4 lander.  The tiny plants did not survive long, but as the first plant to grow on another planet, our imaginations were reignited. And reminded us of the challenges that remain to be mastered if it’s ever going to be possible for human beings to live beyond Earth.   

With the signing of “Space Policy Directive 1” in December 2017, and the Space Policy Directives 2 & 3, President Trump shifted U.S. space policy toward a globally and commercially integrated program that is aiming for the Moon under American leadership.     
However, according to Dr. Weibel, no one at NASA is holding their breath. With each new administration, NASA’s priorities get turned upside down.

The space agency is developing a Lunar Orbiting Platform Gateway to be a waystation to the moon, as well as a massive Space Launch System mega-rocket and Orion spacecraft to reach the Gateway. NASA is also working with private companies developing commercial lunar landers for future moon missions.   

The Moon Race 

Clearly the U.S. isn’t the only government getting more active in space and making intentions to take advantage of the untapped resources among the heavens. The European Space Agency (ESA) is making plans to mine the moon, India is planning to become the fourth country to send men to space, and China is just getting started. Dr. Weibel said that NASA employees hold cautious optimism toward private sector involvement to make a positive difference. Space Tourism may prove to be the main driver, or perhaps mining will make it worth the ride. Whatever finally brings humans back to the Moon, SpaceX, the ESA, China, and others are already at work designing a Moon Village. The Moon Race is back on.   

Moondust and Magic  

People often take items with them on a religious pilgrimage, with the belief that they will pick up the sacred essence from the places visited, or if left behind, keep the pilgrim connected to the sacred spot. In addition to space travel, Dr. Weibel studies pilgrimage and this idea of objects gaining power because of where they’ve been. “Everything that people do on pilgrimage, they’ve also done with space travel. Besides the few flags that were planted, there have been statues, pictures, and trinkets from Earth taken to the Moon,” she points out. “The moon rocks that have been brought back have also accumulated this magic.”  Perhaps this is why the Moon Trees that germinated from the seeds Stuart Roosa brought back from Apollo 14 remain such an attraction.    

Alan Bean, who flew on Apollo 12, retired from space to become a painter.  He used elements of the moon to create his art — the impression of his moon boots in the clay or fabric embedded with moon dust work their way into the paintings. The allure of his work was the sense that it had been “touched by the moon”  Perhaps this is why the most successful aspects of the space program, from a public relations perspective, is when people are put in space. Identifying with the magic of someone who’s been to the Moon excites the public’s imagination, beyond the fear of wasting money or danger.

Flying in the shadow of the moon

Talking to Dr. Weibel about the Moon, space travel and eclipses, two other tidbits from her NASA interviews stood out to me.  First was a comment she related to from an astronaut who had been in the Apollo program, with whom she had only recently spoken. “To him, the Moon was relatively uninteresting.  He described it as very black and white and desolate. Compared to the colorful Earth, the Moon had no particular draw.” The other was a riff on the linking between the lunar eclipse that I’d just observed and the solar eclipse she’d gone to Nebraska to see in August 2017.

She commented that the relationship between the Earth, the Sun and the Moon is peculiarly arranged so that the two heavenly bodies appear roughly the same size from the surface of the Earth.  The result is that we are able to enjoy total solar eclipses and see the corona of the Sun in those moments without going blind. If the Moon was further away, and therefore smaller, it would not completely block the Sun’s main body, and we wouldn’t be able to look at it.  If it were significantly closer, and therefore much bigger, it would block out so much of the sun that we’d not even see the brilliant corona. 

This linked her to another conversation an informant had described with a different NASA astronaut – this time a woman – who had spent a significant amount of time in orbit around the Earth.  “You’d think orbiting the Earth would rank at the top of the list of really cool events, but for her, it wasn’t. Instead, according to my informant, she listed a flight she took in the shadow of the Moon during a solar eclipse.  Flying along like that, chasing the Moon’s shadow, she got to spend an hour in the most brilliant sunrise/sunset she’d ever seen. To her, that was a true high, and ranked as one of the most exceptional experiences of her life.”    

Global consciousness

Astronaut, Edgar Mitchell – credit NASA

Reflecting on what occurred to him when he looked back at Earth from space, Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell said,
“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’” 

I was born just weeks after Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were the first humans to walk on the moon.  Their footsteps in the lunar dust of the Sea of Tranquility ushered in a new era for our relationship with our nearest celestial neighbor.  No longer was the moon an aspirational symbol of change, mystery, and mood. With those steps, it became a tangible destination, described by Aldrin as a place of “magnificent desolation” – composed of fine dust and lunar rocks.  

While I want us to go back to the moon, build there, be there, I believe the lesson it offers is not a call to conquer space, but rather the opportunity it gives to teach us about our Earth.   The Moon works best as a metaphor for having perspective and launching audacious goals. It inspires us to dream of things beyond imagination and causes us to reflect on our greatest triumphs and our biggest woes.  
If we could look on at Mother Earth with the same admiration we have each night for Mistress Moon, think of what we might accomplish.   
Kristina “Kristy” Jansen is Managing Editor of the Optimist Daily, produces Solutions News and serves as Chief of Staff at TOD’s publishing partner, the World Business Academy.  Her passions include conscious mass media, socially responsible entrepreneurialism, intentional communities, regenerative economies, smart science fiction and, of course, the positive power of Rational Optimism.

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