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Traces of Humanity

I have an article in this week’s Ideas section of the Boston Globe titled Traces of Humanity: What aliens could learn from the stuff we’ve left in space. In commemoration of the forty year anniversary of the placement of the Fallen Astronaut monument on the moon, I explore how what we place in space, consciously or otherwise, paints a picture of humanity:

If you were to visit the moon today, in the neighborhood of the Apennine mountain range, you would find a small figurine, about the same size and shape as a Lego minifigure, lying facedown in the lunar dust. Unauthorized by NASA, this “Fallen Astronaut” sculpture was placed there exactly 40 years ago this past week by astronauts David Scott and James Irwin of Apollo 15, and sits alongside a tiny plaque listing the names of 14 astronauts and cosmonauts who had died during their time in their respective space programs.

This haunting miniature memorial is only one of the many artifacts and messages that human beings have deliberately sent into space, or left there, as a symbol of our presence. On Earth, most of human history has involved unconsciously leaving traces of our existence, from garbage to aqueduct ruins. But when we go into space, we can begin to make choices about what we leave to posterity.

The rest is here.

Why Apollo 12 Was Amazing

Apollo 11 was pretty much one of the most seminal moments in all of human history, so it’s not likely to be forgotten. And everyone knows about Apollo 13. But what about the mission sandwiched in between? On one level, Apollo 12 was extremely important: it showed that our ability to land humans on the Moon was not exceptional. Rather, we could repeat this feat with regularity, doing it twice in less than a single year. But there’s more to that mission. Not many people know the details of Apollo 12. But, simply put, Apollo 12 was awesome.

Here are a few reasons why Apollo 12 was so amazing. First, this mission didn’t just land on the moon. It landed several hundred meters from Surveyor 3, an unmanned probe that landed on the moon in 1967, two years earlier. And this meant that Surveyor 3 was within walking distance from the Apollo 12 landing site! Pete Conrad and Alan Bean actually visited this probe that had been sitting unchanged for years. The camera, retrieved from Surveyor, was initially thought to even contain bacteria that had been dormant for years on the moon, but still alive. However, more recently, this intriguing possibility has encountered some resistance.

But Apollo 12 gets even better. Think the first words of Apollo on the moon had a bit too much gravitas? Then you’ll love what Pete Conrad said. In reference to his height as compared to Neil Armstrong’s, upon jumping down to the landing pad, Conrad uttered the less famous words: “Whoopee! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me.” And when he set foot on the lunar surface, he said: “Oooh, is that soft and queasy.” Now that feels a bit more properly improvised.

And let’s not forget that Apollo 12 also was the mission of the Moon Museum and playboy centerfolds in the lunar checklists.

But Apollo 12, even upon splashdown, wasn’t done being interesting. In 2002, an amateur astronomer discovered an asteroid. While this is a normal occurrence, he was soon astonished to find that it wasn’t orbiting the sun, like a normal asteroid, but the Earth! This would mean the discovery of a second natural moon of Earth, the only one after our regular moon. Unfortunately, the excitement was short-lived. The actual identity of the minor planet? The third stage of the Saturn V rocket that launched Apollo 12.

While each lunar mission had something special (we can’t forget Alan Shepard’s lunar golf during Apollo 14), Apollo 12 is definitely something to remember.