Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Slamming into the Moon

The news this morning tells us that NASA is planning to drive two spacecraft into the moon's southern pole, hoping the impact will reveal whether there is hidden water ice there. The idea is cheap, fast, and well-designed. Speaking as a friend to engineers, I don't think the small impact is likely to do any more actual damage than a couple of meteorites would: and the moon is already covered with craters. And as Tony Colaprete at NASA's Ames Research Center was quoted as saying, this is a thoroughly "economical" solution. I played engineer's advocate with our art editor this morning and received for a response:

I still think hurting the moon is no-no. She is the symbol for our lady (call her what you will: Mary, Isis, Hera).

And I have to admit, speaking as a poet and student of folklore rather than as a friend to engineers, I'm appalled at the symbolism of the act. It's actually rather a barbaric and typically-NASA/white-male-engineer notion. If you think about it, slamming a long metal phallic object into our lady's vulnerable place sounds an awful lot like a rape. So much for kindly orbiting and courting the moon prior to a gentle thrust through the thin barrier of her barely detectable atmosphere. I don't like the symbolism of this new trend in space exploration. Consider how much our cultural consciousness was defined by past symbolic acts of astronomical exploration - Armstrong's one small step, for instance. We cannot pretend ignorance to the effect that our symbols have on our minds and hearts. To quote Gene Wolfe, author of The Book of the New Sun:

We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges.

So it was with the symbolic action of that one small first step onto the moon - with Armstrong's words conveying both the humility of that one step and the pride in the achievements of a race. Now, as we struggle to come to terms with the way we are using and misusing our natural environment, what will be the eventual cultural penalty of a more symbolically violent act?

My intent here is not to sensationalize (the media has already done that well enough) - merely to recognize that the moon is a central folkloric and mythic figure, remaining so even today, and therefore the way in which we interact with the moon will have rippling effect on our understanding of ourselves and of the inter-relationship of ourselves and our world. I'd be curious to hear responses from both poets and astronomers, who after all are sisters, and both in love with the moon. And also from everyone else...


Stephanie said...

I agree, the moon has been an inspiration for songs, poems and stories through the ages. I think perhaps those who send rockets crashing into the moon would like to tame all of nature and crush all wonder and imagination. It's a bit uppity of such little bitty men.

Asrae said...

You have got to be kidding me? Raping the moon? A rocket, would do damage comprarable to the bombardment the moon gets everyday from meteors. If anything new knowledge of the moon would spark new creativity. Is taking moon rocks robbing from the lady? Is humanities quest for knowledge and desire to adventure and discover so terribly wrong? Would it be augmentation surgury to build a telescope on the darkside of the moon. We are not robbing the moon of nautral resourses (which is has little of) It is gaining knwledge is an easy and effiencent way. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress says Hienlien in his book of the same title. She can take the beating. Teh symbol fo the moon will not be damaged by this experiment.

Dante's Heart said...


I wasn't arguing against the experiment. I was arguing against the language we use to describe it. I have nothing against gathering knowledge of the moon and other places; in fact I am whole-heartedly for it. But I think we must be very careful what stories we tell about that quest. The threat is not so much to the moon but to ourselves.

Dante's Heart said...

As for the Heinlein reference: