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How a view through a telescope as a boy kindled a life-long love of our planet's only natural satellite.
I had my first telescopic view of the Moon when I was seven years old. A family friend, Major AE Levin, had his observatory in Selsey and I went there (long before I came to live there myself) to use his 6-inch refractor. The Moon was our first target; I looked through the eyepiece and saw the mountains, the craters and the valleys, obviously without understanding what they really were. I was fascinated, and I remember saying, "When I grow up I'm going to study the Moon." I did.
Of course, things were different in 1930. We knew much less about the Moon than we do now; it was thought that the atmosphere might be substantial enough for thin clouds to form and that a certain amount of volcanic activity might linger on. Our ignorance was complete about the far side, which is always turned away from Earth. As for travel there — well, even after the end of the Second World War, one very senior astronomer, Richard van der Riet Woolley, made the categorical pronouncement that the whole idea of space travel was "utter bilge".
So to me, as a boy, the Moon seemed to be far out of reach. All the same, I wanted to find my way around. So when I acquired my 3-inch refractor in 1933, I set about it. That telescope cost £7.10/-. I saved up for it and it remains one of my treasured possessions.
My observing and recording method worked for me, and I believe it will also work for other newcomers, so it seems worth passing on.
Lunar formations seem to alter in appearance according to the changing angle of solar illumination, and this can be really confusing. The large walled plain Maginus provides a good example of this. When seen near the terminator it is imposing, with peaks in its wall casting long shadows across its floor, but under high illumination it is difficult to identify at all. It was once said that "the full Moon knows no Maginus". Some craters with very dark floors (Plato, Billy, Grimaldi) or very bright walls (Aristarchus, Proclus) can be located whenever they are sunlit, but are exceptions rather than the rule.
What I did was take an outline map and make a pious resolve to make three drawings of every named object under different lighting conditions. The whole project took me over a year. I still have those sketches. Scientifically, of course, they are of no value, but when I finished the project I could find my way around the Moon more easily than I could my then home town of East Grinstead.
One lesson I learned during this project: don't try to draw too large an area at the same time; concentrate upon one thing. For example, the great dark-floored crater Plato is 109km in diameter. When drawing it, make it at least an inch across. Do the main outline first, then change to a higher magnification and fill in the fine details.
A new mare?
Today, a telescope such as my 15-inch reflector can be used to take photographs of the Moon far better than any professional observatory could have managed only a few decades ago. CCDs and similar devices have revolutionised everything. I didn't have CCDs, and depended on my eyes alone. But it was then possible for the amateur to make interesting discoveries and I thought I'd made two, though for one of them I later found out that I was 30 years too late.
When I finally took off my RAF uniform in 1945, I returned to the Moon. I was lucky enough to be given access to really large refractors, notably the 33-inch at Paris, the 27-inch at Johannesburg and the Lowell 24-inch at Flagstaff in Arizona, but I still used the modest reflectors in my own observatory at East Grinstead (it was 1967 before I settled down at Selsey). I concentrated on the formations right on the Moon's limb, which are very foreshortened and are carried in and out of view depending on the libration.
In the late 1940s I drew what seemed to be the edge of a mare, most of which was on the far side so that I could only see a tiny part of it — and then only under extreme libration. It wasn't on the maps I had. I called it Mare Orientalis, the 'Eastern Sea', and sent my results to the British Astronomical Association's Lunar Section. I was convinced that I was the first to see it. But ... I wasn't. It is clearly shown in the map produced in 1906 by the German astronomer Julius Franz — who also called it the Eastern Sea (because it lay at the eastern limb; much later the International Astronomical Union reversed east and west). Of course, we now have detailed maps of the far side, and know that the Mare Orientale is a vast ringed structure, unlike anything else on the Moon. At about the same time, I drew the large limb crater now named Einstein. I think I was probably the first to see this. Not that it matters!
An enduring fascination
At least my maps of the libration areas were used. The Russians asked me for them, and of course I sent them — they made me an honorary member of the USSR scientific society, and invited me to Moscow, despite the Cold War. I was an insignificant member of a very large team, but it was an exciting period, followed by the lunar landings. I was doing the TV commentaries during the Apollo missions; I was on the air when Apollo 8 carried men round the Moon for the first time. I was also broadcasting when Neil Armstrong made his "one small step" onto the barren rocks of the Sea of Tranquility. I can't remember my exact words, and unfortunately the BBC have lost all the tapes, but it was a moment never to be forgotten.
After Apollo, I concentrated my Moon observations on TLP, or transient lunar phenomena (a term I believe I invented). Much work remains to be done here, and there is no doubt that TLP are real; the Moon is not totally inert, though major upheavals belong to the remote past. The next stage will be the setting up of lunar bases, and the Moon will at last become a living world.
At the age of 86, I cannot hope to see this, or to carry out much more observation, but my interest and enthusiasm are as great as ever. A Moon man I've always been; a Moon man I'll remain to the end of my days.
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