Lunar News Flash
It was 4:30 on an unseasonably icy October Denver morning. A slight dusting of snow reflected the pre-dawn light of a slightly gibbous moon. 80 sleepy but excited visitors gathered at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, watching NASA TV on a giant screen, and monitoring a live image of the Lunar South pole piped in from a rooftop telescope. All eyes were on Cabeus Crater awaiting the crash of the LCROSS spacecraft. Three separate network news crews were there interviewing experts, capturing the ambience, and watching us watch.
The moment of impact approached. The commentators wrapped up their filler, we checked our telescope feed one last time, watched the clock count down to zero and… … and nothing happened.
The nonplussed talking heads ran the footage over and over, trying to find the smallest trace of a flash, a cloud, anything. The scientists and engineers from the mission team quickly reported that useful data had been acquired and the thermal pulse of an impact had been picked up by the orbiting Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. But these notes of success were drowned out in a chorus of groans which turned to mocking laughter. On a live TV news interview right afterwards I, along with many others around the world in the same situation, propped up my enthusiasm along with my eyelids and tried to wax eloquent about the unpredictable nature of true exploration.
“Scientists Excited by Moon Crash”, evening news anchors, and the next morning’s headlines declared, “But Public Disappointed”. So, instead of sharing the excitement of space exploration, our public events seemed to confirm that space scientists are eggheads who fuss over boring things and spend taxpayer money on projects which – in this case literally – provide no bang for the bucks.
Impact cratering is the most ubiquitous and primeval geologic process in the solar system. Every cratered surface tells stories of bombardment and subsequent geological or atmospheric processes. But the crucial science of observing a crater and deducing the nature of the impactor that caused it is still more guesswork than we would like to admit. The 2005 crash of the Deep Impact probe with the icy Comet 9P/Tempel produced a much bigger dust cloud than predicted, completely obscuring the new crater. The surprisingly gentle LCROSS impact seemed to diverge from expectations in the opposite direction. Though this was briefly disappointing and slightly embarrassing, in the long run it gives us useful data, helping calibrate our knowledge of impacts and craters. Scientifically, the uncertain magnitude of the explosion was just a sideshow to the successful search for the presence, or lack, of ice in the cold, permanently shadowed craters near the Moon’s poles.
Did NASA blow it by building up these expectations? Yes, I’m afraid they (we) did. I wish we had emphasized the beguiling, expanding, side-lit approach images, along with the expected harvest of meaningful data. Centering our public outreach efforts around the potentially flashy moment of impact was a gamble, a miscalculation. In retrospect it seems we bought into our own hype about, and hopes for, seeing the crash.
We love seeing spacecraft orbiting overhead because we see ourselves out there, catching faint hints of our destiny as a spacefaring species. Watching our own crater form on the Moon would be a further, thrilling confirmation of human hands scratching at the heavens. And, lets face it, dead, dry worlds are just not quite as compelling as wet and vibrant ones. As we explore planets, we are most excited by signs of water and signs of change. We thought we might provoke the moon to reveal both in one explosive moment. Though it looked as though nothing changed at the moment of impact, this is wrong. The discovery of ice on the Moon changes us, illuminating the original delivery of life’s materials to Earth from space, and bringing us closer to the day we’ll move back out there.