Unto Dust We May Return

BIS Odyssey

Hidden dangers on the Moon. Published by Pan Books 1964.

As the Lunar Module of Apollo 11 made its historic descent to the surface of the Moon in July 1969, more than a few people may still have wondered what it would meet when it finally touched down. There was still that slight, niggling fear that it might sink inextricably into a sea of dust, never to be heard from again. After all, it was a possible fictional image that had been fostered for some time.

Arthur C. Clarke’s classic 1961 novel A Fall of Moondust, which was nominated for a Hugo Award, was unforgettable. In a near future where the Moon has been colonized, and most of the surface is fairly firm and secure, tourists can experience travel across a vast dust lake which exists in one of the lunar maria. The dust is so fine that it flows almost like a liquid, and transport on its surface is provided by means of a dust cruiser which speeds the passengers along in a reasonable degree of luxury.

But a moonquake causes the craft to sink below the surface, leaving its occupants with a restricted air supply, invisible from above, without communications to the outside, and with an ever-increasing level of heat as the dust around effectively insulates them. The situation is about as grim as it could get and, as with so many of Clarke’s stories, it is left to human ingenuity to try to effect a rescue in a particularly alien situation. And it is the alien nature of the disaster, so different to anything we are likely to experience on Earth, which brings home to us the risks of living on other worlds.

Other authors had already shown the Moon as a highly inhospitable place, such as John W Campbell in his 1950 story The Moon is Hell! where astronauts are stranded on the lunar farside, out of contact with Earth, and have to survive on their wits while enduring dangers such as meteor showers. An airless, hostile environment where there is little hope of rescue has obvious risks, but Clarke’s idea of a sort of quicksand sucking explorers to their doom was particularly frightening.

In 1979, BIS book High Road to the Moon: From Imagination to Reality, Bob Parkinson mentioned this potential problem. He observed that wide temperature variations between day and night on the Moon might effectively have turned the lunar surface to powder, creating a layer of dust perhaps hundreds of metres thick. This created concerns that persisted right up to the manned landings themselves.  But fortunately, that wasn’t the case. Indeed, as Bob further commented, although the surface was dusty, it was so compacted that astronaut Neil Armstrong actually had great difficulty in getting the pole to stand up straight when he tried to plant the American flag.

Of course, unmanned probes had already settled nicely on the Moon’s surface long before Apollo 11 commenced its flight. The Surveyor program from 1966 to 1968 had shown fairly conclusively that loose lunar soil extended down only a few centimetres. This was subsequently demonstrated in the film of lunar rovers in later Apollo missions throwing up dust as they hurtled across the lunar landscape.

One of my textbooks of the period, Thomas A Mutch’s Geology of the Moon: A Stratigraphic View, in its revised version of 1972 at a time when the Apollo missions were well underway, assessed that the lunar regolith – the loose deposits that cover solid rock – extended up to six metres down. This is now estimated at up to 15 metres in some of the highland areas. However, only the very top few centimetres were likely to be churned to form dust – the rest would be fairly solid – though the author was clear that this should be taken only as a generalization, and locally it might be deeper.

So we can rest assured that our nearest neighbour in space will probably continue to provide a fairly solid surface for future inhabitants and their colonies. Well, probably. There’s still that irritating doubt that you never know quite what might be waiting just around the corner on a new world.


Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

With a lifetime’s interest in science, history and human behaviour, Richard Hayes focuses his writing on how the imagination has created the world in which we live, and where it may lead us in the future.  Odyssey, the e-magazine of the British Interplanetary Society, draws on the rich treasury of science fiction to explore many fields of speculation, enabling us to glimpse what might yet be, both here on Earth and out amongst the stars.

For related Odyssey posts, please click here: Standing under the Moon When Science Fiction Became Reality

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