Christopher Cokinos

You See It All the Time, but How Much Do You Know about the Moon?

Mountains! Meteorites! Frisky Grunions and bad Sci-Fi! Test your lunar IQ

True or false? Infamously, Carl Sagan once called the Moon “boring.”

True. Boy, was he wrong. As you will find out, if you read on.


Does the Moon have a dark side?

It does not. The Moon has a near-side and far-side, but both experience the fourteen-day-long lunar day and the fourteen-night-long lunar night. We only see the near side because the Moon’s rate of rotation is synchronous with its orbit around the Earth. However, the Moon’s albedo—its reflectivity—is about the same as pavement. Think of that on your next commute! But with all that sun falling on it on a dark night, it looks mighty bright.


Does Pink Floyd have a dark side?

Well, duh.


The Moon is torn out of what is now the Pacific Ocean, right?

Wrong. It’s a cool idea though. The so-called “fission theory,” originating with George Howard Darwin (son of Charles), was a once-popular idea. The gist was that the Earth was rotating so fast that a chunk tore off and left the Pacific basin to fill with water. The consensus now is that a Mars-sized planet hit the early Earth and out of the fiery remains the Earth re-emerged with its now-familiar companion. *Spooky footnote: Some of that impacting planet—Theia—appears to be stuck in the Earth’s mantle. Cue direct-to-streaming sci-fi movie…


The mountains of the Moon look like the Tetons, Alps, or Sawtooths. True or false?

Definitely false. Lunar mountains can be very high—the Moon’s Apennines top out at more than three miles. But eons of impacts, especially from micrometeorites, has rounded the peaks. The mountains of the Moon look more like the Smokies, albeit without the trees. Still, you can enjoy pointy lunar mountains in such classic films Destination Moon and 2001: A Space Odyssey and the space art of Chesley Bonestell. Don’t get me started on Space: 1999.


Sir John Herschel observed lunar unicorns, giant crystals, and bat-men on the Moon in 1835, according to New York’s The Sun. True or false?

True! But the story was an elaborate hoax. When he found out, Herschel was reportedly amused.


With a bit of orbital engineering, we could have a total solar eclipse every month. True or false?

True! The Moon is just five degrees off the ecliptic—the plane of the solar system. If it were on the ecliptic, we would see totality every month. Which. Would. Be. Awesome.


Why did the British hate meteorites?

For some reason British astronomers really, really hated the idea that the craters of the Moon were caused by impacts. Then again, most people couldn’t conceive of the enormity of chance rocky violence required to smash up the Moon and create the impact basins that later filled with lava (what we call the maria). It just didn’t seem proper to have all those asteroids mucking up the Moon. Cup o’ tea, governor?


So, there’s no life on the Moon, right?

Almost certainly not–unless the tardigrades can be revived? Seriously, look it up.


True or False? Luna may once have been covered in or had some surface water.

We’ve discovered a lunar meteorite containing hints of this, and researchers have modeled an early Moon that might have been either millimeters deep in water—or feet. So probably true. That opens the tantalizing possibility that the very early Moon had a “window of habitability.” The prospect of finding early lunar fossils is, alas, vanishingly small. But what a lovely prospect.


There’s no water on the Moon anymore, then, right? 

Actually, there is. Maybe as much as Lake Tahoe, locked up as ice in the coldest places in the Solar System, the permanently shadowed craters of the Moon’s south polar region. That ice can make drinking water, rocket fuel, and oxygen. What follows from there could be the dystopian start of The Expanse or something closer to Star Trek. Solving for space is solving for Earth.


You can lose weight by going to the Moon. True or false?

True, if not cost-effective. You’ll weigh 1/6th of your terrestrial weight on the Moon because it has 1/6th the gravity. Better stick with Keto.


You can test the illusion that the Moon appears larger the closer to the horizon with:
a) your thumb
b) by looking at the Moon upside through your legs
c) both.

C. Yes, really. Scientists are still puzzled by “the Moon illusion,” which has us thinking that the Moon is bigger the closer to the horizon it is. Also, not sure who thought of the look-between-the-legs thing.

Get your astronomy geek on and learn more fascinating moon facts in Cokinos’s Still as Bright: An Illuminating History of the Moon, from Antiquity to Tomorrow.


Ridley Scott’s film Moonfall asserts that the Moon is:
a) partially made of blue, not green, cheese (probably a Stilton)
b) the inspiration for Love & Rocket’s banger “Holiday on the Moon”
c) hollow because of, you know, aliens. 

Definitely C. Which is also the nicest grade one could give to a fairly terrible movie. The part where they start up the Space Shuttle on display at LA’s California Science Center is pretty sweet, however.


There are companies interested in sending what to the Moon?
a) cremains
b) Wikipedia
c) both. 

Alas, C. The Diné people have strongly objected to the former because, as for many, the Moon for them remains sacred. It’s unclear why the Moon needs Wikipedia.


Select all that apply. With a 3-inch telescope, you can see:
a) Apollo landing modules
b) the flags left by the Apollo astronauts
c) craters, lava-covered maria, and channels called rilles
d) everything that’s ever been lost on Earth

Only C. No telescope is big enough to show A or B, and D is a fetching folk belief.


Did the first humans to see the Moon up close think it sucked? 

Yes, sort of. Okay, a bit of an overstatement but Frank Borman, commander of Apollo 8, called the Moon “a vast expanse of nothing.” Not exactly taking a place on its own terms. And certainly not what the PR folks at NASA would have wanted him to say.


Why did the first humans on the Moon to be seriously trained in geology feel like it was a second home?

The Apollo 15 crew was the first seriously scientific expedition to another world. Dave Scott, Jim Irwin, and Al Worden studied its rocks and landforms until, in Worden’s view, the Moon was a bit like a childhood neighborhood. All three felt it was like a home. They still found it eerie, but if we are to have an ethical relationship with the Moon, we could do worse than to start with Apollo 15.


Select all that apply. The Moon causes:
a) menstruation
b) the tides
c) spicy behavior among California grunion.

B and C! It is a coincidence that the lunar month and women’s periods are about the same length of time.


In 500 words or fewer please answer: Now that you have tested your lunar IQ, write down the last time you saw the Moon. What was the air like? The sky? What did you hear? Where were you? Did you think about the Moon as its own world, without air, with searing heat and plunging cold? Did you imagine standing on the central peak of the Copernicus crater surrounded by massive terraces formed from a nearly billion-year-old impact? Did you imagine peering into the mysterious channel that cuts through the Aristarchus Plateau or did you imagine walking across the gauzy regolith of Reiner Gamma? Did you consider the Moon also, as it is, a fountainhead of time consciousness? Did you meet witches at a crossroads under Moonlight? Did you think of what you would say if you set foot on the Moon?

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Christopher Cokinos is the author or coeditor of several books, including Still as Bright: An Illuminating History of the Moon, from Antiquity to Tomorrow, The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars, Hope Is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds, and Beyond Earth’s Edge: The Poetry of Spaceflight. He is the winner of awards and fellowships from, among others, New American Press, the Whiting Foundation, the Rachel Carson Center in Munich, and the National Science Foundation. His poems, articles, and essays have appeared in such venues as Scientific American, High Country News, Astronomy, Orion,, and the Los Angeles Times.