Epitaph For The Lunar Module

The Apollo lunar module has a special place in the hearts of those who study the Apollo programme. In every way, it was an extraordinary flying machine. Its systems were often at the very edge of what humans could wield at the time, from its advanced lightweight computer to the supercritical helium technology that pressurised its tanks. Its pared-down, minimalist form was often derided by the press as ungainly and spidery, like a bug. But its beauty derived not from any need to slip through a planet's atmosphere like aircraft do. The beauty of the LM was in its function: it took men to another world for the first time in the history of the human race, and did so in the spirit of exploration, as a weapon of peace in a battle for the minds of people.

Even in continued to add to our knowledge of the Moon, because in most cases it was commanded to impact the lunar surface in the name of science. Most of the Apollo crews left seismometers at the landing sites as well as other experiments scattered across the surface. When the LM ascent stage hit the surface at nearly 6,000 kilometres per hour, it sent shock waves through the interior of the Moon that were picked up by the emplaced instruments and radioed back to Earth, helping geologists to decode the internal structure of our natural satellite.

Each of the six descent stages that safely lowered their human cargo to the lunar surface are still sitting there. Each ended its useful life as a launch pad for the ascent stages, before beginning their wait for humans to return. If we never go back to the Moon, they will sit there silently, forever immobile except for the changes that come about every lunar day and night as they experience the fierce heat of the unfiltered Sun or the deep chill of space. Every so often, a tiny dust particle will fall at an extreme velocity and punch a tiny crater in one of them. Less often, a meteorite will impact somewhere in the distance, launch a sheet of ejecta across the landscape and coat a descent stage in a thin layer of finely pulverised rock. With a slowness that our minds can barely conceive, over terms measured in millions of years, the Apollo descent stages and all the other human artefacts we set across the Moon's surface in that golden age of exploration, will erode, sandblasted by the incessant rain of dust that still collects on all the worlds of the solar system. Simultaneously, they will be gradually covered with dust, scarred skeletons buried within the regolith until, perhaps 500 million years into the future, the only sign of our visit will be a few dusty mounds - like sandcastles on a beach that have been washed away by the tide.

That is, if we never return.

The Apollo 17 descent stage left behind at Taurus-Littrow, filmed by the rover TV camera.

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