Summary of NASA Moon missions

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.

-President John F. Kennedy, May 25, 1961

In recent months, the NASA space program has made a splash in the news for a few reasons. As the space shuttles are being retired, they’re being flown around the nation on the backs of modified 747s for everyone to see. Just over a week ago, the Endeavor flew over California, which was easily seen throughout the Bay Area. On August 25th, Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, died. And on August 6th, the Curiosity rover landed on Mars as part of the Mars Science Laboratory.

This is a lot of news for an agency otherwise in the media only as part of a budget debate. Compared to before, however, this is a boring time for NASA. For example, from 1968 to 1972, NASA launched Apollo 5 through 17, with Apollo 11 through 17 intending to land men on the moon. That’s slightly more than 2 missions a year, which was barely quick enough to meet Kennedy’s goal of being on the moon in the 60s.

Leading up to the Apollo missions, however, NASA ran several other programs to prepare moon landing.

Pioneer (1958-1960) – The first step towards the moon is getting into space. Although these missions had the lofty goal to orbit the moon, they were primarily intended to reach escape velocity.

Mercury (1959 – 1963) – These were the first manned spaceflight NASA missions. Notable flights here include Mercury-Redstone 3, which made Alan Shepard the first American in space (just a bit behind Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space) and Mercury-Atlat 6, which made John Glenn the first American to orbit the Earth

Ranger (1961 – 1965) – Ranger 1-9 were unmanned missions to take pictures of the Moon. Until this point, we didn’t know what the surface of the Moon looked like. From telescopes on Earth, we couldn’t see the Moon with enough detail to know what the shape of the terrain was. Although the early missions had many problems, the final 3 were successful enough that they were all crash-landed on the Moon. For science, of course, to get the closest possible pictures and to see what happens when something hits the Moon

Surveyor (1966 -1968) – Improving upon destruction on success, the Surveyor missions intended to not crash and make soft landings on the Moon. Although Ranger had photographed the texture, we still didn’t know what the composition of the Moon was like. For all we knew, the Moon could’ve really been like soft cheese, with landers sinking deep into moondust. Fortunately, these missions went well with all 7 making it to the moon and 5 of 7 not crashing

Orbiter (1966-1967) – Simultaneously with Surveyor, Orbiter was a series of lunar orbiters taking pictures to find good landing spots for other missions. Orbiter took large pictures to find generally flat areas that would not cause landers to tumble down a slope

Apollo (1966-1972) – The famous Apollo missions worked up to putting men on the Moon and bringing them back safely. Various missions until Apollo 11 tested out aspects of the flight, including the Saturn V rocket, orbiting the Moon with the command module, and even a manned mission coming within 50,000 feet of the Moon surface.

The story after the Apollo missions was less exciting. Despite a lot of lessons and enthusiasm, plans to continue at this rate towards Mars stalled as funding became more difficult. With the Russians finally beaten to a milestone and public enthusiasm dying down, things waffled with other missions until the space shuttle, which one might consider a disappointment after an amazing effort during the 60s.

Speaking of the Apollo missions, let me know if any of you (or maybe your parents) may be interested in being interviewed about the world surrounding the Apollo missions. Unfortunately, my family is distinctly Canadian, which I don’t think captures quite the same energy you would get States-side. It’ll be easy and hopefully fun: I haven’t interviewed enough to ask the hard questions.

The Mesoamerican Rabbit Moon

It’s storytime again, now relayed by Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano and Thelma Ortiz de Montellano, who translated Alfredo López Austin, who got it from the 16th century Friar Bernardino de Sahagún, who got it from the Mexica people (also known as the Aztecs).

Long ago, the gods gathered in Teotihuacan, an ancient city about 30 miles northwest of Mexico City, in the dark to figure out how to light up the world so that their grass could stay alive. This responsibility was taken up by Techuciztecatl (or “Ted”), the “Dweller of the Place of the Marine Snail”, who was also very rich. The gods wanted a sidekick as well, so they eventually forced Nanahuatzin (or “Nat”), the “Pimply One” (that was not a joke), to do it, too. In preparation, both of them went to the pyramids of the Sun and Moon (though they presumably didn’t have names for the pyramids yet) and made offerings. Ted came ready with precious stones and burned aromatic resin. Nat, however, had to burn the scabs from his own pimples (again, not joking).

After the penance, Ted and Nat had to sacrifice themselves. Ted, having gotten the message, came ready in his finest vest. Nat, however, was hiding in the outhouse and therefore came covered only with the newspaper he was reading at the time. At that point, the gods presumably got in a circle with some chanting, telling Ted to throw himself into the fire. He tried once, then backed off. He tried again, and couldn’t do it. Third time wasn’t a charm, and he didn’t jump in. Already out of the medals, he couldn’t muster the will do it the fourth time, and the other gods were done with it. Next, Nat gave it a try and in one shot, he did it. Ted, at this point, was ashamed and had nothing else to live for other than to sacrifice himself as he was told to do, so in he went.

At that point, it was late, and the gods wanted to get some sleep, so they waited for dawn (in presumably the darkness they had always been in) to see what would happen. The sky turned red, and then they looked to the east and saw Nat as the brilliant sun, and Ted come shortly after as the moon, just as bright.

This, however, bothered the gods a lot. What sort of world has 2 astral bodies of the same brightness? Well, at that point, none, but having not been around long enough to see Tatooine’s 2 suns, they decided to make one of them slightly dimmer. Somewhat disappointed with Ted’s actions, a god hit him in the face with a rabbit, and since then, the moon has had a bad rabbit scar (or as Ted likes to tell it, a sick tattoo) and is slightly darker.

If you heard the same childhood stories as me, you might know of the man in the moon, but apparently the rabbit in the moon is another common myth, particularly in Mesoamerican and East Asian cultures. As another example, the Chinatec from Oaxaca tell the story that the sun and moon are the right golden eye and left silver eye of an eagle, respectively. And the Tzotzil of Pinola say that the sun and moon are a son and mother, lifted into the sky on a ferris wheel, where the mother was struck in the eye by jealous attendees also waiting in line. If this sounds familiar, it’s because the Egyptians saw the sun and moon as the functional and damaged eyes of Horus.

When I think of myths, I see them as the (presumably not entirely factual) story of how the world has come to be, and the storytellers as some oracle who saw into the beginning. What these cross-cultural connection says to me is that the myths we tell aren’t creation stories per se, but explanations for what we see in the world. In the previous post on Egyptian mythology, I noted that much of their belief was understanding the world in terms of what they knew. Creation myths are the same, just projected backwards in time to provide a story for the things we can’t understand.

On that note, I clearly haven’t spent nearly enough time looking at the moon as I have never seen the rabbit. Wikipedia has a nice illustration of where you might see the rabbit, so I’m hoping that works out. It also hopefully won’t be a “can’t unsee” moment as I’m readying myself for many other interpretations.


López, Austin Alfredo. The Rabbit on the Face of the Moon: Mythology in the Mesoamerican Tradition. Salt Lake City: University of Utah, 1996. Print.


Moon Profile: Thoth

Entity Type: Egyptian God

Historical Context: Ancient Egypt, at least 1500 BC, +/- 1500 years

Representation: either a dog-headed baboon, or an ibis (it’s a funny looking bird that bears no resemblance to a dog or a baboon)

Origin: Emerged as a god from the Nile River Delta, but became popular in Middle Egypt (Eshmunen or Hermopolis). Absorbed aspects of Aah, former god of the moon

Association with the Moon: Ra, the chief god, created the moon (or let Thoth create the moon) as a reward for returning Ra’s eye when it got away (note that Ra’s eye is also associated with the moon).

Other Notes: Thoth was called the “Measurer of Time” and generally became the god of measurement. This association likely came from the regularity and cycles of the moon. His association with math and astronomy also linked him to magic (in the eyes of the Egyptians), so he also became a “Lord of Magic”. Later, as Osiris assumed a more central role in Egyptian mythology, Thoth became the god of justice and law. Later, he even absorbed important ceremonial duties as Set became less popular. In short, Thoth was the polymath and “geek” of the Egyptian gods.

My Thoughts: Although I can’t identify with the dog head, I am a fan of Thoth and how he started with one little aspect (an eye of Ra) and turned it into quite a career. Without the rigor of the modern clock, there’s something nice about the idea of the moon as a symbol of time and measurement. It has 2 different cyclical properties (day/night and the monthly-ish lunar cycle) that make it almost as good as the sun for days and more useful than the season on a broader scale. The jump from time to magic is pretty amazing, too.

One quick caution about Egyptian mythology: it’s somewhat amazing how much aspects and stories change. Thoth isn’t just the moon god: he came after another moon god and moved onto other roles. From an outside perspective, it seems like a surprise that Egyptians could’ve believed that their gods were really the truth of reality, but it’s not quite that crazy. Remember: the Egyptians spanned at least 3000 years.

For some perspective, the Great Pyramids were constructed in 2560 BC. Cleopatra lived in the 1st century BC. That’s 2500 years. We’re in 2012 now, which is about 2100 years after Cleopatra. We’re closer in time to Cleopatra than she was to the pyramid builders.

So over the course of 3000 years, a lot can change in religion. The story of religion is the story of people as they conquer and assimilate others, with religion shifting to accommodate these attitudes. And of course, there are many different regional differences in religion as well, so trying to come up with a consistent story of Egyptian mythology would be like writing about Augustine and Joseph Smith in a single thought.

To get back to my point, though, Thoth was an impressively flexible god. I’ll need to investigate whether the moon was just a starting point for Thoth or whether it was a unifying theme.

(Author’s note: I don’t know if I ever mentioned this publicly, but I’m sort of working on a book about man’s relationship with the moon, so you’ll likely see a lot of posts about it as I think about and work on it, 500-1000 words at a time. Hope you enjoy, and if you don’t, let me know, and I’ll keep my regular posts come frequently enough as well)

The Limits of the Ancient Egyptian World

Let me start with the story of Osiris and Isis. In Egyptian mythology, Osiris was the god ruler of Egypt. After returning home after a business trip, his brother Set (also brother to Osiris’s wife, Isis; don’t worry too much about familial relations) had a plan to take over: he built a chest the exact size of Osiris, then offered to throw a welcome home party. At the party, Set decided to skip “Charades” and play the “Lie down in the coffin *cough* I mean chest” game, with the winner receiving the chest. Presumably after a few too many beers, Osiris decided to give it a shot, but when he got into this perfectly shaped chest, Set closed the lid, nailed him in, and threw it into the Nile. The other party guests were probably too drunk to realize that this wasn’t part of the game.

Isis heard the bad news, then went to go look for the chest. By then, it had floated all the way to modern-day Lebanon, where a well-fertilized tree managed to grow completely around and envelop the chest. The king of this land was so impressed by this huge tree that he insisted on using it to build his castle (carpentry wasn’t very good back then, so they never actually cut into the tree to find the chest). After a pointless undercover mission where Isis thought she needed to be a nurse to get to the chest but ended up getting it anyways when she was revealed and the king let her have it, she took the chest back to the Nile River delta, where an very lucky Set happened to stumble across Osiris’s body hidden while hunting. He cut the body into a ton of pieces, and poor Isis had to find and reassemble the parts before reincarnating him. Technically, Osiris’s junk was eaten by a crab, but Isis wanted to have a child badly enough that she ended up making some new parts for Osiris, then followed through by having a son, Horus. Although Horus went on to be a very successful god when he grew up, it’s possible that all the stress and substitution involved in his birth led to him having a falcon head.

Although you’ve likely guessed that much of my fascination with Egyptian mythology has to do with the plot holes, I’m also intrigued by the apparently very narrow scope that constituted stories of epic proportion. Osiris was the son of Nut, the goddess of the sky, and yet, he never really left Egypt, except when his body floated out to Lebanon. It just seems strange that the Egyptians would have thought that the sky and Egypt was proportionally fair divisions of the world for different gods to rule. Even Nut, the goddess of the sky, was imagined to be supported on her fingers and toes across 4 mountains, which were supporting points from Geb, the god of the earth. But even this conception seems somewhat odd. At some point, some Egyptian must have gone up to the top of a mountain and realized that the sky was no closer. And unless Geb had really bad eczema, the fact that they were picking up dirt from the earth and turning it into buildings should have been a clue that these phenomenon were not gods.

Today, these characterizations seems comically bad, but taking the long view that is necessary when comparing ourselves to people 5000 years before ourselves, we’ll be the bad joke of cyborgs in the year 3000. We can’t get past a simple point: we understand the world in terms of what we know. This idea feel intuitively true and is the premise of our schooling: we learn numbers to learn addition to learn multiplication to learn division to learn fractions to learn decimals and so forth. It also determines how we as a society view the world. Collectively, we only know so much, and that constrains the representations we develop.

For ancient Egyptians, the universe was the size of a country and a few bordering nations. Osiris was the ruler of the world because they didn’t know about the Americas. The sky could be a single entity because the clouds were just as unreachable as the stars. The gods might as well be humanoid, if with the heads of different animals, since the only intelligent beings they knew were other humans. And all the entities of the universe, from the earth to the sky, might as well be humanoid gods or evil spirits in the forms of snakes.

Take the sun and moon, specifically. Being people of a very fertile land, they worshipped the sun in many ways, including as multiple gods, including the popular Ra. Its counterpart in the sky was the moon, which appeared only at night. With 2 globes in the sky, they made the natural connection to their own experience: the sun and moon were the eyes of Horus (and don’t ask what it was like when Osiris was king and Horus wasn’t born yet. Technically, Horus the Elder was already around, but again, don’t ask questions). The moon, being the weaker of the two eyes, was apparently the product of a vicious fight between Horus and Set as Horus got in a fight after looking for the man who tricked-buried-and-cut-up his pa. Set, in the form of a “black pig”, tore out Horus’s weaker eye, and the lunar cycle represented this struggle between gods. To reiterate, they couldn’t understand the moon as a satellite with Earth’s shadow, and instead, they took their own knowledge and turned that into a story. And apparently, their cultural context involved a lot of fights with black pigs.

Although we may now know that the sun and moon are not the eyes of a god, we’re just as constrained by what we’re capable of understanding. In my own education, I think the computer and brain are a great example of this. Descartes thought that the nervous system was a series of strings, with various parts tugging on them. At that time, the best technology they had were fancy toys using basic hydraulics and simple machines. Later, Luigi Galvani shocked frog legs, and then, the brain was based on electricity.

Nowadays, we think of the brain and thinking as a digital computer and calculations, even going as far as to draw connections between short-term and long-term memory with RAM and hard drive space. It’s helpful in our exploration of the brain, but given our history as a species, it seems wrong to think that this is the right representation. Given another a few centuries, and I’m sure we’ll have moved well past this model of thought. Even our theory of computing is probably suspect. Despite most of a century of development, computation is still based on a long tape of symbols being fed into a state machine and manipulated, one symbol at a time. The Church-Turing Thesis, at a high level, hypothesizes that this representation encapsulates all possible computation. In this case, we’re constrained by the physical manifestation of a machine. And despite my training in understanding the brain and theoretical computer science, and even my own work in modeling the brain with computers, history seems to suggest that we’re clearly wrong.

But it’s still worth trying. We may only understand the world in terms of what we know, but it all gradually accumulates. Everyday, the world is a little bigger than the day before. We can amuse ourselves by comparing our world a few millennia later, as long as we remember that we’re just as limited and should continue to look forward to what we may know next.

(Edit: Citing my source for all of this. Great book for those interested in Egyptian mythology)


Ions, Veronica. Egyptian Mythology. New York: P. Bedrick, 1983. Print.