Non-Fiction Books about the Moon
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To a Rocky Moon

by Don E. Wilhelms
University of Arizona Press
Paperback, 490 pages
ISBN No. 0-8165-1443-7 (paperback)
ISBN No. 0-8165-1065-2 (hardcover)
List price: $21.50
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A geologist's History of Lunar Exploration


Don Wilhelms is one of the geologists with the US Geological Survey (USGS) who was there almost from the start of the Apollo program in the early 1960's, joining Gene Shoemaker and the others who got the USGS first interested in lunar and planetary geology in the late 1950's. Wilhelms has authored many works on the geology of the Moon, including the comprehensive Geologic History of the Moon (1987). Much of the geological story of his more formal works is encapsulated in this newer book; even more interesting is the cast of characters Wilhelms features here, telling the scientific and personal story of the period surrounding the Apollo missions, and the many critical discoveries and decisions made by these individuals as they helped define what those first limited steps on our sister planet would tell us.

Much of the geologic history of the Moon concerns the impacts that cratered its surface, from the huge Imbrium and Orientale basin impacts, to the smaller and more recent Copernicus and Tycho craters. Much of the personal history concerns the gradual realization that those craters and related features were predominantly of impact, and not volcanic, origin.

The first chapter covers the history of understanding of lunar geology from the ancient past to Sputnik. Ralph Baldwin, never a professional scientist, is credited with the best early understanding of many aspects of the moon, particularly relating to geology and cratering. His 1949 book The Face of the Moon appears to have inspired many in the succeeding generation; Wilhelms refers to it as "probably the most influential book ever written in lunar science".

The next chapters follow the trail of detailed telescopic observations and the increasing number of robotic missions, starting with the US Pioneer and Russian Luna missions at the surprisingly early date of 1959, less than 2 years after Sputnik. Lunar stratigraphy, the estimation of the sequence of events on the lunar surface by looking at the way craters and other features overlap and obliterate one another, is covered in great detail, and its successes in outlining the basics of lunar history are clear even before the first missions landed. What the Ranger, Surveyor (lander), and Orbiter (detailed photographic image) missions found is covered in considerable detail, with a chapter devoted to each set of missions. Preparations on the geological side for the manned Apollo missions is also discussed in detail.

The highlight of the book are the chapters devoted to each Apollo landing mission, not so coincidentally covered one by one in Wilhelm's chapters 11-17. The details are incredible - you get to know the astronauts (and their varying attitudes towards geological work), as well as some of the supporting ground crew. And stepping through the geological activities of each mission, you find out exactly what each mission really discovered. And a few of the things that went wrong! The detailed decision-making process involved in selecting landing sites, weighing both engineering factors and areas of geological interest, are present in great detail.

What are some of the scientific discoveries from all this? The most basic is the timeline for lunar history: formation roughly 4.5 billion years ago, the original crust forming from a magma ocean about 4.2 billion years ago, the major impact basins formed between 3.9 and 3.6 billion years ago. The filling of the maria with volcanic basalts, and the mysterious KREEP deposits. The origin of the highland structures through old impacts, and of much of the igneous rock through impact melting rather than volcanism. Approximate ages for the rayed craters at Copernicus (0.8 billion years ago) and Tycho (the relatively recent 109 million years ago). The range of different concentrations of metals Fe, Ti, Mg, Al in mare and highland rocks. The clear existence of volcanic features such as sinuous rilles (lava channels and tubes) in many mare regions. And finally the consensus reached long after Apollo, at Kona, Hawaii in 1984, where the Moon's formation was attributed to the off-center collision of a body the size of Mars with the Earth.

Four appendixes enumerate all lunar spaceflights through 1976, the science experiments on the Apollo missions, science objectives and the current timeline of lunar geologic periods. Over 60 pages of notes expand on the text; 50 black and white photographs in the center of the book include a number of stunning images from orbiters and the Apollo missions.

This book is great for learning both the people and the science behind lunar geology. Read it to learn the context and much of the scientific content of Apollo, and the many areas where we still have a lot to learn.

Non-Fiction Books about the Moon

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