"Christmas on the Moon" is an episode of Men into Space, a relatively intelligent science fiction TV series. It aired on 23 December 1959 on the CBS network in the U.S. Now it can be seen on Youtube.
Imagining a space program in the near future, Men into Space followed Colonel Edward McCauley (actor William Lundigan) and his Air Force colleagues as they flew to the Moon, constructed space stations, and explored asteroids. This episode begins with astronomy, as a visiting comet expert (played by the ubiquitous Whit Bissell) joins the military astronauts at Christmastime to study a passing comet from a remote lunar outpost. Unexpected peril crops up, but the comet itself holds a key to resolving the trouble.
I'm always intrigued when filmmakers attempt to put fairly accurate science into a science fiction story. I've only seen a couple of episodes of Men into Space, but the short-lived series seems to have made an earnest attempt to combine science and storytelling to a level not just rare for 1959 television, but rare for TV in any subsequent era. I hope to see more episodes.
The science here isn't perfectly accurate, but it's pretty good. We are told of speculations regarding the composition of comets. We see an increased hazard (somewhat exaggerated) from meteoric debris traveling in orbits near the comet's orbit.
The characters even argue about theology a bit!
The story may be a trifle corny by today's standards but hey, it's from the Fifties. Just two years had passed since Sputnik surprised everyone. The future of spaceflight was unclear, but appeared to be exciting.
Consider this a Christmas card, exactly 55 years in transit, from the inhabitants of Televisionland to us.
Artist’s impression of Dawn at Ceres (left), and New Horizons at Pluto (right). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Among the spacecraft now exploring the solar system are two that, if all goes well, will give us our first close-range views of distant worlds.
Asteroid 4 Vesta from the Dawn Spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCAL/MPS/DLR/IDA
Having orbited Vesta for over a year, then departed, NASA's Dawn spacecraft is presently cruising through the asteroid belt for a rendezvous with the largest asteroid, Ceres. In April, Dawn's ion-propulsion thrusters will ease it into orbit, beginning a prolonged campaign to study Ceres.
The low density of the 950-km-diameter asteroid suggests that it may contain frozen water in abundance. It may be a specimen, or at least a relative, of the kind of protoplanets that merged long ago to form the major planets.
As for Vesta, previous explanations of its nature do not match the wealth of new data on its geochemical composition. Following Dawn's extended visit, studies of Vesta and similar bodies are entering a new era.
Meanwhile, the New Horizons spacecraft is nearing its own target, Pluto. Launched by the U.S. in 2006, it picked up further speed in a slingshot encounter with Jupiter in 2007. On 14 July next year, New Horizons will zoom past Pluto and its moons.
In a sense, the flyby will be brief–relative to Pluto, the spacecraft will be moving at 50,000 kilometers per hour. In another sense, the flyby will last for months. New Horizons is planned to wake from hibernation on 6 December this year, and begin observations of Pluto in February. In May, it will be close enough to snap pictures of Pluto with better resolution than the best Hubble Space Telescope images. Week by week, more and more of Pluto and its large moon Charon will become apparent. The smaller satellites will remain just dots until July.
The instruments New Horizons will bring to bear analyze visible light, infrared, ultraviolet, microwaves, charged particles, and dust particles. They will probe Pluto's faint atmosphere, map its surface, measure the radiation environment, search for unknown satellites, and more.
Beyond Pluto may lie another destination. In the years after 2015, New Horizons may continue on to another flyby of a Kuiper Belt object; three candidates, all discovered recently, are under evaluation to become the mission's final target.
2015 arrives soon. Provided both spacecraft remain healthy, Dawn and New Horizons should reveal much previously hidden during the year to come.
Artist’s impression of Pluto's surface. Image credit: ESO/L. Calçada
Urban legend buffs are familiar with the claim that the Great Wall of China can be seen from the Moon (or somewhere else in outer space). Nobody knows quite where this idea comes from.
Cover art for One Man Caravan.
I've been reading One Man Caravan by Robert Edison Fulton, Jr. published in 1937 by Harcourt, Brace, and Company.
Departing London in 1932, Fulton rode around the world on a motorcycle, or anyway, he covered 40,000 miles through Europe, the Middle East, India, Indonesia, Indochina, China, Japan, and the United States, relying on steamships for the wetter parts of the world. Good book. I was interested in him because he later invented the Airphibian flying car and the bizarre Fulton Skyhook rescue device. See his obituary for more.
While reading, I was startled to find a reference to the Great Wall space myth in this 1937 book.
I quote from p. 256 of the 1996 edition from Whitehorse Press:
"As I turned southward from Kaifeng, once again to run along the banks of the Grand Canal, it seemed to me more incredible than ever that the Chinese had built that one great work of Man which scientists maintain can be recognized as human effort by the Man in Mars; and that, none the less, they should have such terrible roads in their country. Maybe the Man in Mars was looking down through his telescope the day I passed, and recorded the progress of some strange insect along the Canal banks."
"Where did this belief come from? The exact source is unknown, but the earliest citing we have comes from Richard Halliburton's Second Book of Marvels, the Orient, published in 1938, which states that 'Astronomers say that the Great Wall is the only man-made thing on our planet visible to the human eye from the moon.' Halliburton was an adventurer-lecturer whose travel writings were extremely popular and sold quite well during the first half of the twentieth century (and who wasn't above spinning tall tales in order to enthrall an audience), and if he himself wasn't the originator of this factoid, he undoubtedly helped it to spread widely.
Whatever its source, since the Great Wall claim antedates man's launching of satellites (and thereby the possibility of photography from space) by decades, it was not the outgrowth of a misinterpreted photograph taken by satellite or a manned space mission. The Great Wall of China extends for some 1,500 miles (although it is actually a series of walls rather than one contiguous wall), and the claim that it is visible from the moon was probably an attempt to find a concise way of conveying the grand scale of the wall to people who had never seen it (outside of black-and-white photographs that could only reproduce small portions of the wall) and of asserting the triumph of man's mastery of the vastness of nature (i.e., even if we couldn't travel into space ourselves, we'd already constructed a man-made object of such large scale that it would surely be visible all the way from from the moon)."
So I have found a source at least a year younger than Halliburton's book. Unfortunately, there's no indication how Fulton learned of the canard. Apparently it was common "knowledge" in the mid-1930s.
The mention of a "Man in Mars," and of a telescope, hints that some astronomer may have worked out the Great Wall example for a particular size of telescope, and claimed that observers on Mars could see the thing. Perhaps this got distorted as it got repeated in various forums.
I'm hoping that the impending digitization of huge numbers of old books by Google Books project will lead to earlier instances of the Great Wall claim.