NASA’s recent successful test of its new Orion space capsule led many people to ask the obvious question: When will mankind return to the Moon? The short answer is, no one knows. The cash-strapped U.S. space program is more interested in visiting Mars — and even an asteroid — than it is in returning to the Moon. It seems inevitable that mankind will one day revisit the Moon, and when we do, astronauts will find plenty of artifacts from the Apollo era and the early Space Age. Items such as laser-ranging reflectors and lunar rovers left by both the United States and the Soviet Union are well known, but some more obscure items were left behind on the lunar surface, each with its own fascinating story to tell.
5. Nuclear Reactors
During Apollo 11’s historic lunar mission in 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin deployed a science package known as ALSEP, or the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Package. ALSEP included devices such as seismometers and magnetometers, which were designed to operate for a year or two after deployment. That first science package used solar power, but subsequent Apollo missions carried a package powered by a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, or RTG. Fueled with plutonium-238, an RTG is basically a tiny nuclear reactor. Five Apollo missions left behind these nuclear reactors, all of which are probably still functioning today.
Sending these nuclear-powered devices to the Moon created a serious and unexpected dilemma when Apollo 13 had to abort its mission and return to Earth, still carrying its plutonium-laden RTG. The Apollo 13 crew jettisoned the lunar module over the deep waters of the Pacific, with its plutonium power cell onboard. The plutonium was encased inside a cask designed to survive a launch explosion, and repeated testing of the waters over the impact site through the years has found no evidence of leakage.
4. Scientist Eugene Shoemaker’s Cremated Remains
Noted astrogeologist Eugene Shoemaker trained for the Apollo program, with hopes of walking on the Moon, but a medical condition derailed his dream. Shoemaker’s career, however, is the stuff of legend. He helped train the Apollo astronauts and virtually founded the field of planetary science. Shoemaker may be best known, however, for his co-discovery of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which fragmented and smashed into Jupiter in 1994. But a year later, Shoemaker noted he still had a huge void in his life. “Not going to the Moon and banging on it with my own hammer has been the biggest disappointment in life,” he said.
Shoemaker eventually made it to the Moon. Unfortunately, his journey came posthumously, following his death in a car crash in the Australian Outback in 1997. One ounce of Shoemaker’s cremated remains traveled to the Moon aboard the spacecraft Lunar Prospector; at the end of the space probe’s successful mission, controllers on Earth commanded it to crash into the lunar surface on July 31, 1999. Shoemaker is the only person whose cremains have made it to the Moon.
3. Russian Pennants
The unmanned Soviet spacecraft Luna 2 became the first spacecraft to reach the surface of the Moon, fulfilling its mission by crashing into the Mare Imbrium plain on Sept. 14, 1959. Luna 2 carried two sphere-shaped, stainless-steel pennants. The spheres fragmented via triggered explosives and shattered on impact, scattering pentagonal-shaped segments emblazoned with the Russian coat of arms and the letters CCCP (which is Cyrillic for USSR). A third capsule-shaped pennant was aboard Luna 2’s rocket booster, which also impacted the lunar surface about 30 minutes later. Today, a replica of the Luna 2 pennants is on display at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson, Kansas.
2. The Moon Bible
Apollo 15 Mission Commander David Scott left a small, red Bible on the dashboard of the lunar rover before departing the Moon in 1971. It is the only known copy of the Bible on the Moon, but literally hundreds of Bibles have been to the Moon. In 1971, 300 complete microfilm versions of the King James Bible traveled to the Moon aboard Apollo 14. Those tiny, square Bibles, each measuring roughly 1 inch by 1 inch, were carried to the Moon and back by astronaut Edgar Mitchell on behalf of the Apollo Prayer League. Those Bibles today command a high price; one such Bible sold for $56,250 in a 2012 Sotheby’s auction.
The tale of the Moon Bibles is part of the fascinating but little-known saga of the battle for human spirituality in the early years of the Space Age. This can be traced to a comment made by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who echoed the Soviet Union’s anti-religious sentiments by saying that early cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin didn’t “see angels in space.” Later on, Apollo 8 astronauts read from the book of Genesis while orbiting the Moon, prompting a lawsuit against NASA from atheist advocate Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin later took communion in secret after landing on the Moon during Apollo 11.
1. The Fallen Astronaut Memorial
The early years of the Space Age featured many deadly incidents. Some of those involved multiple fatalities. On Jan. 27, 1967, a fire swept through the capsule of Apollo 1 during training, killing astronauts Ed White, Virgil “Gus” Grissom and Roger Chaffee. In 1971, a hatch detached from the Soviet spacecraft Soyuz 11 on reentry, killing all three cosmonauts aboard. These deaths and those of eight other early space pioneers are memorialized on the Moon. Apollo 15 astronauts placed a plaque and small statuette of an astronaut at Hadley Rille in 1971. The 3-inch-high aluminum sculpture, designed by artist Paul Van Hoeydonck, was placed face down in the lunar dust. The memorial is the first — and thus far only — monument of its kind beyond the Earth.
One More: The Moon Museum
The second manned mission to land on the Moon may also have carried humanity’s first “art museum in space.” The Moon Museum is a small, half-inch by three quarters of an inch wafer carrying sketches by six prominent artists of the 1960s, including Andy Warhol. When the project organizer became frustrated in his attempts to get NASA’s approval to carry the artwork to the Moon, legend has it that someone secretly attached the wafer to a leg of the Intrepid lunar module, the descent stage of which remained on the Moon. No one is really sure if this tiny art museum rode on Apollo 12 and sits on the surface of the Moon or not; the mystery awaits a future era of explorers.