Some Lunar Landmarks in Science Fiction

The moon has often been the setting for great stories in science fiction, but only rarely have actual locations been depicted in some way. Usually a generic cratered, dusty surface suffices for “the moon” for any a film-maker. When I was growing up, two of my favourite visual science fiction depictions were Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s TV series Space: 1999, in production from 1975 to 1977. Not only did both make explicit reference to the year in which (some of the) events they portrayed took place, but they also at least made a nod to real lunar locations.

Three craters identified as locations in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Space: 1999. Photograph taken 25 October 2012, Hamilton, ON, with Sigma 150-500 mm telephoto lens and Nikon D7000.

Three craters identified as locations in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Space: 1999. Photograph taken 25 October 2012, Hamilton, ON, with Sigma 150-500 mm telephoto lens and Nikon D7000.

Two locations on the moon were settings for important events in 2001: A Space Odyssey, both in the rugged southern portion of the visible side of the moon. The story revolved around humans finding artifacts deliberately left behind millions of years ago, as tests for the evolution of a space-fairing culture. One of these monoliths was buried under the Crater Tycho (43° S, 11° W) and was given the name TMA-1, or Tycho Magnetic Anomaly 1. In the story, a strong magnetic field was detected in the area of the crater, prompting American astronauts to undertake some lunar archaeology. Near by, in the Crater Clavius (58° S, 14° W), the Americans had already established a large underground moon base – very handy! Both of these craters are real, prominent, and can be observed easily from earth.

It should also be noted that Russian’s future space efforts were not ignored in 2001: A Space Odyssey. During a short meeting with Russian scientists on board an earth-orbiting space station, Dr. Haywood Floyd finds out that the Russians are coming back to earth from their own base, Tchalinko,  in Crater Tsiolkovsky, on the far side of the moon.

The action in the British TV series Space: 1999 revolved around a group of people trapped on the moon when it was blasted out of orbit and into deep space by an enormous explosion, the result of a nuclear waste storage accident on the far side. Leaving aside that this the scenario poses monumental physics problems, it’s fun to note that the moon base in this program, “Alpha,” was apparently located in a real crater, Plato, at a lunar latitude of about 52° N, longitude 9° W. The location was not divulged during the episodes of the series, but the location was revealed during the second season by publicity produced by the studio, according to the web site “Space: 1999 Net” (http://www.space1999.net/catacombs/main/cguide/umext.html; The same article points out that there were somewhat conflicting references to lunar geography throughout the program. Clearly, some film-makers need to hire better technical advisors).

Tycho, Clavius and Plato are all worthy objectives for a backyard telescope. All three are also likely among the first craters that a novice lunar observer will get to know, and all are quite different. Tycho (86 km across) is a recent crater; the impact that produced the crater also produced the moon’s most prominent set of rays. Clavius (225 km across) is much larger and older – at around four billion years, the oldest of the three – and has been disrupted by more recent craters. Plato (109 km across) is a very flat crater, its bowl filled with dark lava in the same way that the lunar maria are. Only a few small craters break up its otherwise flat surface, which looks much like Mare Imbrium to the south.

There have been many more references to the moon in fiction, of course – but these are a couple of my favourites.

© 2012, David Allan Galbraith
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