IT TOOK A few thousand years for the moon to get out of its reputation of being an astral body devoted to ratcheting up the insanity of men, to triggering werewolves, being an orb with a trapped rabbit and other supernatural myths. In an age before electricity, on certain days, it was the closest mankind would get to an LED bulb and—is it surprising?— that for a species inured to dark nights, the white light should be tied to the divine—the moon was also a God. And yet even in those days, some philosophers got pretty close to what it might be in reality. Aryabhata, the Indian astronomer and mathematician, had deduced as far back as 499 CE that moonlight was just reflected glory from the sun and its shadow led to eclipses. A thousand years before him, Greek philosophers had hypothesised the moon was just a round rock with no light of its own. Even they however couldn’t guess that the rock was in fact earth, a big piece blasted away in the throes of the beginning of the planet, hooked by gravity like a bad marriage, appearing in the beginning like a mammoth ball on the sky within touching distance and then drifting away gradually until it revolved in uneasy truce.
Man’s relationship with the moon changed when Galileo and his first telescope finally saw it for what it was: dead craters, plains and mountains, taking away in one moment all the enchantment and anxieties of ignorance, a process furthered across centuries by the slow enlightenment of science. Until in the 21st century the Soviet Union began to win the space race by putting the first earthling, a dog, and then a human out of earth. The US response was a wild ambitious scheme to put a man on the moon and 50 years ago they achieved it with the Apollo missions and Neil Armstrong’s big leap.
The moon was then just a chess piece in a game of superpower vanities, a symbol of which ideological system delivered more. Capitalism prevailed and then by its own measure found the expense of the enterprise pointless and so called off human landings altogether. The last man to step on the moon was in 1972. After that long spell, there are now a number of manned missions planned again. Interest in the moon in recent times have shot up and our own Chandrayaan 2 is the latest example of that. The reason is more than scientific curiosity. There is the colonial nature of human civilisation, of course, but it is an instinct that has to be fed by commerce. The moon holds vast resources of potentially exploitable minerals and more importantly, something that Chandrayaan’s 1 went a long way in establishing in 2008, also holds water. This water, which isn’t liquid but embedded, might have arrived through crashing comets and meteors or it could be through innate chemical processes, but there is one clear consequence: if it is there then it can be extracted, and if water can be extracted, then humans can stay. And if a base to operate from can be established on site, then all manner of human enterprise can be possible. Beside mining, the moon could, for example, be used as a practice run for operating bases in Mars. The moon is the first step to man’s colonisation of the universe.
Chandrayaan 2 will land in the South Pole of the moon and that is where the sun shines forever and in the shadows of the craters, it is absent forever. In that dark zone lies the water that needs to be excavated to flag off humanity’s ambition to be free of the earth. It is not easily or quickly done but the promise is greater now because countries are not competing but coordinating in the enterprise. In Chandrayaan 1, the small equipment—Moon Mineralogy Mapper—that discovered the water was NASA’s. At some distant point in the future, the ugly nature of human competition might still raise its head to claim its resources but, as of now, the moon is a collective project in which India is among the handful of pioneers.