Re: moon dust info - please help

Jonathan Clarke (
Wed, 04 Nov 1998 08:48:17 +1100

Arthur V. Chadwick wrote:

> I remind those of you more interested in drubbing YECs than in the facts
> that Chuck posted the following quote from National Geographic last week.
> I would also remind you that it was a scientist who originated the idea of
> large manounts of dust on the moon, not a YEC creationist. This however
> does not excuse those who held this view for contiuing to promote it long
> after the scientific community had revised its estimates of influx.
> Chuck said:
> I don't remember much about the landing of the first astronauts on the moon
> and I don't want to add to the confusion, but I happen to have a pretty
> complete inventory of National Geographics in my room. I hauled out the
> 1964 March issue, just out of curiosity.
> In this issue there is an article "How we plan to put a man on the moon."
> On page 382 it states that
> "Perhaps the greatest hazards will be found on the moon itself. For
> example, we know little about the composition of the lunar surface. Some
> authorities believe it may be covered by a dust layer from four inches to
> three feet in depth. Others think the dust in some areas may be far deeper,
> enough to engulf any spaceship. A third group holds to the theory that
> porous rock covers much of the surface."
> "Obviously, we cannot risk landing men until these uncertainties are
> resolved by unmanned lunar probes, such as our forthcoming Ranger and
> Surveyors. Their intelligence will determine the final design of the LEM's
> landing gear."
> Apparently, in 1964, there was still some uncertainty about the amount of
> dust, even though the drawings in the NGM indicate that the artists thought
> that the layers would not be very thick.
> Art

You seem to imply that the thick dust layer was the only risk to be considered.
In 64 NOTHING was known about the lunar surface on a scale of less than 500
metres. There had only been two successful probes - Luna 2, an instrumented
impact without cameras, and Luna 3, which photographed the far side . There
were many potential hazards on the lunar surface quite apart from thick surface
dust. Boulder distribution, slope, radiation, reactive chemistry, and
micrometeorite flux were all unknown. Perhaps the lunar surface was strongly
magnetic. Boulder fields in the event were the greatest hazards, especially for
the robot probes. Out of 24 such probes half were destroyed or badly damaged,
presumably by crashing in rough terrain. Apollo 11 almost crashed in the same
way, as the auto pilot guided towards a perfect landing in a boulder-strewn
crater floor.

I should also point out that the scientific proponents of a thick lunar dust
mantle did not believe that it was primarily of meteoric origin. I do not have
the references to hand, but I recall that the main theories (which were proposed
back in the 50's) said that the dust might be produced by a combination of
processes - exfoliation, erosion by cosmic radiation, spalling from meteorite
impacts, and (of course) meteoric dust. It was not generally accepted even in
the 50's by other people working on the moon.

I did miss one reference to thick lunar dust in the December 69 National
Geographic (whoops). It is on page 767. "At last man was seeing before his eyes
answers to a host of riddles: could man perform at the moon's 1/6 g (1/6 of
earth's gravity)? Would he sink into a sea of soft smothering dust?" This is
not a sober report, but journalistic rhetoric (or poetic licence if you
prefer). It strongly suggests that there was a still a perception in the
public mind of thick lunar dust being a real possibility, despite it being
rejected by the most authoritative lunar geologists.

The scenario is of course one that would appeal to the public and journalistic
psyches - it would even make a good movie script. An scientist of independent
mind (Thomas Gold) proposes radical theory of lunar surface which is rejected by
establishment. He continues to maintain his theory as the US and Soviet
government recklessly jeopardizes lives of brave astronauts and cosmonauts but
putting their collective faith in the establishment scientists. The dramatic
picture of spacecraft and astronauts swallowed hole by lunar dust grips the
public imagination. In the Hollywood version Gold would have been vindicated at
the last minute, saved the astronauts, made a zillion dollars, and got the girl.
In real life of course it was people like Shoemaker who were vindicated by the
successful Russian and US landings and Gold who was falsified.

Let us try and to move this thread further. Why was the perception that there
was thick dust on the moon so ingrained in the collective psyche that the YEC
"thin dust" argument took root so well? This thread has demonstrated that it
was not the science, or the serious reporting of it in magazines like National
Geographic. I don't think it was in science fiction either. The Clarke novel I
mentioned before is the only story I can recall from the 40's-early 60s that had
thick lunar dust as a feature. A couple had local dust pockets . This suggests
that the dust story was spread mainly through radio, TV, and newspapers.

I find this issue interesting not only because of what it says about YEC and
its methods or appeal, but about broader issues of the public perception of
science, the scientific method, and scientists. It also tells us something
about wellsprings of folk science. Most people judge scientific issues by folk
science, not science. This has interesting implications for decisions about
medical procedures, environmental issues, etc. Dare I say that many of us make
scientific decisions based on folk science outside our area of expertise? After
all, my knowledge of astronomy is not based on formal training, but largely on
what I have read or heard, i.e. folk science. Then again, how much of our
theology is folk theology?