The Moon That Was Lost


The Moon That Was Lost

Professor Nazeer Ahmed



At a time when the limits of technology are defined by the speed of light, it is the human capacity to absorb change that limits the existential reach of man. The secrets of the atom have been understood, the moon has been touched and powerful telescopes have penetrated the very edge of the known universe. These galactic strides in the physical understanding of our universe have happened within the span of a generation or two leaving billions straining to comprehend what it all means.

Mankind has paid a heavy price in its wayward march towards a technological future. Gone are the mystery and the arcade that hide in the womb of nature. Poetry has given way to prose, love replaced by cold rationality. Ancient man talked to nature and it talked back to him. Modern man does not talk to nature; he attempts to conquer it.  Man and nature are no longer friends; they are antagonists. In this discordance lie the roots of the anxiety that grips the very soul of modern man.

One day that was not too long ago, I came face to face with my own past.  It taught me the limits of what I knew and how much I had lost in the process of accumulating degrees, patents, publications, accolades and honors. It is a beautiful story and I wish to share it with you.

It was the year 1986.  My mother had arrived for a visit to America from the little town of Tumkur located high on the Deccan plateau. It was a beautiful spring morning in the posh Los Angeles suburb of Palos Verdes Estates. The fog from the Pacific Ocean had cleared early, showing up a clear blue sky. The citrus trees were overflowing with their abundant crop. Flowers of innumerable colors decorated the hills. Blue jays were busy picking at the fruit. Even the peacocks that lived in profusion in these hills were out in force on the manicured lawns of the exclusive neighborhood, to the joy of some and the annoyance of others.

This was to be a special day. I was taking Mom to the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History which had on display a collection of moon rocks brought back by the first Apollo mission. I was at the time a Program Manager on a Star Wars project and it was my chance to show off how much I knew about space. Mom had already savored Disneyland and Hollywood which she described in her own no-nonsense, stripped down versions. Disneyland was the “doll house” and Universal Studios in Hollywood was the “home of circus men”. But this was to be a different day. Today, she was going to touch the moon.

For all of her eighty plus years, Mom was a sturdy, commanding lady. As long as she was around, she was still the boss. She prepared a breakfast of Bangalore dosai for everyone and got ready in a resplendent saffron colored Mysore silk saree. I had rented a wheelchair for her but like the hardy ladies of her generation she spurned the ride and insisted on walking to the car.

We drove through the picturesque Palos Verdes hills with the vast blue ocean to our left and the idyllic, green hills of the Estates to our right. Mom was curiously silent. That only meant her incisive mind was grappling with some question or the other.

“Tell me, son,” at last she spoke up, “is it really true they went to the moon?”

There it was, the query in its most basic format without assumptions, qualifications or the aid of complex equations. Mom had grown up in the village of Tyamagondalu in Bangalore district around the turn of the twentieth century. She was seven years old when she saw her first car and for a long time children of her generation used to call it “zameeni rail” (a train that moved on land). There was no electricity or running water in the village. Grandpa owned a mud house with a thatched roof in the old section of the village. During the day, the men went to till the land, and the women drew water from the neighborhood well, cooked, gossiped and washed clothes. By dusk, the sinewy, narrow streets of the village were abandoned. Mysterious ghosts lurked in those alleys at night along with numerous jinns, some good, and some bad. Only the hardiest men ventured out after dark for essential errands. Mom had learned to read and write from the village Molvi saheb. That was the only schooling she had and with that formal education, here was an eighty year old trying to grasp man’s journey to the moon.

I knew it was only the opening salvo in her questions. I was face to face with my own childhood, like a naughty little boy who was telling a story to his mother. I had to come clean or face the retribution.

“Yes, mom, it is true, and I did some of the work”, I replied, reserving more detailed explanations for later questions that were sure to follow.

Mom was silent again. We had by now traversed the quiet residential areas and were in the mad rush of the Los Angeles freeway system. Mom was oblivious of the traffic, wrapped up in her own thoughts.

“Do you use petrol to go there?” was the next question. My mind flashed back to the year 1961 when I had arrived in the US as a young Institute Scholar at the California Institute of Technology. My first assignment was to characterize the viscoelastic behavior of solid propellant rocket fuels for the Apollo and Saturn projects. But all of my education at Caltech and Cornell and a host of other universities, and all of my work on the space programs had not prepared me for this encounter.

How do you explain a rocket to a lady who grew up in an age when man and nature were in communion through the mysterious language of the soul? Man has climbed the greasy pole of technology, afraid to look down lest he rediscover his own soul that he left behind.

Before I could answer her, flashed another question. “And how do you walk on the round moon?”  I recalled my work on the Lunar Land Rover at the Marshall Space Flight Center, and how we had struggled to design a vehicle without adequate knowledge of the lunar surface. Was it full of big boulders? Or, was it full of sand dunes like the Sahara Desert? Should we provide large, compliant rotating wheels or devise a stable tripod that walked like a robot?

I tried the best I could, like a school boy returning from a class and telling his mother the new things he had learned that day. I told her of rockets, high energy fuels, of astronauts and the men and women who worked for years to make it all happen.  She listened quietly but I could tell she was not convinced. I felt relieved when we finally arrived at the museum. For me, it was none too soon.

The museum was a veritable feast for anyone interested in space science. Here was a display of the best that America had to offer. I was animated as I showed her each piece of the hardware that I had worked on. Here was the Saturn, here was the Apollo. Here were some of the earlier satellites. And then there was a replica of the Hubble Space Telescope on which I was a Principal Engineer. Mom absorbed the Hubble instantly, naming it the “badee dur-been” (Big Telescope).  I took my time explaining as best I could concepts of  zero gravity flotation, advanced graphite-epoxy structures, mirrors so fine they change their shape when you breath on them, zero-lock gyros and a host of other items. Mom listened intently providing me all the rope I needed to earn my bragging rights and hang myself.

In the center of the hall was the display of the moon rock. I approached it gingerly, recalling with honor the hundreds of colleagues who had worked day and night to bring these rocks home. Mom stood there looking at the dark rock with her curious, ancient eyes. Emotions swelled in me as I lifted her up. Taking her hand in mine, I stretched her hand out so that she could touch the rocks. In that moment the past came in contact with the present.

As soon as we got back in the car, the questions started once again. “Tell me son, is it really true they went to the moon?” This time her voice was stern as she used to be when she was about to admonish us. Then she elaborated on her question. “I thought you have to take a deep breath, touch the moon, and get back in a hurry”.

There it was, the essence of a journey to the moon. I recalled how as a child I watched her hold up my baby brother in the air pointing to the moon, singing “Chanda mama dur ke, boey pakayeN boor ke, Ammi ko de thali meiN, Nana to de pyali meiN ….” (Uncle moon! So far away; Let us cook casseroles of lentils; Serve mom on a plate; Serve grandpa in a vase) asking him to reach out and catch it. My little brother would stretch out his arm and then close his fist hoping that he had caught a portion of the luminescent, heavenly object. Mothers through the ages have held their babies up in the air, pointing to the moon, encouraging them to reach out and catch it. For these millions, the moon is at arms length. To them, there is no space suit, no rocket, no space shuttle, and no astronauts. To reach the moon you take a deep breath, touch it and come back.

The conversation was inconclusive. My explanations of space travel did not convince her one bit. She held on to that mysterious moon that resides in the hearts of mothers and the longings of lovers, illuminating in its serene magnificence a tranquil earth. The moon of yesteryear was not “out there”. It was within us, in our hearts. It touched us when we touched it. It was the moon that was lost.