The Moon: Getting up Close

The Moon: Getting up Close

Melbourne Observatory. ‘The moon, Great Melbourne Telescope’, 4 April 1873. Acquired 1873. Te Papa.

“For thousands of years man has gazed up at the moon and wondered.” That’s roughly how those worthy documentary commentaries begin, isn’t it? Well, Te Papa’s forerunner museums responded to this curiosity in two acquisitions almost 100 years apart. The first was an 1873 photograph of the moon made by the Great Melbourne Telescope (GMT). This was one of the most advanced telescopes of its day, and the second largest in the world when it was installed in 1869. The photographs it took of the moon were some of the best available at the time, and New Zealand’s Colonial Museum was lucky to be gifted the example at right within months of it being taken.

Below is a better detailed one also taken in 1873, date of acquisition unknown:

Melbourne Observatory. ‘Photograph of moon, Great Melbourne Telescope’, 1 Sept 1873. Albumen silver print. Acquisition history unknown. Te Papa.

Astronomy and Photography

These two early images of the moon made in Melbourne point to a larger story of the huge impact photography had on astronomy. Its invention enabled images of stars too faint to be seen by the naked eye to be recorded – by using long exposures of many minutes – and it allowed measurements of astronomical bodies to be taken off the negatives. (Glass plates were favoured long after film negatives replaced them for general use because they were rigid, aiding the accuracy of measurements.) The Melbourne Observatory was in fact involved in what has been described as the largest scientific project undertaken in the 19th century: an international effort to create a photographic atlas of the world known as the Carte du Ceil (‘map of the sky’) and the associated Astrographic Catalogue. From 1887, twenty observatories around the world took part, 22,000 glass plates were exposed, and the positions of 4.6 million stars precisely charted. (The Melbourne Observatory didn’t actually use the GMT for this project however, as it turned out ill-suited to star photography. It was eventually consumed in a bush fire in 2003, though its remains are preserved by Museum Victoria. It was here that British artist Simon Starling saw its speculum mirror and made the telescope the title piece of his recent exhibition In Speculum at City Gallery Wellington.)

Moon Comes to Earth

Photographs by instruments such as the Great Melbourne Telescope made it possible for large audiences to see the moon in previously unknown detail. In 1969, pieces of the moon itself were viewed by people around the world when the US government gifted moon rocks brought back by the Apollo programme to many countries. They were accompanied by tiny flags of each nation that had been carried to the moon and back by Apollo 11, the first to land. (Due to an oversight poor Venezuela missed out, and its flag had to be carried up on Apollo 12.) The Apollo ‘rocks’ were actually tiny fragments, but larger pieces from the Apollo 17 mission were gifted in a repeat gesture in 1972.

Moon rock, 20 July 1969. Technical Services Division, Manned Spacecraft Center. Gift of Richard M Nixon, President of the United States of America, to the People of New Zealand, 1969. Te Papa.
Moon rock, 1972; Technical Services Division, Manned Spacecraft Center. Gift of the People of the United States of America, 1973. Te Papa.









Missing Rocks

New Zealand received both gifts and housed them with the National Museum (forerunner of Te Papa). We can be proud as a nation that we have taken good care of them, because many countries have apparently lost theirs. Of 270 gift rocks distributed more than half (180) are surprisingly unaccounted for today. See who lost their rocks and some of the stories about what happened.

Fly Me to the Moon

The moon rocks were proof, of a sort, that something imagined for so long had been achieved. They reflect a remarkable feat, yet for me the early photographs of the then unreachable moon seem far more wondrous. Or as the Frank Sinatra standard Fly Me to the Moon suggests, imagination is sweeter and a lot simpler. Below is a link to a Latinised version by the wonderful Astrud Gilberto. I hesitate to include it just a little because the You-tube clip I found has some curious (well, lets say bizarre) video sci-fi video footage added to the audio. It completely distracts from a beautifully sung song, but its wonderful in its own, other way: there’s Star Trek‘s Mr Spock jamming on an exotic form of lyre with a young woman, and some scenes from the campy, sex-in-space Barbarella, including the one where the evil Concierge tries to put Barbarella (Jane Fonda) to death by putting her in a cage with scores of budgies. Yes, budgies (camp, remember). And no, their attempts to peck her to death are not very convincing, but she obligingly swoons before being rescued. Play the clip twice: once for the pictures, once (with eyes closed) for the song.

— Athol McCredie, Curator of Photography

This is no. 6 in my series on UFOs, aliens and outer space related to photographs held in Te Papa’s collections. Other posts include: Alien Power SourceConfusing CirclesNew Zealand’s RoswellMiniature Alien Invaders; Satellites of Love; Rabbits on Mars; Aliens: Here Already?; Nostalgia for the Future.

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