Nov. 4, 2010
A story recently made the rounds in the news about a company in Scotland that’s selling realistic-smelling scratch-and-sniff prints of the moon. Astronauts couldn’t smell anything when they were out on the moon itself, but when they brought moon dust and rocks back into their landers they remarked on a strong odor like burnt gunpowder. Edgar D. Mitchell, who was on Apollo 14, recently theorized that it might come from basalt rock produced by old lava flows, especially on the near side of the moon, the side that always faces us.
I was thinking about maybe getting one of these posters for my kids, but then I thought of a story that Charles Farrell, a jazz pianist from Boston, told me about a long-ago series of encounters he had in a cocktail lounge with Buzz Aldrin. Aldrin was the second man to set foot on the moon—and the first to leave, as he likes to say. In 1976, during a rocky period of post-lunar tristesse that Aldrin has forthrightly chronicled in his memoir Magnificent Desolation, he showed up several nights in a row at a lounge in a hotel outside Washington where Farrell was playing piano.
As Farrell tells it, the famous astronaut’s routine was nearly a set piece. He'd arrive at the lounge and drink broodingly for a while. Then he’d say, "It's not what you think it is.” That would be the pianist’s cue to ask, "You mean the moon, Buzz?" Aldrin would make a lip-zipping gesture. "Bad place, it's a bad place."
"The moon is a bad place?"
"It's not what they tell you." The zipping gesture would be repeated, and Aldrin would shake his head to indicate that he wasn't about to say any more.
Aldrin has since come around to a much sunnier view of space travel, part and parcel of an impressive general recovery from his blue period. In fact, he’s now urging us to industrialize the moon and build a gas station there to supply propellant for manned trips to a permanent human outpost on Mars.
He’s pretty upbeat now about the whole thing, and more power to him. But I don’t know. I realize that my thinking is essentially magical and premodern, the result of reading too many pulp stories and not taking enough science courses, but the doomy view that Cocktail Lounge Buzz took 34 years ago has an authoritative ring for me, and something about this gunpowder smell business only reinforces the feeling that it might be best to leave the moon be.
So I’m reconsidering my plan to get the scratch-and-sniff moon poster for the kids’ room. And now I’m wondering about something else: If Edgar Mitchell’s right and it’s the near side of the moon, the cheerful familiar side that we can see, that smells like gunpowder, what does the far side, the so-called dark side, smell like?
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