How Humanity Mapped the Moon Over 300 Years

As countries and corporations get ready for a second space race, London's Map House has mounted a timely show on how humans have represented our closest celestial neighbor.
London Map House mapping moon exhibition

Sharp & Dohme GmbH / Hallwag, “The Conquest of Space,” published in 1969. Courtesy the Map House of London

In March of this year, vice president Mike Pence declared that the U.S. would put astronauts back on the Moon within the next five years. Meanwhile, space exploration teams from China, Israel, Japan, India, and the European Space Agency are planning lunar arrivals over the next half-decade. Add to this the plans of varying credibility from Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, and it seems that fifty years since Apollo 11’s historic landing on the Moon, our local satellite is making a return to the people of Earth’s geopolitical consciousness. This flurry of activity building into Space Race 2.0 will inevitably have its implications back on Earth, but most dramatic will surely be the first built environments on the landscape of the Moon, a world untouched (barring some spaceship detritus, a falcon feather, and a few other oddities).

The Mapping of the Moon, currently on display at London’s Map House, delves into the cartographic history of this otherworldly landscape, with images of the Moon produced between 1669 and 1969, the last peak in mass Moon mania. At the Map House, amid etchings of ancient London and antique globes, the exhibition showcases how humanity slowly developed an increasingly complex understanding of the Moon’s surface. Athanasius Kircher’s 1669 map of the near side of the Moon, for example, shows a surface adorned with abstract forms that look like plant cells viewed under a microscope. A few decades later, Jean-Dominique Cassini published the first scientific map of the Moon complete with the names of craters and “seas” (mares) still in use today, such as the Copernicus crater and the Sea of Serenity. (The various mares on the Moon are actually plains formed by volcanic eruptions; they were named “seas” by early astronomers who mistook them for bodies of water.)

London Map House mapping moon exhibition

Athanasius Kircher, “Typus Corporis Lunaris,” published 1669. Courtesy the Map House of London

Clearly intended as decorative cultural creations rather than purely functional way-finders, the displayed maps often have an elaborate artistic flair befitting the mystique of their subject. For example, Andreas Cellarius’ Planisphaerium Braheum from 1660 shows the Sun and a sultry-faced Moon orbiting the earth and bordered by elaborate scenes of European medieval astronomers. James Reynolds’ Victorian educational charts, meanwhile, show the phases of the Moon in a pastel-toned graphic minimalism that wouldn’t look out of place in a Wes Anderson title credit sequence. Elsewhere, 1930s celestial charts published in America form guides for stargazers: one through Art Deco illustrations; another specially geared toward looking during a Fall evening in New York, complete with the night sky framed by the city’s skyline.

Human presence in space is also announced by the maps’ progression into the mid-20th century. One striking image from 1969 shows the satellite traffic around the Earth and Moon, including the flight progression of the Apollo Mission and its landing point on the Moon. Although the show’s curation—the pieces came from the Map House’s collection and are largely for sale, some going for nearly $20,000—generally avoids the politics of the 1960s space race, a couple of maps commemorating the Moon landing in 1969 speak volumes. One, commissioned by Merrill Lynch, depicts the landing as an entirely patriotic affair with an image of Presidents Nixon, Johnson, and Kennedy riding an American eagle above a Moon surface that’s planted with the American flag. Another is framed by Kennedy’s declaration to Congress, made in 1961, that “No single space project in this period will be more exciting or more impressive to mankind or more important for the long-range exploration of space [than the Moon landing].” As we enter a new period of Moon-oriented space projects, it is these statements that should be remembered as much as the Moon topography, a landscape that, as humans begin to stake their lunar claims, is likely to become much less alien.

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Categories: Arts + Culture