Guest Blog: Galileo lost a ride to the Moon, or maybe not

Tomb of Galileo Galilei

This photo shows me at age 14 next to the tomb of Galileo Galilei, at the Santa Croce church in Florence, Italy. Yes, at that age I should probably have chased girls rather than tombs, but I digress. The photo was taken in May 1979, 30 years before the launch of NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter probe (LRO) currently scheduled for June 2009. Cue scary music. This is the untold story of a missed opportunity for Galileo, the Moon, LRO and me.

A step back. My name is Paolo Amoroso and I live in Milan, Italy, where I work in astronomy and space outreach and education.

In late 2007 I got an idea for the International Year of Astronomy 2009 (IYA 2009), which celebrates 400 years since the first observations of the sky by Galileo with a telescope: sending Galileo to the Moon. The idea of symbolically sending someone into space by putting a tiny bit of his ashes or personal possessions on a spacebound vehicle is not new. Planetary scientist Gene Shoemaker, for example, was "buried" on the Moon when the Lunar Prospector probe carrying his ashes went to the Moon and was intentionally crashed there in 1999. The launch of LRO was initially scheduled for late 2008, and this looked like Galileo's chance for a ride to the Moon.

I soon ruled out burying Galileo on the Moon because, like in the case of Shoemaker, it involved complex religious and cultural issues. Not to mention that I didn't want to disturb my old buddy resting in Florence for the past few centuries.

The next best thing seemed to send a tiny bit of an object belonged to him, such as a 1 square millimeter paper fragment of a manuscript, or a needle-like, few millimeters long wooden fragment of an object he owned. I'm not a rocket scientist, but I figured that a container for such a tiny fragment would have fitted on any space vehicle without major weight, size or shape issues.

It had the flavor of a "why not?" idea. That was indeed the reaction of those I pitched it to, including IYA 2009 Italian representative Leopoldo Benacchio. He unveiled the proposal in the March 2007 official meeting of IYA national representatives in Germany. He discussed my proposal in slide #18 of his presentation. You can also watch him talk about this at about 01:28:20 in the video of his session.

Time passed, a lot of it. In March 2008 I was able to informally pitch the idea to Giovanni Fabrizio Bignami, then administrator of Italian space agency ASI, who added one more "why not?" and encouraged me to go further. He expressed his willingness to approach NASA if and when the project took shape.

The next step was to get something of Galileo himself to send to the Moon, which proved a showstopper. After a lot of time and some personal issues that further delayed the project, in the summer of 2008 I was able to indirectly approach some scholars very close to the Italian public institutions that preserve Galileo's manuscripts and possessions. It turned out that laws and regulations do not allow getting a fragment of those historical artifacts, not even a tiny one. Bummer.

Game over. Or not?

What if the object was something less close to Galileo, such as a paper fragment of a first edition copy of his book Sidereus Nuncius, maybe owned by a private collector or organization with full authority to decide what to do with it? And what if it was carried to the Moon not by a government spacecraft, but a private space vehicle such as those competing for the Google Lunar X PRIZE?

You tell me. Any takers?

paolo-amoroso-square.jpgAbout the author: Paolo Amoroso lives in Milan, Italy, where he works in astronomy/space outreach and education. He wrote a book on Saturn and articles for Italian astronomy magazines.

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