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MAN of the MOON

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It looks like lunar scientist Charles A. Wood will not be making it to the moon, after all.

Things looked good there for a while for the co-creator of the new "21st Century Atlas of the Moon." Consider that Neil Armstrong plopped the first human boot print into the fine lunar dust -- count 'em -- a whole 44 years ago last month.

Wood was 27 years old when Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin piloted the Eagle to a landing in Mare Tranquillitatis, Latin for 'Sea of Tranquility.'

Even at that tender age, Wood was seriously moony. Or, to stick with the Latin, he was lunaticus, meaning "of the moon" or "moonstruck".

"I dreamed I'd go to the moon myself one day," said Wood, who at 71 now works with a science education research group at Wheeling Jesuit University with its own moonstruck focus.

Wood can trace his lunar captivation to one night when he was in fifth grade. "I saw an eclipse of the moon where the moon moved into the shadow of the earth. I was fascinated."

He began devouring astronomy books. He rocketed to the moon and beyond through science fiction. He built telescopes in high school to study the Earth's sibling planetoid, then majored in astronomy in college.

He chose to attend the University of Arizona in Tucson, specifically because of its Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, where as an undergraduate he measured the diameters of moon craters.

As a graduate research assistant, Wood played his own small role in the planet-riveting spectacle of humankind's baby steps onto another world, courtesy of NASA's Apollo space program.

"I started out studying the moon before Apollo. I was working on a NASA grant under my professor, mapping the moon so we'd know where to send the astronauts."

First great love

He went on to study in such fields as planetary geology, volcanology and rift tectonics. He worked for a time as a NASA space scientist in Houston, then was chief of NASA's Space Shuttle Earth Observations Office, teaching astronauts how to essentially read the earth's geology and features from space.

To be sure, other objects in our solar system have caught his roving eye. He helps out on a NASA-funded project studying images of Saturn's moon Titan, obtained by the Cassini space probe now in orbit around that ringed world.

But the moon remains the first, great love of a guy who wrote the 2003 book "The Modern Moon: A Personal View," who runs the Lunar Photo of the Day website (www.lpod.org">www.lpod.org), and chairs the Task Group for Lunar Nomenclature of the International Astronomical Union.

Did we mention his email handle is 'tychocrater,' named after one of the moon's more famous features?

"There's no one on this planet earth as intimately involved with the moon as I am," said Wood.

Even his work in Wheeling has a lunar lilt. Working with project director Debbie Reese, they've developed a cutting-edge educational game for classrooms called "Selene" -- the Greek word for the moon. Students try to create the exact conditions for how the moon actually formed. If they do it wrong, the moon explodes or never congeals in the first place.

"They learn the making of the moon by making one," Wood said.

Which leads to why he decided to pull together an up-to-the-minute atlas of the moon, created with award-winning amateur astronomer Maurice J.S. Collins and now available through the West Virginia University Press.

The softbound, 109-page "21st Century Atlas of the Moon" features more than 200 composite photos and strikingly detailed new lunar imagery. These derive from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, launched four summers ago to circle the moon and snap the finest quality images of Earth's sister world ever taken.

"I realized there wasn't a good atlas of the moon," said Wood. "Finally, with the Lunar Reconnaissance spacecraft we have superb images. I put them together and drew an atlas that includes 28 plates that show parts of the moon."

There are close-up images and sweeping vistas, with names of many major and lesser impact craters (the Atlas dispenses with Latin in favor of English names). There are spectacular mountain ranges like the Apennines and the Altai and broad views of volcanic lava flows and giant craters known as impact basins.

An introduction details how the moon formed in partnership with the Earth ("One Beginning, Two Different Worlds") from space-born collisions between rocky masses called 'planetesimals'. Here is the book's thumbnail origin theory:

"Collisions caused some planetesimals to accrete or grow rapidly and become the ancestors of planets. During the late stage of accretion it is postulated that the proto-Earth collided with a somewhat smaller planetesimal, and that the resulting debris thrown into orbit around the Earth re-accreted to form the Moon."

Dropping the ball

The atlas will be a boon to any backyard amateur astronomer or a desktop reference to more serious professionals. Yet the crisp black-and-white photos are likely to stir the imagination of anyone whose spirit was ever fired by moony science fiction or Neil Armstrong's famous first step off the planet.

And don't get Wood started on how we dropped the ball on humans in space.

Oh, wait, let's get him started.

The last human beings to walk on the moon -- and roll across it in Lunar Rovers -- were astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt, who arrived in the moon's Taurus-Littrow Valley on Dec. 11, 1972 on Apollo 17. It was the sixth and final landing of men on the lunar surface and they checked out after three days.

Just for historical orientation, that would have been the year Atari debuted the first generation of video games with the release of "Pong." It was a while ago, in other words.

Leftover Apollo rockets were used in earth orbit for Skylab and a 1975 joint US-Soviet détente-era launch. Then, more space stations and space shuttles. So, no human has gone beyond merely orbiting our home world for more than 40 years now.

"It's an amazing turning our face away from the future," Wood said. "It's like Columbus and those early sailors coming to the New World and saying, 'Yep, I've seen that! Cross that off my bucket list.' And never going back."

Wood observed that 50 years after Columbus made landfall in the New World there were several hundred thousand Europeans who had followed in his wake across the Atlantic.

"How many people are living on the moon?" he asked. "In fact, when we came to the end of the Apollo space program, if we had not stopped, if we had not squandered our time for 30 or 40 years on a space station, we could have gone back to the moon and established colonies."

With a lament in his voice that recalls that fifth grade boy looking up in wonderment at the moon cresting the midnight sky, he added: "We could've been by now a space-faring people."

Faking it

Since this story will be on the Internet and may be commented upon by the fringe of folks who yet believe the moon landings were faked on a Hollywood sound stage, the man who could be the moon's official personal representative also has a few words for these ... um, sorry, but the word demands to be used here: lunatics.

The photos from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter are so detailed you can pick out where the astronauts kicked up their heels in the dust, changing its color tone, or went joyriding across the plains in big-wheeled rovers.

"We can see actual images on the moon of where humans left things," he said. "Hopefully, it'll put an end to the stupidity of people saying humans didn't go there. It's a tremendous insult to say that they didn't."

For his part, Wood is surprised more people don't share his fascination with what the book dubs the moon's "topographically exuberant landscape." He hopes his atlas will help generate a new round of folks who become -- his word for his lunar fixation -- "an addict."

Unlike farther out objects, like Mars, Titan and distant galaxies, which can only be appreciated up close and personal with serious telescopic firepower, the moon reveals wonders even with binoculars, much less a high-powered amateur telescope.

"The moon's a small little space in the sky that has 10,000 landmarks in that small space that you can explore," he said.

The atlas was initially a self-published labor of love he undertook on his own time. Then, someone from West Virginia University Press heard him interviewed on West Virginia Public Radio and offered to distribute it in their 2013 Fall catalog.

His hopes for the atlas? Pretty simple, really, Wood said.

"Sell a million copies and build my own spaceship to go to the moon."

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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