The full moon of March 2011, as it appeared to skywatcher Dmtriy S. Benbau in Ekaterinburg, Russia March 19 during a so-called "supermoon."
Credit: Dmitry Benbau
The biggest full moon of the year will rise Saturday (May 5) as Earth's only satellite swings into its perigee, or closest approach to Earth. This so-called "supermoon" will appear extra big and extra bright.
In honor of the moon's big show, we're dispelling a few myths about the Earth's rocky satellite. Read on for the real scoop on the moon's role in madness, the history of the moon landing, and how that whole green cheese thing got started.
Myth 1: The Moon Makes Us Crazy
The word lunacy traces its roots to the word "lunar," and plenty of people, from nurses to police officers, will tell you that things get wild around the full moon.
But this non-supernatural equivalent of the werewolf myth doesn't hold water. A 1985 review of the literature on the timing of mental illness and the moon found that the folklore that links the full moon with mental breakdowns, criminal behavior and other disturbances has no basis in scientific data. Nor has research turned up a link between the moon's phase and surgery outcomes — though pets are more likely to need a trip to the emergency room during a full moon, likely because owners keep them out and about later on nights when the moon brightens up the sky.
Myth 2: The Supermoon Can Cause Disasters
The reason we have supermoons is because the moon's orbit is not perfectly circular. When it swings closer to Earth on its elliptical path, the moon does exert a bit more of a gravitational pull on our planet. But it's nothing Earth can't handle.
Tidal forces around the world will be particularly high and low, with the moon exerting 42 percent more force at its closest point to Earth than it does at its farthest, according to Joe Rao, SPACE.com's skywatching columnist. This extra force doesn't have an appreciable effect on disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis, however.
"A lot of studies have been done on this kind of thing by USGS scientists and others," John Bellini, a geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey told LiveScience's sister site Life's Little Mysteries. "They haven't found anything significant at all."
Myth 3: The Moon Landing Was a Hoax
We've got video. We've got rocks. We've got a dozen astronauts who have proudly returned to Earth to recall walking on our great satellite. But conspiracy theories claiming that the moon landing was faked just won't die. [Top 10 Conspiracy Theories]
These moon hoax theories are multitudinous and varied, ranging from claims that there was no dust on the Apollo 11 Lander footpads so the Lander must have never left a secret soundstage (In fact, dust on the moon doesn't hang in the air as it does on Earth due to a lack of gravity, so dust kicked up by the landing would have been hurled away from the Lander) to theories about faked rock specimens (In reality, moon rocks have been researched by NASA scientists and independent researchers alike. They're unlike any Earth rocks, lacking water-bearing minerals and bearing tiny meteoroid craters from the specks of dust that would have been burned up in Earth's atmosphere but which landed on the surface of the airless moon.)
As thinly sourced as it is, the hoax theories can be frustrating to those who risked their lives to get to the moon. In 2002, Buzz Aldrin, one of the members of the original 1969 Apollo 11 mission, was dogged by conspiracy theorist Bart Sibrel at an event. When Sibrel blocked Aldrin's path and called him a "coward" and a "liar," the then-72-year-old astronaut punched Sibrel in the face.
Myth 4: The Moon Is Made of Green Cheese
The myth to dispel here isn't so much about the moon's makeup — definitely not cheese — but rather the idea that anyone ever believed the old "the moon is green cheese" canard at all. In fact, the cheese myth seemed to have started with a sardonic little couplet by English poet John Heywood (1497-1580), who wrote, "Ye set circumquaques to make me beleue/ Or thinke, that the moone is made of gréene chéese." [10 Beasts and Dragons: How Reality Made Myth]
In other words, the first known mention of the moon being green cheese was actually mocking the idea that anyone would believe that the moon was green cheese. Heywood apparently underestimated early 20th-century children: A 1902 study published in the American Journal of Psychology surveyed young children about their beliefs about the moon and found that the most common explanation for what it might be made of was cheese. Other theories included rags, God, yellow paper and "dead people who join hands in a circle of light."
Myth 5: Cold War-Era America Was Moon-Crazy
Today, Americans remember the 1950s and 1960s-era space race as a time when NASA had broad public support. In fact, levels of support for human lunar exploration were close to what is seen today.
During NASA's Apollo program, 45 percent to 60 percent of Americans believed the U.S. was spending too much money on spaceflight, according to a 2003 paper published in the journal Space Policy. Polls in the 1960s ranked spaceflight near the top of the list of programs that Americans wanted cut, study researcher and Smithsonian space historian Roger Launius found.
"[T]he public was never enthusiastic about human lunar exploration, and especially about the costs associated with it," Launius wrote. The enthusiasm it had "waned over time," he continued, "until by the end of the Apollo program in December 1972 one has the image of the program as something akin to a limping marathoner straining with every muscle to reach the finish line before collapsing."