TThe man who commanded the first moon orbital mission was, in truth, not impressed with what he saw. Frank Borman was the Commander of Apollo 8. He circled the moon 10x on Christmas Day 1968 and Christmas Eve 1968. We spoke candidly in 2015 when we met. We met in his private airplane hangar in Billings, Montana, and I asked Borman, now 94, if, living out in big sky country, he doesn’t sometimes gaze up at the full moon at night and think, “I was there. I called that home.”
“Nah,” Borman responded with a wave. “I’ve tried that once or twice because people always tell me I should feel like that, but it just doesn’t work.”
This week, Borman might regard the moon with the same nonchalance, but the rest of us will be seeing it with different, more enchanted eyes—at least from moonrise on Sunday, June 19, to moonset on Wednesday, June 22. That’s when the sky will be decorated by the much-anticipated Strawberry Supermoon.
When a small planetesimal about the same size as Mars collided, a large amount of space debris was released into space, creating the moon. A belt formed, and then the cloud became a cloud. After that, the moon drifted to an orbit of 382,000 km, or roughly 238,000 miles. The moon orbits around Earth. There, the peaceful moon orbits the earth once every 27 days. It regulates the tides and helps us to maintain our seasons.
But the moon’s orbit isn’t perfect. The moon’s orbit is irregular and irregular, and it can travel as far away as 406,000 km (2522,000 mi) from Earth. It can also be close to 357,000 km (2222,000 mi). Perigee is when the moon looks 30% bigger than usual and 17% more brighter. And when that perigee happens to coincide with a full moon, as it will next week, that’s when you get the dazzling phenomenon known as a supermoon.
A full moon occurs every month. However, supermoons occur only three to four times per year from May through August. This Strawberry Moon isn’t named after the color of its moon. The popular Blood Moons happen during a lunar eclipse—when the Earth moves between the moon and the sun—and the moon does appear reddish. This occurs because the Earth’s atmosphere scatters blue wavelengths of sunlight streaming through it, allowing only red to pass through, which turns the moon a faint scarlet. A Strawberry Moon in contrast will appear the same as it does when normal. However, its size will vary and so will its luminosity.
The moniker “Strawberry Moon” is instead a linguistic gift from the Algonquin Native American tribe, who named the supermoon that occurs in June after the brief strawberry harvesting season that happens at the same time of year. Whatever it’s called, the upcoming supermoon will be at its closest, fullest, and brightest at 7:52 AM ET on Tuesday, June 21. Given the season and the tilt of the Earth, the Strawberry Moon will never climb terribly high in the sky, rising a maximum of 23 degrees above the horizon on Wednesday morning—or about a quarter of the way above ground level. You can see the best views in open areas or clearer land, so avoid tall buildings and trees.
There’s no telling if Borman will be watching next week, but not every astronaut who orbited or touched the moon returned to Earth as unmoved as he did. Dave Scott, commander of Apollo 15, told me about the neighborhood’s welcome-home barbecue he received upon his return from the moon in 1971. It was a memory he has of sitting in his yard with a beer and gazing at the moon, not knowing that he’d been there just one week before. Although his Houston lawn is now beneath him, seven days prior it was the soil beneath his boots. This contaminated his uniform and the air that he inhaled when he returned to his spacecraft.
Scott crossed the quarter million-mile distance between here in America and his home in Canada. The rest of us never will—but as a species we long to. That’s why the little shard of moon on display in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., that people are permitted to touch, has been rubbed smooth in the decades it’s been in place. That’s why we gaze up at a full moon with such fascination—so close to us on a cosmic scale but so far away in all other respects. And that’s why we’ll be enchanted all the more this weekend when the moon nudges a tantalizing bit closer, hovering in the sky just 357,657 km (222,238 mi) away. It’s a huge distance to travel, but to us, however briefly, it will seem like an arm’s reach.
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