Moon Dust

Who is going to housekeep on the moon?

Moon Dust
a little collage i made

Only twelve people, all men, have ever walked on the moon. They were sent there to establish the United States’ claim to the celestial body, search for resources, and understand the requirements for lunar living. If other worlds were ever going to be reached, the moon had to become a safe harbor first.

Twelve is the number of people on a jury, months in a year, and eggs in a carton. Which I guess is a way of saying that twelve is a number that amounts to a little or a lot, depending on who is counting what.

The men who walked on the moon talked about holding up their thumbs to blot out the earth, standing at the base of lunar mountains and the dust. They talked a lot about the dust.

The moon is covered in sharp, rough, electrically charged dust. The dust leaps and falls, constantly, creating a “dust atmosphere,” that looks still but never stops moving. 

Moon dust is made of particles of rock, iron, and bits of glass made from the heat of micrometeorite impacts. It tastes and smells like gunpowder. No flowing or crashing water to soften its edges. And there is no significant atmosphere on the moon to absorb it or slow it.

The dust clogged instruments, coated the astronaut’s face shields, and clung to their suits. When they returned to the landing capsule, the dust came in with them. Falling to the floor, sticking to the walls, and lodging into the fibers of their clothes. The dust worked its way inside the astronauts too, making their eyes burn, their throats scratch and their noses raw.

The astronaut transmissions from the moon were constantly punctuated by exclamations about the dust. As he bounced across the moon, kicking up more clinging dust, astronaut Eugene Cernan declared, “You’re going to give me the Duster of the Year Award after this.”

Cernan was the last man to walk on the moon. When he got back to Earth, he presented the problem of dust with a little more solemnity, “I think dust is probably one of our greatest inhibitors to a nominal operation on the moon. I think we can overcome other physiological or physical or mechanical problems except dust.”

Cernan wasn’t wrong, of course. But each time I see his quote gravely shared in an academic journal or by a space agency, I can’t help but smile a bit.  Only a certain class of men from a certain division of time could be surprised at the disruptive nature of dust. Men have always been able to explore other worlds because women were controlling the dust in this world.

Ten years before the first moon landing, my grandmother lived in a little town in New Mexico. A very young mother of three children, she worked as a switchboard operator. Too poor to make phone calls herself, she wrote letters. We have many of them. 

She wrote about cruel landlords, family dinners, nights out dancing and dust. The only letters that don’t mention dust were written when it was raining. 

Earth dust is different than moon dust, it’s softer and subject to our atmosphere. But my grandma’s descriptions of the stuff don’t sound very different from the astronauts.

Drought-dried dust clung to her kids’ clothes and shoes, following them into the house after school. It sifted in under the front door and windows that could never close tight. It lined her cupboards, clung to the walls, and settled on her floors. She shook out carpets, wiped down surfaces, and stuffed newspaper into cracks and gaps.

But she always woke up to dust and came home to dust. Her eyes got red with the stuff. Her children’s noses were always stuffed, their throats often raw because the dust worked its way inside of them too. My grandma often cut her letters short, because there was still more dusting to do. 

If she’d walked on the moon, she’d have wiped the dust from her face shield and laughed a little,

“Well, dust is always a problem, isn’t it?”

Dust is always a problem, but you can’t build a world without it. 

Cosmic dust is the stuff we and the planets are all made of. The dust on earth contains the elements of the dust that made it, along with the particles of the things we’ve made that may destroy the world. 

The word “dust” comes from many root words. One of my favorites is “tunst,” which means “storm, breath.” I think that sounds right. Dust is a disturbance and an exhalation. It can be both.

In the Victorian era, housekeepers sprinkled damp, used tea leaves across the floors before sweeping. The moisture kept the dust from flying up into the air before the movement of the broom. I’ve got an image of an astronaut standing at the opening of the landing capsule, sprinkling tea leaves onto the surface of the moon before taking one small step.

The United States is going back to the moon soon. The Artemis Project has promised to land a woman on the moon by 2025. By 2040, NASA plans to build a base camp up there, with a lunar cabin and a kind of Moon RV for lunar road trips.

There aren’t enough tea leaves to keep down the dust on the moon. But NASA is working on other kinds of dust control technology: coating surfaces in super slick materials, and repelling dust with electric charges and supersonic waves.

Their innovations will probably work in very specific scenarios, but they don’t seem sensible at scale. If humans ever settle the moon, the dust will sift into their eyes, ears, cupboards, and carpets.

The Apollo missions weren’t very long ago. I tease about the Apollo astronauts not knowing what to do with dust. But housekeeping still overwhelmingly falls to women in a household. 

If we begin to build homes on the moon, Mars, or any other dusty outer space object, who will take care of that dust? The men who still refuse to comprehend it in their own homes? Or will they do what they’ve always done? Simply declare,

“If we build it, the women will dust it.”

Seems likely.

But there’s the slightest sense of another option. One where women shake thousands of years of dust out of their eyelashes, dig it out from under their nails and scrape it from between their teeth. They separate the soil from the skin of once great men, the iron from the plastic, the carbon from the perflourinated chemicals. Their sorting done, the refuse refused, they build a new world with the dust of the old one.