Moon Bloopers, a NASA Study

NASA / The Atlantic

Feeling the moon underfoot is like walking on “moist talcum powder,” the astronaut Buzz Aldrin once said.  

Its also not the easiest terrain to navigate. Not for a human accustomed to gravitational forces, anyway. That much is clear from the many delightful montages of astronauts falling on the moon. They’re not wipe-outs, but still dramatic, cartoonish slow motion.

During the Apollo era, NASA decided to analyze these falls as a way to evaluate differences in dexterity on Earth versus on the moon. And the reports the space agency produced are pretty funny to revisit, documents so detailed and matter-of-fact that they seem absurd. They’re not, of course. It makes sense that scientists wanted to study the complexities of walking on the lunar surface.

Were space suits flexible enough? Would astronauts be physically able to handle key equipment? Could they get up once they fell over?

Not always, gracefully, maybe—but in most cases, yes.

One thing that helped them, as NASA pointed out in a report about Apollo 15: “[S]ince a person falls much slower on the moon, he has more time to correct for a slip before reaching the surface.” Not always though. In watching Apollo 16 astronauts lose their footing, NASA carefully assigned apparent reasons like “feet slipped on the loose soil,” and “he was in an unstable position to begin with.”

They also looked at some other factors influencing mobility. In one case, for example, researchers noted with interest that walking and skipping—two “sharply divergent methods of locomotion”—seemed to require the same amount of energy on the moon.

Their conclusions were technically useful, if somewhat anti-climactic to the ordinary reader: “A preliminary analysis,” NASA wrote, “suggested that loss of traction on loose soil caused crewmen to slip and fall.”