restricted access Chapter 5. Food
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66 CHAPTER 5 FOOD Any student of the moon is inevitably struck by how long it has been entwined with the dream of giant vegetables. Why it has I’m not sure, whether its dominion over Earth farming somehow applied, but with the arrival of the telescope the notion of jumbo lunar plants took off. In the late 18th century William Herschel—a brilliant astronomer, lens maker, discoverer of the planet Uranus—spied what he took to be rampant vegetation “of a much larger size on the Moon than it is here.” In 1835 an electrifying series of articles in the New York Sun reported the presence of lunar vegetables, “every imaginable production of a bounteous soil,” so big as to be detectable through telescopes at a distance of a quarter million miles, and squatted in the midst of which creatures with translucent wings could be seen ravening “a large yellow fruit like a gourd”—this a hoax, as it turned out, but so attuned to the popular mind it transcended fact, reinforced Pope Brock ✴ 67 soon after by Jules Verne, inspirer of the Offenbach operetta Le voyage dans la lune, whose signature stage trick involved plants shooting suddenly way, way up, higher and higher, until they produced—poof, poof, poof—flowers and fruit. Come the 1920s, and one Dr. Pickering of Harvard (no relation to the lunar bomb enthusiast) announced that shadows on the moon were caused by the raging vitality of its plants. His conclusions were puffed in the press alongside speculative art such as, “Mushroom Growths 1,000 Feet High on the Surface of the Moon With Earth Men Crawling Among Them, Looking Like Ants in a Field of Wheat.” All very odd, but whatever made the moon the go-to zone for giant crops, you’d think that by, say, the Eisenhower administration , the scientific community would have taken the idea and poured it down the lav. Not so. Nourished by meadow muffins of paranoia, big moon food shot to new heights of eidetic splendor in the early years of the Cold War. People go on about the Belle Époque or Paris in the 20s, but my favorite decade has got to be the 50s in the United States. Not to live through. I did that and it wasn’t so good. Growing up in the shadow of the bomb was like a grossly premature course in philosophy: Why am I alive? Why now? Sometimes I wondered if I’d been chosen by God to serve as a witness to the obliteration of mankind. On the other hand I didn’t think nine-year-old Episcopalians would be picked for that. As a preacher’s kid, this confusion—whether to be 68 ✴ FOOD reassured by religion or terrorized by it—could plunge me into weird glooms, the best solace from which I found in a series of hats: my cowboy hat, my Davey Crockett coonskin cap, my Mickey Mouse Club beanie with the big ears. That’s when I learned that the right hat can improve one’s outlook materially. At any rate, that was the 1950s as lived. Viewed from the promontory of time all these years later, they appear something else altogether. Even our fear looks beguiling. At this remove I can see the geology of it, its glints and patterns, the iridescent veins running through the rock. Reviving monster moon food was one of them. This time, however, it came with a difference. This time we weren’t going to find it on the moon (what were they thinking?). We were going to grow it there ourselves. Unless the enemy did it first. And they were about to! They had the specs! After the triumph of Sputnik, you’ll recall, the Soviets announced plans to construct a lunar city. It would be glass-domed, they said, with aluminum sliding doors. Now Prof. Varvarov of the Soviet Astronautics Section went even further: he revealed that the 30-pound Communists living in it would be “self-sufficient as far as food is concerned” because, thanks to the light touch of lunar gravity, Earth vegetables would grow fantastically big there. Radishes would tower like palm trees. Onions would produce sprouts 33 feet long. Pope Brock ✴ 69 Credit: John Cote This claim cast doubt on the entire Soviet enterprise—or would have if some Western experts hadn’t believed the same thing. In a New York Times interview British hydroponics expert J. W. W. H. Sholto Douglas...