Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:

BUNNY HOPPING

So yesterday I was reading up on the latest spacesuit design from NASA, and I came across a term that I don’t remember ever seeing or hearing before.  In this article from Space Daily, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is quoted as saying: “If we remember the Apollo generation, we remember Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, they bunny hopped on the surface of the Moon.”

This left me wondering: do people really use the term “bunny hopping” to describe how Apollo astronauts moved about on the Moon?  I tried really hard to trace the etymology of this term.  I didn’t find much, but honestly, when you see clips like this one, it’s easy to figure out where the term came from.

In my previous research on this topic, I’ve seen this method of locomotion referred to as “loping-mode” or “skipping-mode.”  But sure, we can call it “bunny hopping” too.  So why did astronauts do this?

Well, there’s something about walking that most of us, in our daily lives, don’t realize: Earth’s gravity does some of the work for us.  When you take a step, first you lift your foot off the ground, then you extend your leg, and then… well, try to stop yourself at this point.  With your leg extended forward like that, you’ll find that your center of gravity has shifted, and you can feel the force of gravity trying to pull you through the remainder of your walk cycle.

So walking feels like a natural and efficient way for us humans to get around because Earth’s gravity helps us.  Take Earth’s gravity away, and walking suddenly feels awkward and cumbersome.  In lunar gravity, which is approximately ⅙ of Earth’s gravity, the Apollo astronauts found other methods of locomotion to be more comfortable, more natural.  In this clip, we hear audio chatter of astronauts disagreeing about whether “hopping” or “loping” is a better way to get around.

Personal preference seems to be important here, both in how astronauts “walked” on the Moon and in how they described the experience of this new kind of “walking.”

Getting back to the new spacesuits from NASA, the new design features a dramatically improved range of motion.  The next astronauts on the Moon will have a much easier time getting around, and according to Administrator Bridenstine there will be no need for bunny hopping.  “Now we’re going to be able to walk on the surface of the Moon, which is very different from the suits of the past.”

And that’s got me confused.  I’m really not sure what Bridenstine means by that statement because, as I just explained, it was the Moon’s gravity—more so than the spacesuits—that made Apollo era astronauts feel the need to “bunny hop” on the Moon.  The new spacesuits, with their improved range of motion, should help astronauts in the new Artemis program avoid gaffs like these…

But without altering the Moon’s gravity, I don’t see any way to avoid “bunny hopping.”

21 responses »

  1. Maybe the bunny hopping resulted from a combination of the low gravity and suits of the time? If I recall, NASA has a low gravity simulator (really just suspending the person on a highly angled slope so that most of the gravity, but not all, is negated), so presumably the new suits have been tested in that environment.

    Of course, we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that Bridenstine is just wrong, particularly since no one’s actually walked on the moon since 1972.

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      Or Bridenstine might be dumbing it down for the popular press. He said this at a big media event, and the “no more bunny hopping” thing got a lot of headlines. If this were a scientific conference, he might have phrased this differently.

      But I don’t know. As I said, I’m kind of confused by that quote. We also shouldn’t rule out the possibility that I might be wrong. I might have overlooked something in my previous research.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Steve Morris says:

    Well, kids bunny hop on a bicycle, but I don’t think they did that in the sixties, so maybe this is a case of updating the language for a modern audience.

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      That came up in my research. Also, bunny hopping is a term among gamers for when someone compulsively presses the jump button in a video game, and the bunny hop was a popular dance in the 1950’s. But when did it become a term for the way astronauts walk on the Moon? I couldn’t pin that down to a specific person or date. It might be a recent thing, or the term might go all the way back to 1969.

      Like

  3. Kate Rauner says:

    Like SelfAwarePatterns I read somewhere that the bunny hop was partly caused by the stiffness of the suits.I guess we’ll have to wait until human are cavorting across the lunar surface again to find out

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is what bunny hopping is to the kids these days. Admittedly, to myself as well. Hopping around on the Moon is so 70s.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Fran says:

    Haha! I feel terrible laughing at astronauts falling over, but goodness it is hilarious! Perhaps the new spacesuits will have heavier soles, to try and make the foot’s overall weight similar to a foot on Earth? I have no clue how it’ll be done.

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      It is funny to see all those accidents and missteps. I can only imagine how disorienting it must be to lose your balance in low gravity. The new suits allow for greater range of motion, so supposedly if you start to fall, it’s easier for you to regain your balance. But I guess we’ll have to wait and see how well that actually works on the Moon.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Steve Morris says:

        Anyone who subscribes to the conspiracy theory that the moon landings were faked should watch this video. No one would deliberately make themselves look so ridiculous. It has to be for real!

        Liked by 2 people

      • J.S. Pailly says:

        And as someone who has worked in television production, I can tell you those shots of astronauts falling over would be extremely difficult to create on a soundstage. I’m honestly not sure how they’d do it.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Simon says:

    We’ll have to see how they work out but I can see why in 1/6 gravity our movements will change.

    Liked by 1 person

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