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Madcap writers and moonwalkers

  • Centuries before Apollo 11 landed on the moon, men were already walking on it
  • Instead of technological advancement, it was the imagination of writers that made this possible

An imaginative painting of Galileo Galilei presenting his telescope.
An imaginative painting of Galileo Galilei presenting his telescope. (Wikimedia Commons)

Long before the Apollo 11 space flight carried three Americans—Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins—to the moon in 1969, several others had already landed on our only permanent natural satellite. But instead of technological advances, it was the fertile imagination of a handful of writers that had sent these intrepid explorers there.

In 1950, the Belgian cartoonist Hergé propelled his immortal creations—Tintin, Snowy, Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus—into outer space in Destination Moon. Set in the imagined country of Syldavia, the story focuses on their perilous mission and a formidable adversary’s attempt to hijack its success. The sequel, Explorers On The Moon, was serialized two years later, between 1952-53, where the four characters not only walked on the surface of the moon, but also faced their opponents there.

Inspired partly by the conversations he had had with his friends, the scientist Bernard Heuvelmans and comic-strip writer Jacques van Melkebeke, Hergé developed his plots after extensive research. Instead of introducing spooky extraterrestrials and other such mumbo jumbo into the narratives, he aimed to make his stories as realistic as possible. He was interested in writing science fiction based on the laws of physics that were known until then, even though he ended up anticipating the actual moon landing by a good two decades. He was wrong on one count though: It would be the Americans, not Europeans, who would achieve this feat first.

Hergé’s more illustrious predecessor was another European writer, Jules Verne, who had predicted America’s successful moon landing almost a century before. Born in 1828, this Frenchman was one of the early writers of science fiction and fantasy, daring to set his books in the farthest reaches of the universe. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, From The Earth To The Moon: The titles of Verne’s books conveyed the extent of his vaulting ambitions. And although deeply interested in science and rationality, he was not above using slapstick humour and caricature to heighten the comic appeal of his plots.

Before Verne, there is a long line of writers that can be traced from John Milton in the 17th century back to the classical era, who were interested in the workings of the universes and especially drawn to the moon. While the ancient Greeks worshipped the moon as a goddess, Milton and his contemporaries were reckoning with scientific theories that described the nature and trajectory of this celestial body.

In his most famous poem Paradise Lost, for instance, Milton mentions his contemporary Galileo Galilei, the Italian scientist who was, among other things, the discoverer of the many moons of Jupiter. Accused of heresy by the Catholic church, Galileo refused to budge from his theories and experiments, even at grave danger to his life. He went on to invent some of the earliest powerful telescopes.

In several moving passages in Paradise Lost, Milton pays tribute to the genius of the Italian scientist, such as the moment when the angel Raphael is offered a clear view of the heavens: “As when by night the glass of Galileo, less assured, observes imagined lands and regions in the moon," Milton writes, comparing the telescope’s visual power to the clarity of angelic sight.

As Satan descends upon Earth, Milton says his enormous shield was like the moon, “whose Orb/Through Optic Glass the Tuscan Artist views". The word “telescope" may have been too prosaic for his epic mood, but Milton’s Satan, who brings to mind the discoveries of Galileo as he describes his long journey through outer space, was the first among astronauts.

However, it was in Verne’s novels about the moon that the challenges of humans travelling to space first became evident and widely debated. Published in 1865 and no longer as well remembered as some of his other novels, From The Earth To The Moon is based on scientific principles that are largely sound. Verne does not spare the reader long-winded calculations and equations to establish the escape velocity of the projectile that takes his characters into space. Nor is there any dearth of detail about the exact plan upon which the rocket is designed. Every misstep is scrupulously analysed, then thoroughly rationalized, so that no part of the success or failure of the project can be attributed to the machinations of some higher, inscrutable power.

Verne’s journey to the moon, fantastical as it must have sounded to the people of his time, was premised on an idea that eventually went into the making of modern spaceships: projectile motion. He extrapolated the basic principles of firearms into the engineering scheme of his rocket. Little wonder then that he casts his space travellers as enthusiastic members of the Gun Club in Baltimore in the US.

As the story opens, these men, led by their president Impey Barbicane, are bemoaning the boredom of their life in peacetime. The American Civil War has ended, and, with it, as one of the mourners says, “the future of gunnery in America is lost" (we know now that such a fear was unfounded, since more than 150 years later, gun crime and gunshot wounds remain pervasive in contemporary American society).

To cheer up his despondent comrades, Barbicane hatches a plan to put the science behind artillery warfare to audacious use. With the help of his own resources and generous donations from the public, he decides to undertake a project to send a giant projectile, fired from a mammoth cannon, to land on the moon.

Tintin in ‘Explorers On The Moon'.
Tintin in ‘Explorers On The Moon'.

Barbicane’s idea involves endless modifications but it turned out to be the premise of future rocket science and space travel. Much of Verne’s book is spent on sourcing the right ingredients to build the cannon, the fuselage for the capsule and the fuel chamber that will power it. Measures have to be taken to prevent any disaster due to excessive heating of the machine. After several ups and downs, as the project is nearing completion, a Frenchman called Michel Ardan volunteers to travel to the moon in the machine.

Although lacking the scientific temperament of Barbicane and the gutsiness of his opponent Captain Nicholl (Verne calls him as “a pure Yankee"), Ardan has oodles of flamboyance and a devil-may-care attitude. He convinces the elderly men to join him in the ride, not knowing if they will ever reach the moon alive, and, even if they do, if they will be able to return to Earth.

Determined to make contact with lunar inhabitants and establish a colony of earthly beings there, Ardan smuggles in coops of chicken and sacks of grain into what he seems to consider some kind of a mechanized Noah’s Ark. Two canine companions are also taken along, to be the Adam and Eve among dogs in that alien land. Sadly, the male, appositely named Satellite, dies en route, leaving his (also suitably named) “wife" Diana howling.

Between Ardan and his companions, Verne had enough mouthpieces to convey the range of dilemmas that would haunt the moon mission in the decades to come. Most of all, he anticipated the political battles that would rage over such a project—the scramble among nations to plant their flags on the moon first. While Verne imagined travelling to the moon as part of humanity’s larger success story, he knew this vision could also become a poisoned chalice of provincial pride: another feather in America’s cap to claim supremacy over the rest of the world.

Yet, irrespective of America’s triumphant Apollo mission, literature continues to have the last laugh, with authors like David Almond (who wrote the children’s book The Boy Who Climbed Into The Moon in 2010) and Andy Weir (who set his 2017 novel, Artemis, in the first lunar city inhabited by humans) stretching the boundaries of science and credulity.

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