Men on the Moon

Blame Galileo.

After all, he wielded the newly-invented telescope like a weapon of discovery.  A new universe was unveiled, and the Moon was key.  Galileo’s revolutionary pamphlet, The Starry Messenger, told the tale of his discoveries with the telescope.  Written in 1610, he urged his readers to imagine walking on the lunar mountains and craters, just like on Earth.

It was the first time the Moon became a real object for the great majority of people.  Before Galileo, the Moon for many was just a disc in the sky.  True, it had been imagined in Greek fiction, and it was the developing fictional obsession of the age.  But with the telescope it became an object of wonder, as we began to contemplate the possibilities:  Is life dwelling there?  May we one day walk over that craggy terrain?

And yet, science fiction had been there before.

Years before Galileo wielded his spyglass, Johannes Kepler and Francis Godwin had begun imagining journeys to our satellite (indeed, the word satellite was actually coined by Kepler).  Kepler’s book, Somnium, though published in 1634 had first germinated in Kepler’s mind as early as 1593.  It was one of the first fictional Moon voyages with a strong scientific flavour.   In the book, Kepler imagined alien life fit for a lunar landscape.

Godwin’s The Man in the Moone was equally extraordinary.   Again, it first gelled in Godwin’s imagination in the 1590s.  The book explored the possibility of a space voyage to another world.  And get this: Godwin’s is the first English book in history to portray alien contact. The Man in the Moone captured the imagination of John Wilkins, First Secretary of the Royal Society.  Wilkins’s own work was revised to take account of the popularity of Godwin’s work, and the notion that it was just a matter of time before a lunar encounter took place.  Wilkins proposed a flying machine would one day wing its way moonwards.

The Moon holds huge significance for science fiction.

Kepler invented the genre with his lunar speculations.  And the scientific revolution begins with the re-discovery of this other world, symbolised by the names of Kepler and Galileo.  In science and fiction, they produced a map of the knowable, just as the unknown was at the point of becoming known.  For with scientific discovery goes storytelling, a key aspect of the human experience. Kepler realised that to understand the Moon it was not enough to put Galileo’s observations into words.  The words themselves had to be transformed by a new sort of fiction.

The re-discovery of the Moon can be thought of in another way.  A way that crystallizes the relationship of science with science fiction.  Just as Galileo seemed to nail the Moon for science, discovering mountains, craters and an Earth-like terrain, at that very moment the reality of the Moon once more recedes from us.  It is an alien landscape.  Even though a discovery has been made for science, even more questions are lit in the nervous system of Kepler.  And he uses creativity, imagination and fiction to try answer some of those questions.

Cyrano de Bergerac followed suit in spectacular style. According to Arthur C. Clarke, Cyrano’s The States and Empires of the Moon (1657) is to be credited for conceiving the ramjet, a form of jet engine that contains no moving parts. Cyrano dreamt up a clever lunar culture, far outstripping its earthly equivalent.  But by the time the cosmic voyage was taken seriously in the mid 19th century, lunar life held no credibility.

The Moon was dead.

And yet, at just over mere light second away, it was there to be conquered and claimed for science.  For pulp fiction writers in particular, reaching the Moon became an article of faith.  Foremost was Robert A Heinlein.  Books such as his Rocket Ship Galileo (1947) portray our satellite as a stepping-stone for the development of the solar system at large.  Crucially, Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold the Moon (1950) told a tale of the fight to finance the first Moon-shot, and how to sell the myth of space conquest to the world.  Sound familiar?

Fact followed fiction.  Destination Moon became an obsession for Cold War politicians who saw the propagandist coup that a manned Moon landing signified.  Apollo got there first.  And a dozen US astronauts from the various missions were the only humans to set foot on lunar soil.  Allegedly . . .

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