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Flight Plans Newsletter

01. "Moonstruck" - Space Travel and the Literary Imagination

Illustration from the novel “From the Earth to the Moon” by Jules Verne, circa 1865. Courtesy of The Museum of Flight.By Richard Wallace, The Museum of Flight

Space travel was a 20th century achievement based on the physics of rocket propulsion. But the idea of escaping the confines of the earth and visiting other worlds appeared in world literature as early as the second century A.D. “Vera Historia” or “True History,” written by Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata, told of a sailing expedition that encountered a colossal waterspout, lifting their ship into outer space where they are blown toward the moon: “We were airborne for seven days and seven nights. On day eight we saw a huge country, like an island in the air, but shaped like a ball, and shiny and bright.”

Lucian had his tongue firmly in his cheek because he had warned readers in his preface to believe nothing they were about to read.

In the Middle Ages, visits to the moon were inspired by methods of travel equally as bizarre and fanciful as Lucian’s waterspout. Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533) sent a character by chariot to the moon in his epic poem “Orlando Furioso”.

French author Cyrano de Bergerac suggested the most implausible technique of all in “L’Autre Monde: ou les Estats et Empires de la Lune” (“The Other World: or the States and Empires of the Moon”). In this tale, moon travel was accomplished by hanging dew-filled bottles on your body and standing in the full sun. As the dew evaporated, up you’d go.

Even scientists got into the space traveling act. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), the great German mathematician and astronomer whose work helped verify the Copernican theory of our sun-centered planetary system, wrote “Somnium” (“The Dream”) while he was still a student. His method of lunar transport? Witchcraft.

The writer who was to influence generations of readers, not to mention future rocket scientists, was a 19th century Frenchman named Jules Verne. By combining an exciting adventure story with the technical information of the day, Verne created a new literary form: the scientific romance.

In 1865, Verne wrote the widely popular “From the Earth to the Moon” in which three travelers ride to the moon in a hollow gun shell ejected from a 900 foot cannon. Although the g force of such an explosion would have been fatal in real life, Verne got most of his science right. The parallels of his imagined voyage, to the Apollo moon missions is prescient: test animals going up before people, three astronauts, a Florida launch (located just a few miles from the Kennedy Space Center) and a splash down in the Pacific Ocean.

The other great writer of scientific romances was H.G. Wells. At the dawn of the 20th century, Wells penned many classics which later would be turned into sci-fi films. His two novels about space travel were “The War of the Worlds” (invaders from Mars) and “The First Men in the Moon,” where an invented material named Cavorite, works as an anti-gravity propulsion system.

The golden age of sci-fi began in the second half of the 20th century soon after World War II. Rockets as weapons were now a reality. What preoccupied the minds of speculative fiction’s best writers was the rich theme of space colonization and it’s benefits and dangers.

American Robert Heinlein began his career writing for the pulp magazines of the 30s and 40s including Astounding Science Fiction. Heinlein created stories for both children and adults. His 1947 juvenile novel, “Rocketship Galileo” was the inspiration for the movie “Destination Moon.” His best known works include: “Have Space Suit – Will Travel,” “Starship Troopers” and “Stranger in a Strange Land.” Heinlein championed individual freedom and personal responsibility and a number of his novels satirized the need of societies to control their citizens.

Russian born Isaac Asimov was a chemist who turned to writing for financial reasons. His “Foundation” series, begun in the 1940s, recounts the evolution of huge galactic empires over vast periods of time. Asimov also wrote popular science books and articles and invented the famous “three laws of robotics.”

Englishman Arthur C. Clarke, like Heinlein, was first published in pulp magazines. His most famous novel “Childhood’s End,” depicted a benevolent race of aliens who solve many of earth’s physical problems while earthlings sink into pursuits of escapism. He later adapted one of his early short stories The Sentinel into the novel “2001: A Space Odyssey,” later collaborating on the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s movie of the same name.

As aerospace technology shifted in the late 1990s from lunar missions to space stations and communication satellites, many authors turned to cyberspace and alternate reality for their themes. Surely the challenges of renewed space travel in the 21st century will inspire a new generation of writers to explore our relationship with the Moon, Mars and the Universe.

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Moonstruck - September 11, 20072.22 MB