Many fictional moon voyages preceded the Apollo landing

Apollo mission illuminated the long-standing mix of lunar myth with science


Since long before the Apollo lunar landing, the moon has loomed large in mythology and culture.

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From the beginning, the moon has been humankind’s perpetual nighttime companion.

Accompanied by innumerable points of light, the moon’s luminous disk hovered overhead like a dim substitute for the sun, just with a shape not so constant. Rather the moon waxed and waned, diminishing to a barely discernible sliver before disappearing and then gradually restoring itself to fullness.

It was obviously far away, yet sometimes — especially when on the horizon — seemed so near. Its size, its phases, its peculiar blemishes resembling a face, made the moon an enduring mystery for all ancient civilizations.

In virtually every culture throughout history, the moon acquired an elaborate mythology. For the Greeks the moon was the goddess Selene (or Artemis, or Phoebe); for the Romans, Luna or Diana; for the Chinese, Chang’e. For some other cultures — the Inuit peoples of the Arctic, for instance — the moon was a male deity. 

As astronomical objects go, the sun could certainly claim a more prominent impact on human affairs — illuminating darkness, providing warmth, nourishing the growth of vegetation essential to sustaining life. But the sun did its job out in the open, in (obviously) the light of day. The moon was more mysterious. Primitive skywatchers speculated about the source of its light, what it was made of and whether it was inhabited. It inspired wonder, and curiosity, and therefore played no small part in inspiring the origin of science itself.

As the story commonly goes, early Greek philosophers gave birth to science by seeking rational, logical explanations for natural phenomena in preference to mythological explanations — replacing mythos with logos. But as the historian Liba Taub has pointed out, Greek philosophy did not really dispose of mythos, but rather merged it with logos — or if not a merger, at least a juxtaposition. Mythos and logos could both in some context merely mean “story.” And so for the Greeks, mythos was not always opposed to logos, Taub wrote in her book Aetna and the Moon; “they were recognized forms of discourse that could, on occasion, both be invoked, and each could lay claim to the truth.” Philosophers such as Parmenides, Empedocles and Plato used mythlike narrative to convey essentially scientific ideas.

In no case was the mythos-logos juxtaposition more clearly in force than with the moon. In the first century, the Greek-Roman writer Plutarch’s On the Face which Appears on the Orb of the Moon explored via dialog Greek scientific opinions about the moon: the nature of eclipses, whether the moon shone on its own or reflected light from the sun, whether the moon was made of earthlike matter or celestial crystal. But the speakers in Plutarch’s dialog did not restrict themselves to scientific matters, also discussing the belief that the moon served as a receptacle for souls leaving earthly bodies upon death.

In Plutarch’s discussion, “science and myth are in dialogue,” Taub wrote. “Scientific enquiry and mythological explanation are not set up as rivals; rather, they are presented as two complementary aspects of a full consideration of nature.”

Even after the ascendancy of modern science, the moon retained its cultural and mythological presence, in literature and poetry, song and film. Full moons cause madness, or crime, or turn people into werewolves. Entertainers sing of dancing in the moonlight, a bad moon on the rise or being followed by a moonshadow. Frank Sinatra crooned “Fly Me to the Moon.” Cher was Moonstruck, and Jimmy Stewart declared his love for Donna Reed by offering to lasso the moon and bring it down to Earth. Humans have always been lunatics about the moon.

No wonder people have long imagined going there.

Among the earliest dreamers of a lunar voyage was Lucian of Samosata, a Syrian satirist born about A.D. 120. His Vera Historia (A True Story, “true” being the satirical part) recounts an ocean voyage gone wrong when a waterspout lifted Lucian’s boat into the sky, landing it (after seven days of flight) on the moon. Lucian and his companions found the moon full of various weird, huge forms of life, kind of like what you’d expect to find in the Forbidden Forest outside Hogwarts (a flea the size of a dozen elephants, for example).

By some accounts, Lucian’s “true” story was the first true work of science fiction. But some sci-fi authorities reserve that honor for the prominent astronomer Johannes Kepler, whose Somnium (The Dream) was published in 1634, four years after Kepler’s death. Kepler did not imagine flying to the moon himself, but wrote of a dream in which a demon described the moon’s inhabitants to an Icelandic boy and his mother, a witch (not associated with Hogwarts).

After Kepler’s Somnium, moon voyages became a popular fascination with various writers, Cyrano de Bergerac and Daniel Defoe among them. In 1638, for instance, English historian and author Francis Godwin published a short novel called The Man in the Moone, telling of the adventures of a Spaniard named Domingo Gonsales. Gonsales managed to train a group of migratory swans to wear harnesses and fly him around in an “engine” he had devised. But unknown to Gonsales, the swans’ migration took them regularly to the moon. He described a 12-day journey watching the Earth recede from view as the swans delivered him to the lunar surface. There he encountered a utopian lunar society, with inhabitants extraordinarily tall, and with no illness, crime or need for any lawyers.

Around the same time another Englishman, the philosopher and clergyman John Wilkins, composed

A Discourse Concerning a New World and Another Planet, a fully scientific discussion of the moon and the possibility of voyaging there. Wilkins analyzed all the scientific questions about the moon and the possibility of its habitation, and seriously considered the prospect of visiting it. “Tis possible for some of our posterity, to find out a conveyance to this other world,” he wrote.

Wilkins argued that the air between Earth and moon might not be so cold and thin as some had supposed, and that future technology might permit humans to attain a height above the reach of Earth’s gravity. (Lack of gravity offered the additional advantage of requiring no expenditure of energy and hence no need for food during the journey.)

Possibly, Wilkins speculated, a human might achieve flight by attaching wings, or perhaps by riding on the back of a large bird. If neither of those two plans turned out to be feasible, Wilkins offered a third: “I do seriously, and upon good grounds, affirm it possible to make a flying chariot, in which a man may sit, and give such a motion unto it, as shall convey him through the air.” And Wilkins foresaw fame and fortune for such a chariot’s inventor: “The perfecting of such an invention, would be of such excellent use, that it were enough, not only to make a man famous, but the age also wherein he lives. For besides the strange discoveries that it might occasion in this other world, it would be also of inconceivable advantage for travelling, above any other conveyance that is now in use.”

For both Godwin and Wilkins, flying to the moon seemed feasible, as in those days nobody knew that the vacuum of space separated the top of the Earth’s atmosphere from the lunar surface. Only later in the 17th century, when experiments established the reality of a vacuum, and Isaac Newton’s laws specified the mechanical and gravitational impediments, did the dreams of moon visitation seem most likely unattainable.

But dreamers still dreamed. In 1827, one Joseph Atterley (pseudonym for George Tucker, a University of Virginia professor who had once been a U.S. congressman) wrote A Voyage to the Moon. Atterley traveled in a copper vessel powered by “lunarium,” an antigravitational metal (repelled by the Earth, but attracted to the moon) discovered in Burma. Later in the 19th century Jules Verne wrote the more famous From the Earth to the Moon, in which propulsion for the space capsule was provided by a powerful cannon.

All the while that the moon mesmerized songwriters and novelists, it provided similar inspiration for science. Lunar cycles and their importance for creating an accurate calendar were major aspects of ancient and medieval science, as was the moon’s role in eclipses, a foundational element in the development of astronomy. Isaac Newton, of course, made science truly modern following his realization that the moon was just like a falling apple, guided by gravity (only in the moon’s case, falling around the Earth instead of into it). And while showing how difficult it might be to overcome the Earth’s gravity and fly to the moon, Newton’s physics at the same time specified exactly the mechanical requirements to do so. Rocket technology for meeting those requirements, developed in the 20th century, produced the multistage Saturn V that launched Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins on their way to the moon half a century ago.

Perhaps it was that success in achieving John F. Kennedy’s vision, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth, that most dramatically demonstrated the merger of myth with logos, of lunar science with the moon’s cultural relevance. Armstrong’s first small step reminded all humankind of its essential unity as a single community in the cosmos — the moon serving as symbol for all that every member of the human race has in common. After July 20, 1969, it became truer than ever what Jules Verne wrote in the opening pages of From the Earth to the Moon, when Impey Barbicane proposed such a voyage to the members of his club: “There is no one among you, my brave colleagues, who has not seen the Moon, or, at least, heard speak of it.”

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Tom Siegfried is a contributing correspondent. He was editor in chief of Science News from 2007 to 2012 and managing editor from 2014 to 2017.

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