Forty years ago today, Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon. But for millennia before him people had been imagining that giant leap in fiction, fables and film. They flew to the moon in rocket ships, winged chariots and projectiles fired from huge guns. There they met giants, insect-men, Nazis and topless women.
Although pre-1969 stories of lunar voyages were often silly or satirical, Frederick I. Ordway III, a former NASA researcher, argues that they played a critical role in inspiring the scientists who actually put men on the moon.
“They all read H.G. Wells and Jules Verne,” Ordway said recently. “Science fiction got us all started in the early days, I think without exception.”
Growing up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in the 1930s, Ordway devoured science-fiction pulp magazines like Amazing Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories, some 900 of which he would later donate to the Harvard College Library. In the 1940s he was a student member of the American Rocket Society, a space enthusiasts’ organization that built and test-fired small rockets in New York and New Jersey.
After graduating from Harvard in 1949 with a degree in geosciences, Ordway went to work for Reaction Motors, which built engines for the X-1 and X-15 experimental rocket planes. From the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s he worked in Huntsville, Ala., with the rocket scientist Wernher von Braun at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and then at the NASA George C. Marshall Space Flight Center.
In 1965, at the author Arthur C. Clarke’s suggestion, the filmmaker Stanley Kubrick hired Ordway as the scientific consultant on 2001: A Space Odyssey. Ordway has also written and edited more than two dozen books about spaceflight real and imagined.
He said the earliest known moon voyage in written history was by the satirist Lucian of Samosata of the second century A.D. Lucian begins his True History with a disclaimer that it’s all lies. He goes on to describe sailing on a ship that’s carried to the moon by a giant waterspout. He finds the moon inhabited by men who ride three-headed vultures and giant fleas, and are at war with the inhabitants of the sun.
In the 16th century Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso depicts the moon as the repository of all things misplaced on Earth. The knight Astolfo ventures there in a chariot pulled by four magical horses, to look for mad Orlando’s lost wits.
The development of the telescope in the 17th century spurred much speculation about the moon and its possible inhabitants. There was even an early space race, on paper at least, as English patriots exhorted their countrymen to colonize the moon before other nations could.
The astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote his lunar speculations as fiction. In Somnium (Dream), published posthumously in 1634, a young man is carried away by moon demons. Kepler’s descriptions of a harsh lunar surface are quite accurate, even if he does inhabit it with giant snakes and other creatures.
Domingo Gonsales (actually Francis Godwin, the bishop of Hereford) flies to the moon in a chair pulled by geese in his 17th-century best seller, The Man in the Moone. He finds it to be “another Earth,” peopled by giants.
In his satirical Voyages to the Moon and the Sun, the poet and wit Cyrano de Bergerac first attempts a lunar flight carried by vials of rising dew, but only makes it as far as Canada. He later succeeds, propelled part of the way by rockets, a conveyance that seems to have occurred to very few writers before the 20th century.