Throughout history, humans have been entranced by our closest celestial neighbor, the Moon. It provided the inspiration for countless stories over time, but it wasn’t until 1969 when a pair of astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted the first footsteps on its surface.
The last Apollo mission took off from the Moon in 1972, and in the fifty years since, it’s only received robotic visitors who probe its surface and take pictures from orbit. Now, it seems that we’re ready to return: China has recently landed several probes on its surface, while NASA has said that it plans to send astronauts in the coming years. They won’t be alone: the heads of private firms, such as SpaceX and Blue Origins, have indicated that they intend to send people to the Moon, unveiling spacecraft and landers to take us there. Whoever sets foot on the lunar surface next, it’ll be the next chapter in a growing story of our relationship with the Moon.
From Mythology to Literature
Human societies from around the world have placed the Moon within their respective mythologies since their earliest days. Ancient artists depicted the Moon in cave artwork, while numerous ancient societies placed it within their pantheons of deities, much like the other bodies in our solar system, such as Mars and Venus. In his history of the science fiction genre, Adam Roberts writes that ancient astronomers devised models of the skies to account for the movements of the stars and planetary bodies, coming up with theories to explain the changing patterns. He notes that “Ancient SF, including voyages into the air and voyages to the Moon, are conceptually distinct from journeys to the stars; they connect with material, practical discourses, such as the science of navigation, rather than strictly theological idioms.”
Early astronomers proposed numerous theories to comprehend the nature of the Moon. The Greeks thought it could be covered with a giant ocean, which would account for its reflective nature, while others thought it could be a mirrored surface, reflecting an image of the Earth back on itself, and still other philosophers disagreed. In his book The Moon: A History for the Future, Oliver Morton observes that the idea of the Moon as a mirror still holds true for many people—not necessarily literally. “But what people see when they look at the Moon is indeed, for the most part, a reflection of themselves—of their preoccupations and theories, their dreams and fears . . . The history of the Moon is a history of ideas about the Moon; and it is from those ideas that its future will grow.”
Later scholars would recognize the true nature of the Moon: a body in space that orbited the Earth, lit by the Sun. Later scientists determined its distance from our home planet and how it affected the tides. In the 1600s, astronomers Thomas Harriot and Galileo Galilei took detailed drawings of the Moon’s surface, using a telescope, followed by numerous others, detailing the body’s mountains and craters. Theologically, the Moon helped prime the pump for the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe: if God had populated Earth with humans, other bodies around the universe must surely come with their own divine inhabitants. Philosophers and writers came up with their own stories that imagined potential believers living on the Moon, such as Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone.
In the centuries since ancient times, the Moon has remained a fixture within literature, providing a fantastical destination for writers. Syrian author Lucian wrote True Histories in the second century, about a man who straps wings to his arms and flies to the Moon, where he “gains a splendid vantage point from which to survey the Earth below him,” according to Roberts. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction cites works that date from the mid-1600s to the mid-1700s. “The idea that travelling to the Moon might be a notion worth taking seriously first crops up in the 1640 appendix to John Wilkins’s The Discovery of a World in the Moone.” Wilkins’ work, along with others who would follow, formed the beginnings of a proto-science fiction genre of fantastical voyages that included intrepid explorers who reach the Moon by way of an invention that allows them to fly to it. These works recognize a couple of things: that the Moon was a distinct location within our solar system, and that people could conceivably visit it through technological means, coming at a time that society was rapidly transforming in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. Explorers and merchants were heading out across the world on ships, and the notion that people would one day visit even more distant lands naturally follows.
Origins of Science Fiction
Society had begun to fully comprehend Earth’s place in the cosmos: Italian astronomer Giordano Bruno posited that we lived in a vast universe, with many planets; Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe argued that the Moon orbited the Earth, and it, along with its fellow planets, orbited the sun; German astronomer Johannes Kepler helped establish the models for which the planets orbited the Sun, and Galileo Galilei directly observed them all with a telescope.
These advances helped underpin the larger scientific revolution that swept Europe, an enormous shift in worldview that catapulted society into the Modern Age, transforming the world from something that was largely unknowable into something that was recognizable, understandable, and tangible.
Literature at the time reflected this shifting worldview as authors incorporated these ideas into their stories and helped bring about some of the earliest works of science fiction. The Moon was no longer an intangible light in the sky: it was a destination. While earlier stories had seen intrepid adventurers visiting it, authors were now able to draw on realistic details. American writer Edgar Allan Poe was one such author to look to the Moon for inspiration, publishing a short story in 1835 called “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall.”
Notably, this story appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger, and it purported to be a true story about a man who invented a new type of balloon and sailed to the moon to escape from creditors and authorities. Other Moon-hoax stories followed in the same year, like a series of articles that appeared in New York City’s The Sun, about an astronomer who witnessed fantastical creatures living on the Moon with a new type of telescope, written by Richard Adams Locke.
Perhaps the most famous example of an early lunar exploration tale comes from French writer Jules Verne in 1865’s, De la Terre à la Lune (in English, From the Earth to the Moon). Verne was inspired to tell his own Moon story by Poe, eventually referencing Hans Pfaall by name in it. The story followed the exploits of the Baltimore Gun Club in the years after the American Civil War, who turn their attention and equipment to a new task: shooting an expedition to the Moon in a massive cannon. He would later pick up the story in 1870 with a sequel, Autour de la Lune (Around the Moon), following the astronauts as they went around the Moon and returned back to Earth.
Verne and Poe weren’t alone in writing about the Moon: authors like Edgar Fawcett, George Griffith, W. S. Lach-Szyrma, and H. G. Wells all wrote a range of lunar stories that saw people visiting and exploring the Moon’s surface. In 1902, director Georges Méliès released Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon), a silent film based on Verne’s lunar novels, which would go on to inspire future filmmakers and writers in the years to follow.
While Verne drew on the scientific understanding of the universe of the day for his book, his novels had a notable, recursive influence on the scientific community: they inspired scientists who would later be the pioneers of rocket science from around the world, such as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Hermann Oberth, Wernher von Braun, and Robert Goddard, who cited the author as an influence, and whose work would be foundational for the field of space exploration.
The Space Age
The 20th century had brought with it a new age of technological advances, as scientists across the world made huge strides with the development of rocket engines. In 1920, Robert Goddard published A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes writing that “A further application of much general interest is the possibility of sending a mass beyond the predominating gravitational field of the Earth,” which Chris Gainor notes in To A Distant Day: The Rocket Pioneers, that “no responsible scientist had ever seriously or so publicly suggested a feasible method for flying to the Moon and beyond.”
It was during the Second World War that another such advance occurred. Nazi Germany unleashed a terrifying new weapon, something that had never been seen on the battlefield before: a long-range ballistic missile called the Retribution Weapon 2—more commonly known as the V2. Its designer, a German rocket scientist named Wernher von Braun, had long been entranced with the idea of space travel, and of reaching the Moon. After Germany’s defeat, he and many of his companions defected to the United States, where they became part of the army’s own rocket programs. With the introduction of devastating nuclear weapons, rockets and intercontinental ballistic missiles became the next frontier for weapons technology.
In her podcast Moonrise, Washington Post reporter Lillian Cunningham outlines von Braun’s career and the role that he played in the Space Race, both helping the US military develop weapons of its own, and later championing the potential that rocket technology held for space travel. Science fiction writers weren’t far behind. Pulp and genre magazines like Amazing Stories, Wonder Stories, and Astounding Stories had published numerous stories imaging what life might look like on the Moon, or of how to travel there, but the Cold War brought with it a new sense that the future—and travel to the Moon—was right around the corner. Von Braun’s missile technology could easily be repurposed for such a project, and in the aftermath of the US’s failed Bay of Pigs Invasion, President John F. Kennedy declared at Rice University in 1962 that the US would go to the Moon. Science fiction was about to become science fact.
The science fiction community was already well underway with that concept. Authors such as Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke had begun to write their own stories of plausible lunar travel. In 1947, Heinlein released his first novel, Rocket Ship Galileo, about the adventures of three teenagers who travel to the Moon. He later followed up with other stories, such as “The Man Who Sold the Moon” about an industrialist who sets up a project to reach the Moon and claim it for himself. A year later, an adaptation of Rocket Ship Galileo—now titled Destination Moon—hit theaters, the first film to try and accurately depict a lunar mission.
As more scientific eyes turned to the Moon, the depictions began to shift away from the fantastical worlds featuring alien life in favor of more realistic ones. Arthur C. Clarke described a lifeless Moon in vivid detail in his 1951 short story “Sentinel of Eternity” (later renamed “The Sentinel”):
“Those mountains were ten thousand feet high, and they climbed steeply out of the plain as if ages ago some subterranean eruption had smashed them skyward through the molten crust. The base of even the nearest was hidden from sight by the steeply curving surface of the plain, for the Moon is a very little world, and from where I was standing the horizon was only two miles away.”
The idea that a mission to the Moon might be possible wasn’t only sinking in for science fiction fans. The Soviet Union launched a satellite into space called Sputnik in 1957, a demonstration that space was reachable, while Collier’s magazine released a series of articles from notable experts—including von Braun—about the feasibility and structure of a manned lunar mission. The articles captured the attention of entertainers like Walt Disney, who would prominently feature the Moon in his parks, and would bring the scientist on as a consultant and host for several TV specials about the future of space travel. Science fiction and popular culture helped elevate the idea that a lunar mission was not only possible—but feasible. In the coming years, NASA definitively proved that it was possible.
On July 20th, 1969, Apollo 11 touched down, the first time any humans stepped on an extraterrestrial body. In his history, Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, author Alec Nevala-Lee noted that it was “a moment in which reality and science fictions seemed close enough to touch.” Science fiction authors like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, and Frederik Pohl were in demand for news programs, using their expertise to talk about what they and humanity had long imagined.
Heinlein watched the launch of Apollo 11 days earlier in Florida, and later wrote that “I do feel as if—not as if—I know that seeing the first Moon ship take off is the greatest spiritual experience I’ve undergone in my life.” Clarke was nearby at CBS’s studios in Orlando, and watched the launch from outside the building, later remembering that “I hadn’t cried for twenty years.” It was a profound moment for the science fiction community: something that they had only written about for decades had come to pass.
But in some ways, science fiction authors had already transcended the Apollo era of space flight. NASA’s astronauts flew to space in delicate and tiny spacecraft, taking short missions to test out all of the phases required for a lunar mission. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction notes that “To the early Pulp writers this was an article of faith, so easily taken for granted that the Moon routinely became a mere stepping-stone en route to Mars,” but that while “the lunar voyage remained a constant theme of SF in the 1930s and 1940s, it was more peripheral than the hype surrounding the first actual Moon landing in 1969 suggested.”
By 1972, the Apollo program ended, and human space flight has yet to return to the Moon, although returning to the Moon has been a regular sound bite for politicians for decades. Parts of the science fiction genre also advocated that a return might not be necessary: proponents of the New Wave movement felt that the genre should abandon outer space to concentrate on stories closer to home, focusing on the real and pressing issues the spectacle of a lunar mission distracted from.
While NASA hasn’t returned to the Moon, the notion that the Moon is a mirror into which viewers gaze back upon themselves is an apt metaphor today. While the Apollo program might not have exactly had a lasting effect on the genre, science fiction never left. It remained a viable destination for countless authors in the decades after that last mission. But while Apollo took away some of the mystery of what the Moon held, it became the perfect setting for authors to play out a variety of political narratives, notably with Heinlein’s 1966 novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
Heinlein actively used the novel to explore his libertarian thinking. He had been plotting out a novel about economics, pulling in ideas about a revolutionary on the Moon, and drew some inspiration from the American Revolution for his tale of a lunar penal colony declaring its independence to form its own, free society. Devoid of native inhabitants, the Moon became a novel canvas for science fiction authors: a blank sheet upon which they could imagine brand-new societies modeled in the form of various political schools of thought.
That has continued in recent years, as a number of notable lunar novels hit bookstores. Ian McDonald’s Luna trilogy (New Moon, Wolf Moon, and Moon Rising) depicts a savage power struggle between a handful of powerful families for control of the Moon’s resources, while John Kessel’s The Moon and the Other reveals a lunar surface that’s pockmarked with innovative societies—individual stations each practicing their own ideals, trying to figure out the ideal mode of life in a sealed environment. Other novels have drawn their inspiration from more tangible conflicts. David Pedreira’s novel Gunpowder Moon imagines a group of miners trapped between the US and China as the two seek to wage a geopolitical proxy war on the Moon as they try and outmaneuver each other on Earth. Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel Red Moon draws from similar inspirations—following a man named Fred Fredericks as he runs from the Moon, to the surface of the Earth, and back to the Moon as he runs from Chinese authorities and dissidents who are hot on his heels amidst a greater power struggle over the future of the country. In Mary Robinette Kowal’s novel The Calculating Stars, she recounts an alternate Space Race in which the US and allies attempt their own lunar project after a devastating asteroid strike in the Atlantic Ocean, using the story to examine the systemic inequalities in society that held back women in the real Space Race.
Throughout its history, the Moon has proven to be an attractive destination for scientists, politicians, thinkers, dreamers, and writers. Despite the latest technologies and scientific understanding of its surface, the Moon will likely continue to play the same role that it’s held for humanity since its inception: a mirror, showing us our deepest fears and ambitions.
Andrew Liptak is a writer and historian from Vermont. He is the author of the forthcoming book Cosplay: A History (Saga Press, 2021), and his work has appeared in Clarkesworld Magazine, io9, Kirkus Reviews, Lightspeed Magazine, Tor.com, VentureBeat, The Verge, and other publications.