13.7: Cosmos And Culture
Dreams Of Travel To The Moon, And Beyond
The recent passing of Neil Armstrong brings back vivid memories of being huddled with my cousins in front of a large b&w TV on July 20, 1969, incredulous eyes popping out of our heads.
The transformative power of this most amazing feat was such that, even in distant Rio de Janeiro to a 10-year-old boy, the image of an American astronaut actually walking on our natural satellite quickly acquired the power of a mythic vision. If Man could do this, if American science could do this, I wanted to do this too.
Given the realities of growing up in Brazil in the 1970s, it was to my imagination that I turned. I proceeded to learn the science of how to go to the moon and, no less importantly, dove into fictional tales of travel to its surface.
As space pioneer Robert H. Goddard said, "It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow."
In perhaps no other area is science's debt to fiction as clear as in space exploration.
Looking at some of the first fictional narratives of travel to the moon, one is doubly struck by how freely the imagination runs in the absence of actual data, and by how remarkably difficult it is to transform imagination into reality. To dream of going to the moon and actually landing there are two very different things. Both should be celebrated as complementary aspects of our humanity, as dreamers and as inventors: every invention starts with a dream.
The first fictional tale of a trip to the Moon on record apparently belongs to the Roman rhetorician and satirist Lucian (c. 120 CE), who, in spite of being credited as Roman, was ethnically Assyrian and wrote in Greek. In a feat that inspired many of the first who wrote of imagined trips to other worlds, such as Johannes Kepler, Cyrano de Bergerac, Jonathan Swift and Voltaire, Lucian tells the story of how he, in the company of 50 other sailors, set off to the explore the oceans to see where they ended when:
"a sudden [and] most violent whirlwind arose and carried the ship above three thousand stadia, lifting it up above the water, from whence it did not let us down again into the seas but kept us suspended in mid air. In this manner we hung for seven days and nights, and on the eighth beheld a large tract of land, like an island, round, shining, and remarkably full of light ..." (Note: one stadium equals 607 feet.)
Once on the Moon, the explorers get embroiled in all sorts of adventures, including a war against the kingdom of the sun and its creatures which, in a tradition Lucian links to Homer and the monsters of his Ulysses, tend to be bizarre. War, it seems, is an inescapable condition of human-like creatures, a sort of incurable infirmity. Or, as Lucian wrote, "Well may they say war is the parent of all things."
I wonder what the stoic and quietly heroic Neil Armstrong made of stories such as Lucian's. Although he deemed himself "a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer," he also had moments of deep inspiration, as in his statement to a 2001 NASA oral history project:
"Looking back, we were really very privileged to live in that thin slice of history where we changed how man looks at himself, and what he might become, and where he might go."
To this now grown-up boy, Armstrong remains a beacon of light in a world in dire need of such heroes.