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Chair Rockets and Demon Ladders: How Our Ancestors Imagined Going to the Moon

Over the centuries and across cultures, numerous ideas about how to get to our satellite have been bandied about, and they truly expose the depth of humanity's harebrained imagination.

by Becky Ferreira
Jul 17 2014, 9:00am
Wan Hu takes to the skies. Image: NASA.

This Sunday, July 20 will mark the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing—the day humanity finally fulfilled its millennia-old dream of stomping around on another space orb. We are among the first generations lucky enough to call ourselves a bonafide inter-world species, but the achievement would never have come to fruition without the efforts of moon-eyed dreamers across the ages.

Sending humans to the moon required Space Age technology, but the idea of a moon landing is at least as old as the written word. Practically every ancient culture developed lunar mythologies that either personified the moon as a deity, or speculated that it was another world with its own anthropomorphic population.

Over the centuries and across cultures, numerous ideas about how to get to our satellite have been bandied about, and they truly expose the depth of humanity's harebrained imagination.

In Chinese mythology, for example, the trick is to find the pill of immortality. Swallowing the pill allowed the lunar goddess Chang’e to ascend to the moon, where she met up with the Jade Rabbit, a cross-cultural figure similar to the man in the moon. The Apollo 11 astronauts were actually told to look out for the pair before landing on the moon, in one of the greatest astronautic exchanges of all time:

Ronald Evans (CAPCOM): Among the large headlines concerning Apollo this morning, is one asking that you watch for a lovely girl with a big rabbit. An ancient legend says a beautiful Chinese girl called Chang-O has been living there for 4,000 years. It seems she was banished to the Moon because she stole the pill of immortality from her husband. You might also look for her companion, a large Chinese rabbit, who is easy to spot since he is always standing on his hind feet in the shade of a cinnamon tree. The name of the rabbit is not reported.

Michael Collins: Okay. We'll keep a close eye out for the bunny girl.

You have to love Collins’ contraction of thousands of years of Chinese legend into “the bunny girl.” Incidentally, the goddess and the rabbit are now technically on the moon, as the Chinese space program named their moon lander and its adorable rover after Chang’e and the Jade Rabbit. Ancient Chinese storytellers probably would have gotten a kick out of that, even though it was rockets that got the pair there, and not some dodgy pill of immortality.

The Jade Rabbit with its rice cake pot. Image: Zeimusu.

Other mythmakers devised competing stories about reaching the moon. The Japanese god Tsukuyomi simply climbed a ladder to reach it—easy peasy. The Greeks and Romans were all about the heavenly chariot route. The Aztecs were among the only cultures to imagine a projectile actually being launched at the moon. The lucky space traveler was their own riff on the lunar rabbit, and the hefty splat it left on impact explained away the vague bunny shape that so many cultures saw on the moon.

By the time the second century rolled around, speculative fiction writers began to chime in on the topic of lunar exploration. The best example is Lucian of Samasota’s satirical True Story, considered by many to be the first work of science fiction.

The book describes the adventures of a group of sailors who ascend to the moon in a fierce oceanic whirlwind. Turns out that there are no women on the moon, just moon-men who get pregnant in their legs, deliver stillborns, then resuscitate them with light breezes. There is also a race of people who plant their testicles in the ground to reproduce. True story! As wacky as the satire is, it’s one of the first accounts of the moon as a true location, with geographical features and inhabitants all its own.

The brilliant astrophysicist Johannes Kepler took the idea of a moon landing much more seriously in his 1634 science fiction novel The Somnium. Though the spaceflight conceit was supernatural—Kepler’s protagonist used some kind of demon-bridge to reach the moon—Kepler anticipated a lot of real issues with space travel. The extreme cold and absence of air in space are addressed, as well as Lagrangian points and the reduced gravity on the moon.

Kepler’s thoughtful approach to a moon landing mission kicked off a veritable tidal wave of lunar exploration stories. Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone suggested using a flock of geese as a spaceflight vehicle. Fireworks were the propulsion system in Cyrano de Bergerac’s Voyage dans la Lune. A legend emerged that a Chinese official named Wan Hu rigged 47 rockets to his chair, and exploded himself into oblivion. The stories accelerated further with the advent of hot-air balloons—even Edgar Allan Poe cooked up a balloon-based lunar exploration vessel in his short story “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfall.”

The goose-driven spacecraft of Godwin's novel. Image: Francis Godwin.

However, all of these fictional moon landings were destined to be eclipsed by Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From The Earth to the Moon. Verne meticulously mapped out the logistics of a lunar flight with his mathematician cousin Henri Garcet—details like the trajectory of the projectile, the amount of explosives necessary to reach escape velocity, and the best strategic location for a launch. He considered the same locations in Texas and Florida that NASA would settle on a century later, eventually selecting Tampa for his fictional launch.

The only central detail Verne flubbed on was his vehicle. Instead of a rocket ship, he imagined his three-man crew getting shot to the moon in an enormous space cannon. The apparatus was a 900-foot shaft loaded with a 12-foot by 9-foot projectile: a manned bullet.

While packing heat at the moon is undeniably awesome, shooting such a device would gravitationally pulverize the astronauts inside. Despite this inevitable man-mulch, Verne was on the right track with his spaceflight concept (especially considering the sketchy caliber of the previous suggestions). Indeed, he was the man who passed the torch of lunar exploration from science fiction to science fact.

The three noted “fathers of rocketry”—Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Robert Goddard, and Hermann Oberth—were all avid Jules Verne fans, and countless others were inspired to pursue the dream of spaceflight because of From the Earth to the Moon. The novel was so scientifically rigorous that it made the elusive idea of a moon landing seem not only possible, but probable; perhaps even inevitable. 

Indeed, 104 years after Verne’s influential space opus was published, Apollo 11 validated the hopes of every storyteller that ever wondered if humans could visit our only natural satellite, and imagined how we’d get there. And though immortality pills, demon bridges, goose-power, and space guns all have their allure, it turns out there is nothing quite so handy for a moon mission as a good ol’ fashioned Saturn V.