Literary journeys to the Moon

The fantasies that preceded Apollo 11

literary journeys moon

Centuries before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon, several fictional characters had already set foot on it. In the absence of any real means to do so, literature made the journey easier. The motivations were different in each period: symbolism, satire, spreading new astronomical theories, or describing the technology that would allow such a trip to be made.

«The first journey to the Moon was described eighteen centuries before Apollo 11»

The first journey to the Moon was described eighteen centuries before Apollo 11.  The Greek rhetorician Lucian of Samosata (c. 125 – c. 192) wrote about it in A true story, written in 160. In fact, there is an earlier one, The wonders beyond Thule, written between the second and third centuries A.D. by Antonius Diogenes, of which only an extract is preserved. In one passage he described a brief magical journey to the Moon (Alcalde-Diosdado, 2010, pp. 81–86). But in Luciano’s work the journey is the main element. He was an ingenious and sarcastic author. His work is a satire where, from the beginning, the Greek writer criticized purported historians who assured the veracity of everything they explained. That is why, despite the title, very early on he says  «I now make the only true statement you are to expect – that I am a liar»1 (De Samosata, 160 CE / 2005). He wrote for an educated public, capable of capturing the irony, relaxing and resting from more serious readings (García Gual, 2005, p. 18). The narrator arrives at the Moon in a boat with fifty rowers, swept away by a terrible wind.

The second trip to the Moon that we know of is the one described by Dante (1265–1321) in The divine comedy. In canto II of Paradise, the poet and Beatrice arrive at the satellite. Here, we do not to consider any method of travelling other than mere flight. Dante describes the nine spheres of heaven, the first of which being the Moon, thereby following Aristotle’s and Ptolemy’s cosmological vision. But there is also room for science, like Beatrice’s reasoning to explain the spots on the Moon (Sparavigna, 2016).

The last work of this period, which we can call «pre-scientific» Moon travel, was published in 1516. It is the epic poem Orlando furioso, written in Italian by Ludovico Ariosto (1474–1533). It describes the struggle of several Frankish knights against the Muslims, as well as their love adventures and misadventures. Orlando – or Roland – has gone mad with love after his beloved Angelica has fled. Astolfo, an English duke and Orlando’s friend, tries to bring him back to his senses. In canto XXXIV he arrives at the Moon in the prophet Elijah’s chariot of fire. Ariosto leaves astronomy aside and constructs an image of the Moon that drinks from several cultural sources that see the satellite as equal but opposite to the Earth, as if it were a mirror (Mac Carthy, 2009).

The gentleman discovers that things lost on Earth are preserved on the Moon, such as «the lover’s tears and sighs; what time in pleasure and play we here unprofitably spend».2 Thus, the journey becomes a moral mockery to criticise the banality of many human ambitions. And among those lost things is Orlando’s sanity, preserved in a jar. Astolfo takes it to Earth and makes him smell it. Orlando comes to his senses and falls out of love with Angelica, as if love were born of a lack of sanity.

viatges literaris a la lluna divina comèdia

Illustration from an illuminated manuscript of The divine comedy, of around 1444–1450. The artist Giovanni di Paolo was in charge of doing the miniatures (handmade illustrations) for «Paradise», the third part of Dante’s poem. In the picture, Dante and Beatriz visit the inhabitants of the Moon. / The British Library, Yates Thompson 36 manuscript, page 131, Heaven of the moon

Fiction to defend heliocentrism: from Kepler to Cyrano

In 1543 Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) published De revolutionibus orbium celestium (“On the revolutions of the celestial spheres”), where he set out his heliocentric model and the calculations behind it. Its slow implementation, which clashed with Aristotelian and religious dogmas, was carried out with all the tools at hand, including literary fiction.

It was in this revolutionary scenario that the German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) wrote a science fiction work in Latin: Somnium. He wrote it in 1609, but it was published posthumously in 1634. Kepler’s story – often considered the first work of science fiction – coincided in time with one of his great scientific works: Astronomia nova (“New astronomy”) – the next would be Harmonices mundi (“The harmony of the world”), published in 1619. In Astronomia nova he detailed the movements of the planets, using strong maths, and established two of the three laws that bear his name for the orbits of these stars.

«Johannes Kepler made the first attempt to spread Copernican astronomy through fiction»

In Somnium, Kepler himself dreamt of reading a book about a young Icelander named Duracotus. He travels and studies astronomy and, upon his return to Iceland, his mother, Fiolxhilde, summons a demon that takes Duracotus to the island of Levania, the local name for what we earthlings call the Moon. Levania’s inhabitants are rational yet grotesque beings who are very tall due to the lesser force of gravity. It may look like pure fiction written as a mere distraction. But according to French researcher Fréderique Aït-Touati, it is not a marginal text, it «allows us to understand the complexity of Kepler’s work as a writer, astronomer, and architect of the cosmos» (Aït-Touati, 2011, p. 47).

The Moon certainly allows for a viewpoint shift and for the demonstration that an observer’s deductions depend on his situation. For Levanians, their world is motionless and it is the Earth that moves. From that point on, and through various reflections and arguments, Kepler shows not only that certain conceptions are relative, but also that both celestial objects move through space. The laws of physics are universal, he tells us. This is the first attempt to spread Copernican astronomy through fiction.

«In The man in the Moone, the protagonist describes Copernicus’s ideas about the movement of the Earth»

After a few years another work appeared that seemed to have similar intentions to those of Kepler. It is The man in the Moone; or, A discourse of a voyage thither, by Domingo Gonsales, thy speedy messenger, published anonymously in 1638 by Francis Godwin (1562–1633), bishop of Hereford. The main character is a Spanish man who, in the first part of the book, travels around the world having the typical adventures of the picaresque novel.

In part two, he travels to the Moon. The method has no apparent scientific basis. Gonsales designs a machine pulled by 25 geese that will take him to our satellite, even though his intended destination was Spain. It may seem too fanciful, but Gonsales makes a number of points. He creates a system of pulleys and ropes to distribute the load among all the birds. For this reason, Roslynn D. Haynes considers Gonsales to be the first experimenter in literature (Haynes, 1994, pp. 29–30) to follow the teachings of Francis Bacon (1561–1626), who defended experimentation and testing. Haynes even suggests that Godwin was inspired by a flying machine described by Bacon in his book Sylva sylvarum, published posthumously.

frontispici the man in the moone

Frontispiece of The Man in the Moone, published anonymously in 1638 by Francis Godwin (1562–1633), Bishop of Hereford. In it, the main character, a Spanish man called Domingo Gonsales, accidentally travels to the Moon (his goal was to return to Spain) in a machine pulled by 25 geese, with a whole system of pulleys and ropes to spread the weight evenly among all the birds. / STC 11943.5, Houghton Library, Harvard University

Gonsales challenges Aristotle. In his flight he reaches a point where he appears to be floating in balance beyond Earth’s pull. An imperceptible movement takes him to the Moon. During this journey he describes Copernicus’s ideas about the movement of the Earth and wishes that «Philosophers and Mathematicians would confess their own Blindness, who have hitherto made the World believe that the Earth hath no Motion» (Godwin, 1638/2005). He also explains and reasons that the Moon’s light is but the reflection of sunlight, and refutes the idea that higher areas are hotter because they are closer to an alleged fire element, which he judges to be non-existent. On the Moon, Gonsales finds a utopian society, free of crime and living in perpetual springtime. Even so, the memories of his family bring him back to Earth.

In the same year, 1638, another work considered the possibility of a trip to the Moon from an entirely scientific point of view: The discovery of a world in the Moone, by John Wilkins (1614–1672). Like Godwin, Wilkins was a bishop and wrote several works dealing with scientific issues. This was not a narration, but a study where he immediately rejected the idea of a universal and intrinsic tendency for all objects to go downwards. Wilkins considered it very probable that a sphere around the Earth marked the limit where a body would stop experiencing its attraction.

Wilkins did not think it was impossible for a man to be propelled by wings attached to his body, by a large trained bird, or by a flying chariot which a man could move using a mechanism. And he quoted Godwin’s book, which in his opinion set forth a pleasant and highly constructed fantasy concerning a journey into that other world (Wilkins, 1638/2005, p. 120).

The seventeenth century would not end without yet another trip to the Moon. This one was narrated by the Frenchman Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac (1619–1655) in L’Autre monde ou les états et empires de la Lune (“The other world: Comical history of the States and Empires of the Moon”). The book was published posthumously in 1657, in a revised version edited by one of his friends – the original full version did not emerge until 1921.

The method of travel on this occasion was even more far-fetched: powered by rockets and with beef marrow smeared on his body – which, according to him, the Moon had a habit of sucking. Cyrano’s aim was, on the one hand, to provide social criticism and to question many of the customs of his time. But what interests us most here is that he used the story to defend Copernicus’s heliocentric system.

Once again, the change of perspective makes it possible to refute Aristotle’s ideas, who «did without doubt accommodate Principles to his Philosophy» and not the other way around (De Bergerac, 1657/1999). The author maintains that the laws of physics are the same here and on the Moon and that the stars we see are other suns with their own planets. In short, that we do not live in a singularity, but in just one of the inhabited places of the universe.

Enter technology

In 1835, the North American author Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) published a text in the Southern Literary Messenger titled «The unparalleled adventure of one Hans Pfaall». A manuscript read in the Dutch city of Rotterdam describes the experiences of the protagonist on the Moon. He reached the Moon with a balloon and during the journey he was able to breathe thanks to an invention of his that turns vacuum into air. Pfaall fled because he was wanted for several murders on Earth.

One of the authors who knew and admired Poe’s works was Jules Verne (1828–1905), who had read them in the translation by the poet and essayist Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867). In April 1864, Verne published four articles on Poe in Le Musée des Familles. The third one discussed Hans Pfaall’s trip. He stated: «it is wonderful, full of unexpected comments, of singular observations» (Verne, 1864). But before he did, he spent a few paragraphs criticising the lack of scientific rigour. Thus, he said that in the narrative «the most elementary laws of physics and mechanics are fearlessly transgressed».

«With Verne, the aim is not to spread heliocentric theories, but to disseminate science based on exciting and credible adventures»

All this proves that Verne believed scientific rigour and plausibility to be essential elements in these works of fiction. That is why, when he published From the Earth to the Moon in 1865, not only did he base the novel on the most cutting-edge science of the time, which he knew well thanks to numerous readings, he also asked his cousin Henri Garcet (1815–1871), a professor of mathematics, to make several calculations to lend maximum scientific credibility to his book.

The novel tells the story of Impey Barbicane, president of the Baltimore Gun Club, who travels to the Moon with two other colleagues. They travel in an aluminium projectile launched from a large cannon. They leave from Florida because Barbicane is looking for the most vertical takeoff possible, which is why he sets the cannon close to the equator. Verne says that the necessary escape velocity is 11.2 km/s, a correct calculation if we disregard the resistance caused by air friction (Verne, 1865/2011). Other calculations are very plausible, but the work contains errors as well (Navarro, 2005, pp. 85–102). For instance, the three travellers wear a common suit, tie, and hat, which would not protect them from the force of acceleration. They carry two dogs and when one of them dies they just open the hatch and throw it out, which would have suctioned all the passengers into the void outside the ship.

The novel ends with the ship near the Moon, but without having reached its goal. The adventure continues in Around the Moon (Verne, 1869/2005). After making several observations, the travellers return to Earth. Thus, contrary to popular belief, Verne’s characters never set foot on the Moon.

il·lustració de la terra a la lluna verne

In 1865, the French author Jules Verne published From the Earth to the Moon, undoubtedly one of the reference works of science fiction focused on space travel. Verne believed scientific rigour and plausibility to be essential elements in these works of fiction. In the picture, one of the illustrations created by the French artist Henri de Montaut to accompany the novel, showing the projectile that the characters use to travel to the Moon. / New York Public Library /

With Verne, the aim is not to spread heliocentric theories, which were already well established in the nineteenth century, but to disseminate science based on exciting and credible adventures. Verne resented the frivolous way in which authors violated the laws of physics.

This was the basis for his criticism of Herbert George Wells (1866-1946) and his novel The first men on the Moon, published in 1901. In this case, the journey is made thanks to a substance discovered by the chemist Cavor, which nullifies the force of gravity, allowing an object to float upwards. He covers a sphere with cavorite, which is how he calls the new substance. He and an author and businessman named Bedford go up and reach the Moon. Bedford is a gambler who only thinks about how to get rich and how to run away from debt. Cavor, on the other hand, is a naive, dreamy scientist, untempted by power or wealth. Yet he is also an amoral scientist who thinks primarily of the usefulness of his inventions, with no regard for their potential effects.

Wells’s intention was not so much to write a pure science fiction story as it was to reflect on social problems and the impact of technology – a subject he would go on to discuss in several essays. In chapter 25, the second to last chapter, Wells described Cavor’s conversation with Grand Lunar – the Moon’s ruler or lord. Cavor describes the physical characteristics of the Earth, its social organisation, and the way in which knowledge is acquired and transmitted. Grand Lunar’s mind is incapable of understanding this. «You mean to say», he asks, «that you run about over the surface of your world – this world, whose riches you have scarcely begun to scrape – killing one another for beasts to eat?» (Wells, 1901/1977).

But the lunar society is also far from perfect. Individuals are predestined to a particular job, as he explains in chapter 24: «the elaborate discipline of training and education and surgery he undergoes fits him at last so completely to it that he has neither ideas nor organs for any purpose beyond it». Moreover, when they are not needed, the workers are drugged and tossed aside, which is surely «far better than to expel him from his factory to wander starving in the streets». And there are a series of subordinates whose only function is to make up for the lack of muscle mass among intellectuals, who are nothing more than hypertrophied brains.

Dreams of a forefather: Tsiolkovski

Sometimes, fiction and reality come together. This was particularly the case in the works of the Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857–1935). His scientific works earned him the consideration of founding father of astronautics. But he also made forays into fiction. He was therefore one of the pioneers of astronautics as a science and of modern science fiction as a genre.

Besides his forays into science fiction, Russian physicist Konstantin Tsiolkovski was a true pioneer in the study of rockets that used liquid fuel propellants to overcome Earth’s gravitational pull (in the top right, some of his rocket designs). Tsiolkovsky’s scientific contributions inspired even Wernher von Braun, the mind behind the Saturn rocket that carried Apollo 11’s astronauts to the Moon. In the picture, Buzz Aldrin’s famous walk on the Moon on 20 July 1969. / NASA

In the short novel On the Moon (1893) two travellers who have reached the satellite study and describe it. In 1895 he published the novel Dreams of the Earth and Sky, where he imagined a small planet inhabited by plant-like humanoids with very advanced technology. In Vesta (1916) he describes a journey to the titular planet, which is completely covered by liquid but has human-shaped beings living in a subaquatic environment. Beyond the planet Earth (1917) is set in the year 2017 and narrates the first manned trip to the Moon, which evidences that he was visionary but also a prudent or pessimistic thinker.

In literary terms, the value of these fictions is relative. However, they are important because of what he imagined and described, especially if we include his much more valuable scientific treatises. The most important of these is The exploration of cosmic space by means of reaction devices, published in 1903, in which he describes these rockets with rigorous calculations. Tsiolkovski, who had read Verne, thought that firing a projectile with a cannon, as described by the French author, was not the most appropriate approach. He thought of a metered fuel tank that would allow the ship to accelerate, brake, or maintain speed. He also proposed rockets segmented in several phases, an idea that would later become the basis for space travel.

Tsiolkovsky’s epitaph, chosen by himself, states: «Man will not always stay on Earth». As Wernher von Braun (1912–1977) acknowledged, his contribution to making this happen was essential. In 1969, the multi-phase, liquid-fuel Saturn rocket carried the first astronauts to the Moon, 1,809 years after Lucian of Samosata sent the first literary character to our satellite and almost half a century earlier than Tsiolkovski had predicted in one of his novels. Armstrong’s small step culminated the first great leap announced by the Russian scientist.

1. Translation by William Stewart Rose. Available at (Go back)

2. Translation by William Stewart Rose. Available at (Go back)


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© Mètode 2019 - 103. Endless forms - Online only (2019)

Chemist and science journalist, specialising in science and technology for TV3's news services. His latest books include El imperio de los datos (University of Valencia Publications, 2018) and La ciencia en la literatura (University of Barcelona, 2018).

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