Ask students to name the first human being to walk on the moon, and most of them -- one hopes -- are likely to answer Neil Armstrong. But a few might say Cyrano de Bergerac or Dr. Dolittle. After all, poets and visionaries and science fiction authors have daydreamed for centuries about traveling to our nearest cosmic neighbor.
The problem, of course, is how to get from the earthbound Here to the lunar There. Over the centuries, the moonstruck have come up with a surprising number of methods to achieve liftoff. What follows is a countdown of 10 of the most interesting.
10. The True History, by Lucian of Samosato (c. 120-200). At the very beginning, Lucian announces, with a kind of postmodern chutzpah, that everything he's about to tell us is a lie.
After various maritime adventures beyond the Pillars of Hercules -- that is, beyond the Strait of Gibraltar and the known seas -- Lucian and his companions sail into a great whirlwind, "which turned our shippe round about, and lifted us up some three thousand furlongs into the aire ... and we were carried aloft." A week later, "we came in view of a great countrie in the aire, like to a shining island."
This is, of course, not Oz but the moon, and there this visionary company first encounters the Hippogypians, lunar men who ride gigantic vultures, and then their sovereign, Endymion, who is about to wage war on the kingdom of the sun. (He loses.)
It turns out that these Selenites -- Selene is the Greek moon goddess -- are all male; children are budded out of an adult's leg. When it's time to die, an elderly Selenite simply dissolves into the air.
9. Paradiso, by Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). In the opening cantos, Dante leaves the mountain of Purgatory and begins his ascent into heaven, first passing the sphere of the moon. How is this accomplished? Dante's guide, the beloved Beatrice, explains that our sinful animal nature pulls us down toward Earth. But since Dante's soul has been been purged, he can quite naturally float upward.
8. Somnium, by Johannes Kepler (1571-1630). Like a Renaissance Carl Sagan, this famous German astronomer decided to dabble in fiction at the end of his life. In Kepler's "dream," a young scientist named Duracotus learns that his own witch-like mother can summon lunar "daemons" who can transport a human being to the moon. Once there, Duracotus surveys a Jurassic Park-style world inhabited by huge saurian and serpentine creatures.
7. The Man in the Moone, or A Discourse of a Voyage Thither, by Francis Godwin (1562-1633). The hero of this Arabian Nights-like tale is a Spaniard named Domingo Gonsales, who finds himself marooned on an unknown island, where he discovers the "gansas," a species of wild swan. He tames a vast flock, then yokes them to motor his homemade flying machine.
All goes well until the gansas decide that it's time to migrate -- to the moon. There, Gonsales tours a kind of Renaissance Utopia. The inhabitants live thousands of years. All wounds can be cured; even a man's head can be reattached to his body through "the juyce of a certain herbe there growing."
6. Voyages to the Moon and the Sun, by Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655). Yes, that Cyrano, the guy with the Durante-esque schnoz. These two voyages can be construed as parodies of the cosmic voyage, by the 17th century a popular fictional genre because the new astronomy of Brahe, Kepler and Galileo had resulted in much speculation about "the plurality of worlds" and whether they might be inhabited.
Those who remember Edmond Rostand's play about Cyrano will recall his description of the various methods he has figured out for space travel. My favorite: Cyrano reasons that, because the sun sucks up dew, one should be able to ascend by attaching dew-filled jars to one's body.
Sure enough, our hero rockets into space, but as he passes the moon, he starts to panic, breaking the vials and hoping to land safely on the lunar surface. Alas, he crashes back on Earth. Other aeronautic techniques, worthy of Wile E. Coyote, involve a giant spring and firecrackers.
When Cyrano eventually does reach the moon, he meets none other than Domingo Gonsales, who becomes his guide. Cyrano's lunarians turn out to be philosophers who argue, among other things, about whether their visitor can possibly be a human being.
5. The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaal, by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). A balloon seemingly constructed of dirty newspapers appears over Rotterdam. From its gondola, a strange dwarf throws down a letter, which in due course explains how one Hans Pfaal, a bellows mender, manufactured a special gas and with it traveled by balloon into space.
Much of the story is a kind of 19th century techno-thriller, focusing on Pfaal's various instruments, scientific hypothesizing and adventures. Poe vividly describes the appearance of Earth from space. Eventually, Pfaal's balloon falls into the moon's gravitational field, and he encounters its dwarfish inhabitants, lives among them for five years and discovers that each lunar individual is psychically linked to some person on Earth.
Alas, Poe ends his story by revealing that it was all a hoax perpetrated by Pfaal to gain a pardon for his numerous debts.
4. From the Earth to the Moon and Round the Moon, by Jules Verne (1828-1905). A founder of modern science fiction, Verne creates a slightly comical story around construction of a huge gun to fire a projectile toward the moon. The Baltimore Gun Club, a group of Civil War veterans, builds The Columbiad, a cannon about 900 feet long in Florida -- only 137 miles from what now is Cape Canaveral.
The original plans change somewhat when the club receives a telegram from a French adventurer: "Replace the spherical shell with a cylindro-conical projectile. I shall be inside when she leaves."
Eventually, the spacecraft is redesigned to house three men, along with two dogs, one of which dies in the explosive blast and is cast into space where its body becomes a satellite around the bullet-ship.
Because of certain unforeseen forces, the men from Earth merely circle the moon, the surface of which they examine closely, concluding that, despite the presence of water and atmosphere, it is uninhabitable. Eventually, they crash back on Earth.
3. The First Men in the Moon, by H.G. Wells (1866-1946). Verne once complained that he was far more scientific than Wells. After all, Verne's cannon is a plausible launch technology.
By contrast, Wells's spaceship is powered by an imaginary element called Cavorite that is "opaque to gravitation, that . . . cuts off objects from gravitating towards each other." By this fantastic means, two explorers travel to the moon, where they are captured by an underground race of insectoid Selenites.
One makes it back to Earth. The other remains behind, where he finds himself presented to The Grand Lunar -- a huge brain atop a small, withered body.
2. Rogue Moon, by Algis Budrys (born 1931). Let this brilliant short novel represent modern science fiction set on the moon, though one might choose Arthur C. Clarke's mystery A Fall of Moondust or Robert A. Heinlein's libertarian fantasy, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
In Budrys's story, scientists discover an alien artifact on the lunar surface, a kind of labyrinth designed to kill anyone who enters it. Volunteers try to navigate this maze; all are zapped by its alien defenses.
Eventually, through use of matter duplication, a moody anti-hero is able to enter the maze, be killed, learn some of its secrets and then be reduplicated, again and again, with each new life penetrating farther into the artifact. The result is a thrilling adventure, a rite of passage and a touching love story.
In Clarke's similar story, The Sentinel, mankind discovers an object on the moon that turns out to be a kind of distant early warning system, alerting some extraterrestrial civilization that mankind has finally discovered space flight.
1. Destination Moon (1950). In 1902, George Melies produced the first science fiction film, the humorous A Trip to the Moon, loosely based on Verne. In 1950, George Pal directed this pseudo-documentary about man's first trip, with help from Heinlein. It's particularly notable for a presentation that was scientifically credible by the standards of the 1940s.
In 1968, Stanley Kubrick's classic 2001: A Space Odyssey depicted an altogether prosaic journey to the moon, wherein lunar travel looks roughly as exciting as a Metroliner trip to New York.
Now, cinematically as fictionally, we have left the moon behind, and only star treks and wars continue to fire our imaginations. The moon has lost its poetry.
Sublunar creatures ourselves, we know from the various Apollo flights that the moon is just a crater-pocked and lifeless satellite. And yet even now, on a warm summer's night, sitting in a parked car with one's sweetheart, it's hard not to feel, like so many dreamers of the past, the romantic pull of that old devil moon.
CAPTION: "Destination Moon," a 1950 pseudo-documentary about man's first trip there, was made with help from science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein.
CAPTION: One idea of Cyrano de Bergerac for space travel used dew-filled jars.
CAPTION: Stanley Kubrick mixed mystery and a vision of routine travel to the moon in his 1968 film "2001: A Space Odyssey."
CAPTION: The first science fiction film, 1902's humorous "A Trip to the Moon," was loosely based on Jules Verne.
CAPTION: H.G. Wells's explorer, captured by Selenites, faces The Grand Lunar.