This coming 20th of July will be the 50th anniversary of the “small step for a man” and “giant leap for mankind” which Neil Armstrong took on the surface of the Moon. In commemoration of this historic feat, the BBVA Foundation, in collaboration with Spanish national newspaper El Mundo, presents a special multimedia publication in which four experts analyze the significance of Apollo 11 from different perspectives. In this article, Professor Ursula K. Heise – Marcia H. Howard Chair in Literary Studies at UCLA – analyzes the cultural roots of the dream of flying to the moon, from the writings of Luciano de Samosata 2,000 years ago, to the novels of Jules Verne and the cinematographic vision of George Méliès, as well as the lasting cultural impact of the moon landings on humanity’s awareness of the Earth as our shared, fragile home. A video interview with Professor Heise is also available by clicking on the ‘play’ button on the image at the top of this page.
26 June, 2019
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” With these words, the astronaut Neil Armstrong marked his first walk on the Moon in July 1969 as a new phase in the evolution of all humankind. Just a short time later, he planted the American flag on the lunar surface, in a sign of nationalist ownership and victory over the Soviet Union, which had competed with the United States in the “race to space.” These contradictory gestures, affirming both cosmopolitanism and nationalism, summarize the double role the Moon has played in our cultural imagination, which has dreamed of lunar voyages for almost two thousand years: as a utopian space of peace or a dystopian space of military conflict; as a place of escape from the confines of terrestrial life or on the contrary as a place where limits are reasserted; and as a site of encounter with alien civilizations or a site for rediscovery of ourselves.
Lucian of Samosata in the 2nd century A.D. was the first writer we know to have imagined humans traveling to the Moon. In his True Story, he narrates how he and his fellow travelers were carried to the Moon by whirlwind and found themselves embroiled in a battle between the King of the Moon and the King of Sun over control of the Morning Star: an obvious satirical comment on the earthly politics of monarchical strife over territorial possessions. In the 17th and 18th centuries, accounts of voyages to the Moon multiplied along with rapidly growing interest in astronomy. They mixed the exhilaration of imagining human flight – whether by means of angels’ wings, bird wings, or mechanical contraptions, including early rocket ships – with the pointed realism of social satire. For writers such as Francis Godwin, Cyrano de Bergerac, Daniel Defoe, Samuel Brunt, and Murtagh McDermot, the journey to the Moon often led to the discovery of fantastic aliens whose communities and practices offered a convenient launchpad for commenting satirically on the all too real shortfalls of the authors’ own societies.
The epitome of modernity
As fictional journeys to the moon were gradually more influenced by innovations in science and technology in the 18th and 19th centuries, space travel turned into the aspirational pinnacle of technoscientific achievement. In the European and American cultural imaginations, it combined old dreams of flight with new dreams of modernity – and sometimes with a growing disappointment in modern society and awareness of the limits of modern science. In Jules Verne’s well-known novels De la terre à la lune and Autour de la lune, published in 1865 and 1870, space flight emerges at an imaginary moment when the world has become too peaceful to offer opportunities for further military development of weapons technologies and ballistics – an idea whose subtle satirical thrust hits its target all the more forcefully more than a century later when we remember that actual space flight technology emerged from Cold War conflict.
Verne portrays the members of the Baltimore Gun Club, military enthusiasts, as increasingly frustrated by a more and more peaceful world, until one of their inspired leaders proposes the construction of a spaceship instead – with the goal of turning the Moon into yet another state of the United States of America. Their space cannon dispatches three Americans and a Frenchman on a voyage to the Moon that ultimately misses its target. The travelers never set foot on the Moon, but instead fly around it and then return to Earth to plan further journeys into space. Enthusiasm for technological expertise, futuristic optimism and American entrepreneurship combine in Verne’s vision with the failures and uncertainties of modern technology, and the surprising twist – perhaps less so with historical hindsight – that the voyage into space is accomplished by because frustrated military ambitions.
This partly admiring and partly skeptical vision of space flight as the epitome of modernity continues in early twentieth-century masterpieces of science fiction, H.G. Wells’s novel The First Men in the Moon (1901) and Georges Méliès’s short film Voyage dans la lune (1902). In both works, advanced scientific expertise and technological know-how enable successful moon landings and encounters with aliens who in Wells’s vision live underneath rather than on the surface of the Moon. These encounters also turn quickly to conflict, as Wells’ Selenites take the human voyagers captive, and Méliès’s undiplomatic astronomers battle the moon dwellers, take one of them prisoner, and quickly have to escape back to Earth.
A satirical counterpoint to earthly society
Of Wells’s voyagers, only one returns back to the home planet, losing both the scientific knowledge his fellow traveler mastered, and the glass sphere that had made the trip possible. Incomplete radio transmissions from the Moon that he receives later indicate that the Selenites are appalled at the accounts of aggression and warfare on Earth that his friend has given them, and interrupt any further communication with humans. In both cases, modern human science and culture are both successful and defeated, and in both, the Moon continues to function as a satirical counterpoint to earthly society.
Méliès’s Voyage dans la lune, as the inaugural science fiction film, delivered the first moving images of a trip beyond Earth. The image of the Moon’s “face” with the Earth rocket painfully stuck in its eye has become a classic of early cinema in its satirical comment on the consequences of colonization. In science fiction after Méliès, the questions of who will colonize the Moon, what lunar colonies might look like, and how they might influence politics back on Earth have remained enduring topics.
Robert Heinlein memorably narrated a Moon colony’s struggle for independence from Earth in his classic The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1965), for example. The much more recent YouTube series of science fiction shorts from New Zealand called Anamata Future News (2015) portrays Maori settlers colonizing the Moon, in a humorous send-up of Western ideas about space exploration. And even in one of the latest lunar fictions, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Moon (2018), the question of whether the Moon might turn into the next arena for proxy wars among present and future superpowers remains at the center of a plot that shows American and Chinese groups vying for dominance.
A more exotic destination: Mars
In between Méliès and Heinlein, technology began to catch up with the millennial imagination of Moon voyages with the German construction of V-2 rockets during World War II, which prepared the way for the technology that fully developed with the Apollo missions in the 1960s. Dozens of futuristic novels, short stories, and films in the 1950s and 1960s took for granted that the Moon would indeed be colonized, even as American and Russian scientists and engineers were working to design the technology that would turn part of this vision into reality. And yet, many of the NASA engineers involved in the Apollo missions did not see the Moon as their ultimate target, but rather as a stepping stone on the way to a more exotic destination: Mars.
The imagination of either alien societies or human colonies on Mars in many ways parallels that of the Moon. From Kurd Laßwitz’s Auf zwei Planeten (1897) and Wells’s War of the Worlds (1898) to Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles (1950) and Robinson’s trilogy Red Mars, Blue Mars, and Green Mars (1992-1996), the red planet, too, has been alternately imagined as a utopian alternative to Earth or as an extension and mirror of our own politics and culture. After travel to the Moon had become a reality rather than a vision of the future, it did not disappear from the cultural imagination, but it did take second place to the idea that humans might one day settle on Mars – a vision that has recently gained new currency in the context of growing environmental crisis on our own planet.
A new understanding of our planetary home
But even as the cultural imagination has shifted from the Moon to Mars, the long history of looking at our own planet from the Moon, as a fictional scenario and for the last fifty years as a real technological achievement, has left a lasting cultural legacy. One of the most striking images in Méliès’s Voyage dans la lune anticipates this view as it shows Earth rising above the surface of the Moon. This image, captured in reality in 1968 by the Apollo 8 astronauts, has become iconic for a new vision of the Earth’s unique beauty and value as well its limits and its fragility. In combination with the “Blue Marble” image of the entire Earth, taken by Apollo 17 in 1972, it became the hallmark of the emergent environmental movement and the awareness that humans, for all their millennial conflicts and all their dreams of cosmic travel to better places, have only one shared planet to call home.
As the geographer Denis Cosgrove has put it, the “most enduring cultural impact” of the lunar landings “has not been knowledge of the Moon, but an altered image of the Earth.” Long anticipated in the cultural imagination, the image of the Moon framing Earth has generated a new understanding of our home as a special cosmological and ecological location in the universe. This sense of planet remains with us to this day, a new kind of eco-cosmopolitan modernity with deep historical roots whose implications we are only beginning to grasp.