On Dec. 21, 1968, science fiction became science fact when a rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., and shot toward the moon.
Crewed by Mission Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot Bill Anders, Apollo 8 would become the first manned mission to leave Earth’s gravitational influence and orbit the moon. Until that point, science fiction had been our only way to the moon, most notably with Jules Verne’s two novels, From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and Round the Moon (1870).
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Verne himself was influenced by American author Edgar Allan Poe and his way of putting realistic characters into fantastic situations. Poe’s effect on Verne extends beyond his Pym story, notably with his story “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall,” which sees a man flying to the moon by way of balloon. The story is even mentioned in From the Earth to the Moon, with the characters cheering Poe’s legacy: “This journey [Hans Pfall], like all previous ones, was purely imaginary; still, it was the work of a popular American author—I mean, Edgar Poe!”
Verne’s novels are notable for their lasting popularity, and beyond just describing the journey, they were a key source in helping turn fiction into a reality by inspiring young readers to learn about science. Some notable scientists who read Verne and others include Konstantin Tsiolkovsky of Russia, who noted that Verne “startled my brain,” when he read the books as a student, while Austro-Hungarian scientist Hermann Oberth memorized Verne’s two novels. Both Wernher von Braun from Germany and Robert Goddard from the United States were likewise inspired by the tales of space exploration from both Verne and H.G. Wells. The efforts of each of these scientists would lay the foundation for space exploration by way of their advances in rocket science.
From the Earth to the Moon tells the story of the Baltimore Gun Club following the end of the Civil War. Gathering up subscribers and members, the group turns their attention and skills toward a new pursuit in the aftermath of the war. Urged on by the American president to journey to the moon, the club undertakes the engineering and preparations of the mission.
The book reaches its peak as the intrepid explorers are shot out of the atmosphere from the world’s largest cannon, and their fates are a mystery until Verne’s sequel, Round the Moon, which follows the crew around the moon and back down to Earth.
Much has been made of the seemingly prophetic nature of Verne’s lunar stories: elements such as the distance and time to reach the moon, and even the launch and landing sites for the mission fall very closely to what actually happened during NASA’s Apollo program.
While some elements are incorrect, such as the method for leaving the planet, From the Earth to the Moon is famed because of the real science and figures that was used, elements that would later be shown to be very true. While writing his book, he had his own calculations checked by his cousin Henri Garcet.
What’s interesting, however, is where Verne not only nails the science elements, but the background elements involved with going to space: military hardware and the organizational know-how to get a major accomplishment completed. The space race that began after World War II used a number of military personnel, components and resources with an ostensibly peaceful goal and message of exploration. Verne’s invented space agency is “The Gun Club” and made up of Civil War veterans, who look for an outlet for their talents. While it’s not exactly the same situation, there are quite a few similarities.
While we tend to think of Verne’s story as a single work, From the Earth to the Moon and Round the Moon were written five years apart and are two very different stories. The first doesn’t see our characters reach the moon; it’s concerned largely with the setup of the lunar mission and the idea of an adventure and the ambitions of the United States. The second part is concerned with completing the journey and the science of space travel.
What sets From the Earth to the Moon apart from the earlier, proto-science fiction novels that came before it is Verne’s use of hard science. Many elements in the novel appear to be prophetic simply because the underlying science that he used in the stories isn’t all that different from what was used in real lunar missions.
Verne’s novel was also the first of a grand tradition of science fiction novels, stories that explored the cosmos. Following his moon stories, Verne wrote another space exploration story, Hector Servadac (Off on a Comet), which sees its characters around the Solar System. What’s remarkable in Verne’s story is how fiction not only turned over to reality, but that it’s very existence, in a small part, helped bring humanity to another world.