Adam Rowe is a freelance information writer who runs the popular 70s Sci-fi Art tumblr, though his Maddd Science blog also has a special place in his atomically powered heart. In his spare time, he reads sci-fi books and invents new ones.
by Adam Rowe
Excursions to the Moon have been a staple trope in science fiction since the first (arguably!) science fiction story of all time, Lucian’s second century True History. So has stretching the possibilities of reality. Over the centuries, speculative fiction authors have proposed their own means of transportation to Earth’s glowing satellite. And before rockets become popular in the early 1900s, those ideas stretched the limits of possibility pretty far. Here’s a rundown on fiction’s moon transportation methods, from the almost plausible to the clearly insane.
Jules Verne popularized moon travel by cannon in his 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon. This is the least ridiculous moon trip you’ll see on this list, since it would actually work. However, the acceleration to escape velocity would have killed all astronauts onboard, which is far from ideal. Rockets at the time simply didn’t have the power to be plausible, as liquid propellants hadn’t yet replaced black powder. Verne took the best option out of a lot of bad ones. Interestingly, much of his novel accurately anticipated the problems surrounding space travel, as a recent SF Signal post has explained.
Also noteworthy: the first science fiction film ever, 1902’s A Trip to the Moon, relied on a long-barreled cannon to send its heroes into the moon’s anthropomorphic eye in one of cinema’s most memorable shots.
9. Hot Air Balloon
Well, this one is a way to travel through the atmosphere, and that’s about all we can say for it. Edgar Allen Poe used it in his 1835 tale The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaal and, sadly, appeared to seriously think it was the best way to travel, writing “the design is original inasmuch as regard an attempt at verisimilitude in the application of scientific principles to the actual passage between the earth and the moon.”
What’s worse, the balloon was constructed out of old newspapers, and nonsensically launched with an explosion of black gunpowder. Despite his boasts, Poe gets only one scientific detail almost accurate: Hans gets a splitting headache and bleeds from the nose and ears as a result of the altitude while ascending.
8. Anti-gravity material
HG Wells never claimed that he was being realistic when he invented Cavorite, the gravity-negating material his explorers use to reach the moon. He wrote The First Men in the Moon in 1902, so he could have improved on Verne’s concepts if he had chosen. Instead, as he put it in 1934, “these stories of mine […] do not aim to project a serious possibility; they aim indeed only at the same amount of conviction as one gets in a good gripping dream. They have to hold the reader to the end by art and illusion and not by proof and argument, and the moment he closes the cover and reflects he wakes up to their impossibility.”
7. Carriage pulled by swans
English bishop Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone, published in 1638, solved the space travel problem in a novel manner: while living on an island, the protagonist discovers a new breed of swans he calls “gansas.” The man hitches them to a carriage he builds, and one day is on board when they decide to migrate. Naturally, their migration path takes them straight to the moon.
You might expect a swan-powered spaceship to be a little farther down on this list, and you’re free to that opinion. I only gave it seventh because I was impressed by the foreshadowing: Godwin writes of the swans on their first appearance that they, “like unto our Cuckoes and Nightingales, at a certaine season of the yeare, doe vanish away, and are no more to be seene.” Godwin at least had the good grace to use a single scientific fact in his favor: birds’ impressive migratory patterns.
6. “Aerial daemons”
See, those swans are looking pretty scientific now. In Johannes Kepler’s 1634 fantasy manuscript, Somnium, Kepler recounts a fictional dream though which he learns that demons can access a path from the moon to the earth, taking humans up for a few hours to look around.
As clearly impossible as this is, Kepler used an incredible amount of 17th century science for everything else. The demons simply allowed the astronomer to speculate about the moon’s differences in seasons, temperatures, and topography. Even the fantastical journey by demon includes a complimentary “dozing draught” to account for the soporific effects of gravity and a moist sponge to at least acknowledge the vacuum of outer space.
5. Elijah’s Biblical flaming chariot
The title character of Ludovico Ariosto’s 1516 epic poem Orlando Furioso goes mad with despair halfway through, as Italian knights from the time Charlemagne are prone to do. The solution? His buddy needs to reach the moon, where Orlando’s wits are located, bottle them up, and return them to Orlando.
With this premise, it’s hardly a surprise that transportation to the moon can be found though the flaming chariot that took the prophet Elijah to heaven in 2nd Kings chapter 2.
I mentioned the second century writer Lucien earlier. He wrote True History, a tongue-in-cheek satirization of the popular Greek “cosmic voyages.” In it, Lucien’s sea voyage is blown of course, caught in a waterspout, and flies through the air for seven days before landing on the moon.
Once there, they observe a battle between the armies of the moon and the sun, which gives Lucien the opportunity to make up such inane aliens as the inhabitants of the Dog-Star: “five thousand dog-faced men who fight on the back of winged acorns.” They are able to sail their ship home on the air, a trip which takes just four days. They pass the sun on the port side during the return trip, so Lucien’s grasp of astronomy is presumably as weak as his understanding of industrial aerodynamics.
3. Magnetized mountain peak
The French journalist Paschal Grousset was like a crazier Jules Verne. His stories have depicted an ancient super-intelligent race, a glass-domed Atlantis, and a steam-powered flying island, but his weirdest one by far is Les Exilés de la Terre, his 1887 tale about a voyage to the moon.
In it, a company hoping to mine moon minerals realizes that they simply can’t travel from the earth to the moon. Instead, they decide to bring the earth to the moon. They build a station on the top of a mountain in Sudan that it notable for being composed of pure iron ore. They wrap cables around it, use solar energy to power it, and ride the resulting enormous electromagnet to the moon! Insanely, the same process can be used to fling them home again.
2. Dew-Bottle spacesuit
The renowned satirist Cyrano de Bergerac devised an ingenious method of reaching the moon in his 1657 A Voyage to the Moon: by strapping bottles of morning dew to his body, he was carried up by the sun’s rays into outer space. I’m cheating by including this on the list, though, as he never actually reached the moon as he had intended. Instead, it worked so well that he almost flew into the sun, and he had to abort the mission.
Interestingly, he later accomplishes his moon trip with the very first instance of a rocket in literature, meaning that de Bergerac deserves a spot near the top of the least ridiculous moon landings, too.
1. A really tall Turkish bean plant
Who better to top this list of tales than the old tall-tale-topper himself, Baron Münchhausen? Here it is, the most ludicrous moon landing in all of fictional history.
In Rudolf Erich Raspe’s 1785 novel The Surprising Adventures of Baron Münchhausen, the Baron embeds his hatchet in the crescent moon after it slips from his grasp. Armed with the knowledge that Turkey beans “grow very quick, and run up to an astonishing height,” the Baron plants one and climbs the resulting plant all the way to the moon.
Once there, he finds the plant has dried up in the sun, and he can’t climb back. After all, it would be ridiculous to assume the plant would grow on the moon, and the Baron is nothing if not a sensible man. Instead, he weaves a rope from a pile of random straw, ties it to one of the crescent moon’s “horns,” and climbs down. When he reaches the end, he just cuts off the “useless” rope above him and reties it beneath him.
Thank goodness he had a hatchet with him.