What Inspired the Mission to the Moon?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Turning Points in Modern History

By: Professor Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D. University of Pennsylvania

Humans have been fascinated by the moon since time immemorial. On July 20, 1969, the first humans walked on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. This marked a new era. Yet, since 1972, with the end of the follow-up mission to the Moon, humans have not gone on a manned expedition either to the Moon or other planets. It is still unclear whether the Moon landing marks the end of human’s exploration of the unknown or the beginning of new discoveries.

Image of an astronaut walking on the moon
The first mission to the Moon was a turning point in human history. This photo, furnished by NASA, shows an astronaut walking on the Moon—one of the biggest achievements of mankind. (Image: Vadim Sadovski/Shutterstock)

Things Needed to be Done to Reach the Moon

To ensure that the Moon landing was a success, numerous things had to be done. First, scientists needed to find a way to tear away from the Earth’s gravitational pull. Then they had to cross nearly a quarter-million miles. There were the added uncertainties of how the human body would adapt to an entirely unprecedented environment, the airless and cold emptiness of space. And most importantly, they had to find the best way to touch down on the Moon’s unknown surface. All of these things were entirely new, and scientists had the crucial tasks of planning and implementation ahead of them.

Learn more about walking on the moon.

Mankind’s Observation of the Moon

Mankind had spent most of its existence observing the Moon. Prehistoric astronomers aligned monuments like Stonehenge with their reckoning of the Moon and stars. In modern times, Galileo used his telescope to make ever more detailed surveys of lunar features. Astronomers mapped the lunar landscapes they could discern from the Earth. In fact, the names assigned to some of the lunar craters belong to famous personalities, such as the Leeuwenhoek crater, the Darwin crater, the Diderot crater, Edison crater, Fermi crater, and the Colombo crater (named after Christopher Columbus).

Know more about the mission to the Moon from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Literature’s Contribution to the Mission to Moon

Image of the famous French novelist, Jules Verne
Jules Verne was one of the most famous French novelists. His novel “From the Earth to the Moon” was a great inspiration for the 20th-century scientists. (Image: Morphart Creation/Shutterstock)

For many centuries people imagined what it might be like to journey to the Moon. Literature and movies were a great inspiration for man’s attempt to go to the Moon. In 1865, the famous French novelist, poet, and playwright Jules Verne published a popular novel entitled From the Earth to the Moon that made some remarkable predictions. In that novel, American artillery experts who are idled by the end of the Civil War start to restlessly seek a new goal, and they find that goal in building a super cannon that will shoot a space capsule to the Moon. Interestingly, the super cannon mentioned by Jules Verne was modeled on the one which shattered the walls of Constantinople in 1453. The name of the super cannon in Jules Verne’s novel is a reference to an important event in history. It is called a Columbiad, after Christopher Columbus, who was one of the most famous explorers. Jules Verne set the launch site for this expedition in Florida, which surprisingly turned out to be the site for the actual expedition in 1969. The crew for the expedition to the Moon in Jules Verne’s novel constituted of two Americans and one Frenchman. They circle the Moon, they find it to be lifeless, and then are pulled back towards the Earth, where they finally land safely and are celebrated worldwide.

In 1901, H.G. Wells, a science fiction pioneer, published his book The First Men in the Moon. In this novel, Wells writes about a somewhat shady businessman and a scientist, who team up to undertake a mission to the Moon. The scientist, Mr. Cavor, was an abstracted genius inventor, who discovers a new substance that actually counteracts gravity. He names the device Cavorite. Mr. Cavor designs a spherical capsule that is covered in Cavorite, which allows the two men to climb inside and rise up to the Moon. They discover that the Moon is inhabited by a strange, intelligent insect-like race that lives underground. They also find the Moon to be rich in gold. However, only the businessman is able to escape and return to the Earth. Eventually, the truth about the Moon gets out that unleash wars by humans to get at that gold. Wells calls this an inevitable “struggle for mastery.” A year after Wells’ novel was published, it was taken up by the early medium of motion pictures. George Méliès, the first master of special effects, blended storylines from Verne and Wells and created his most famous film A Trip to the Moon in 1902. In this film, French astronomers fly to the Moon and in the process pokes the Man in the Moon in the eye. They encounter the Moon creatures before making a spectacular escape back to Earth.

Learn more about the great voyages of Admiral Zheng He.

Effects of Fictional Works on Scientists

H.G. Wells' novel 'The First Men in the Moon'.
H.G. Wells was a famous English writer of the early 20th century. He was considered a science fiction pioneer and his book “The First Men on the Moon” tells a gripping story of mankind’s attempt to go to the Moon. (Image: H.G.Wells/Public domain)

The fictional speculations of the early 20th century encouraged scientists to start thinking about how to turn such speculative stories into reality. They found their answers in rockets that were an old technology from China from about a thousand years ago. The Russian mathematician Konstantin Tsiolkovsky explored theoretical aspects of space flight, the use of rockets to reach out into the cosmos. In the United States, Robert Hutchings Goddard was fascinated by rocketry as well, in part from reading books like those of H.G. Wells. Later, as a physics professor, Goddard worked on liquid-fueled rockets, launching the first of these in 1926. The German rocket scientist Hermann Oberth also had been inspired by fiction, in particular Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. These were the beginnings of the space program, but ultimately it grew out of the Second World War and the advances made in rocketry during wartime. It is often seen that inventions are being weaponized and used for violent causes. Some of these examples include airplanes used for war, films used for propaganda, discoveries leading to conquest, or splitting of the atom to destroy cities. Fortunately, the discovery of rockets was mostly used for peaceful purposes rather than the violent ones.

Commonly Asked Questions About Factors That Influenced the Mission to the Moon

Q: When did humans first walk on the Moon?

On July 20, 1969, the first humans walked on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission.

Q: How did prehistoric astronomers study the Moon?

Prehistoric astronomers aligned monuments like Stonehenge with their reckoning of the Moon and stars

Q: In Jules Vernes’ From the Earth to the Moon, how did the crew go to the Moon?

In the novel From the Earth to the Moon, American artillery experts build a super cannon that will shoot a space capsule to the Moon.

Q: In H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon, how did the businessman and a scientist go to the Moon?

In the novel The First Men in the Moon, the scientist Mr. Carvor discovers a new substance that actually counteracts gravity, which he calls Cavorite. Mr. Cavor designs a spherical capsule, covers it in Cavorite that allows the two men to climb inside and rise up to the Moon.

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