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Friday Five: 5 Trips to the Moon

This week's Friday Five has a lunar theme - courtesy of a man who knows his way around a fictional rocketship. Ian Sales is the editor of the Rocket Science anthology and the author of the BSFA-winning novella Adrift on the Sea of Rains. His latest book, the third in the series, is Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above and is out now. Ian's blog investigates science fiction, science and, er, fiction, and you can argue with him on Twitter @ian_sales.

Tales of visiting our natural satellite have been around for centuries, but it wasn’t until 1969 that a human being first set foot on its surface. In the decades immediately before Apollo 11, the Moon was a popular venue for science fiction stories. There were those set in Lunar settlements, such as Arthur C Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust (1961), or Robert Heinlein’s deeply problematic The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966); but there were also several sf novels about first missions to the Moon. Such as the following five...

TintinThe Adventures of Tintin: Explorers on the Moon, Hergé (1954)

Is there anybody on the planet who hasn’t read this? According to Wikipedia, the twenty-four Tintin books have been translated into “more than 70 languages with sales of more than 200 million”. Explorers on the Moon is quite easily the best of them (although I do like Flight 714 (1968) a lot). It’s a direct sequel to Destination Moon (1953). In a nutshell, Professor Calculus has been hired by the Syldavian government to build a nuclear rocket engine at a secret establishment. In Explorers on the Moon, Calculus’s red-and-white-checked rocket - which has itself become a cultural icon - has launched, despite the best attempts by saboteurs from rival nation Borduria (whose flag, brilliantly, depicts a giant moustache). The rocket reaches the Moon and Tintin et al explore the surface in a “Moon tank”... but the saboteurs have not yet finished with them. Hergé bats about fifty : fifty in terms of scientific accuracy. He has, for example, the rocket accelerate at 1G toward the Moon, then turn over and decelerate. And during the turnover, the crew experience zero gravity - with much hilarious hijinks, especially from Captain Haddock and a bottle of whiskey. The lunar landscape, on the other hand, is shown incorrectly as jagged and mountainous.

High Vacuum, Charles Eric Maine (1956)

Maine was a British science fiction author, who published eighteen sf novels between 1953 and 1971. High Vacuum was his fifth novel and, as the title suggests, the Moon is portrayed as the final frontier. It opens with the first mission to the Moon, Alpha, crashing on the lunar surface. Fortunately, the crew have their Astronautics Handbook, which tells them such useful information as “Vacuum is normal. The presence of air in the cosmos is a localised phenomenon dependent on planetary-gravitational conditions”. Even more helpfully, “life forms depending on air for survival are abnormal in the cosmic sense.” In other words, they’re screwed. Fortunately, the crashed rocket carries enough oxygen to keep the four survivors alive for five weeks. Which is a lot of spare oxygen to carry - this is no ‘The Cold Equations’. The race is on to put together a rescue mission - a Beta to Alpha’s, er, alpha - but will it reach the Moon in time? And how many of the astronauts will still be alive? Will it be the sole woman, who reveals she is pregnant, and is also cold-blooded enough to murder one of the other survivors? Or will it be the manly upright Patterson, who intends to see the woman brought to justice? Or could it be, er, both of them? “IT COULD HAPPEN!” claims the front-cover of my Corgi Books edition of this book. I think not.

First on the MoonFirst on the Moon, Jeff Sutton (1958)

This is Sutton’s first novel. His bio describes him as “a research engineer for Convair-San Diego”, which was about as cutting-edge aeronautically as you could get in the private sector in 1958. At that time, for instance, Convair was developing the B-58 Hustler, the first jet bomber capable of Mach 2, and still one of the most elegant-looking military aircraft of all time. Supersonic aircraft are not rockets, but Sutton has plainly done his homework - his Aztec “deep space rocket” actually resembles a Saturn V in general layout. Having said that, Sutton seems to prefer the term “satelloid” to “spacecraft” which is-- no, just no. The Aztec launches secretly at night as the US suspects the enemy plan to sabotage it, but everything goes as planned - except for the time bomb they find in one of the control panels. Oh, and it seems one of the crew is an enemy saboteur. But which one? The Aztec’s target is Crater Arzachel, “a bleak, airless, utterly alien wasteland with but one virtue: Uranium. That and the fact it represented the gateway to the Solar System.” Which I make to be two virtues, but never mind. The enemy, the “East World”, also launches a Moon rocket, but after a game of cat and mouse in lunar orbit, it crashes on the surface. Which promptly leads to a game of, er, cat and mouse on the lunar surface. It’s all very manly mannish - the hero is called Adam Crag! - and driven by the assumption the Moon can be claimed by the first nation to land there - which is precisely what happens on the last page. Mind you, the novel does predate the Outer Space Treaty by nearly a decade...

First on the Moon, Hugh Walters (1960)

This is actually the third book in a series of twenty, and was originally published in the UK as Operation Columbus. In a previous book, the Earth was terrorised by radiation from mysterious domes on the Moon, and teenager Christopher Godfrey was sent into lunar orbit in a rocket to guide missiles to destroy them - as the first chapter helpfully, if inelegantly, informs the reader. But now the nations of Earth have decided to investigate the origin of the domes, and so set about landing someone - Godfrey, of course - on the lunar surface for the first time. Although nominally international, it’s very much a British endeavour, with the US playing second fiddle, and the “giant” rocket launched from Woomera in Australia - “At the base, he was told, it was eight feet in diameter, and it towered nearly ninety feet into the air” (p 67). Er, the Saturn V was 363 feet tall. The Soviets, however, have chosen to go it alone, and plan to send “astronaut” (no cosmonauts in 1960!) Serge Smyslov in a minitank to the Moon. The race is on! Godfrey, incidentally, is anaesthetised for the trip to the Moon. To combat the claustrophobia, apparently. In fact, he hitches a ride with Serge for the return trip, and the two come to blows - because zero gravity plus small space capsule apparently equals irrational violence. I’m not sure who this book is aimed at - naive scientifically-illiterate British youth of the 1960s who long for the bulldog days of WWII, I imagine - I mean, Godfrey’s bestest chum is Wing Commander ‘Whiskers’ Greatrex... Not only is the science nonsense, but the geopolitics are pure fantasy.

The Pilgrim ProjectThe Pilgrim Project, Hank Searls (1964)

Back in the early days of the Space Race, some NASA engineers briefly toyed with the idea of sending an astronaut on a one-way trip to the Moon, and then figuring out how to bring him back at a later date. It was all to beat those pesky Russkies to the lunar surface. Although the Mercury 7 would happily have volunteered, the plan was never taken seriously. The Pilgrim Project actually predates the first Gemini flight, but it’s about the Apollo programme which followed it. The novel opens with the flight of Apollo 3 - which never actually happened as the Apollo 1 fire meant the first Apollo mission into orbit was Apollo 7. The Soviets then make a try for the Moon, forcing NASA to dust off their one-way plan, the Pilgrim Project. “The colonel”, an astronaut from the military - much like those in the Mercury 7 - trains for the mission but, when the President learns the Soviet cosmonaut is a civilian geologist, he refuses to let him go. So civilian test pilot Steve Lawrence is volunteered instead. The first man on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, was, of course, a civilian test pilot. But that’s about all Searls gets right. The Pilgrim Project is pretty much a potboiler, with manly men astronauts and beautiful but needy astronaut wives.

Given that the above five books all predate Apollo 11, they didn’t do all that badly. Okay, so they mostly got the hardware wrong, and the details of the mission, and the fact the crew were all test pilots. But each made a serious attempt at depicting it as realistically as they could… although they did then wrap their Moon missions in pretty feeble Cold War plots. True, the Space Race was a Cold War pissing contest, and Kennedy didn’t say, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” in 1961 just because it would be a really cool thing to do. He did it because he wanted to prove the USA was way better than the USSR at something. And the USA won - the Soviets never even went to the Moon!

Now, forty-five years later, the US has no human-rated spacecraft, and the spacecraft that might have taken Soviet cosmonauts to the Moon, Soyuz, is still flying and, in fact, ferrying US astronauts to the International Space Station… 

What other classic tales of lunar lunacy are we missing? Please share your favourites in the comments!