The idea of travelling to the Moon has captured the imaginations of politicians and writers alike for many years.
In making the apparently impossible sound possible, authors like Jules Verne (From The Earth to the Moon) (1865) and H. G. Wells (The First Men in the Moon, published in 1900 – see illustration) gripped their readers’ imaginations by transporting them away from all the hustle and bustle of their everyday lives.
Daniel Defoe‘s The Consolidator, or, Memoirs of Sundry Transactions from the World in the Moon, recounts a trip to the Moon and meetings with its inhabitants, the Lunarians, following a journey to China.
Of course, this was long before anyone climbed aboard a real rocket. But once it turned out that the impossible was indeed possible, and astronauts finally did make it into space and onto the surface of the Moon, we hung on their every word as they described their sense of wonderment.
In time our feelings of awe at the scientists’ technological achievements, the skills and bravery of the crews and the beauty and fragility of the Earth have become more muted. Even manned missions have slipped down the news agenda, as we’ve come to accept space travel as simply part of everyday life, albeit often a source of spectacle and wonder. We’ve learned not to expect any more inspirational speeches on the subject, such as that by John F. Kennedy, or quotes from heroic astronauts, such as this observation by Frank Borman:
“When you’re finally up at the moon looking back on earth, all those differences and nationalistic traits are pretty well going to blend, and you’re going to get a concept that maybe this really is one world and why the hell can’t we live together like decent people?”
This kind of reaction has been a valuable by-product of space missions, giving our species a new perspective on our place in the cosmos, and inviting us to reassess our squabbles and sense of self-importance.
However, there’s little about an unmanned mission that delivers the kind of eye-witnessed, experiential feedback provided by the pioneering astronauts. China’s various successes in unmanned Moon landings are impressive. The recent touchdown on the far side of the Moon will no doubt add significantly to our store of knowledge about the geological history of our nearest neighbour, together with close-up map-making, according to press reports. But it’s not the same if there are no humans involved …
Daniel Defoe wrote about travel to the Moon – coincidentally by the Chinese, and also involving map-making – more than 300 years ago. He recognised the potential of the Moon as an allegorical device which could stir up politicians and religious groups. In The Consolidator, published in 1705, he used a supposed trip to the Moon and meetings with its inhabitants to satirise the current political situation in Britain and make a veiled attack on China.
In real life, Defoe was highly antagonistic towards the Chinese and what he saw as the pernicious effects on England of many aspects of their culture. He thought their social structure was tyrannical and viewed their religion as idolatrous. He also saw little benefit to England in trade conducted by the East India Company.
In the book (“a curious political satire”, according to George Saintsbury), Defoe’s narrator visits China and discovers that the Chinese have been flying to the Moon for many years. The narrator is allowed to make the trip himself, travelling in a rocket named the Consolidator, which is powered by the wings of two feathered creatures. The creatures represent the two houses of parliament.
Whilst on the Moon, he meets a Lunarian philosopher, who shows him a wide range of scientific inventions. In particular, he is shown magnifying glasses which enable him to view the Earth in close-up. But the glasses reveal more than just the surface features; they are also able to bring out all manner of social and political foibles across Europe and more particularly in England, like the conflict between Anglicans and the various dissenting religious groups.
Whilst Defoe’s story is far less ‘down-to-earth’ than his more well-known works such as Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, I find it interesting that – as with other writers who would follow him – he was far-sighted enough to envision ways in which space travel had the potential to change ways of thinking and influence political and social debate.