Sunday, 12 March 2017

C'est un petit pas pour un homme [Review: From The Earth To The Moon]

The members of the Baltimore Gun Club, bitterly disappointed by the outbreak of peace seek a new outlet for their passion - a cannon that will fire a shot to the Moon. Buoyed by public support across the US and around the world they defeat obstacle after obstacle in their quest to build and fire the cannon - until they are thrown an even greater challenge by a French explorer Michel Ardan who wishes to ride inside the shot and emigrate to the Moon, along with Barbicane, the President of the Gun Club and his lifelong nemesis Nicholls.

Jules Verne's novel, De la Terre à la Lune, was written in 1865, almost exactly 100 years before the actual Moon landing. The novel deals with the engineering and human challenges in designing, constructing and preparing the cannon, leading to the firing and then the voyage itself which is the subject of the sequel, Around The Moon. Verne is neither the first nor the only writer to send fictional astronauts to the Moon but most of these lunar romances rely on magical or unexplained methods of transport - Verne's genius was to come up with a credible means of getting there, indeed the novel could almost be used as an engineering manual for aspiring rocketeers. Amongst the challenges faced by the engineers include the shape, size and construction of the cannon and shell, the position, date and timing of the shot, mediating the shock of launch to prevent the crew from being crushed, providing air, water, heat and food to the crew, slowing the craft for landing, and how to monitor the voyage and landing from Earth. One challenge that is simply thrown aside is that of returning the astronauts - the plan is for a one-way trip.

Verne also takes on scientific uncertainties - the crew hope to find an atmosphere and water on the moon, but this is by no means certain as the authorities of the time held differing views, played out in Michel's debate with Nicholls.

Verne notably criticised H.G.Wells' novel, The First Men In The Moon written in 1901, a few years before Verne's death, for exactly this reason - Wells' voyage is made possible by a fantastic element (the gravity-defying Cavorite). However to give Wells his credit, when a few years earlier in 1897 he wrote of his Martians crossing the expanses of space to wage war on Earth, they did so in cylinders fired from a gun.

Like many science fiction writers Verne never saw his work as a prediction of the future - he is on record as saying that the ideas featured in his books are there to facilitate his character's journeys - for example, imagining a steerable hot air balloon as a way for his heroes to traverse the whole of Africa. Many of Verne's novels depict physical journeys and are full of speculative vehicles from floating islands to the formidable Nautilus.

However, intentional or not, when we compare Verne's novel to the actual NASA moon shot a century later, Verne was absolutely right about a lot of things:
  • Military engineering drives the space programme
  • The launch site in Florida, together with the intense competition between states to host the enterprise
  • The national and international excitement that follows the mission and turns its' figureheads into celebrities
  • The three-man crew
  • The 3-day voyage
Some aspects don't quite ring true in the same way - whoever heard of Americans obsessed with guns? Verne was also a little optimistic with the price-tag as well - his cost estimate is for 5 million dollars, whereas the Apollo programme cost about 25 billion. Of course, coming in a century late and five thousand times the original budget isn't so unusual for the space programme...

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