“One Small Step” in a Long Journey

“A journey of a thousand li starts with a single step.”
(“Tao Te Ching,” Laozi)

“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
(Neil Armstrong)

I figure the journey to Earth’s moon began when someone looked up and wondered what this world’s “lesser light” might be. Uncounted ages, most likely, before folks like Laozi and Thales of Miletus added their thoughts to humanity’s storehouse of knowledge.

Thales of Miletus gets credit for figuring out that Earth’s moon is roughly spherical. So does Anaximander, depending on who’s talking. Those two lived about two and a half millennia back.

A century later, Anaxagoras said Earth’s moon was earthy, made of the same sort of stuff we stand on. He was right about that. Other details in his cosmology, not so much.

Anaxagoras was born in Klazomenai, Ionia: part of the Persian Empire. He was in Athens when Socrates lived there. Maybe they knew each other, maybe not.

Anaxagoras had a long and successful academic career in Athens until he was charged with impiety and sentenced to death. I can see the Athenian court’s point. Anaxagoras had said that natural phenomena weren’t supernatural.

My guess is that his legal trouble came from associating with the wrong sort: from the court’s viewpoint. Pericles, a friend and former student of Anaxagoras, was plunging Athens into chaos and disorder — threatening the status quo, at any rate.

Being friends with Pericles may have earned Anaxagoras the death penalty. On the ‘up’ side, Pericles helped Anaxagoras get out of Dodge. Make that Athens.

I’m willing to think maybe the powers that be either couldn’t, or wouldn’t, legally exile someone for having the wrong friend: but could make an “impiety” charge stick. Sort of like Al Capone’s income tax evasion conviction, but not quite.1

Pericles, Plutarch and Politics

I gather that the Athenian establishment weren’t interested in Anxagoras, apart from his usefulness in their anti-Pericles efforts.

Athenian citizens knew that Pericles was a friend and former student of Anaxagoras.

Shaming Anxagoras should have discredited Pericles. Maybe it did, among defenders of yesteryear.

I’m not sure why guilt by association and ad hominem attacks are perennial favorites, and that’s another topic.

A few years after the Anaxagoras trial, protectors of Athenian heritage charged Pericles with misappropriation of public funds and imperiling private property.

They failed.

The Delian League became an Athenian empire. Athens became a center of wealth, influence and culture. Pericles got credit for ushering in a golden age.

That may help explain why Aristarchus of Samos didn’t get in trouble for saying that Earth might go around our sun. He also figured Anxagoras was right about the stars: that they were distant suns.

Aristotle’s cosmology put Earth in the center. At the bottom, more accurately. Maybe his ideas were more intuitive. Heliocentic cosmologies popped up occasionally, like Seleucus of Seleucia’s model: which we know about mainly because Plutarch mentioned it.2

A millennium after Plutarch’s day, Aristotle was a metaphorical rock star for many European academics. Being impressed with Aristotle’s logic and analysis was okay. Saying that Earth was the only world because Aristotle said so, not so much.

Proposition 27/219 of the Condemnation of 1277 has been rescinded, but the principle still holds. God’s God, Aristotle’s not.

Four and a half centuries back, Copernicus delayed publication of his heliocentric hypothesis partly to avoid “babblers.” Can’t say that I blame him.

European politics boiled over a generation later. Natural philosophers started being called “scientists” after William Whewell coined the word in an 1834 book review, and I’m getting ahead of the story.3


Lucian wrote “A True Story” when the Five Good Emperors ruled Rome.

Lucian’s novel describes his voyage beyond the Pillars of Hercules. After visiting a wildly improbable island, a whirlwind takes him and his companions to Earth’s moon.

An interplanetary conflict is in progress: complete with gargantuan war-spiders.

Peace breaks out, Lucian does some sight-seeing, and returns to Earth. Then he’s swallowed by a 200 mile long whale. Fish-people in the whale attack Lucian’s party, and the adventure continues.

“A True Story” is a novel, space opera and/or satire. I think literary types who say it doesn’t quite fit current genres are right. In any case, it’s the earliest tale involving travel to Earth’s moon that I’ve run across.

The earliest Wu Gang stories we have come from Tang Dynasy, our ninth century. Interestingly, the moon in these stories is a place, not a deity. Wu Gang is endlessly cutting down a lunar tree or forest, which endlessly grows back.

“The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” is another tale where the moon is a place, not a person. It’s a 10th-century Japanese story based on folklore. I can see it as myth or science fiction of the ‘alien among us’ variety.

Ludovico Ariosto’s 1516-1532 “Orlando Furioso” has Orlando riding Elijah’s flaming chariot to the Moon: which in this story is an attic of sorts, where lost things go.

Kepler’s 1608 “Somnium” and Francis Godwin’s “The Man in the Moone,” written in the 1620s, have their heroes fly to the moon via daemons in “Somnium,” a bird-powered craft in “…Moone.” Seeing them as early science fiction makes sense.4

I’m not so sure about “Olrando….” Seeing the moon as a land of lost things strikes me as being more mythical than legendary. And that’s yet another topic.

Cool Heads and Flying Gas Pipes

A concerned citizen’s 1920 op-ed in The New York Times warned against encouraging crackpots, or perhaps charlatans, like Robert Goddard.

The warning came too late.

Goddard had already patented a multi-stage rocket in 1914: U.S. Patent 1,102,653.

Smithsonian grants helped him develop and fly the first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926. Some officials in America’s Weather Bureau thought that launching instruments into the upper atmosphere made sense.

But for the most part, cooler heads prevailed. Apart from the Smithsonian grants and limited wartime research, few tax dollars were wasted on Goddard’s “absurd” research.

Guggenheim sponsorships in the 1930s helped Goddard set up a test range in New Mexico.

A European war was boiling over in 1940, when Goddard and others tried telling the Army and Navy what rockets could do.

They were ignored. Except for two young officers, who convinced Navy brass that developing jet-assisted take-off (JATO) was a good idea.

Germany’s V-2 warheads began arriving in Paris and London in 1944.

British leaders sprang into action, informing citizens that England was experiencing a rash of gas pipe explosions.

That story lasted until Englishmen noticed mangled rocket parts near the craters. I’m not sure when the things stopped being called “flying gas pipes.” The war ended in 1945. The Allies won.

When the dust settled, American forces grabbed enough parts to build about 80 V-2 missiles. Along with German engineers who could put them together.

The Soviet Union ended up with V-2 production facilities, which they moved farther into their territory.5

“This is a Wild Supposition”

Life goes on, even during wars. August of 1944 was no exception. National and entertainment news that month included a Philadelphia transit strike and Bing Crosby’s rendition of “Swinging on a Star.”

Amateur and professional astronomers might have noticed this item:

“There are many experts who believe … that the day may not be far distant when we shall be exploring outer space in person — possibly 500 years from now, possibly in 1,000 years. Some think it may come even sooner than that, after the war perhaps, when men’s minds will turn once more to the peacetime utility of rockets and rocket ships. Perhaps, they say, before some now alive have died, rocket-liner trips to the moon may be a common daily performance. This is wild supposition, not scientific statement. But there are those who believe it.”
(Marian Lockwood, Sky and Telescope (August 1944))

Seven and a half decades later, rocket-liner trips to the moon aren’t routine. On the other hand, today’s question isn’t whether we can reach the moon. It’s when we should return.

Folks like Tsiolkovsky, Hohmann, Oberth and Goddard had been discussing rockets and space travel since the late 19th century.6

So how come Marian Lockwood called the idea “wild supposition?”

Dreamers and Scientists

“…ninety percent of science fiction is crud. That’s because ninety percent of everything is crud….”
(attr. Theodore Sturgeon, Venture Science Fiction (March 1958))

I think folks who deplore science fiction’s intellectual wasteland have a point. So do those who praise the genre as an inspiration for tomorrow’s best minds.

For every cover featuring a Noordung space station and “The Black Cloud,” there’s a mercifully-forgotten mass of potboilers and bobble-head Martians.7

That’s probably why Collier’s carefully explained that their “conquest of space” articles were “serious fact.”

“…What you will read here is not science fiction. It is serious fact. Moreover, it is an urgent warning that the U.S. must immediately embark on a long-range development program to secure for the West ‘space superiority.’ If we do not, somebody else will. That somebody else very probably would be the Soviet Union….”
(“What are we Waiting For?” Editors, Colliers (March 22, 1952) via rmastri.it)

Two thirds of a century later, terms like “conquest of space” and “space superiority” may seem quaint. At best.

Maybe, if America and the Soviet Union hadn’t seen public relations value in reaching the moon, someone would have followed the plan outlined in Collier’s. Eventually.

I still think it would have made more sense to build a semi-permanent low Earth orbit station first. Instead, American engineers designed and built the Saturn V.

And that’s yet again another topic, for another day.


I haven’t seen “space superiority” given as a reason to explore other worlds for some time.

These days, the Noah’s Ark scenario is more popular: giving humanity a chance for survival after a terrestrial catastrophe. Some folks say space exploration is good idea because it helps the economy. Or encourages technological innovation.

I figure they’ve got a point.

I’m also pretty sure we’ll keep exploring space because we’re human.

In a sense, the first step of our journey to Earth’s moon began when someone decided to see what’s over the next hill.

What’s changed in my lifetime is that “the next hills” are now on other worlds.

I don’t think exploring this universe will make us more — or less — likely to acknowledge God’s work and our nature.

But I don’t see a problem with looking at “the whole universe” from another angle.

“What are humans that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them?
“Yet you have made them little less than a god, crowned them with glory and honor.”
(Psalms 8:56)

“Terrible and awesome are you,
stronger than the ancient mountains.”
(Psalms 76:5)

“Yours are the heavens, yours the earth;
you founded the world and everything in it.”
(Psalms 89:12)

“Indeed, before you the whole universe is like a grain from a balance,
or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.”
(Wisdom 11:22)

More of my take on humanity’s current horizon:

1 Early steps:

2 Philosophers and politics:

3 Two millennia, briefly:

4 Folklore, myth and stories:

5 20th century, mostly:

6 1944 retrospective:

7 Science and fiction:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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2 Responses to “One Small Step” in a Long Journey

  1. irishbrigid says:

    Missing word? “Seeing the moon as a land of lost things strikes me as mythical than legendary.”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

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