Fly Me to the Moon: Blast Off with the Merril Collection Exhibit

June 26, 2019 | Isabel

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Fifty years ago, on July 20, 1969, two American astronauts became the first humans to set foot on the moon. Fly there now with the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy

Fly Me to the Moon is the current exhibit at the Merril Collection. It celebrates the 50th anniversary of the moon landing and more. Through books, art, photographs and some very cool objects, this exhibit explores our enduring fascination with space flight and the moon. Come see examples of early science fiction, stories from the Space Race and future possibilities. The Merril Collection is located on the third floor of Lillian H. Smith Branch.  

Early Adventures

There are many times and places our adventure could start, but the 16th century was an especially heady time for space travel. In the early 1500s, legendary Chinese bureaucrat Wan Hu was the first to attempt rocket-powered flight. Attaching rockets to his chair, he directed his assistants to light them simultaneously. This early astronaut disappeared in a cloud of noise and smoke and was never seen again.

Wan Hu takes off
Wan Hu takes off! Illustration courtesy of United States Civil Air Patrol. Public domain image, via Wikimedia Commons.

Meanwhile, in Europe, new astronomical theories were on the horizon. Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) published his theory of heliocentrism just before his death. At this time, contemporary science placed the Earth at the centre of the universe. Heliocentrism was the revolutionary idea that the Earth and the planets revolved around the Sun.

Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546–1601) later developed a different theory. He correctly identified that the moon revolved around the Earth and the planets revolved around the sun. But, he still thought that the sun and its attendant planets revolved around the Earth.

Brahe’s assistant, Johannes Kepler (1571–1630), became a famous astronomer in his own right. He supported the earlier theory of Copernicus, with a sun-centered universe. Kepler also wrote one of the journey-to-the-moon stories that was published around this time. Part scientific treatise and part fiction, these stories are seen as the first works of science fiction.

Page 132 from Johannes Kepler's Astronomia Nova showing diagrams of the three models of planetary motion prior to Kepler.
Page 132 from Johannes Kepler's Astronomia Nova showing diagrams of the three models of planetary motion prior to Kepler. (From top to bottom: Copernicus, Ptolemy and Tycho Brahe.)

Kepler’s Somnium, or "Dream," is a story within a story. In it, Kepler dreams of a boy and his mother who travel to the moon with the help of daemons (supernatural beings). The tale illustrates Kepler’s astronomical theories about the structure of the solar system. 

Drawing on the work of contemporaries like Kepler, the English bishop Francis Godwin (1562–1633) also wrote a moon voyage story. In The Man in the Moone, wild swans bear Domingo Gonsales aloft to the moon. Once there, he surprisingly encounters a utopian society of Christian “Lunars.”

Frontispiece and title page of the second edition of Francis Godwin's "The Man in the Moone."
Frontispiece and title page of the second edition of Francis Godwin's "The Man in the Moone."

Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac (1619–1655) was a French writer and duellist. He is best known as the subject of the 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, which is partly based on his life. (This later became a movie with Gérard Depardieu!) Cyrano wrote a number of humorous stories, one of which chronicles his fictional journey to the moon. He tries a few methods – including covering himself in bottles of dew and launching a flying machine off a cliff. Ultimately, soldiers attach fireworks to one of his contraptions and in a strange accident he finally lands on the moon. He meets the moon's inhabitants and also Domingo Gonsales, Francis Godwin’s protagonist.

Pulp illustration of Cyrano de Bergerac’s rocket-powered moon craft.
Pulp illustration of Cyrano de Bergerac’s rocket-powered moon craft from “Satellite Science Fiction” #4, March 1959. Illustrator unknown.

19th and Early 20th Centuries

Advancements in science and technology in the nineteenth century made stories about space travel and voyages to the moon seem possible. Tales from this time include Jules Verne’s 1865 novel, De la Terre á la Lune (From the Earth to the Moon), and The First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells (serialized in 1900–1901). These early explorers often encountered civilizations of lunar inhabitants on their voyages. 

Title page of "From the Earth to the Moon" by Jules Verne
Title page of Jules Verne's “De la Terre á la Lune,” likely published in 1868.

In 1902, French director Georges Méliès released his adventure film “Le Voyage dans la Lune” (A Trip to the Moon). Partly inspired by the writings of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, Méliès’ film depicts the adventures of a group of astronauts. They launch their space capsule out of a cannon and crash right into the eye of the Man in the Moon. Exploring the moon’s surface, they are captured by insect-like “Selenites” and have to flee. 

Mid-20th Century and the Space Race

By the 1920s, spaceflight was viewed as an increasing possibility. In the mid-1920s, American physicist and engineer Robert Goddard theorized that a multi-stage rocket would be necessary to escape the Earth’s gravity. The 1940s saw the development of weaponized rockets used by Germany against the Allied forces. After World War 2, the German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and others were recruited by the United States to develop spacecraft in earnest. Novelists of the time saw their fiction becoming fact. They also used the scientific advances and political rivalries in the world as fodder for their stories. 

The post World War 2 era was dominated by the “Cold War” between the United States and the Soviet Union. The competition to dominate outer space was a key element in the rivalry between those two superpowers. The Soviet Union gained the initial upper hand with the launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957. 

Mike Mars at Cape Canaveral

After Sputnik, the race was on to get a man into space. NASA’s Project Mercury was the program that would achieve this for the United States. In 1961, Donald A. Wollheim published a story about the first manned mission to space. At the time of writing (likely 1958–1960), there was still the possibility that the first man in space might be American. Mike Mars at Cape Canaveral features a thinly disguised Project Mercury. The spacecraft shown on the book's cover appears to be the capsule end of a Mercury rocket.

Meanwhile, in reality, the Soviet Union kept winning the Space Race. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space (and the first to orbit the Earth) in the Vostok 1 spacecraft on April 12, 1961. He was followed by American Alan Shepard a few weeks later on May 5. Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov performed the first “space walk” in 1965. The only thing left for the Americans was the moon. 

Commemorative medal of Yuri Gagarin from the Soviet Union - Front
Front of a commemorative medal struck in honour of Yuri Gagarin’s space flight in Vostok 1. Date is inscribed on the bottom left: April 12, 1961. Given to the Merril Collection by John Robert Colombo.
Commemorative medal of Yuri Gagarin from the Soviet Union - Back
Back of the commemorative medal. Text translates: "In honor of the first | in the world | human | flight into space." “Union of Soviet Socialist Republic” is inscribed around the edge.

The cover of Jeff Sutton’s novel Beyond Apollo features the now familiar passenger capsule and lunar lander used in the Apollo program. By 1966, NASA’s Apollo program was in full swing, so details of the design of the passenger capsule and lunar lander were well known. The Apollo 1 mission was launched just a year after this book was published, in January 1967. Sadly, unlike the mission in Sutton’s book, Apollo 1 ended in catastrophe. A fire started in the cockpit during a launch rehearsal test, killing all three astronauts: Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee. 

Beyond Apollo by Jeff Sutton

Donald A. Wollheim published another Mike Mars book in 1964: Mike Mars around the Moon. In this novel, the titular character and his crew are preparing for the first mission to orbit the moon. However, the Soviet space program will stop at nothing, including sabotage, to ensure that the American mission fails. Four years after this book was published, Apollo 8 successfully circled the moon, becoming the first manned mission to do so.

Moon Landing

Finally, after hundreds of years of imagination, humankind set foot on the moon in 1969. Photographs and newspaper clippings highlight the excitement that seized the world.

Buzz Aldrin on the moon
July 20, 1969: Astronaut Edwin E. (Buzz) Aldrin Jr. walks on the surface of the moon. Image courtesy of NASA.

For more insight into the moon landing, check out Matt Fitch and Chris Baker's graphic novel, Apollo

Living, Working and Playing on the Moon

Moonbase cabinet

After getting there, living on the moon has also been a major theme in science fiction. Early stories dealt with creatures already there when humans arrived. But there’s also a thriving branch of imagination about how humans would live on the moon.

Check out our paper moon base buildings, courtesy of the 1970s. Or there are more detailed models.

Andy Weir, author of The Martian, designed a detailed lunar base for his second novel, Artemis. Maps and diagrams enhance this caper about a con artist on the moon. 


All formats

The question of how human society will evolve on the moon is also fascinating. In Robert A. Heinlein’s classic novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, the moon serves as a penal colony to house the criminals of Earth. Eventually, the population rises up to rebel against Earth’s rule and fight for the right of self-determination. 

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

All formats

Ian McDonald’s Luna series imagines a dystopia of ruling corporations. Colonists buy everything from the corporations, including food, water and air. These massive groups are feuding among themselves, however, and each will do anything to survive. 

New Moon (Luna book 1)

New Moon (Luna book 1)

Luna series – all formats 

John Kessel takes a different tack. In The Moon and the Other, each moon colony is based on a social experiment. This novel focuses on a matriarchal colony known as the Society of Cousins. Violence is rare in the Society, but unrest and outside forces conspire to destroy the peaceful colony. 

The Moon and the Other

All formats

Fly Me to the Moon will run from June to September 2019 in the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy on the third floor of Lillian H. Smith Branch.


This exhibit is curated by Kim Hull. Many thanks to Kim for her in-depth research and excellent case notes!

Green Man - Frank Kelly Freas