Round the Moon.
Preliminary Chapter. Containing a Short Account of the First Part of This Work to Serve as Preface to the Second.
 

During the course of the year 186---- the entire world was singularly excited by a scientific experiment without precedent in the annals of science. The members of the Gun Club, a circle of artillerymen established at Baltimore after the American war, had the idea of putting themselves in communication with the moon--yes, with the moon--by sending a bullet to her. Their president, Barbicane, the promoter of the enterprise, having consulted the astronomers of the Cambridge Observatory on this subject, took all the precautions necessary for the success of the extraordinary enterprise, declared practicable by the majority of competent people. After having solicited a public subscription which produced nearly 30,000,000 of francs, it began its gigantic labours.

According to the plan drawn up by the members of the observatory, the cannon destined to hurl the projectile was to be set up in some country situated between the 0 deg. and 28 deg. of north or south latitude in order to aim at the moon at the zenith. The bullet was to be endowed with an initial velocity of 12,000 yards a second. Hurled on the 1st of December at thirteen minutes and twenty seconds to eleven in the evening, it was to get to the moon four days after its departure on the 5th of December at midnight precisely, at the very instant she would be at her perigee--that is to say, nearest to the earth, or at exactly 86,410 leagues' distance.

The principal members of the Gun Club, the president, Barbicane, Major Elphinstone, the secretary, J.T. Maston, and other savants, held several meetings, in which the form and composition of the bullet were discussed, as well as the disposition and nature of the cannon, and the quality and quantity of the powder to be employed. It was decided--1, that the projectile should be an obus of aluminium, with a diameter of 800 inches; its sides were to be 12 inches thick, and it was to weigh 19,250 lbs.; 2, that the cannon should be a cast-iron Columbiad 900 feet long, and should be cast at once in the ground; 3, that the charge should consist of 400,000 lbs. of gun-cotton, which, by developing 6,000,000,000 litres of gas under the projectile, would carry it easily towards the Queen of Night.

These questions settled, President Barbicane, aided by the engineer, Murchison, chose a site in Florida in 27 deg. 7' north lat. and 5 deg. 7' west long. It was there that after marvels of labour the Columbiad was cast quite successfully.

Things were at that pass when an incident occurred which Increased the interest attached to this great enterprise.

A Frenchman, a regular Parisian, an artist as witty as audacious, asked leave to shut himself up in the bullet in order to reach the moon and make a survey of the terrestrial satellite. This intrepid adventurer's name was Michel Ardan. He arrived in America, was received with enthusiasm, held meetings, was carried in triumph, reconciled President Barbicane to his mortal enemy, Captain Nicholl, and in pledge of the reconciliation he persuaded them to embark with him in the projectile.

The proposition was accepted. The form of the bullet was changed. It became cylindro-conical. They furnished this species of aerial compartment with powerful springs and breakable partitions to break the departing shock. It was filled with provisions for one year, water for some months, and gas for some days. An automatic apparatus made and gave out the air necessary for the respiration of the three travellers. At the same time the Gun Club had a gigantic telescope set up on one of the highest summits of the Rocky Mountains, through which the projectile could be followed during its journey through space. Everything was then ready.

On the 30th of November, at the time fixed, amidst an extraordinary concourse of spectators, the departure took place, and for the first time three human beings left the terrestrial globe for the interplanetary regions with almost the certainty of reaching their goal.

These audacious travellers, Michel Ardan, President Barbicane, and Captain Nicholl were to accomplish their journey in ninety-seven hours thirteen minutes and twenty seconds; consequently they could not reach the lunar disc until the 5th of December, at midnight, at the precise moment that the moon would be full, and not on the 4th, as some wrongly-informed newspapers had given out.

But an unexpected circumstance occurred; the detonation produced by the Columbiad had the immediate effect of disturbing the terrestrial atmosphere, where an enormous quantity of vapour accumulated. This phenomenon excited general indignation, for the moon was hidden during several nights from the eyes of her contemplators.

The worthy J.T. Maston, the greatest friend of the three travellers, set out for the Rocky Mountains in the company of the Honourable J. Belfast, director of the Cambridge Observatory, and reached the station of Long's Peak, where the telescope was set up which brought the moon, apparently, to within two leagues. The honourable secretary of the Gun Club wished to observe for himself the vehicle that contained his audacious friends.

The accumulation of clouds in the atmosphere prevented all observation during the 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th of December. It was even thought that no observation could take place before the 3rd of January in the following year, for the moon, entering her last quarter on the 11th, would after that not show enough of her surface to allow the trace of the projectile to be followed.

But at last, to the general satisfaction, a strong tempest during the night between the 11th and 12th of December cleared the atmosphere, and the half-moon was distinctly visible on the dark background of the sky.

That same night a telegram was sent from Long's Peak Station by J.T. Maston and Belfast to the staff of the Cambridge Observatory.

This telegram announced that on the 11th of December, at 8.47 p.m., the projectile hurled by the Columbiad of Stony Hill had been perceived by Messrs. Belfast and J.T. Maston, that the bullet had deviated from its course through some unknown cause, and had not reached its goal, but had gone near enough to be retained by lunar attraction; that its rectilinear movement had been changed to a circular one, and that it was describing an elliptical orbit round the moon, and had become her satellite.

The telegram added that the elements of this new star had not yet been calculated--in fact, three observations, taking a star in three different positions, are necessary to determine them. Then it stated that the distance separating the projectile from the lunar surface "might be" estimated at about 2,833 leagues, or 4,500 miles.

It ended with the following double hypothesis:--Either the attraction of the moon would end by carrying the day, and the travellers would reach their goal; or the projectile, fixed in an immutable orbit, would gravitate around the lunar disc to the end of time.

In either of these alternatives what would be the travellers' fate? It is true they had provisions enough for some time. But even supposing that their bold enterprise were crowned with success, how would they return? Could they ever return? Would news of them ever reach the earth? These questions, debated upon by the most learned writers of the time, intensely interested the public.

A remark may here be made which ought to be meditated upon by too impatient observers. When a savant announces a purely speculative discovery to the public he cannot act with too much prudence. No one is obliged to discover either a comet or a satellite, and those who make a mistake in such a case expose themselves justly to public ridicule. Therefore it is better to wait; and that is what impatient J.T. Maston ought to have done before sending to the world the telegram which, according to him, contained the last communication about this enterprise.

In fact, the telegram contained errors of two sorts, verified later:--1. Errors of observation concerning the distance of the projectile from the surface of the moon, for upon the date of the 11th of December it was impossible to perceive it, and that which J.T. Maston had seen, or thought he saw, could not be the bullet from the Columbiad. 2. A theoretic error as to the fate of the said projectile, for making it a satellite of the moon was an absolute contradiction of the laws of rational mechanics.

One hypothesis only made by the astronomers of Long's Peak might be realised, the one that foresaw the case when the travellers--if any yet existed--should unite their efforts with the lunar attraction so as to reach the surface of the disc.

Now these men, as intelligent as they were bold, had survived the terrible shock at departure, and their journey in their bullet-carriage will be related in its most dramatic as well as in its most singular details. This account will put an end to many illusions and previsions, but it will give a just idea of the various circumstances incidental to such an enterprise, and will set in relief Barbicane's scientific instincts, Nicholl's industrial resources, and the humorous audacity of Michel Ardan.

Besides, it will prove that their worthy friend J.T. Maston was losing his time when, bending over the gigantic telescope, he watched the course of the moon across the planetary regions.