Edgar Allan Poe: A Voyage to the Moon

A century before man landed on the Moon, Edgar Allan Poe envisioned himself traveling to the Moon with the mean of a balloon. In 1835, Poe published a short story detailing this cosmic escape, titled The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall.

Astronomy was far from what we know today. Milky Way was still thought to be the entire universe, the term ‘photography’ wasn’t even coined until 1839 by astronomer and polymath John Herschel, and only more than a century later that we discovered a solar system other than our own (1992 to be exact!).

In this same year when the Halley comet was confirmed by Herschel, Poe imagined a solo trip en-route to the Moon, running away from the civilizations, crossing to another planetary body that probably felt like crossing an entire universe.

Carrying a telescope, a barometer, a compass, a magnetic needle, a bell, a car with a cat secured inside, Hans Pfaal of Rotterdam began ascending to the sky during midnight:

Herein lay my secret, my invention, the thing in which my balloon differed from all the balloons that had gone before. Out of a peculiar metallic substance and a very common acid I was able to manufacture a gas of a density about 37.4 less than that of hydrogen, and thus by far the lightest substance ever known. It would serve to carry the balloon to heights greater than had been attained before, for hydrogen is the gas usually used.

The hour for my experiment in ballooning finally arrived. I had chosen the night as the best time for the ascension, because I should thereby avoid annoyances caused by the curiosity of the ignorant and the idle.

Just like Sun Ra, an Afro-futurist musician whose music was his ship to reimagine a new reality, the outer space is no longer distant and ancient but becomes a place to escape and wander.

It is now high time that I should explain the object of my voyage. I had been harassed for long by poverty and creditors. In this state of mind, wishing to live and yet wearied with life, my deep studies in astronomy opened a resource to my imagination. I determined to depart, yet live—to leave the world, yet continue to exist—in short, to be plain, I resolved, let come what would, to force a passage, if possible, to the moon.

The ISS orbits the Earth every 90 minutes and sees 16 sunsets and 16 sunrises every 24 hours. Our conception of time is greatly shaped by day and night that we forgot, once we are beyond the Earth, this earth-bound time construction no longer applies.

It was not, however, until long after this time that the rays of the setting sun ceased to illumine the balloon, and this fact, although, of course, expected, did not fail to give me great pleasure. In the morning I should behold the rising luminary many hours before the citizens of Rotterdam, in spite of their situation so much farther to the eastward, and thus, day after day, in proportion to the height ascended, I should enjoy the light of the sun for a longer and longer period. I now resolved to keep a journal of my passage, reckoning the days by twenty-four hours instead of by day and night.

For centuries, we look above to the heavens to understand the universe, interpreting the orchestra of clouds and stars as a godly world. Approaching the century of space travels that dramatically reset our perspective in the universe, Poe, one of the first space travel writers, invited us to look below from the heavens:

I found the balloon at an immense height indeed, and the earth’s roundness had now become strikingly manifest. Below me in the ocean lay a cluster of black specks, which undoubtedly were islands. Overhead, the sky was of a jetty black, and the stars were brilliantly visible; indeed they had been so constantly since the first day of ascent.

NASA’s Apollo 11, done 50 years ago, took 3 days to arrive to the Moon.

April 17th. This morning proved an epoch in my voyage. It will be remembered that on the thirteenth the earth had diminished; on the fourteenth, it had still further dwindled; on the fifteenth, a still more rapid decrease was observable; and on retiring for the night of the sixteenth, the earth had shrunk to small size. What, therefore, must have been my amazement, on awakening from a brief and disturbed slumber on the morning of this day, the seventeenth, at finding the surface beneath me so suddenly and wonderfully increased in volume as to seem but a comparatively short distance beneath me!

Once NASA approached the Moon, they were pulled by Moon’s gravity force, orbiting the Moon for few hours, then jetted off to landing:

I had indeed arrived at the point where the attraction of the moon had proved stronger than the attraction of the earth, and so the moon now appeared to be below me and I was descending upon it.

Finally, the luminous, golden Moon under his feet:

As a last resource, therefore, having got rid of my coat, hat, and boots, I cut loose from the balloon the car itself, which was of no inconsiderable weight, and thus clinging with both hands to the network, I had barely time to observe that the whole country, as far as the eye could reach, was thickly sown with small habitations, ere I tumbled headlong into the very heart of a fantastic city and into the middle of a vast crowd of ugly little people. I turned from them, and gazing upward at the earth so lately left, and left perhaps forever, beheld it like a huge, dull copper shield, fixed immovably in the heavens overhead and tipped on one of its edges with a crescent border of the most brilliant gold.


P.S. I write children’s story for adults about the moon. See it here. Or email me to purchase

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