Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Space Mountain and Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon

When building Disneyland Paris, Imagineers were careful to highlight the connections between Disney's product and French culture, perhaps to assuage the fears of France's cultural gatekeepers. Main Street USA dedicates a gallery to France's gift of the Statue of Liberty to the United States, Fantasyland has a statue of Cinderella dedicated to Charles Perrault, and of course, Discoveryland was originally focused to large degrees on the work of France's father of Science Fiction, Jules Verne. The Nautilus sat partially submerged in the lagoon, welcoming guests to tour its holds and cabins. Le Visionarium used Circlevision technology to bring us along on a time travelling adventure with the great author. And in 1995, Space Mountain: De la Terre à la Lune took us around the moon, under inspiration from Verne's 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon and Georges Méliès' 1902 silent film A Trip to the Moon.

From the start of the 20th century, Jules Verne has achieved posthumous adoration as an eerily accurate prophet of future technologies and events. Seemingly from nowhere he has plucked ideas a century or more ahead of their time, as though he himself had some invention for picking up satellite transmissions from the modern day. From the middle of the Victorian Era he foresaw moving pictures, telegraphs, submarines, heavier-than-air travel and rocket capsules. From the Earth to the Moon is one of the main pieces of evidence cited for Verne's talent for prognostication. Among the things that Verne is credited with prophesying are a moon launch being made from a site in Florida, with a capsule made primarily of aluminum,  which would return to Earth by crashing into the Pacific Ocean, from which it would be recovered by a US Navy ship... A series of circumstances that came true in 1969, just over 100 years later. It was so precise that Verne's canon was named "Columbiad" and NASA's Lunar Command Module was named "Columbia"!   

This astonishing fact gives us a great opportunity to dissect exactly how Verne did it. Firstly, of any place in the world, why Florida? In the translated words of Verne,
the gun must be fired perpendicularly to the plane of the horizon, that is to say, toward the zenith. Now the moon does not traverse the zenith, except in places situated between 0° and 28° of latitude. It became, then, necessary to determine exactly that spot on the globe where the immense Columbiad should be cast.
The party engaging in this activity were Americans, which is not surprising. It would have to be a nation technologically and economically advanced enough to stage the effort. So that means looking for anywhere on American soil between 0° and 28°. Once more deferring to the novel,
The 28th parallel, on reaching the American coast, traverses the peninsula of Florida, dividing it into two nearly equal portions. Then, plunging into the Gulf of Mexico, it subtends the arc formed by the coast of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana; then skirting Texas, off which it cuts an angle, it continues its course over Mexico, crosses the Sonora, Old California, and loses itself in the Pacific Ocean. It was, therefore, only those portions of Texas and Florida which were situated below this parallel which came within the prescribed conditions of latitude. 
Florida, in its southern part, reckons no cities of importance; it is simply studded with forts raised against the roving Indians. One solitary town, Tampa Town, was able to put in a claim in favor of its situation. 
In Texas, on the contrary, the towns are much more numerous and important... 
Impey Barbicane, president of the Baltimore Gun Club and entrepreneur behind this lunar excursion, chose Florida because it was less inhabited. Well, the American government chose Florida for nearly the same reason. According to space historian Roger Launius, in an interview with Scientific American:
Florida was chosen for several major reasons. One was, it's close to the equator. [The linear velocity of Earth's surface is greatest at the equator, much as a ceiling fan blade slices through the air faster at its tip than at its center hub, conferring a fuel-saving boost to spacecraft attempting to escape Earth's gravity.—Editor's Note] 
The second reason was it had to be on the east coast, over the ocean, so you wouldn't fly over people that might get killed as stuff dropped off or blew up. 
And the location that they chose in Florida had a lot to do with the fact that there wasn't anything there. You go there today and you don't see it, but Brevard County in the 1940s was a bunch of orchards and hardly anything else. And this island that they're on [Merritt Island] had good logistics, because there was a navy base and an army base not too far away. But there was no population density whatsoever. It was just a beach, essentially.
Verne's only magical act of prognostication so far as the location went was choosing the United States. After correctly guessing that the Americans were powerful enough, smart enough, rich enough and ambitious enough to pull it off first, working out the rest was simple calculation. Florida is the only place it could have been.

What of the dimensions and materials of the craft? Not only is the Baltimore Gun Club's capsule roughly the same size as the Apollo Command/Service Module, but both were built primarily out of aluminum. This is not so mysterious either, when one crunches the numbers.
The problem, therefore, is this— What thickness ought a cast-iron shell to have in order not to weight more than 20,000 pounds? Our clever secretary will soon enlighten us upon this point." 
"Nothing easier." replied the worthy secretary of the committee; and, rapidly tracing a few algebraical formulae upon paper, among which n^2 and x^2 frequently appeared, he presently said: 
"The sides will require a thickness of less than two inches." 
"Will that be enough?" asked the major doubtfully. 
"Clearly not!" replied the president. 
"What is to be done, then?" said Elphinstone, with a puzzled air. 
"Employ another metal instead of iron." 
"Copper?" said Morgan. 
"No! that would be too heavy. I have better than that to offer." 
"What then?" asked the major. 
"Aluminum!" replied Barbicane. 
"Aluminum?" cried his three colleagues in chorus. 
"Unquestionably, my friends. This valuable metal possesses the whiteness of silver, the indestructibility of gold, the tenacity of iron, the fusibility of copper, the lightness of glass. It is easily wrought, is very widely distributed, forming the base of most of the rocks, is three times lighter than iron, and seems to have been created for the express purpose of furnishing us with the material for our projectile."
Sounds like a good metal to use in building airplanes or perhaps even lunar modules. Crunching further numbers arrives at ideal size for a projectile intended to carry two or three people out of the Earth's sphere of influence and around the moon. Again there is nothing here so mysterious as the patience to do the maths.

Nevertheless, upon returning to Earth, the great projectile crashed into the sea and was rescued by a US Naval vessel. Considering that the oceans cover about 70% of the planet's surface and that the American Navy would be the ones out looking for an American spacecraft, this similarity should not be too surprising either. Jules Verne was a brilliant thinker, but it is worthwhile to give him the credit he is truly due. He was not a magician or a time traveler. He was a man with encyclopedic knowledge of science, nature and history, blessed with an ability to extrapolate what was being done into what could be done. The strength of his Science Fiction came not so much from a fevered imagination creating fantasies whole cloth, but from their solid grounding in the world around us.

That solid grounding has as much to do with society as with the phenomena of the natural world. Despite all those calculations Verne put towards the reader of From the Earth to the Moon, his novel is primarily a social satire on American industry. Verne's gimlet genius pierced not only into the future of technology, but also into how technology affects and is affected by society.

The story begins with the elder statesmen of the Baltimore Gun Club bemoaning the lack of a good war to test their skills against. That these noble inventors are each missing a wide and creative variety of limbs troubles them none... The physical cost of their trade is a pittance compared to the exhilaration of blowing other men to smithereens:
"This is horrible!" said Tom Hunter one evening, while rapidly carbonizing his wooden legs in the fireplace of the smoking-room; "nothing to do! nothing to look forward to! what a loathsome existence!  When again shall the guns arouse us in the morning with their delightful reports?" 
"Those days are gone by," said jolly Bilsby, trying to extend his missing arms.  "It was delightful once upon a time! One invented a gun, and hardly was it cast, when one hastened to try it in the face of the enemy!  Then one returned to camp with a word of encouragement from Sherman or a friendly shake of the hand from McClellan.  But now the generals are gone back to their counters; and in place of projectiles, they despatch bales of cotton.  By Jove, the future of gunnery in America is lost!" 
"Ay! and no war in prospect!" continued the famous James T. Maston, scratching with his steel hook his gutta-percha cranium. "Not a cloud on the horizon! and that too at such a critical period in the progress of the science of artillery!  Yes, gentlemen! I who address you have myself this very morning perfected a model (plan, section, elevation, etc.) of a mortar destined to change all the conditions of warfare!" 
"No! is it possible?" replied Tom Hunter, his thoughts reverting involuntarily to a former invention of the Hon. J. T. Maston, by which, at its first trial, he had succeeded in killing three hundred and thirty-seven people. 
"Fact!" replied he.  "Still, what is the use of so many studies worked out, so many difficulties vanquished?  It's mere waste of time!  The New World seems to have made up its mind to live in peace; and our bellicose Tribune predicts some approaching catastrophes arising out of this scandalous increase of population."
Devoid of purpose, the honorable members of the Gun Club devise a grand project for themselves: shooting the moon!

That it would become a passenger flight was not part of the original plan. Club president Impey Barbicane's idea was simply to build the biggest projectile weapon the world had ever seen. A starry-eyed and impractical Francophone, Michel Ardan by name, changed that with an imperious command that the canon's shot be changed into a conical shell to carry him, his dogs, an ark-load of livestock, and an array of unnecessary trinkets and knick-knacks. Such impropriety could only be met with the acclaim of an obliging public, who hung on every piece of news and rioted at every speech in the manner of an unbowed mob... From the Earth to the Moon is Jules Verne's comedic channeling of Alexis de Tocqueville.
It is impossible to describe the effect produced by the last words of the honorable president [Barbicane]-- the cries, the shouts, the succession of roars, hurrahs, and all the varied vociferations which the American language is capable of supplying. It was a scene of indescribable confusion and uproar. They shouted, they clapped, they stamped on the floor of the hall. All the weapons in the museum discharged at once could not have more violently set in motion the waves of sound. One need not be surprised at this. There are some cannoneers nearly as noisy as their own guns. 
Barbicane remained calm in the midst of this enthusiastic clamor; perhaps he was desirous of addressing a few more words to his colleagues, for by his gestures he demanded silence, and his powerful alarum was worn out by its violent reports. No attention, however, was paid to his request. He was presently torn from his seat and passed from the hands of his faithful colleagues into the arms of a no less excited crowd.
Nothing can astound an American. It has often been asserted that the word "impossible" in not a French one. People have evidently been deceived by the dictionary. In America, all is easy, all is simple; and as for mechanical difficulties, they are overcome before they arise. Between Barbicane's proposition and its realization no true Yankee would have allowed even the semblance of a difficulty to be possible. A thing with them is no sooner said than done. 
The triumphal progress of the president continued throughout the evening. It was a regular torchlight procession. Irish, Germans, French, Scotch, all the heterogeneous units which make up the population of Maryland shouted in their respective vernaculars; and the "vivas," "hurrahs," and "bravos" were intermingled in inexpressible enthusiasm.
Just at this crisis, as though she comprehended all this agitation regarding herself, the moon shone forth with serene splendor, eclipsing by her intense illumination all the surrounding lights. The Yankees all turned their gaze toward her resplendent orb, kissed their hands, called her by all kinds of endearing names. Between eight o'clock and midnight one optician in Jones'-Fall Street made his fortune by the sale of opera-glasses. 
From that day forward Impey Barbicane became one of the greatest citizens of the United States, a kind of Washington of science. A single trait of feeling, taken from many others, will serve to show the point which this homage of a whole people to a single individual attained. 
Some few days after this memorable meeting of the Gun Club, the manager of an English company announced, at the Baltimore theatre, the production of "Much ado about Nothing." But the populace, seeing in that title an allusion damaging to Barbicane's project, broke into the auditorium, smashed the benches, and compelled the unlucky director to alter his playbill. Being a sensible man, he bowed to the public will and replaced the offending comedy by "As you like it"; and for many weeks he realized fabulous profits.
Such amusing and light fare, spread across a brief number of pages and moving along at a rapid clip, makes for one of Verne's most readable works. It ends on a bit of a mystery though: since the point was to shoot the moon, From the Earth to the Moon ends after the great Columbiad gun fires its payload. The fate of Barbicane and Ardan would not be revealed until five years later with Round the Moon.

Verne was very serious about his science even as he was very sarcastic about his characters. The rich, romantic imagery of a gilded canon lobbing a projectile into the eye of the Man in the Moon fell to another Frenchman: the filmmaker Georges Méliès. This early pioneer of special effects cinema was renowned for short trick films and fairy tale or historical pieces when he released A Trip to the Moon in 1902. For it, he drew influences from Verne's From the Earth to the Moon, as well as H.G. Wells' The First Men in the Moon, and Jacques Offenbach's operetta Voyage to the Moon, all wrapped up in a stunning fairy tale aesthetic.

Méliès regularly conflates the Victorian astronomer with the Mediaeval astrologer, opening his film with the learned men of celestial bodies meeting under high Gothic arches, adorned in wizard cloaks and pointed hats. When they decided to embark to the moon, they doff their outer clothes for smart, modern suits. Paris becomes a landscape of industrial smoke and giant gears as they watch the canon and capsule being cast, then it is off to the moon, under the surface of which lies a glittering, fantastical kingdom. In the end, they improbably escape by pushing their capsule off the moon's edge, recalling Pre-Columbian conceptions of a flat earth.

Such an inspiration brings great credibility to Space Mountain: From the Earth to the Moon being only a stone's throw from Le Château de la Belle au bois dormant. Disney's stunning realization of the Columbiad launched guests into the romantic space of Méliès, inspired by Verne. Careening past asteroids being mined by Barbicane's Blue Moon Mining Company, they draw near to the leering moon before crashing back to earth and the Metro-like station platform. The original attraction added delightful character and cultural resonance to the basic plan of Space Mountain inherited from the Sixties and Seventies.

Sadly, Discoveryland has also had to respond to market forces. Le Visionarium was replaced by Buzz Lightyear and in 2005, Space Mountain: From the Earth to the Moon was gutted and replaced with Space Mountain: Mission 2. The lovely copper plated exterior and Columbiad canon remain, but inside it has become essentially the same as any other Space Mountain anywhere else. It is a misfortune, But hope springs eternal: In one more week, Space Mountain is set to reopen after an extensive, six-month refurbishment that many (myself included) anticipate will restore at least some of the key elements of the ride's original story.

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