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A flock of swans strapped to a wooden harness, with a smiling, lace-ruffed gallant dangling below: this is spaceflight, circa 1638. More than three hundred years before Apollo 11, the popular pamphlet The Man in the Moone: or A Discourse of a Voyage Thither offered a first-hand account of a lunar landing.

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Written anonymously by a bishop of the Church of England, it was presented as a fantasy. Nonetheless, it was inspired by the latest scientific developments. The swan harness, for instance, was drawn from a contemporary theory about migration, viz. Where do the birds all disappear to in the winter? Well, they fly off to the Moon.

In the story, explorer Domingo Gonsales passes through a swarm of demons and finds himself above the clouds. Like an astronaut witnessing the “blue marble,” he sees Earth from the outside.

“[I]t seemed to me no other than a huge mathematical Globe turned round leisurely before me, wherein successively all the Countries of our earthly World were within twenty-four Hours represented to my View,” he observes.

No one, at this time, had ever been in an airplane; no one had seen the Earth’s topography from high above. A map was the only possible reference point.

Landing on the lunar surface, Gonsales falls in with a society of long-lived, peaceable giants. Beautiful and wise, they attire themselves in garments of “moon-color,” a hue that doesn’t exist on Earth, and travel from place to place simply by flicking feather fans.

“You must understand,” our voyager recounts,

the Globe of the Moon has likewise an attractive Power, yet so much weaker than the Earth, that if a Man do but spring upward with all his Strength… he will be able to mount fifty or sixty Foot high… being then above all Attraction from the Moon’s Earth, he falls down no more, but by the help of these Fans, as with Wings, they convey themselves in the Air.

These giants, it emerges, have a policy for keeping their utopian society peaceful: they exile any ill-behaved youngsters to the Earth.

Frontispiece of the 1659 edition of Der Fliegende Wandersmann nach dem Mond, a German translation of Bishop Godwin's The Man in the Moone
Frontispiece of the 1659 edition of Der Fliegende Wandersmann nach dem Mond, a German translation of Bishop Godwin’s The Man in the Moone via Wikimedia Commons

Gonsales noted another interesting characteristic of the Moon-giants: they kneeled instinctively at the name of Jesus Christ. In the 1600s, the existence of aliens wasn’t only—or even primarily—a scientific question. It was a religious one.

When Galileo’s early observations of the lunar surface were made public, they kick-started a wave of moon-mania across Europe. A generation of astronomers followed in his footsteps, embroidering over his rough topography; gazing at the cracks and dark patches of the Moon’s face, the reputedly “lynx-eyed” Johannes Hevelius filled them in with a world of marshes, seas, rivers, and islands.

“Our description of the [M]oon is so particular,” writes Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle, circa 1686, “that if a learned man was to take a journey there, he would be in no more danger of losing himself than I should in Paris.”

If the Moon had a topography like Earth, people thought, it might very well be inhabited. And, as historian David Cressy writes in “Early Modern Space Travel and the English Man in the Moon,” that raised a number of dangerous questions.

Had God in his plenitude created one world or many? Was humankind the unique focus of divine attention, or were there creatures on other planets enjoying God’s love and suffering his anger? If there were inhabitants on other worlds, were they, like us, the seed of Adam and participants in original sin, and did they benefit from Christ’s atonement and enjoy the prospect of eternal life? Or did Christ die only for us, leaving any other creatures to a kind of limbo or perdition?

In 1638, John Wilkins published The Discovery of a World in the Moone: Or, A Discourse Tending To Prove That ‘Tis Probable There May Be Another Habitable World In That Planet, in which he argued that “a plurality of worlds doth not contradict any principle of reason or faith.” On the specifics, though, he remained circumspect, writing that “whether they [the lunar inhabitants] are the seed of Adam, whether they are there in a blessed estate, or else what meanes there may be for their salvation… I shall willingly omit.”

This caution was not enough to protect him from critique. As Cressy describes, Alexander Ross, a minister of the Church of England, had plenty to say. In his retaliatory pamphlet, The New Planet No Planet; or, The Earth No Wandring Star: Except in the Wandring Heads of Galileans, he argues that Wilkins had “found out that which God never made, to wit, a rolling earth, a standing heaven, and a world in the [M]oon; which indeed are not the works of God, but of your own head.”

Cressy notes that for others, the discovery of outer planets called for a total rethinking of the theological scheme. For instance, in 1638, following the discovery of the rings of Saturn, the Reverend James Usher voiced his melancholy speculations in a private letter, writing

I only say, as upon the discovery of some sumptuous, richly hung house, and all shining with lights and torches, surely that house was not so made and furnished for rats and mice to dwell in… So might the spider, nested in the roof of the Grand Seignior’s Seraglio, say of herself, all that magnificent and stately structure, set out with gold and silver, and embellished with all antiquity and mosaic work, was only built for her to hang up her webs and toil to take flies.

Then there was another important question: if there were aliens, who would get the chance to proselytize first? Would the Catholics beat the Protestants in the evangelical space race? In the 1661 satire Ignatius His Conclave, John Donne imagines Jesuits colonizing the Moon. Paraphrasing Galileo’s Siderius Nuncius, Donne describes the observer using a special telescope hallowed by the Pope to

draw the Moone, like a boate floating upon the water, as neere the Earth as he will…and thither…shall all the Jesuits be transferred, and easily unite and reconcile the Lunatick Church to the Roman Church.

On Earth as it is on heaven; on heaven as it is on Earth.

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Isis, Vol. 45, No. 4 (Dec., 1954), pp. 323–330
The University of Chicago Press on behalf of The History of Science Society
The American Historical Review, Vol. 111, No. 4 (October 2006), pp. 961–982
Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Historical Association
Modern Philology, Vol. 68, No. 4 (May 1971), pp. 329–337
The University of Chicago Press