For the uninitiated Hergé’s ‘Adventures of Tintin’ may seem like simple adventures for young children but what many don’t realise is how deceiving their simplicity is. Underneath the exciting plots and slapstick comedy runs a current of social commentary that reflects serious issues from the times the stories were created in addition to showing incredible foresight into the future. This latter point was never more true than in ‘Destination Moon’ and ‘Explorers on the Moon’ which saw Tintin, Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus and Snowy set foot on the lunar surface 20 years before the Apollo 11 mission making Belgium the first country (at least fictionally) to win the space race.
In the two books Captain Haddock and Snowy are invited by their friend Professor Calculus to take part in a mission to the moon. Following several misadventures, including accusations of people “acting the goat”, the moon-rocket successfully launches taking Tintin, Snowy, Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, Frank Wolff and stowaways Colonel Boris Jorgen and the Thompson Twins to the moon. After landing they set about exploring before their trip is cut short by Colonel Jorgen as he tries to steal the rocket with the aid of Frank Wolff.
Printed in strip form between March 30 1950 and December 29 1953, and then in a book in 1954, ‘Destination Moon’ and ‘Explorers on the Moon’ still look incredible and it’s hard to imagine that they were published so long before the 1969 moon landing.
As an armchair traveller, using meticulous research as the basis of his books, Hergé encountered a problem in researching the moon. Not only had nobody been there but resources about how you would get there and what it would look like when you did were scarce. Gathering what information he could and consulting Europe’s two leading experts on aeronautics, Bernard Heuvelmans and Alexandre Ananoff, Hergé manage to paint a convincing and startlingly accurate picture of what it would be like when NASA reached the moon.
Bearing in mind he did this before the space race even began the accomplishment is impressive. The famous red and white rocket in the stories echoed the German V2 rocket designed by Wernher von Braun and has since become an iconic design in its own right. It’s power source was visionary, too visionary for even the Apollo 11 mission, as Hergé’s was nuclear powered. Although NASA never used a nuclear-powered rocket to put men on the moon the idea has been explored even since the artist’s death and could well come to pass one day, though the obvious dangers involved make it unlikely.
Apart from the dangers the idea is a sound one and solved the problem of weightlessness as with the almost limitless amount of energy the Nuclear rocket could offer constant propulsion there and back. This created artificial gravity aboard the ship but thanks to the Thompson Twins the rocket stops leaving everyone floating. Experiments had already been conducted in free-falling planes indicating what anti-gravity would be like and Hergé got it spot on when the power on the rocket failed and Captain Haddock was left grasping for globules of whisky (a scene which got a nice nod in the 2011 movie).
It wasn’t only the behaviour of the rocket that Hergé got right – the way the orange-suited astronauts move on the surface of the moon is also realistic as he knew that the gravity there would be a fraction of that on Earth. It’s also a great set up for the Thompson Twins skipping comically across the moon.
Hergé’s grey and desolate landscape is instantly recognisable as the moon surface we’re now so familiar with but more than this he also speculated about the possibility of finding water on the moon. On the crew’s adventures they come across icy caverns suggesting the presence of water. Since its publication the idea of there being water on the moon has been hotly debated but in 2009 NASA confirmed what Hergé had envisioned 60 years earlier.
Although the later Tintin album Flight 714 (an adventure which has some striking similarities with the TV series ‘Lost’) would broach the subject of aliens Explorers on the Moon sees the artist’s vision of the hunk of rock void of all life. Despite there still being the notion in the 1950’s that aliens might live on the moon the fact that ‘Explorers on the Moon’ avoided this topic has helped it to age well.
The best part of this story though is the gift that Hergé sent Neil Armstrong congratulating him for being the first man (at least outside of the Tintin universe) to set foot on the moon. Among the many messages the astronaut received when get got back home there was in particular that puzzled him – a picture of a young man with a quiff, a bald man, a bearded man and a dog all dressed in orange suits bearing a plaque that said “welcome!” with the leader of the pack offering the greeting “Bienvenue sur. La lune Mr. Armstrong!”.
It was of course an image of Tintin and his cohorts and while the idea of this may fill fans with glee Armstrong was a bit puzzled.
“Neil Armstrong hadn’t got the foggiest idea what the picture was all about. When he did see the books, I think he was surprised, especially when he realised how early the story had been written” said Tintinoligist Michael Farr on Armstrong’s reaction (New Scientist, 03 April 2004, Issue 2441).
Though he may not have appreciated the picture at first the story is one sure to put a smile on the face of any Tintin fan and his eventual reaction to ‘Explorers on the Moon’, he was impressed by how accurate it was, is a testament to how well Hergé’s researched his stories.