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November 15, 2017

Jules Verne, Texas, and the Moon

By: W.F. Strong

The first word uttered on the moon was “Houston.” That was the first word of the longer phrase uttered by Buzz Aldrin: “Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.” I know there are those who say that there were other jargon words uttered first in the process of landing such as “contact light,” but that’s a mere technicality. The words that matter are those that officially announced the safe landing of The Eagle on the moon, and of those words, the first one was “Houston.” Another way to put it is the first phone call from the moon was placed to Houston.

But this is not the centerpiece of our story today. This is just a lead into a more fascinating connection between Texas and the moon landing. The fact that Houston was so central to the success of the achievement was prophesied, in a way, 100 years before, by Jules Verne, in his novel, From the Earth to the Moon. This is the same Jules Verne who wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Around the World in Eighty Days. He is often considered to be the father of modern science fiction. Well, his book, From the Earth to the Moon, concerns a moon shot. And it was actually a moon shot because in the book, characters attempt to build an enormous cannon and fire a huge “bullet” at the moon. Now, the bullet looks amazingly like the Apollo Capsule. It has room for three people in it, just like the real lunar capsule that would come 100 years later. Even the physics of Verne’s moon voyage were impressively correct for his time (except for the intolerable g-forces that would have been experienced by the people in the bullet capsule).

So how does Texas factor into this prophecy? Well, Verne calculated that the best place from which to launch such a shot at the moon would be either Florida or Texas. It would have to be below the 28th parallel. He discusses Brownsville as a possible launch site (interesting that Space X is now locating a launch facility there). Corpus Christi is discussed as a possible site, and so is Galveston Bay. Also, Verne names one site in Florida as an option – “Tampa Town.” The real life Tampa is across the state from Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, where the Apollo moon launch eventually came from.

Remember, Verne’s novel was written 100 years before the actual moon landing. Verne even named the launch cannon The Columbiad. The command module for the moon landing was The Columbia.

The other accurate prophecy came in the way of politics. Verne has a wonderful section in From the Earth to the Moon on Florida and Texas each flexing their political muscle and persuasion skills to win the business of the space launch. The same thing indeed happened 100 years later. The debate was settled by Lyndon Johnson, Texas’ native son. He, through political maneuvering, gave the launch site to Florida and the command center to Texas.

Still, it is fascinating to read the arguments each state advocated in Verne’s novel. The Texans claimed a greater population: 330,000 to Florida’s 50,000. Texas had the finest cotton, the best iron ore, the purest grade oil and coveted green oak for ships. Tampa said they had the best bay from which to bring in supplies. Texans said, “You mean a bay clogged with sand! Galveston Bay can hold all the navies of the world.”

And then Florida dropped the big one – the space launch should go to the state that is truly American. Texas got red-faced and said, “Scandalous – wretched little strip of country like Florida to dare to compare itself to Texas. Texas didn’t sell herself to the union for 5 million dollars. She won her own independence at San Jacinto when Sam Houston defeated Santa Anna and drove the Mexican armies from the state. Only then did we voluntarily annex ourselves to the U.S. Anyway, that little strip of land called Florida will be ripped apart by the forces of the moon launch.”

Florida said, “Not so. And Galveston Bay is slightly below the 29th parallel and Tampa Bay is right smack on the 28th parallel,” perfectly positioned for the moon shot. And so Florida won that argument. And 100 years later Florida got the launch site, too.

But in real life, I figure Texas got the best deal with the command center (and the budgets). And, it got the first word. The first word of consequence uttered on the moon was “Houston.” And it was this space connection that gave us a team called the Astros, the WORLD CHAMPION ASTROS, I might add.

*Special thanks to Dr. Jack Stanley who told me about this book and its unique connection to Texas.


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