WTF Fun Fact 13494 – John Wilkins’ 17th-Century Moon Mission

The first “moon mission” was dreamed up in the 17th century by a clergyman named John Wilkins.

Though the technologies of his time were rudimentary, Wilkins’ imagination and theories displayed a unique combination of audacity and scientific curiosity.

Early Life and Philosophical Leanings

John Wilkins was born in 1614. He was an Anglican clergyman and a founding member of the Royal Society, a body dedicated to the promotion of natural science. Wilkins was a polymath with interests ranging from theology to mathematics and cryptography. These varied interests equipped him with a unique perspective when it came to observing and understanding the cosmos.

John Wilkins’ Plurality of Worlds

Central to Wilkins’ astronomical ideas was the belief in a “plurality of worlds.” This concept was embraced by several thinkers of the era. It postulated that planets and celestial bodies, including the moon, were worlds much like Earth.

By this logic, the moon wasn’t just a shining orb in the sky. It was a place with landscapes, atmospheres, and perhaps even inhabitants. This revolutionary idea was radical and contrary to the predominant geocentric worldview upheld by many in the church.

In 1640, Wilkins published “A Discourse Concerning a New World and Another Planet.” In it, he explored the feasibility of humans traveling to the moon and other planets. He argued that if the moon were a world similar to Earth, humans should be able to travel there. Given the technological constraints of the 17th century, this was a bold proposition. His methods, in hindsight, were understandably primitive.

John Wilkins and the Flying Chariot

Wilkins believed that a “flying chariot” could take humans to the moon. This vehicle would be propelled by wings attached to it, a bit like the way birds fly. He theorized that the chariot’s wings would require less flapping the further it got from Earth due to the thinning atmosphere.

Additionally, he speculated on the absence of gravity in space. He noted that as one ascended, the pull of Earth’s gravitational force would diminish, making it easier to move around. Though rudimentary, such thoughts were a precursor to our modern understanding of the vacuum of space and microgravity environments.

Of course, not everyone was taken in by Wilkins’ ideas. His contemporaries raised various objections. Some focused on the theological implications. If there were beings on other planets, how did they fit into the Biblical narrative? Others doubted the physical feasibility. How would one breathe? How could wings work in the vacuum of space?

Wilkins tackled these questions head-on. He hypothesized that space wasn’t entirely devoid of air. Instead, the atmosphere thinned out but never completely disappeared, providing just enough air for breathing.

Legacy and the Dawn of Space Exploration

Though Wilkins’ moon mission ideas were not actualized in his lifetime, his speculations played a pivotal role in sparking interest in interplanetary exploration. His works represented a significant shift from purely observational astronomy to a more practical, exploration-driven approach.

Space exploration took another three centuries to become a reality. However, the philosophical and theoretical foundation was set in Wilkins’ era.

His thoughts, radical as they were, underscore the human spirit’s relentless quest for knowledge and exploration.

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Source: “The 17​th​-Century Moon Mission That Never Got Off the Ground” — Atlas Obscura


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