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Ampton Reads: Explorers on the Moon

The last story ended with the main cast getting launched into space in a nuclear rocket and being knocked unconscious by the force of exiting the atmosphere. Hergé needed to work hard in order to make the second half of the story land what the first half had started. And he did it, the absolute madman.

I stated in the previous piece that I believe that the moon duo represent the culmination of Hergé’s pedanticism and devotion to realism, and I’m going to use the introduction to this piece to explain what I mean. The lengths Hergé went to make sure that his trip to the moon was as accurate as possible are ridiculous. I won’t be talking much about the development and publishing of this story, since I covered the majority of it in the previous piece, so if you’re not interested in the science of this story, then feel free to skip forward.

What Hergé wanted to achieve in this two-parter was a complete avoidance of the fantastical. He wanted to make a bold, engaging story without ever utilising anything unrealistic. For this, he got in contact with two different scientists, astrophysicist Alexander Ananoff and nuclear physicist Max Hoyaux. Ananoff had written the book L’Astronautique, which came out in 1950 and discussed what space travel could look like in the future. Hergé met Hoyaux during a visit to the Ateliers de Constructions Electriques de Charleroi’s Center for Atomic Research, where Hoyaux was the director. 

Other sources he drew from included works by Auguste Piccard, who Hergé had seen around the place while Piccard lived in Brussels, Pierre Rosseau, and other authors from around the world. Between the two physicists he was in correspondence with, the sources he was reading, and the enthusiasm and knowledge of his friends, Hergé had access to a veritable treasure trove of knowledge on what was going to be happening soon with space travel. In fact, it’s been said that the only thing he really got wrong in Explorer on the Moon was showing the presence of ice on the moon; in Hergé’s defence, whether or not the moon had water on it was a subject of much debate at the time. Heuvalmans firmly believed in the presence of water, so Hergé went with that.

Really, the problem Hergé had was slotting everything he had learned into his story without accidentally writing a non-fiction book. He even had real life rockets to study; in fact, the rocket in his story was loosely based on the V2 rocket that the Germans had developed during the Second World War to serve as a long-distance missile. The war had led to huge leaps forward in rocket technology and Hergé could look at designs from both sides in order to create his own rocket design. He also utilised other examples of recently developed activity, basing the rocket control computer for the moon rocket off a real-life computer from the time period.

This is where it gets off the cuff. Hergé’s next step was to commission one of his assistants to build a scale model of the rocket he had designed, which was the same one that appears in the finished story. It was pretty big and had detachable parts so that you could look at the internal and external design details. Then he took this model to Paris so that he could show it to Ananoff for feedback. Only once this actual astrophysicist had taken a look at his design and said it was realistic enough, was Hergé happy enough to proceed with the story. Having the physical model of the rocket also made it easier for Hergé and his assistants to sketch the rocket from various angles for incorporation into the story.

This was very interesting to me, since I always assumed when I was a kid that 1. This book had come out after the actual moon landing and/or 2. The rocket was some made-up thing by Hergé that would never fly, ever. Finding out as an adult that the rocket was brilliantly designed almost two decades before the moon landing was pretty mindblowing.

In Destination Moon, Hergé shows his work. Several pages of the book are devoted to a surprisingly complex explanation of how uranium-based power works, and from what I can remember from taking physics, it’s still mostly accurate today. The nation of Syldavia is producing uranium and they’re enriching it on site at the Atomic Research Centre so it can be used to propel the rocket. Hergé even goes into detail about how they plan to keep the nuclear fission reaction slow and controlled for continuous power, and how they’re going to be using a nitroanilide-based engine as the launch rocket. It’s almost too much information, but Hergé does a surprisingly good job of making it light and quick, so it doesn’t dominate the story. 

This story began publication in October 1952 and continued to December 1953, following the eighteen month break he needed after Destination Moon in order to deal with his illnesses and depression. Upon the conclusion of the story, it was collected into a single edition in 1954. Changes to the colouring of some scenes were made to keep it in line with the published version of Destination Moon, and, more importantly, Wolff’s blatant suicide was mitigated to suicide accompanied by a hopeful statement about how he might, possibly, survive. This change took place because suicide is so against the tenets of Catholicism, the dominant religion of Belgium, and Hergé made the change in response to criticism from various groups. The English translation, the one I’m reading today, was released by Metheun in 1959.


The story opens where the last one ends, with little trace of the time period between publication. The crew of the rocket are still unconscious from the force of takeoff and need to wake up  to reestablish radio contact with mission control.

Explorers on the Moon is a book full of beautiful, lonely drawings that manage to capture the vast coldness of space, a remarkable feat considering no human had yet flown in space to see it. I won’t be adding every single panel I find beautiful to this review or we’ll be here all day.

Everyone wakes up and we find out that the Thompsons have accidentally stayed on board during takeoff. It doesn’t even seem like takeoff affected them that much. This adds a tension to the mission, since the rocket was carefully loaded with supplies for exactly four people and no more. In fact, claustrophobia and limited space is a recurring sensation throughout this book, almost all of which takes place in the narrow confines of the rocket. Even the parts that take place on the moon are limited in scope by their air supplies, by radio contact, and by the suits they wear. Despite the fact they are moving faster than Tintin has ever moved before, the actual space available to them in this book is less than in any other Tintin story.

This comedic scene, where the gravity is turned off and Haddock must do battle with flying alcohol, is one of the very few scenes remaining from the original Melkebeke and Heuvelmans version of the script. Haddock getting drunk culminates in him going on a space walk without tethering himself to the ship, and he almost dies in the vacuum of space. I found this scene terrifying as a child and I find it uncomfortable now. It’s almost a little too real for me, that a character with a serious addiction problem could relapse and almost kill themselves and their friends.

I’m with you on this one, Tintin.

We get taken through a lot more technical information, including how the rocket will land on the moon and how it avoids collisions with things flying through space, before the crew must ready themselves for landing.

Hergé is normally extremely economical with panel space and dialogue, so having this entire row of panels dedicated to Tintin’s agonised description of landing on the moon is a change of pace, and it works so well to build tension. Even though you know Tintin will survive, these panels force you to consider the claustrophobia and pain that would wrack your body as you are squished by the raw force of a nuclear rocket landing on the moon. 

From here the crew get into their spacesuits and start exploring the moon. Tintin is the first man to actually set foot on the lunar surface, followed by Haddock and Snowy. They offload a pile of equipment, including the reconnaissance tank, which will be their vehicle for exploring the moon further. We also get to see the Thompsons repeat their trick from Land of Black Gold, where they misidentify their own tracks as belonging to other people on the moon. Equipment is set up and they plan out their time on the moon. I appreciate the details that make it clear that Wolff and Calculus are genuinely here to gather as much data about the moon and space as they can get their grubby little hands on, because it makes it clear that they didn’t just come to the moon for a laugh.

Absolutely stunning lunar landscapes, accompanied by handwritten notes about their research. They continue exploring and delve into a cave that has been formed by the action of water. Since Hergé was working under the assumption that the moon would feature water, he tailored the surface of the moon to fit this hypothesis, and added ravines and caves full of stalactites, as well as sheets of solid ice.

The presence of large bodies of ice would be disproved when people actually went to the moon to check, although research into how much water is present on the moon and where continues today. Hergé’s ideas about how a moon with water would look are a fascinating piece of science fiction.

The level of drama here is through the roof. Of course Tintin didn’t expect some guy from ages back to come to the moon to get even with him! Why would he? Imagine if Neil Armstrong was standing on the moon getting his photo taken and some random dude had popped out of the lunar lander to get revenge for a lost internship at the White House a few decades ago.

Jorgen and Wolff take over the rocket and get ready for takeoff, prepared to leave the others on the moon. This is amusing to me only because of how big a spectacle the actual moon landing would be, over a decade later. The whole world was watching. How would you even get away with leaving people behind on the moon to die? Surely when you got home you would be torn apart by society and the law for such a crime. It would definitely be the easier option to wait until Tintin got home and then just smother him with a pillow or something. Plus, you’re on the moon on a rocket, and people will be helping you disembark. There’s no chance you’ll just be able to slip away in the mayhem of the rocket landing. The easy answer here is that Jorgen wants revenge beyond the point of reason and doesn’t care he’s interrupted one of the greatest scientific moments of all time, of course, but it’s still hilarious.

The ending of this story is surprisingly grim. Snowy’s leg is broken when Wolff kicks him down a hatch, Jorgen is shot dead by Wolff and the rocket is damaged from their aborted attempt at takeoff. Their oxygen supplies were stored for four people and not seven, so they are running short, and Wolff, who betrayed them all in order to pay off his gambling addiction, sacrifices his life in order to save everyone. The punches come quick and heavy, interspersed with the details of packing the ship up and getting ready for their return trip. Hergé keeps the pacing relentless and breakneck, to give the reader a taste of the fear and urgency the characters are feeling.

After fraught hours where the characters are slowly running out of oxygen and becoming increasingly exhausted, Tintin manages to land the rocket with the very last of his strength, and they all make it down to Earth.

What to say about the moon duo? The breadth and scope of the story is fantastic, a monument to Hergé’s skill as a writer, researcher, and artist. If I was going to try and convince someone of Hergé’s abilities as an artist, as well as the skill of Studios Hergé who worked with him on this book, it’s Explorers on the Moon that I would show them. The pacing of the story is exceptional and keeps you reading in suspense. As Hergé’s main foray into science fiction it’s impressive.

I wouldn’t say it’s without flaw, of course. Probably the main thing I felt held this story back was the need to keep simpler forms of comedy in the story. I do understand that this is for children and other stories involve plenty of comedy, but with all the death and drama in this story, the Thompsons feel really out of place. There’s a struggle to reconcile Hergé’s science fiction aspirations with the tone and structure of a typical Tintin story, and this struggle seems to be solved by giving the Thompsons less of a role from here on.

From here, Hergé would keep on with science fiction, writing The Calculus Affair, which is basically about the dangers of nuclear weaponry. Years later, to celebrate the real life moon landing, Hergé would be commissioned to illustrate a scene of Tintin greeting Neil Armstrong as he first sets foot on the moon.

The moon duo are two of the best remembered and best received Tintin books, and it’s easy for me to see why. Even in the modern world, after people have been to the moon and back a few times now and we have an International Space Station, this story still feels fresh and exciting, and we can thank the depths of Hergé’s perfectionism for that achievement.

I love this book.


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