Back | Round the Moon | Next
Chapter XIX. A Struggle Against the Impossible
For a long time Barbicane and his companions looked silently and
sadly upon that world which they had only seen from a distance, as
Moses saw the land of Canaan, and which they were leaving without a
possibility of ever returning to it. The projectile’s
position with regard to the moon had altered, and the base was now
turned to the earth.
This change, which Barbicane verified, did not fail to surprise
them. If the projectile was to gravitate round the satellite in an
elliptical orbit, why was not its heaviest part turned toward it,
as the moon turns hers to the earth? That was a difficult
In watching the course of the projectile they could see that on
leaving the moon it followed a course analogous to that traced in
approaching her. It was describing a very long ellipse, which would
most likely extend to the point of equal attraction, where the
influences of the earth and its satellite are neutralized.
Such was the conclusion which Barbicane very justly drew from
facts already observed, a conviction which his two friends shared
“And when arrived at this dead point, what will become of
us?” asked Michel Ardan.
“We don’t know,” replied Barbicane.
“But one can draw some hypotheses, I suppose?”
“Two,” answered Barbicane; “either the
projectile’s speed will be insufficient, and it will remain
forever immovable on this line of double
“I prefer the other hypothesis, whatever it may be,”
“Or,” continued Barbicane, “its speed will be
sufficient, and it will continue its elliptical course, to
gravitate forever around the orb of night.”
“A revolution not at all consoling,” said Michel,
“to pass to the state of humble servants to a moon whom we
are accustomed to look upon as our own handmaid. So that is the
fate in store for us?”
Neither Barbicane nor Nicholl answered.
“You do not answer,” continued Michel
“There is nothing to answer,” said Nicholl.
“Is there nothing to try?”
“No,” answered Barbicane. “Do you pretend to
fight against the impossible?”
“Why not? Do one Frenchman and two Americans shrink from
such a word?”
“But what would you do?”
“Subdue this motion which is bearing us away.”
“Yes,” continued Michel, getting animated, “or
else alter it, and employ it to the accomplishment of our own
“That is your affair. If artillerymen are not masters of
their projectile they are not artillerymen. If the projectile is to
command the gunner, we had better ram the gunner into the gun. My
faith! fine savants! who do not know what is to become of us after
“Inducing you!” cried Barbicane and Nicholl.
“Inducing you! What do you mean by that?”
“No recrimination,” said Michel. “I do not
complain, the trip has pleased me, and the projectile agrees with
me; but let us do all that is humanly possible to do the fall
somewhere, even if only on the moon.”
“We ask no better, my worthy Michel,” replied
Barbicane, “but means fail us.”
“We cannot alter the motion of the projectile?”
“Nor diminish its speed?”
“Not even by lightening it, as they lighten an overloaded
“What would you throw out?” said Nicholl. “We
have no ballast on board; and indeed it seems to me that if
lightened it would go much quicker.”
“Neither slower nor quicker,” said Barbicane,
wishing to make his two friends agree; “for we float is
space, and must no longer consider specific weight.”
“Very well,” cried Michel Ardan in a decided voice;
“then their remains but one thing to do.”
“What is it?” asked Nicholl.
“Breakfast,” answered the cool, audacious Frenchman,
who always brought up this solution at the most difficult
In any case, if this operation had no influence on the
projectile’s course, it could at least be tried without
inconvenience, and even with success from a stomachic point of
view. Certainly Michel had none but good ideas.
They breakfasted then at two in the morning; the hour mattered
little. Michel served his usual repast, crowned by a glorious
bottle drawn from his private cellar. If ideas did not crowd on
their brains, we must despair of the Chambertin of 1853. The repast
finished, observation began again. Around the projectile, at an
invariable distance, were the objects which had been thrown out.
Evidently, in its translatory motion round the moon, it had not
passed through any atmosphere, for the specific weight of these
different objects would have checked their relative speed.
On the side of the terrestrial sphere nothing was to be seen.
The earth was but a day old, having been new the night before at
twelve; and two days must elapse before its crescent, freed from
the solar rays, would serve as a clock to the Selenites, as in its
rotary movement each of its points after twenty-four hours repasses
the same lunar meridian.
On the moon’s side the sight was different; the orb shone
in all her splendor amid innumerable constellations, whose purity
could not be troubled by her rays. On the disc, the plains were
already returning to the dark tint which is seen from the earth.
The other part of the nimbus remained brilliant, and in the midst
of this general brilliancy Tycho shone prominently like a sun.
Barbicane had no means of estimating the projectile’s
speed, but reasoning showed that it must uniformly decrease,
according to the laws of mechanical reasoning. Having admitted that
the projectile was describing an orbit around the moon, this orbit
must necessarily be elliptical; science proves that it must be so.
No motive body circulating round an attracting body fails in this
law. Every orbit described in space is elliptical. And why should
the projectile of the Gun Club escape this natural arrangement? In
elliptical orbits, the attracting body always occupies one of the
foci; so that at one moment the satellite is nearer, and at another
farther from the orb around which it gravitates. When the earth is
nearest the sun she is in her perihelion; and in her aphelion at
the farthest point. Speaking of the moon, she is nearest to the
earth in her perigee, and farthest from it in her apogee. To use
analogous expressions, with which the astronomers’ language
is enriched, if the projectile remains as a satellite of the moon,
we must say that it is in its “aposelene” at its
farthest point, and in its “periselene” at its nearest.
In the latter case, the projectile would attain its maximum of
speed; and in the former its minimum. It was evidently moving
toward its aposelenitical point; and Barbicane had reason to think
that its speed would decrease up to this point, and then increase
by degrees as it neared the moon. This speed would even become nil,
if this point joined that of equal attraction. Barbicane studied
the consequences of these different situations, and thinking what
inference he could draw from them, when he was roughly disturbed by
a cry from Michel Ardan.
“By Jove!” he exclaimed, “I must admit we are
“I do not say we are not,” replied Barbicane;
“Because we have a very simple means of checking this
speed which is bearing us from the moon, and we do not use
“And what is the means?”
“To use the recoil contained in our rockets.”
“Done!” said Nicholl.
“We have not used this force yet,” said Barbicane,
“it is true, but we will do so.”
“When?” asked Michel.
“When the time comes. Observe, my friends, that in the
position occupied by the projectile, an oblique position with
regard to the lunar disc, our rockets, in slightly altering its
direction, might turn it from the moon instead of drawing it
“Just so,” replied Michel.
“Let us wait, then. By some inexplicable influence, the
projectile is turning its base toward the earth. It is probable
that at the point of equal attraction, its conical cap will be
directed rigidly toward the moon; at that moment we may hope that
its speed will be nil; then will be the moment to act, and with the
influence of our rockets we may perhaps provoke a fall directly on
the surface of the lunar disc.”
“Bravo!” said Michel. “What we did not do,
what we could not do on our first passage at the dead point,
because the projectile was then endowed with too great a
“Very well reasoned,” said Nicholl.
“Let us wait patiently,” continued Barbicane.
“Putting every chance on our side, and after having so much
despaired, I may say I think we shall gain our end.”
This conclusion was a signal for Michel Ardan’s hips and
hurrahs. And none of the audacious boobies remembered the question
that they themselves had solved in the negative. No! the moon is
not inhabited; no! the moon is probably not habitable. And yet they
were going to try everything to reach her.
One single question remained to be solved. At what precise
moment the projectile would reach the point of equal attraction, on
which the travelers must play their last card. In order to
calculate this to within a few seconds, Barbicane had only to refer
to his notes, and to reckon the different heights taken on the
lunar parallels. Thus the time necessary to travel over the
distance between the dead point and the south pole would be equal
to the distance separating the north pole from the dead point. The
hours representing the time traveled over were carefully noted, and
the calculation was easy. Barbicane found that this point would be
reached at one in the morning on the night of the 7th-8th of
December. So that, if nothing interfered with its course, it would
reach the given point in twenty-two hours.
The rockets had primarily been placed to check the fall of the
projectile upon the moon, and now they were going to employ them
for a directly contrary purpose. In any case they were ready, and
they had only to wait for the moment to set fire to them.
“Since there is nothing else to be done,” said
Nicholl, “I make a proposition.”
“What is it?” asked Barbicane.
“I propose to go to sleep.”
“What a motion!” exclaimed Michel Ardan.
“It is forty hours since we closed our eyes,” said
Nicholl. “Some hours of sleep will restore our
“Never,” interrupted Michel.
“Well,” continued Nicholl, “every one to his
taste; I shall go to sleep.” And stretching himself on the
divan, he soon snored like a forty-eight pounder.
“That Nicholl has a good deal of sense,” said
Barbicane; “presently I shall follow his example.” Some
moments after his continued bass supported the captain’s
“Certainly,” said Michel Ardan, finding himself
alone, “these practical people have sometimes most opportune
And with his long legs stretched out, and his great arms folded
under his head, Michel slept in his turn.
But this sleep could be neither peaceful nor lasting, the minds
of these three men were too much occupied, and some hours after,
about seven in the morning, all three were on foot at the same
The projectile was still leaving the moon, and turning its
conical part more and more toward her.
An explicable phenomenon, but one which happily served
Seventeen hours more, and the moment for action would have
The day seemed long. However bold the travelers might be, they
were greatly impressed by the approach of that moment which would
decide all— either precipitate their fall on to the moon, or
forever chain them in an immutable orbit. They counted the hours as
they passed too slow for their wish; Barbicane and Nicholl were
obstinately plunged in their calculations, Michel going and coming
between the narrow walls, and watching that impassive moon with a
At times recollections of the earth crossed their minds. They
saw once more their friends of the Gun Club, and the dearest of
all, J. T. Maston. At that moment, the honorable secretary must be
filling his post on the Rocky Mountains. If he could see the
projectile through the glass of his gigantic telescope, what would
he think? After seeing it disappear behind the moon’s south
pole, he would see them reappear by the north pole! They must
therefore be a satellite of a satellite! Had J. T. Maston given
this unexpected news to the world? Was this the denouement of this
But the day passed without incident. The terrestrial midnight
arrived. The 8th of December was beginning. One hour more, and the
point of equal attraction would be reached. What speed would then
animate the projectile? They could not estimate it. But no error
could vitiate Barbicane’s calculations. At one in the morning
this speed ought to be and would be nil.
Besides, another phenomenon would mark the projectile’s
stopping-point on the neutral line. At that spot the two
attractions, lunar and terrestrial, would be annulled. Objects
would “weigh” no more. This singular fact, which had
surprised Barbicane and his companions so much in going, would be
repeated on their return under the very same conditions. At this
precise moment they must act.
Already the projectile’s conical top was sensibly turned
toward the lunar disc, presented in such a way as to utilize the
whole of the recoil produced by the pressure of the rocket
apparatus. The chances were in favor of the travelers. If its speed
was utterly annulled on this dead point, a decided movement toward
the moon would suffice, however slight, to determine its fall.
“Five minutes to one,” said Nicholl.
“All is ready,” replied Michel Ardan, directing a
lighted match to the flame of the gas.
“Wait!” said Barbicane, holding his chronometer in
At that moment weight had no effect. The travelers felt in
themselves the entire disappearance of it. They were very near the
neutral point, if they did not touch it.
“One o’clock,” said Barbicane.
Michel Ardan applied the lighted match to a train in
communication with the rockets. No detonation was heard in the
inside, for there was no air. But, through the scuttles, Barbicane
saw a prolonged smoke, the flames of which were immediately
The projectile sustained a certain shock, which was sensibly
felt in the interior.
The three friends looked and listened without speaking, and
scarcely breathing. One might have heard the beating of their
hearts amid this perfect silence.
“Are we falling?” asked Michel Ardan, at length.
“No,” said Nicholl, “since the bottom of the
projectile is not turning to the lunar disc!”
At this moment, Barbicane, quitting his scuttle, turned to his
two companions. He was frightfully pale, his forehead wrinkled, and
his lips contracted.
“We are falling!” said he.
“Ah!” cried Michel Ardan, “on to the
“On to the earth!”
“The devil!” exclaimed Michel Ardan, adding
philosophically, “well, when we came into this projectile we
were very doubtful as to the ease with which we should get out of
And now this fearful fall had begun. The speed retained had
borne the projectile beyond the dead point. The explosion of the
rockets could not divert its course. This speed in going had
carried it over the neutral line, and in returning had done the
same thing. The laws of physics condemned it to pass through every
point which it had already gone through. It was a terrible fall,
from a height of 160,000 miles, and no springs to break it.
According to the laws of gunnery, the projectile must strike the
earth with a speed equal to that with which it left the mouth of
the Columbiad, a speed of 16,000 yards in the last second.
But to give some figures of comparison, it has been reckoned
that an object thrown from the top of the towers of Notre Dame, the
height of which is only 200 feet, will arrive on the pavement at a
speed of 240 miles per hour. Here the projectile must strike the
earth with a speed of 115,200 miles per hour.
“We are lost!” said Michel coolly.
“Very well! if we die,” answered Barbicane, with a
sort of religious enthusiasm, “the results of our travels
will be magnificently spread. It is His own secret that God will
tell us! In the other life the soul will want to know nothing,
either of machines or engines! It will be identified with eternal
“In fact,” interrupted Michel Ardan, “the
whole of the other world may well console us for the loss of that
inferior orb called the moon!”
Barbicane crossed his arms on his breast, with a motion of
sublime resignation, saying at the same time:
“The will of heaven be done!”
1 It should not be lost on us that Verne can't resist having the Frenchman come up with the solution.
Back | Round the Moon | Next