Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Tintin in Space

The Adventures of Tintin began with newspaper strips featuring the intrepid boy reporter, and evolved into a series of comic books which have been read by generations of children. Written and illustrated by Hergé (the pen name of Georges Prosper Remi), they have been translated into more than seventy languages [1]. Hergé’s Tintin books continue to be popular amongst young people today, with a feature film in 2011 raising their profile for a new generation and the current Euro 2024 football kit for Belgium based on Tintin's look. Although they sometimes use outdated language and stereotypes, the books present an interesting time capsule of public views and understanding - including public understanding of space and space science during the mid-twentieth century.

Tintin, his companion dog Snowy, and their friend Captain Haddock encountered the wonders of space in three different adventures: The Shooting Star (1942), Destination Moon (1953) and its immediate sequel Explorers on the Moon (1954).

The Shooting Star begins with a meteorite causing a heat wave as it approaches, while under observation from an astronomical observatory. On its descent to Earth, it becomes the subject of an international scientific expedition, joined by Tintin, which is hampered by a counter expedition launched by a rogue nation. When Tintin and co find the meteor they find it floating and that it hosts extraterrestrial life.

By contrast, in Destination Moon, Tintin and Haddock are summoned to another European country by a cryptic message from their friend Professor Calculus. There they find that he is well advanced on the design and construction of a nuclear-powered moon rocket, and wishes for them to accompany him. However before the rocket can launch safely, Tintin must defeat a determined espionage attempt. The story ends with the launch… and silence from those aboard the rocket.

The narrative continues in Explorers on the Moon, as the rocket encounters an asteroid before arriving on our satellite and exploring its surface. However with stowaways aboard and an ongoing threat of sabotage, their safe return is by no means guaranteed.

Astronomy in Action

Book cover for The Shooting Star. Image source: wikipedia. Image rights: tintinimaginatioWhile The Shooting Star is most memorable for the giant red mushroom on its cover illustration, it is primarily a story about scientific research. Tintin’s response to spotting a new star in Ursa Major is first to call and then to visit the nearest astronomical observatory. The observatory houses a large refracting telescope (one that uses lenses rather than mirrors), complete with an accurately-drawn counterweighted equatorial mount and finder scopes, suggesting that Hergé was working from either life or photographs of a real telescope in this class.

The Royal Observatory of Belgium at Uccle is just a few kilometres outside of Brussels. It had celebrated its centenary in 1935 and had several large refracting telescopes. It was a familiar location for Hergé, although it’s been suggested that the telescope depicted inside is also influenced by images of the larger and more famous Yerkes telescope in the United States. It is certainly on a very similar design of mount, although these would have been relatively common for telescopes of the time, potentially including on refractors housed at Uccle. On the other hand, by this point, the Yerkes telescope was already fifty years old, and the new research telescopes were already tending to be reflecting telescopes, which could be shorter, housed in smaller domes and used more compact mounts.

The Royal Observatory of Belgium at Uccle. Image source: (credit:JEA)

The personnel of the observatory, led by a Professor Decimus Phostle in the English translation, are a stereotypical representation of scientists, being elderly, male, white, bespectacled, and bald or balding. Indeed, this is a recurring imagery for scientists in the series. The scientists who join Phostle and Tintin on the expedition, and also Calculus in later stories, fit the mould. Female astronomers and those from diverse backgrounds had, of course, been making substantial contributions to the field for well over a century before Hergé was writing. However, it is certainly true that the majority of professional astronomers fell broadly into this category at the time. Indeed the Director of the Royal Observatory during the war years was Eugene Delport (known for his discoveries of asteroids) who would have been sixty years old when the story was published, and Hergé is also known to have been friends with Sylvain Arend (also an astronomer at Uccle, known for asteroid discoveries).

In the story, Phostle identifies a set of unfamiliar lines in a spectrum of the meteor and infers the existence of a new element, in pursuit of which the expedition sets forth under the auspices of the European Foundation for Scientific Research. Finding the floating asteroid, and planting a flag on it [2], Tintin encounters first alien mushrooms, then rapidly growing apples and giant invertebrates, before the asteroid sinks.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century there had been a number of high profile scientific expeditions, the tribulations and triumphs of which were lauded in the press. International expeditions to view the solar eclipse in 1919, for example, made worldwide headlines as providing observational support for Einstein’s General Relativity. Such expeditions featured in other science fiction too - examples include Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (novel, 1912) which also includes an investigative expedition under the auspices of a scientific organisation, with a reporter attached to represent the press. While scientists will still make strenuous efforts to seek out a newly fallen meteorite - in order to analyse its composition before it becomes too contaminated by Earth - such high profile journeys of discovery are now a thing of the past. Perhaps the closest analogy would be the planetary probes on their long trek to the stars, but, while they capture some of the same excitement of new knowledge, these lack the human immediacy of an ocean journey.

Book cover for recent reprint of Verne's The Chase of the Golden Meteor. Image source: Google booksIt’s interesting though to consider The Shooting Star in the context of other science fiction of the same era. In the early 1910s and through to the 1930s, Edgar Rice Burroughs was writing planetary romances featuring alien princesses and ancient civilisations. By contrast pulp writers such as E E ‘Doc’ Smith were imagining a spaceborne future for humanity in the form of space opera. Comic and film serials such as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers combined the two into stirring space adventures. Stories focussing on scientific discovery itself were relatively uncommon. Perhaps the closest parallels with The Shooting Star can be found in the 1933 science fiction novel When Worlds Collide, written by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie (and made into a well-known film of the same name in 1951), in Jules Verne’s The Chase of the Golden Meteor (1908) and in the classic novella Nightfall by Isaac Asimov (1941). As in the Tintin adventure, all three begin with the discovery of an approaching astronomical body or event, made at an observatory (except in the Verne novel) by mature, male astronomers. In another near-parallel between the stories, the discovery of the approach in Tintin, Nightfall and When Worlds Collide is uncovered by a younger male protagonist (in the case of Nightfall, even by another journalist), and a sizeable passage focuses on a deep sense of impending doom, when the end of the world appears to be nigh. The Chase of the Golden Meteor has the strongest parallel in terms of the search for the meteor narrative. Nonetheless in all these examples an international and interdisciplinary team is gathered, and international rivalries or the confrontation between science and religion, come into play. While in The Shooting Star, the crisis is averted, in When Worlds Collide and Nightfall disaster is unavoidable.

By the early 1940s, adult science fiction in the United States was beginning to feature more current scientific characters and methodologies, as in, for example, Robert Heinlein’s Solution Unsatisfactory (short story, 1941). The Manhattan Project and other scientific research programmes during the Second World War would raise the profile of a new generation of younger scientists,in the years following the publication of The Shooting Star. However this was still very new and in occupied, wartime Brussels, a more traditional view of astronomical research might well have appeared like a safer and more familiar topic on which to focus. In many ways then, this story captures an era of scientific investigation (in the form of telescope, astronomers and research methods such as optical spectroscopy) that was already on the wane by the time it was published and harked back to an older and more comfortable past.

To land on the Moon!

By the 1950s, the picture of space science research had changed substantially. The V-weapon rockets of World War II had demonstrated the practicality of long distance, high thrust rocket flight and attention was starting to focus on a new challenge: reaching Earth’s Moon. This narrative can be traced back to ancient Greece, and had been common currency in amateur rocket development and science fiction circles at least since 1867 when Jules Verne published From the Earth to the Moon. With the development of new fuels and their demonstration, stories of rockets to the Moon became increasingly popular and technically plausible. An early example of science fiction responding to this was the German film Frau im Mond (dir. Lang, 1929) which features a private moon-rocket venture and has similar themes of danger and self-sacrifice to those that would emerge in the Tintin Moon books. The factual book Moon Rocket by Arthur Wilcox, published in 1946, laid out the history of rocket development in detail, including a description of the British Interplanetary Society’s technical plans for a plausible rocket. A spate of moon rocket fiction, much of it aimed at children, rapidly followed, including Rocket to the Moon (Bruce Peril, 1946), The Master of the Moon (Patrick Moore, 1952), The Lost Planet (Angus MacVicar, 1953), Kings of Space (W E Johns, 1954), Blast off at Woomera (Hugh Walters, 1957), The Moonwinners (James Muirden, 1965) and others. On the radio, these were complemented by Journey Into Space, a BBC drama serial for adults written by Charles Chilton.

Book cover for Herge's Destination Moon. Image source: wikipedia. Image credit: tintinimaginatio

At the same time, in the United States, Robert A Heinlein published a juvenile novel Rocketship Gallileo in 1947, describing a young Manhattan Project scientist who recruited a group of young students to build his rocket-powered moon rocket. The 1950 American feature film Destination Moon (dir. Pichel, to which Heinlein also contributed) had also described a private commercial effort to reach the planet.

Tintin’s Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon were published in the midst of this new enthusiasm, almost a decade before President Kennedy would commit the US to the goal and kick start the Cold War space race. Destination Moon follows the pattern of many of the other secret-moon-rocket stories in that it involves a project swathed in secrecy in which an eccentric professor (in this case polymath Cuthbert Calculus) is leading a rocket construction effort (whether private or government funded). It also follows a similar pattern to many of those named above in that the lead scientist appears to have free rein over who will board the rocket - and chooses a relatively untrained teenager to do so. The scenes of test rocket firing, training for the unknown conditions of space and equipment testing could find parallels in many similar stories, and even the espionage and sabotage subplots are mirrored in several other novels of this genre (e.g. Rocket to the Moon, Kings of Space etc) - although Tintin and friends put their own twist on the adventure.

While Calculus is an archetypal bald and elderly scientist, the other scientists and lead engineers at the rocket site including Director Baxter and Frank Wolff, follow a pattern informed by the post-Manhattan Project image of younger and more active scientists. The centre also follows a modern pattern in that it is powered by a large nuclear pile. Indeed, the story lends verisimilitude and technical authority to the rocket effort by explaining the operation of the pile and the isotope ratio of its uranium fuel rods. The rocket itself is nuclear powered, and dependent (as is the case in many stories, including When Worlds Collide!) on a new material with exceptional properties, in this case "calculon".

Destination Moon ends with the launch of the first crewed rocket. Explorers on the Moon picks up the story immediately from this point. Tintin and the crew experience a blackout due to the acceleration, and then weightlessness when the motors are cut off, before being issued with magnetic boots.

A superficially bizarre incident occurs when the rocket encounters the asteroid Adonis. The English-language text tells us that this orbits between Jupiter and Mars. It doesn’t tell us why the rocket encounters it en route to the Moon! In fact, Adonis is an Apollo asteroid rather than belonging to the main belt, meaning that it orbits far closer to the Sun. Since it was discovered at the Royal Observatory of Belgium at Uccle in 1936, Hergé is likely to have been familiar with its existence, and with the fact that its orbit crosses that of Mars, Earth and Venus (although it isn’t likely ever to pass between Earth and the Moon). At the time he was writing, Adonis was actually considered lost - while it passes relatively close to Earth, its orbit is eccentric and measurements at the time were not sufficiently precise to relocate the asteroid after a seasonal break in observing. The idea that it might be unexpectedly relocated close to Earth was certainly plausible. It’s interesting to note that the phrasing in the French-language original was subtly different: instead of describing Adonis itself as orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, instead it commented that Adonis was a remnant of a planet that had once occupied that orbit - a theory current at the time to explain solar system asteroids. That isn’t to say that the science is flawless. The rocket is described as having problems due to the pull of Adonis - which is likely to be negligible compared to that of Earth and the Moon from any point between them. A human could jump off the surface of an asteroid this size without any particular difficulty - its escape velocity would be significantly less than walking pace, at just 2 miles an hour.

The cover of Herge's Explorers on the Moon. Image source: wikipedia. Image credit:tintinimaginatio

On reaching the Moon, the rocket turns over to land on its rocket motor in the Hipparchus crater, and the explorers encounter lunar gravity. An early spacewalk is almost catastrophically interrupted when an asteroid lands just a few metres behind Haddock and Tintin. Again, there’s some interesting space science here - the silent impact, the shockwave underfoot and the lack of atmospheric friction are all described.

We’re also told the explorers install a lunar astronomical observatory - a recurring theme in science fiction, which also foreshadows the extensive scientific experiments conducted by the Apollo missions and the more recent lunar landers. Interestingly, a panel tells us that the observations include ultraviolet spectroscopy - one of the key areas which is impossible from the ground, due to Earth's atmosphere, and for which a Moon-based observatory is well-suited.

After the discovery of ice-filled caves under the lunar surface, the story changes gear and sabotage and betrayal (rather than scientific discovery) become the centre of attention as the safe return of the explorers hangs in the balance.

Science and Adventure

Book cover of the exhibition guide Ils Ont Marche sur la Lune - de la fiction a la realiteSo, Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon have a large amount of then-current space science which adds both adventure and authority to the story. However this shouldn’t be surprising. Like many comic and science fiction creators of his time (for example, Frank Hampson, creator of Dan Dare), Hergé was known to undertake a considerable amount of research in the process of writing a story [3]. The distinctive rocket itself (and the model of it Hergé commissioned) was heavily inspired by the V2 rocket weapon, which had a very similar profile and checker-board outer colouring, although it has three spoiler veins rather than four. Hergé also visited scientific institutions and consulted with experts to gather background information. This was demonstrated in the context of these adventures at an exhibition, focussed on the Moon books, at the Centre Walloonie in Brussels in 1985, the (French-language) printed guide for which Ils Ont Marché sur la Lune - De la fiction a la realite goes into detail regarding Hergé's working methods and inspirations.

There was a similar 2007 exhibition of Hergé’s work at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. A review of this exhibition on the tintinologist website notes that:

“Moving on we come to Making Of, which charts the creation of the Moon books and gives a brilliant insight into Hergé’s working methods and how the Studios functioned. From books on astronomy we move onto letters to the scientist Bernard Heuvelmans, rough sketches and technical drawings (the atomic facilities, the Moon rocket, the Moon itself and a couple of detailed frames from the books), plus photographs of the model rocket Hergé had built. ”

Heuvelmans was indeed a strong influence on the initial conception of the Moon stories, as discussed in sources including the exhibition guide mentioned above, Hergé's own letters and biographies of the artist. He is perhaps best described as a self-taught or even pseudoscientist, with a strong interest in cryptozoology, and was himself influenced by science fiction. While he was a friend of Hergé, he might not have been the best guide on this topic. According to some sources, he suggested the existence of extensive water-worn ice caves under the lunar surface - which was already believed to be fairly unlikely at the time. However he does seem to have assisted with locating other information sources, and the level of research into the other technical aspects of the project undertaken by Hergé certainly do make it onto the page.

But from my perspective, what’s more interesting than what Hergé got right or wrong is the question of why he was motivated to undertake such extensive research. To some extent, this was to be expected - Hergé routinely invested research into his characters’ visits to other countries, and their adventures amidst other cultures. However the emphasis on visual accuracy regarding scientific phenomena in what is, after all, a stylised illustration is interesting. When compared to the exaggerated stereotypical features Hergé used for individuals, particularly non-Europeans, in his stories, the imagery of asteroid Adonis, the telescope in Shooting Star, the nuclear pile at the rocket base and other features is notably detailed and based on visits or technical advice.

As already mentioned, this is similar to the approach taken by Frank Hampson on Dan Dare, for which he also commissioned models and made extensive use of reference photographs. It’s also characteristic of other science fiction of the time. The 1950 movie Destination Moon was promoted for its attempt to accurately portray science, for example, and the writer of 1953 BBC radio drama Journey Into Space, Charles Chilton, also made determined efforts to seek out guidance and advice on making his writing accurate. Some writers, like W E Johns in his Kings of Space, explicitly stated that they wanted their science fiction to have pedagogical value - to teach young boys about aspects of modern spaceflight. Johns noted that such scientific knowledge would be key to the success of the youth of the day (who appeared to be entering a technical and space-oriented future).

However, another reason for the care taken by many writers of particularly children’s science fiction at the time was more practical: young people of the time were already informed about space, spaceflight and nuclear physics. These formed part of the cultural milieu and attracted the attention of children as much or more so than adults - as exemplified perhaps in Richmal Compton’s Just William series book William and the Moon Rocket (children’s novel, 1954). Thus, incorrect representations of space flight would break the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy the Tintin Moon books, and would also subject the author to a potential deluge of critical mail (something wryly noted by both Hampson and Chilton) from those who noticed the error. More, in order to keep a book exciting, writers had to go beyond the general knowledge - perhaps inspiring Hergé to include the Adonis incident (which also highlighted an asteroid discovered by his own friend at the Royal Observatory) as an opportunity to surprise young people who already felt they knew what a moon mission might look like.

 The enduring popularity of the two-part Tintin Moon adventure, and to a lesser extent The Shooting Star, show that Hergé’s educational efforts in no way detracted from the adventure and entertainment in the story.

Hergé’s foresightedness (in at least some aspects) was celebrated in 1969 when he drew a famous panel showing Tintin and Haddock welcoming Apollo 11 to the Moon, and later the same year when he was commissioned to write and illustrate an account of the Apollo 12 landing entitled They Explored the Moon for the Paris-Match magazine (this is featured on the exhibition guide cover shown above). His work has also been appreciated by the astronomical community: an asteroid, discovered by his friend Sylvain Arend the Royal Observatory at Uccle in 1953 (the year Explorers on the Moon was published), was named in Hergé’s honour at the request of the Belgian Astronomical Society in 1982. It is now known as minor planet (1652) Herge [4].

Having enthused generations of young people, Hergé’s astronomical books will continue to serve as time capsules of astronomical knowledge, interest and theory at their time, and how that was communicated in popular culture.


“Tintin in Space”, Elizabeth Stanway, Cosmic Stories blog. 16th June 2024.


[1] I’ll talk primarily about the English translations here as my limited French is not up to reading the original. [Return to text]

[2] In fact, in the story, Tintin claimed the asteroid just ahead of a competing mission from the fictional South American country of Sao Rico, or - less comfortably, given its context in the wartime French language original, the USA. [Return to text]

[3] Hergé’s working practices have been quite extensively researched. Information about research on the Moon stories, including sources, can be found in this document on or in Michael Farr’s Tintin: the complete companion. [Return to text]

[4] Amusingly, Tintin’s operatic character Bianca Castafiore (although not Tintin or Haddock themselves) was also given an asteroid of her own, also discovered by Arend at Uccle, as part of the same name allocation announcement! [Return to text]

All views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Warwick. All book cover illustrations are sourced from book retailers online. Hergé artwork is copyright to tintinimaginatio. Minimal imagery is used here for purposes of academic commentary and criticism.