It might be nearly 50 years since humans first walked on the Moon but in our mind’s eye we’ve been there for 2000 years or more. Who can doubt that our most distant ancestors looked at the Moon and the stars and wondered what they are and what it is like there? And it’s those thoughts and imaginings that gave birth to what we now call science fiction, because humans love to wonder. And what they can’t reach, they create.

Genuine science fiction goes hand-in-glove with the development of science and technology. But in the absence of the latest science, writers will use their fertile imagination.

Science fiction has been around for far longer than the phrase itself, which was only coined in 1929, but the idea of imagining life on other worlds has a long history. The ancient Greeks and Romans pondered much about the Moon. In the first century AD, Plutarch mused 'On the Face that Can be Seen in the Orb of the Moon', Lucian satirised the tall travel tale in True History, where a ship is taken to the Moon by a waterspout and its crew are involved in a war between the Moon and the Sun, and Antonius Diogenes marvelled 'Of Wonderful Things Beyond Thule' [thule being the classical concept of the most northerly point] where his protagonists almost walk to the Moon. These all raised the same questions that haunt us still: is there life out there and can we reach it?

Since the first probes were sent to Mars in 1965 and the first manned lunar landing occurred in 1969, we have come to believe that we know many of the answers. But before then – the era of true classic SF – we could cling to our beliefs about whether there was life on these worlds.

In the earliest days writers exercised caution because suggesting life elsewhere was heresy. But they didn’t worry about how they got there. So the journey to the Moon was either by bird, or a giant spring, or anything that seemed a good idea at the time.

Even the German astronomer Johannes Kepler, one of the leading scientists of his day, took his hero to the Moon by demon, although it was in a dream. Yet Kepler’s Somnium, published posthumously in 1634, was a serious attempt to use the scientific knowledge of the day to consider what life may be like there. Kepler deduced that there’d be little breathable atmosphere, not proven until after his death, and he considered how the extremes of temperature between night and day would be harmful to life unless it survived underwater. When Galileo first observed the Moon by telescope in 1609 he had wondered if the dark plains were seas. These were called mare, by the Polish astronomer Johann Hevelius in 1647.

Few scientists wrote fiction, so the scribblers of the day could concoct anything they wished. The French swordsman and wit Cyrano de Bergerac came up with such forms of travel as giant magnets or dew being sucked up by the sun … but he wasn’t entirely crazy - he suspected that rockets might do the trick. Admittedly toy rockets, but plenty of them, which took him to the Moon in L’autre Monde [The Other World], written in around 1650. No one else thought of rockets for two hundred years.

The German astronomer Eberhard Kindermann used the idea of evacuated - or vacuum - globes to raise his ship beyond the Earth. Der Geschwinde Reise (The Speedy Journey, 1744) is the first fictional trip to Mars. Kindermann depicted Mars with two moons, which were not discovered until 1877. Jonathan Swift had also guessed this in Gulliver’s Travels in 1726, but Kindermann claimed he’d actually seen them.

After the Montgolfier Brothers made their first balloon flight in 1783, balloons became all the rage and for the next half century almost all lunar flights were by balloon. The first was Le Char Volant [The Flying Chariot] written the same year by the Belgian Baroness de Vasse. When her travellers reached the Moon they discovered it was a utopia, ruled by women, unlike the hell of Earth, ruled by men.

It had been speculated that space was a vacuum since the 1640s but no one could quite believe it, and hardy space travellers took little precaution. Edgar Allan Poe was more practical. When his hero went to the Moon by balloon in Hans Phaall in 1835 he took the precaution of placing him in a sealed basket with an air condenser.

Poe’s planned sequel to Hans Phaall was frustrated when just weeks after it was published his thunder was stolen by a several articles in the New York Sun newspaper claiming that the great astronomer, Sir John Herschel, had discovered life on the moon. They described trees, seas and a host of creatures including bat-winged humans. Englishman Richard Adams Locke, then living in New York, later admitted writing the pieces as a hoax. But it convinced many around the world, finding a particularly gullible readership in France. It has been known as the Great Moon Hoax ever since, and triggered people’s interests in the possibility of life beyond Earth.

Writers were still struggling to get people to the moon by any credible means. In From the Earth to the Moon (1865) Jules Verne fired his space capsule from a giant cannon, which would have had a devastating effect upon the passengers. Otherwise, Verne’s calculations for the launch and trajectory were sound. His voyagers were unable to land on the moon, as they had no cannon to fire them back, but their journey in the sequel, Round the Moon (1869), depicted a lifeless satellite. Amongst his predictions, Verne placed the launch site in Tampa, Florida, near the present Cape Canaveral, and his travellers returned to Earth in the Pacific Ocean—the accompanying illustration looking similar to the actual recovery of the Apollo missions a hundred years later.

George Tucker, Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Virginia, came up with a new concept in A Voyage to the Moon in 1827, namely lunarium, a substance which is attracted to the moon. This was the first idea of anti-gravity and was seized upon by later writers, including H. G. Wells, who in First Men in the Moon (1901) has his space capsule coated in 'cavorite' guided by shields that open and close. Wells could not resist having life under the lunar surface, because he was interested in describing alien cultures, having already considered future societies in The Time Machine (1895) and The Sleeper Wakes (1899). His moon-men, or Selenites, came in many shapes and sizes, in a strong hierarchical society.

By now, writers were turning their attention to Mars because of the growing belief that there was unlikely to be life on the Moon. Mars seemed a more likely prospect, especially when in 1882 the press reported that the Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli, had observed straight lines on Mars, which he called canali for channels but which were misinterpreted as canals. Most other astronomers could not see them but the leading American astronomer, Perceval Lowell, claimed he had and wrote a series of books on the subject, starting with Mars (1895) which convinced many that Mars must have intelligent life.

H. G. Wells typified the Martians as merciless, dependent upon their war machines when they seek to colonise Earth in The War of the Worlds (1898). Kurd Lasswitz portrayed rather more benign Martians in Auf Zwei Planeten (Of Two Planets, 1897) who are provoked into war by ignorant humans. The novel has not been fully translated into English but it had a huge influence in Germany and inspired the young Wernher von Braun, who invented the V2 rocket in the Second World War and went on to help develop the American space programme with the invention of the Saturn V rocket.

The Germans and Russians pioneered the study of rocket science – the West did not think rockets would work in space as there was nothing to thrust against. Konstantine Tsiolkovsky was the first to write a book about a rocket trip to the Moon, Vne Zemli (Out of the Earth) was finally published in 1920 but was not translated into English until 1960. Rocket societies were established in Germany, Britain and the United States and as a result English and American science-fiction writers at last realized this was how to reach the planets.

Until then authors still found absurd ways to travel. In Lieut. Gulliver Jones (1905) by Edwin Lester Arnold, our hero is whisked to Mars by a magic carpet. In A Princess of Mars (1917) the first of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s popular Martian series, John Carter finds himself on Mars by some form of astral travel. Burroughs’s Martian series came to typify the pulp adventure image of science fiction. Carter has greater strength and agility on Mars because of the lesser gravity. Burroughs describes two races of Martians. The warriors have green skin and two pairs of arms, whilst the scientists are red-skinned. Carter rescues the princess Dejah Thoris and thus was born the planetary romance. Its appeal has been huge and contributors include Leigh Brackett, C. L. Moore, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Philip José Farmer, Lin Carter and Michael Moorcock. The need for scientific accuracy took second place to heroic adventures.

But by the 1920s a degree of rigour was entering science fiction, mostly in the American magazines, thanks to the demands of Hugo Gernsback, who launched the first all-SF magazine, Amazing Stories, in 1926, and John W. Campbell, Jr., who became editor of Astounding Stories (later Analog) in 1938. Both wanted realistic fiction. Thus was born, in America at least, what has become called the Golden Age of Science Fiction, with authors including Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, A. E. van Vogt and British writers John Wyndham, Eric Frank Russell and Arthur C. Clarke. The Second World War and the lack of magazines meant that in Britain the Golden Age did not get going until the 1950s, which featured writers Brian W. Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, John Brunner, E. C. Tubb, William F. Temple, James White and many more.

It was in the SF magazines, during this period, that authors developed many ideas about the exploration of the Moon and Mars, covering almost every possibility still used in SF today. Robert A. Heinlein gave much attention to the colonisation of the Moon. The Man Who Sold the Moo' (1950) described the first manned trip by three-stage rocket, and considered how this might be financed and who owns the Moon. The main protagonist, Delos Harriman, could almost be the prototype for Elon Musk. In later stories Heinlein considered the use of the Moon as a nuclear base, the lives of early colonists and the likelihood of becoming homesick and, in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) the battle for independence by the Moon’s colonists.

It has been suggested that SF writers did not predict the extensive television coverage of the first Moon landing, but this had been proposed in Sub-Satellite (1928) by Charles Cloukey and The Moon is Death (1953) by Raymond F. Jones.

In Earthlight (1955) Arthur C. Clarke considered how the discovery of rare metals on the Moon led to hostilities over ownership, whilst in A Fall of Moondust (1961) tourists on the Moon struggle for survival when their rover sinks beneath a fine layer of dust. The danger of lunar exploration and colonisation had already been considered in Frank K. Kelly’s The Moon Tragedy (1933), John W. Campbell’s The Moon is Hell (1950) and Whatever Gods There Be (1961) by Gordon R. Dickson.

In the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) Arthur C. Clarke suggested that the Moon serves as a measure of humanity’s scientific advance when early explorers discover a monolith set there by another race. Clarke had first suggested this idea in The Sentinel (1951). In Rogue Moon (1960) Algis Budrys also described an alien labyrinth on the Moon and came up with a new way of reaching our satellite - via matter transmitter.

In Shoot at the Moon (1966) William F. Temple not only created a murder mystery on the Moon but also a unique form of life. By then, even though the Moon still contained great potential for stories, the likelihood of life faded and attention turned to Mars, which might still have life. Stanley G. Weinbaum’s A Martian Odyssey (1935) gave a delightful picture of the potential diversity of life on Mars, whilst P. Schuyler Miller emphasised how we must protect native species and not destroy them in The Forgotten Man of Space (1933).

Undoubtedly the most lyrical description of the colonisation of a dying Mars, complete with canals, are the stories by Ray Bradbury collected as The Martian Chronicles (1950). Bradbury kept the traditional view of Mars, but increasingly the hostile nature of the world has been recognized. A forerunner of Andy Weir’s The Martian (2011) may be found in Laurence Manning’s The Wreck of the Asteroid (1933). The idea of terraforming Mars into Earthlike conditions, described by Kim Stanley Robinson in Red Mars (1992) and its sequels had long been considered in SF. Both Walter M. Miller’s Crucifixus Etiam (1953) and E. C. Tubb’s Alien Dust (1955) show the problems arising from any attempt to oxygenate the planet. Poul Anderson went into intricate detail on how to terraform the Moon in To Build a World (1964). Frederik Pohl adapted the humans rather than the planet in Man Plus (1976).

Writers have never failed to find inspiration in both the Moon and Mars. Though some ideas may now seem dated, at the time they were fresh and can still entertain whilst showing how science has progressed. And as science advances so does science fiction, always trying to keep several steps ahead. In many ways, the Golden Age of science fiction is always with us.

Mike Ashley is the author and editor of more than one hundred books, and is one of the foremost historians of popular fiction. He is series consultant for British Library Science Fiction Classics and his books include Adventures in The Strand, Out of This World, and The Age of Storytellers: British Popular Fiction Magazines 1880–1950. His multi-volume history of science fiction magazines is published by Liverpool University Press. He is editor of Moonrise: the Golden Age of lunar adventures, and Lost Mars: the Golden Age of the Red Planet - both out now.