Hergé’s concern for details and his talent for explaining may be the best explanation of the scientific accuracy in Tintin stories. Before he began a new story, Hergé collected background material about all the elements he would draw. Ships, for example, were always important and Hergé paid progressively more and more attention to them. The authenticity of “The Unicorn” in The Secret of the Unicorn is impressive,1 but most realistic are the “Ramona” and the submarine in The Red Sea Sharks.2
In fact, all vehicles are precise and realistic: cars, motorcycles, planes, and even rockets and roller skates. Hergé invented a new ultramodern airplane in Flight 714. This airplane had wings that, at that time, did not yet exist.3 So it is not surprising that Tintin stories remain modern.
Professor Calculus is the scientist of the comic strip. This genius invents the famous shark submarine and the nuclear-powered rocket which goes to the moon. Absent-minded scientists had long interested Hergé. One of the first examples was Nestor Halambique in King Ottokar’s Sceptre.4 Like many elements in Hergé’s work, Calculus was based on a real person, Professor Auguste Piccard.5 In contrast with Calculus’ physique and old-fashioned manners, his inventions are always at the forefront of progress. Calculus is an all-round scientist: he is a specialist in biology, nuclear physics, and electronics, as well as in zoology and oceanography.6
Throughout his career, Calculus uses his knowledge to create a diversity of inventions. During the war, he invented a machine to transform coal into combustible gas, an apparatus to brush clothes and a closet that is also a bed.7 One of his most famous inventions was the shark submarine in Red Rackham’s Treasure. This little submarine was equipped with electric engines, miniature batteries and oxygen-tanks with two hours of autonomy.8 Then in The Calculus Affair, during the Cold War, Calculus invented a weapon that uses ultrasound and may have inspired the Russian nationalist Vladimir Jirinovski.9 Less dangerous, his motorized roller skates in The Red Sea Sharks would be a dream for city dwellers. He also invented the color television set and elaborated a new white rose in The Castafiore Emerald. And his last invention, in Tintin and the Picaros, might be the most humanitarian: a pill against alcoholism. Nevertheless, his greatest success was the red and white nuclear-powered rocket which goes to the moon. When, in 1991, the McDonnell Douglas company tested a rocket with a single reusable stage, the press immediately referred to Calculus’s famous invention.10
In Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon, Hergé included a course in physics within the thrilling framework of moon exploration. Indeed, one of the interests of this adventure is its presentation of space research, which is a model of pedagogy. Hergé gives many explanations and they are not boring. Thanks to Captain Haddock’s sense of humor, one of the funniest scenes in Destination Moon is the explanation of the nuclear-powered rocket.11 Readers discover an atomic research center, an atomic pile, laboratories, etc. Moreover, they learn the necessity of having specialists in every subject to succeed in space-travel, and the necessity of doing many experiments on Earth, for example with spacesuits. This approach contrasts with the cliché of the scientist who builds his rocket alone, for example in H.G. Wells novel, The first Men in the Moon. And unlike the early aim in real space research, atomic energy and space conquest have only a peaceful use in Hergé.
Thirty years before Alexei Leonov, the first “space-swimmer”, Hergé described a plausible journey from Earth to Moon. The nuclear-powered rocket is the best example of his precision and his concern for details. Hergé had a model built by a specialist in spaceships. The rocket was inspired by the sadly famous German V2. In the comic strip, it works with a nuclear engine, using an auxiliary motor at launch and at landing in order to protect people from nuclear radiation. Twenty years later, Apollo 11 did not use such a rocket because scientists had not invented an atomic engine.12 In addition to his success in scientific explanations, Hergé dealt remarkably well with the human interest in Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon: the anguish before the start, communication with the Earth, the preparation before landing, and the emotion caused by first steps on the moon. In 1969, Tintin’s reader relived a familiar event.