Authors: Octave Uzanne
By and large, the propulsive method of choice for the last century (and, for that matter, well into this one) was antigravity, which was, in reality, only the magic and occultism of previous centuries given a pseudoscientific guise. The important difference is that it was felt necessary to put on that guise. And no matter what the method of propulsion ultimately chosen, writers still had to deal with the known reality of conditions beyond the Earth’s atmosphere and on other planets. The airlessness of the interplanetary void, its extremes of cold and heat, the danger of meteorites, the problem of providing food and oxygen . . . all had to be dealt with believably, especially since the facts of astronomy were quite well known to the science-knowledgeable nineteenth century reader. Between the time of Jules Verne’s two lunar novels and the flight of the first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926, most of the theoretical groundwork for spaceflight was laid, and most of the possibilities had been imagined. To mention a very few:
Edward Everett Hale described the first artificial manned satellite in his novelette
The Brick Moon
(1869)*, in which he listed nearly every function applied to modern satellites. The story describes the launch of a 200-foot sphere (made of brick to withstand the heat generated by atmospheric friction—and thereby anticipating the ceramic heat shields of today’s spacecraft). Once in orbit, the artificial moon acted as a navigational aid while its passengers transmitted observations regarding weather, crops, etc. back to the Earth.
In 1881 Hermann Ganswindt first described his interplanetary spaceship. While never quite grasping the principles of rocket propulsion, Ganswindt did take into consideration the possible need for artificial gravity. He created this by spinning his spacecraft; he anticipated Hermann Oberth by nearly forty years by suggesting that two spacecraft could be joined by a cable and spun around their common center. Although he made errors in detail, he was one of the first to suggest the use of rockets in spaceflight, and the drawing he commissioned to illustrate his invention is one of the few nineteenth century depictions of a manned rocket operating in space.
The year 1880 saw the appearance in
magazine of the charming short story “A Christmas Dinner With the Man in the Moon”* by Washington Gladden. The giant spaceliner
traveled to the Moon on the “great electric currents” that passed between the Earth and its satellite. The iron hull of the spaceship was magnetized to take advantage of the currents. The
was spindle-shaped and equipped with giant paddle wheels that raised it to the upper atmosphere. Because of the thinning atmosphere, Gladden equipped his passengers with respirators.
A sign of the changing times came with the publication, in 1880, of Percy Greg’s two-volume novel,
Across the Zodiac*.
In the story, a mysterious force called “apergy” was used to negate gravity, providing the means for a voyage through space to Mars. The spaceship
was a monstrous affair with 3-foot thick metal walls. The deck and keel were described as “absolutely flat, and each one hundred feet in length and fifty in breadth, the height of the vessel being about twenty feet.” The apergy receptacle was placed above the generator, both located in the center of the ship, and from there “descended right through the floor a conducting bar in an antapergetic sheath, so divided that without separating it from the upper portion the lower might revolve in any direction through an angle of twenty minutes.” This sheath was used to direct a “stream of repulsive force” against the Sun or any other body.
Greg’s “apergy” was apparently such an appealing element that it appeared in several other novels, notably John Jacob Astor’s
A Journey in Other Worlds
(1894)*. It is not particularly important what happened on Mars, which was reached in a little over 40 days. What is important is that the red planet was beginning to receive the attention of writers of space fiction that it astronomically deserves. By the onset of World War I more than one hundred novels and stories had been published, all dealing with flights to Mars. All of this was a result of increasing observational knowledge about the planet itself and the development of some meticulously worked-out concepts of the origin of the Solar System, of which Mars was an especially interesting component. It was the period of the discovery of canali on Mars by Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli (who interpreted them as naturally occurring channels or grooves) and their popularization—or perhaps sensationalization—by Percival Lowell (to whom they were artificially constructed canals), the discovery in 1877 of Mars’s two small Moons by Asaph Hall (which up-to-date Greg described), and of other phenomena that seemed to suggest that Mars might be much like the Earth, only older. For years, Lowell excited professionals and laymen alike with his proposition that Mars was inhabited by an advanced race of intelligent beings.
Auf zwei Planeten
carried the Mars theme several notches higher in the literary scale. Published in 1897 (but not translated into English until 1971 as
it took a very logical look at the supposition that since Mars was the happy abode of a higher intelligence than Earth, it would not be Earthmen who would first go to Mars, but rather the opposite. Thus, it was Martian space travelers who flew to the Earth and set up a base on the North Pole. Why they chose such a seemingly inconvenient location is explained in the dialogue: “You must realize . . . that the Martians can only land on Earth in the areas of the north or south poles. Their spaceships try, as soon as they have reached the outer border of the atmosphere, to approach in the direction of the axis of the Earth. But it is dangerous for them to enter the atmosphere. Therefore, everyone agreed with the suggestion my father had made to build a station outside the atmosphere but in the direction of the axis of the Earth, on which the ships would remain and from where they would descend to the Earth in a different manner.” The method of crossing space relied on a gravity-nullifying material, although the actual propulsion was provided by rockets. Lasswitz’s novel was enormously influential on the growing interest in rocketry and spaceflight then taking place in Germany.
Capitalizing on the growing popularity of Mars, H. G. Wells wrote his acclaimed
War of the Worlds*,
serialized in magazine form in 1897 and published as a book in 1898. The story dealt with the hair-raising tale of a Martian invasion of our planet. What appeared initially to be a successful conquest of the Earth ended in failure as Wells had the Martians die from terrestrial diseases against which their organisms had no defense. In a retaliatory vein, American astronomer Garrett P. Serviss wrote
Edison’s Conquest of Mars,
which began serialization even before the last installment of the Wells novel saw print! In this story, Serviss created the first-ever scenes of massed fleets of interplanetary spaceships. Serviss was an experienced astronomer and science writer, and while he was eventually to write far better-polished fiction, this, his first novel, has a much more sound scientific basis than even the Wells original.
In 1889 a three-volume set of novels,
Aventures extraordinaires d’un savant Russe
(The Extraordinary Adventures of a Russian Scientist) by G. Le Faure and H. de Graffigny, was published. It is a veritable catalog of imaginative spacecraft, ranging from Vernian projectiles to rockets to solar sails. The three books dealt with adventures on the Moon, the inner planets, comets, asteroids and the giant outer planets. A fourth volume,
Les mondes stellaires,
was published but immediately withdrawn and destroyed with the result that only a handful of copies are reported to have survived.
Perhaps the most astonishing, if not most imaginative, method of travelling to the Moon was described in Andre Laurie’s 1887 novel,
Conquest of the Moon*
. An entire iron ore-rich mountain is turned into a titanic electromagnetic by means of electricity generated by batteries of solar-powered generators. The plan is to draw the Moon down to the surface of the Earth. The plan backfires when, just as the Moon is about to make contact with the surface of our planet, the mountain—inhabitants and all—is ripped bodily from the Earth and lands on the Moon.
By the end of the nineteenth century science had made amazing strides and atomic-powered spacecraft were now being described. Garrett Serviss’
A Columbus of Space
* (1909) was one of the first novels to include a spacecraft explicitly powered by nuclear energy, even if the details were a little vague. This can’t be said of the Flying Ring in
, a novel published in 1915 by Robert Wood and Arthur Train. It is propelled on a mission to intercept an asteroid by a beam of alpha particles produced by the disintegration of uranium. (Not only were the authors the first ever to suggest the potential danger of an asteroid collision with the Earth, and to suggest a solution identical to those being proposed today, they included one of the first female astronauts in literature, the amazing Rhoda Gibbs.)
With the dawn of the new century, the spaceship as we know it today had been fully developed in the fiction of the age.
IV The Experimenters
The problem of spaceflight gradually evolved away from the purely speculative and theoretical. A more or less developmental approach was undertaken by those interested in the possibilities of spaceflight, though this approach was in many ways dictated as much by necessity as by intent. It was far simpler, cheaper and safer to experiment with small-scale rockets than with full-size spaceships; it was realized very early on that the exploration of space would be a fabulously expensive and difficult proposition.
In 1903 Tsiolkovsky published the first of his spacecraft designs; it employed liquid fuel and gyroscopic stabilization. In outward appearance his spaceship laid the groundwork for the modern spaceship to come.
Between 1913 and 1916, Andre Mas, Drouet and Henri de Graffigny devised schemes for centrifugally launched spacecraft, thrown from the rims of rapidly-spinning flywheels. Arthur Train and Robert Wood described the Flying Ring, a 66-foot-diameter torus propelled by an atomic motor suspended in gimbals from the apex of a tripod over the center of the doughnut-shaped ship. The fuel was uranium, producing a beam of alpha particles as it disintegrated.
The year 1923 saw the publication of Hermann Oberth’s seminal
Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen
(The Rocket in Planetary Space), one of the theoreticial cornerstones of modern spaceflight. In it he first proposed his “Model E,” an enormous manned rocket that finally settled the outward form of the classic spaceship. It was an artillery-shell-shaped hull 100 feet tall and 30 feet in diameter that stood erect on the tips of four big fins. Oberth later elaborated upon the design in the 1929 revised edition of his book,
Wege zur Raumschiffahrt
(Ways to Spaceflight). In it he described a fictional circumlunar flight by the Model E spaceship
(on June 14, 1932). It was a three-stage rocket launched from the Indian Ocean. The pilots were ensconced in a small cabin shaped like an oblate spheroid, contained in the nose of the third stage. This was equipped with a parachute for the final descent to the Earth. Oberth, with his typical meticulous care, considered every detail: how his crew were to eat in free fall, waste disposal, heating and cooling, etc.
Oberth’s Model E formed the basis for the design of the spaceship
which he provided for Fritz Lang’s 1929 motion picture
Frau im Mond,
the first realistic spaceship in movie history.
At about this same time rocketry pioneer Max Valier was actively publishing his own designs for spacecraft. A hyperactive proselytizer of space flight, he lectured all over Europe while his magazine articles were republished in every language all over the world. His influence over the popular conception of space travel was equaled only by that of Wernher von Braun in the 1950s.
Although Valier evolved his spaceship from existing aircraft—they even took off more or less horizontally from inclined ramps—the final design was aesthetically more pleasing than Oberth’s rather ultrafunctional rockets. Valier’s final design was a chunky streamlined spindle with curved fins at the rear and two outrigger nacelles containing the rocket motors near the front of the craft. A similar design, but with the rockets in the rear, would have been launched from the back of an enormous rocket-powered flying wing. This version was elaborated upon in Otto Willi Gail’s novel
Hans Hardt’s Mondfahrt
(Rocket to the Moon) (1930)*.
Gail, combining the ideas of Valier and Oberth, described the spaceship
Der Schuss ins All
(A Shot Into Infinity) (1925)*—a three-stage rocket with folding wings (a feature of which Oberth disapproved). It reappeared in
Der Stein vom Mond
(The Stone From the Moon) (1926)*, along with the space station
In this novel—which mixed space travel with the bizarre “Cosmic Ice Theory” of Hörbiger then popular in Germany—the spaceship
made a voyage to Venus (where it remained in orbit while a small lander made the actual descent).
R. H. Romans’ novel
The Moon Conquerors
(1930)* described the 1945 flight of the spaceship
The rocket was the result of an international competition for the best scheme for reaching space (152 of the submitted plans “were for a Goddard rocket”). It was a slender torpedo with narrow fins running its length. Romans described the rocket in some detail. It was launched horizontally, its initial velocity provided by an electromagnetic cannon. For propulsion between the Earth and the Moon, it used the pressure of light on special black vanes.
(The electromagnetic cannon itself—aka the “mass driver” —was invented by engineer E.F. Northrup. He built numerous working models and eventually described his work in the strange novel
Zero to Eighty*
(1937), in which he developed the idea as applied to the launching of spacecraft.)