Flights of fancy - Part II

Rocket pioneers lead the way

Martin Griffiths 23 September 2007

Trailblazing: detail from the cover of Donald A. Wollheim's space novel

Man had to evolve towards a more enlightened state, a state that could only be achieved by means of spaceflight

Editor’s note: Although science and scientists can be useful elements of stories, whether science fiction or ‘lab lit’, the reverse can also be true. Here, in the first second of three installments, astronomer Martin Griffiths explores how the fictional inspiration facilitated the development of the first rockets.

Russian initiative

The writer, physicist and mathematician Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was not the only individual born in the 19th century who would influence spaceflight with his writings. In 1881, a 27-year-year-old nihilist named Nikolai Kibalchich was condemned to death for his part in assassinating Alexander II. Kibalchich had joined the People’s Front, a revolutionary movement, as their explosives expert due to his grounding in chemistry and physics. Just a few days before his own death, Kibalchich wrote from prison that he would meet death calmly, “knowing that my idea will not perish with me”. He meant neither his political goals nor his bomb-making expertise. Kibalchich was also revolutionary in scientific thinking.

V. P. Mikhailov praised him for making “the first step in the history of space flight” (AAS 1984:67). That accolade was based on Kibalchich’s prophecy, a flying machine propelled by an engine fuelled by “slow-burning explosives”. In other words, a rocket engine – which other Russians, notably Tsiolkovsky and Tsander, soon imagined might be suitable for travel in space.

Kibalchich became an inspiration in a scientific sense for Tsiolkovsky. Here at last was an individual thinking along the same lines, a visionary who shared the dream of escape. Tsiolkovsky was somewhat less than a revolutionary. A bespectacled high school teacher of mathematics and physics deafened by scarlet fever as a young boy, then orphaned, Tsiolkovsky lived a withdrawn, introverted life in Kaluga, a small town south of Moscow. His introversion gave him an almost unique insight into the physical problems of spaceflight, untrammelled as his mind was by the ordinary struggle of everyday life and human interaction. As we have seen, he was not only active in writing fictional stories of life and travel in space, but eventually became one of the foremost theoreticians involved in the design of engines, rocket bodies, satellites and space habitats. His fictional background also allowed him not only to speculate on man’s future in space but also to concern himself with the philosophical implications of escaping the Earth and travelling through interplanetary and ultimately interstellar space. His physical investigations coupled with his literary output enabled him to ponder the place and impact of man upon the cosmos.

His main work on this subject was The Ethics or the Natural Foundations of Morality written between 1902 and 1918. In 1932, five years before his death, Tsiolkovsky returned to his philosophical theme when he wrote The Cosmic Philosophy. The influence of his visionary fiction is clearly evident here. Not content with liberating mankind from the shackles of gravity, his ideology was to achieve happiness not only for humanity, but also for all the living beings in the Cosmos, in fact for the entire universe. Tsiolkovsky interpreted his philosophical calling in the light of Darwinian selection and biological determinism. In his estimation, life was widespread in the universe, and had to evolve towards a more enlightened state, a state that could only be achieved by means of spaceflight. According to Tsiolkovsky’s “Cosmic Philosophy” (Tsiolkovsky & Starchild 1979:14), the main task is

initially to study the main laws which rule the Universe. To do so, we must have direct experience of the universe which will only be available once we are living in outer space. To begin that long period of our evolution, we will have to design large manned space rockets. The first space flight will therefore be the beginning, not only of the new era of space exploration; of Space Culture in human history; it will be the beginning of our evolution toward happiness. (Tsiolkovsky & Starchild 1979:14)

Despite the pretensions of his philosophy, Tsiolkovsky concentrated on the technical task in hand, publishing over five hundred works about space travel and related subjects. These included the design and construction of space rockets, steerable rocket engines, multi-stage boosters, space stations, life in space and much more. His notebooks are filled with sketches of liquid-fuelled rockets, detailed combustion chamber designs with steering vanes in the exhaust plume for directional control, double-walled pressurized cabins to protect from meteorites, gyroscopes for attitude control, reclining seats to protect from high G loads at launch, air locks for exiting the spaceship into the vacuum of space, and other amazingly accurate predictions of space travel. Many of these designs were completed before the first powered airplane flight in 1903. He determined correctly that the escape velocity from the Earth into orbit was 8 km/second, and that this could be achieved by using a multi-stage rocket fuelled by liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. He predicted the use of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen or liquid oxygen and kerosene for propulsion, spinning space stations for artificial gravity, mining asteroids for materials, space suits, the problems of eating, drinking, and sleeping in weightlessness, and even closed-cycle biological systems, what we prosaically call hydroponic farms, to provide food and oxygen for space colonies (Baker 1984:77).

American dreams

Tsiolkovsky may have thought of himself as a loner in a world of his imagination, but on the other side of the world, unnoticed, an American physicist and self-taught engineer was pondering the same questions, and achieving the same solutions, as Tsiolkovsky.

Robert Hutchings Goddard was entranced by the possibility of spaceflight. Reading a serialization of Wells’ War of the Worlds, he would daydream whilst sitting in the boughs of a cherry tree on his aunt’s farm in Auburn, Massachusetts. Pondering the existence of life on other worlds, a thought began to take shape and grow in his fertile mind.

According to his own account (Goddard 1970:59), he recalled that

[i]t was one of the quiet, colourful afternoons of sheer beauty which we have in October in New England, and as I looked toward the fields at the east, I imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars, and how it would look on a small scale, if sent up from the meadow at my feet. I was a different boy when I descended the tree from when I ascended, for existence at last seemed very purposive.

He devoted the rest of his life to building such a machine, independently arriving at the same conclusions as Tsiolkovsky. But unlike his Russian counterpart, who never built a rocket or component parts, Goddard actually produced the first liquid-fuelled rocket and launched it in 1926. He continued on through the 1930s and 40s building rockets of increasing size and sophistication, patenting his invention of gyroscopic steering, combustion chambers, nozzles and vanes – turning the dream into reality and collaborating ultimately with his Russian and Hungarian counterpart. That revelation in the cherry tree, inspired by science fiction, led directly to the fulfilment of SF prophecy: the manned Moon landings.

These important pioneers in the history of spaceflight were ultimately joined by the Transylvanian Hermann Oberth. His interest in space travel was awakened at the age of eleven by the books of Jules Verne, From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon and Lasswitz’s novel On Two Planets. Although he was initially determined to become a medical doctor like his father, World War I intervened and Oberth joined the Austro-Hungarian army and was sent to the front. Receiving a leg wound in action, he was invalided home with vivid memories of the suffering that the medical profession could do little to stem. After consulting with his family, his studies took a different direction and he returned to university to concentrate literally upon everything, taking in turns engineering, chemistry, physics, mathematics and astronomy. He concluded his studies in Munich, Göttingen and Heidelberg in 1923 with a dissertation entitled Rockets Into Interplanetary Space which, however, was rejected by the professional committee at the time as being too utopian and incredible. Nevertheless, the work was printed privately and caused great controversy in the world press when it won a prestigious French newspaper prize, enabling Oberth to continue his studies and designs with a certain measure of financial security (Rauschenbach 1994:67). His thesis contained the basics of high-altitude research via sounding rockets, which he christened his “Model B”. He also had a “Model E” in mind, a man-carrying rocket for two men that would be left in orbit around the Earth, while the men returned to the ground by means of a small rocket vehicle similar in size and form to the later Apollo command modules.

Throughout his life, Oberth, like Tsiolkovsky, retained a strong interest in science fiction, a love reflected in his construction of a high-altitude rocket for the premiere of the movie Die Frau in Mond” by the Austrian director Fritz Lang, a production for which he was scientific advisor. This cross-disciplinary approach to science and art led to him later becoming the technical director of the 1950 George Pal film Destination Moon. He became a member of the German rocket society VfR and launched his first rocket in 1931, with another young man inspired by the science fiction of Lasswitz and Verne: Wernher von Braun.

During World War II Oberth become a technician and director at Peenemunde, where with von Braun he developed the V2 ballistic rocket. Surrendering to the Americans and being repatriated to the United States, Oberth became an advisor to the army and director of several rocket projects, utilizing captured V2s that had been secretly shipped over from Europe, to catalyse the genesis of the US army programme which would culminate with the launch of Alan Shephard on a Redstone rocket in May 1961.

However, Oberth became disillusioned with the American programme, and could see that, as with the Germans during the war, America was merely interested in the weapons capability of rockets rather than as a means to explore space (Rauschenbach 1994:217). In 1948 he left the programme to become an independent consultant and writer in high-altitude research, eventually moving to Switzerland before settling in Germany. In 1953 he released his book Man in Space, in which he described his ideas for a space reflector, a space station, space suits, and spaceships with electric or ion drives. Akin to Tsiolkovsky before him, he too was interested in the philosophical consequences of spaceflight, pondering, like his heroes Verne and Lasswitz before him, man’s place in an immense cosmos into which he was journeying for the first time.

How did the science fiction visualization of space exploration affect others besides the three recognized pioneers of spaceflight? Given the essentially European connection between early SF and rocketry, was the field in Great Britain affected in a similar way?

Next week: the UK weighs in.

References for all three parts of this series

Aldiss, B & Harrison, H: Farewell Fantastic Venus!, Panther, London: 1971.

Bainbridge, WS: The Spaceflight Revolution: A Sociological Study, Wiley InterScience, New York:1976.

Baker, D: Conquest: A History of Space Achievements from Science Fiction to the Shuttle. Windward, England: 1984.

Burgess, E: Rocket Propulsion, Chapman & Hall, London: 1954.

Burgess, E: Satellites & Space Flight, Scientific Book Club, London: 1959.

Burrows, W: This New Ocean – A History of the First Space Age, Random House, New York: 1998.

Carter, PA: The Creation of Tomorrow – Fifty Years of Magazine Science Fiction, Columbia University Press, New York: 1972.

Clarke, AC: The View From Serendip, Fontana, London: 1978.

Clarke, AC: Profiles of the Future, Granada, London: 1983.

Clute, J & Nicholls, P: The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, Granada, London: 1979.

Franklin, BH: Future Perfect – American Science Fiction of the 19th Century, Rutgers University Press, New Jersey: 1966.

Goddard, RH: The Papers of Robert Hutchins Goddard, McGraw-Hill, New York: 1970. Hill, CN: A Vertical Empire – The History of the UK Rocket and Space Programme 1950-1971, Imperial College Press, London: 2001.

Lasswitz, K: Two Planets; published in German under the original title Auf Zwei Planeten Verlag B Elischer Nachfolger, Leipzig: 1897.

Lethbridge, C: History of Rocketry, Spaceline Inc., Cape Canaveral: 2000.

Lottman, H: Jules Verne, St, Martins Press, New York: 1996.

Moskowitz, S: Olaf Stapledon – The Man Behind the Works, Random House, New York: 1977.

Rabkin, E: Science Fiction – An Historical Anthology, Oxford University Press, Oxford: 1983.

Rauschenbach, BV: Hermann Oberth: The Father of Space Flight 189-1989, West Art Publishing, New York: 1994.

Stapledon, O: Last & First Men ,Methuen, London: 1931.

Tsiolkovsky, K and Starchild: The Science Fiction of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, University of the Pacific Press, Seattle: 1979.

American Astronautical Society History Series History of Rocketry and Astronautics, Conference proceedings, Lausanne, Switzerland:1984.

Mikhailov, VP, The Contributions of K. E. Tsiolkovsky and Other Native Scientists to the Technology of Rocket Launching, p.67.

Burgess, E: The Smaller British Societies Devoted to Astronautics and Interplanetary Flight , p. 73.