Humanity has been obsessed with exploring the stars for millennia, it just took a little while for us to obtain the means of actually doing so. In his new book, The Art of Space, author Ron Miller explores both how we developed the technology necessary for space travel and how that technology has steadily migrated from science fiction to science fact.
From Earth To Orbit
For a modern invention synonymous with cutting-edge technology, the spaceship has a surprisingly long pedigree, one that goes back more than 200 years. For centuries people have dreamed of travelling to the moon and the other worlds in our solar system.
Image: Jack Coggins
For a long while, man’s ambition to leave earth had to remain dreams: there was no realistic way to make such journeys, so authors fell back on fantasy and magic. But in 1783, an amazing new invention brought these dreams one step closer to reality: a hot-air balloon, the brainchild of pioneering brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier. For the first time in history a human being could rise higher into the sky than the distance they could jump. And it had been accomplished not by magic or occult means, but by the use of a man-made machine, a device of science. If it were possible for a human being to lift himself half a mile (805 meters) from the surface of the earth, then surely a flight to the moon was merely a matter of scale?
As the nineteenth century progressed, popular literature reflected the growing belief that science and engineering could make the impossible possible. Inspired by advances in technology and exploration, Edgar Allan Poe introduced scientific verisimilitude into his stories. His novelette The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall (1835), in spite of its satirical comic overtones, was packed with realistic and well-researched details — so much so that his description of a high-altitude balloon flight sounds like one of the stratosphere balloon flights of the 1930s and 1950s.
Image: Darrell Romick
Poe was the first author since Johannes Kepler to take the scientific basis of a fictional story seriously, and consequently was a major influence on Jules Verne. The hardcore realism of Verne’s classic space novels — From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon — influenced the development of astronautics more than any other author of fiction. The founding pioneers of spaceflight — such as Hermann Oberth, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and others — all admitted to owing their introduction to spaceflight to Jules Verne.
In the first decades of the twentieth century, the problem of spaceflight gradually evolved away from the purely speculative and theoretical, to be replaced by a more developmental approach. It was far simpler, cheaper, and safer to experiment with small-scale rockets than with full-size spaceships; it was realised very early on that the exploration of space would be a fabulously expensive and difficult proposition.
In 1903, the great Russian theoretician Konstantin Tsiolkovsky published the first of his spacecraft designs. It employed liquid fuel and gyroscopic stabilisation, and in outward appearance his spaceship laid the groundwork for the modern spaceship to come.
Twenty years later Hermann Oberth published his seminal Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (The Rocket in Planetary Space), one of the theoretical 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: a bullet-shaped hull standing erect on the tips of four fins. Oberth’s spaceship formed the basis for the design of the spaceship Friede in Fritz Lang’s 1929 motion picture Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon), the first realistic spaceship in movie history.
Image: Julie Rodriguez Jones
During the 1920s and 1930s, three highly influential organisations were formed: the Verein für Raumschiffarht (or VfR, the German Society for Spaceship Travel), the American Interplanetary Society (later the American Rocket Society) and the British Interplanetary Society (BIS, the only one of the three to exist in more or less its original form today). The VfR launched the first European liquid fuel rockets and in 1939 the BIS published the results of the first-ever detailed scientific and engineering study for a manned lunar rocket and lander. Later, ex-members of the ARS formed the private companies that produced wartime rockets and JATO (Jet-Assisted Take Off) units for the United States military and, later, the propulsion systems for the first American rocket-propelled aircraft.
Meanwhile, amid all these technological developments, the legacy of the Montgolfier brothers survived. High-altitude balloonists were taking their “spaceships” to the limits of the earth’s atmosphere (by the mid-1930s altitudes of 12 miles [19 kilometers] or more were being reached), and rocket-powered gliders and aircrafts were being built and piloted by Germans and Russians.
When the first successful launch of the V2 took place in 1942, General Walter Dornberger saw the rocket soar to an altitude of 53 miles (85 kilometers). “Do you realise what we accomplished today?” he exclaimed. “Today the spaceship was born!” With the reality of the V2 and the practicality of manned rocket aircraft demonstrated, space travel was transported into the immediately foreseeable future.
It is both difficult to imagine and to underestimate the influence of the V2. It was far larger than any other rocket ever built and it flew faster, higher, and farther. And it looked great, helping it to take hold of the public imagination. More than just a rocket, it was a potential spaceship: the popular science writer and expatriate German rocket experimenter Willy Ley pointed out that the ton of explosives the V2 carried could easily be replaced by a pilot and life-support equipment.
Science-fiction moviemakers were not slow to pick up on the public’s burgeoning interest in space travel. George Pal’s Destination Moon (1950) was a big-budget epic about the first rocket trip to the moon. Told with documentary-style realism, it was the first serious film about spaceflight since Frau im Mond. There were a handful of other space-inspired movies during that decade, but a peak was reached with the Collier’s magazine-inspired spacecraft in George Pal’s Conquest of Space (1955). The graceful toroidal space station, a delta-winged ferry rocket, space taxis, and the elegant Mars glider are all brought to the screen in colour and with extraordinary realism.
All of the great spaceships that took humans to the moon, the Space Shuttle, and the spaceships that may take us to the planets and stars are all direct descendants of these early dreams and designs. Today’s rockets have gotten bigger and more sophisticated, but they all share the same genes as Jules Verne’s projectile and the V2.
Image: Jim Burns
The notion of actually living in space on an artificial satellite has a history that parallels but does not quite duplicate that of the spaceship. The idea might be attributed to Jonathan Swift. In Gulliver’s Travels (1726) he described the flying island of Laputa.
Where earlier writers would have resorted to magic or occultism, Swift, already under the early influence of a renaissance in science and technology, had his 4.5-mile-(7.2-kilometer)-diameter circular island kept aloft by “magnetic levitation.”
However, while Laputa hovered permanently above the earth’s surface, it wasn’t a true space station. That idea wasn’t invented for another 150 years. In The Brick Moon (1869), American clergyman and author Edward Everett Hale became the first to describe an artificial earth satellite. Hale not only foresaw the space station, but its use as an aid to navigation, geodetics, mapping, reconnaissance, communications, sea surveillance, bioscience, meteorology, human habitation, and orbital rendezvous.
Image: Ron Miller
The first serious attempt at designing a realistic space station was made by Hermann Potočnik (writing as Hermann Noordung). In 1929, he described an orbiting laboratory that anticipated almost every detail of today’s space stations. When his design appeared for the first time in English, it was accompanied by a painting by the ubiquitous Frank R. Paul — the first time a space station had ever been depicted in a colour illustration.
Noordung’s design was adapted and improved a decade later by the British Interplanetary Society, and illustrated by their own R. A. Smith — an engineer-artist who also contributed to the final design. This space station ultimately led to one of the most beautiful, if not iconic, of all space station designs: the great wheel of Werner von Braun. Taking the ideas of Noordung and the BIS to an entirely different level of scale, von Braun’s rotating, 200-foot (61-meter) diameter station would have been home to 100 men and women, orbiting 1,075 miles (1,730 kilometers) above the earth. Von Braun’s concept was the direct inspiration for the giant double-wheeled station featured in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Image: Jim Burns
By the 1960s, NASA and the aerospace industry had begun taking the idea of a space station seriously and dozens of plans were proposed. The first real space station to orbit the earth was the Russian Salyut 1, launched in 1971. This was soon followed by the American Skylab, the Russian Mir, and, ultimately, the International Space Station.
Today, there are few plans for space stations as science labs. The next great era in space stations will more likely be in tourism, as space travel becomes ever more commercialized. Civilian tourists have already spent time at the International Space Station while SpaceShipOne, the prototype for the first commercial, passenger-carrying spacecraft, was test-flown in 2004.
Excerpted with permission from The Art of Space: The History of Space Art, from the Earliest Visions to the Graphics of the Modern Era by Ron Miller
Lead image: Pat Rawlings