How Science Fiction Seeded Space Engineering

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The Space Race would never have got off the ground without science fiction. It took fables of the impossible to fire up the imagination of space pioneers. Notably, the three godfathers of modern space rocketry, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Robert H. Goddard and Hermann Oberth, all attributed their passion for space to tales they read as children.

By the C19th, science fiction was mixing hard science with fantasy for greater narrative power. Jules Verne studied the physics of his day to add realism to his 1865 moon adventure, De la Terre à la Lune. His novel included calculations of the ‘force of impulsion‘ needed in relation to quantities of gunpowder and length of cannon to escape earth’s gravity. Yes, his spaceship is shot out of a giant cannon! Its inventor-astronauts are members of the Baltimore Gun-club, men with too much energy and knowledge of armaments to enjoy the peace that ‘breaks out’ following the Civil War. Verne cannily pinpointed Florida as the ideal launch location.

Such detail was enough to inspire the young Konstantin Tsolkovsky to doodle designs for multistage boosters, space stations, airlocks and closed-cycle biological systems. ‘It seems to me the first seeds were planted by famous fantaseour, J. Verne,’he reflected. Becoming mentor to a whole generation of Russian space enthusiasts, Tsiolkovsky later wrote ‘technical’ science fiction to popularise his ideas. His rocket equation provided the theoretical underpinning for the velocity space rockets require for lift-off.

Meanwhile, an eleven-year old Transylvanian, Herman Oberth, was so smitten by Verne’s lunar tale that he memorised it. Then he worked out the maths and realised that the rate of acceleration Verne’s astronauts faced would kill them. Soon this prodigy was perfecting ideas for a multi-stage rocket to turn fiction into reality. In 1929, when his university rejected his PH.D thesis, Oberth self-published it as a book, Die Rakete zu den Planetraümen (By Rocket into Planetary Space). He immediately won a cult following amongst amateur rocketeers. One of these, Wernher von Braun, would later design the Saturn rocket that took men to the moon in 1969.

English author HG Wells scoffed at Verne’s cannon-fired propulsion of a spaceship. Yet his 1901 novel, First Men in the Moon, relied on an anti-gravity material called cavorite. Created accidentally, this new metal plated a spherical spaceship to achieve lift-off. In the shape of his craft, HG Wells anticipated the Earth’s first real spaceship, Vostok-1. But his version has cavorite sections with ‘roll-up’ like blinds to alter the anti-gravity force. Touché, responded Verne. ‘I make use of physics. He invents … (and) does away with the laws of gravitation. That is all very well but show me this metal. Let him produce it.’

NASA Images: Goddard with one of his test rockets in 1926

It was Well’s more chilling tale of a Martian invasion, that captivated American teenager, Robert H Goddard.  Wells had re-cast the space adventure as a dark military epic of colonisation, powered as much by weaponry as flying saucers. A year after reading Well’s novel, Goddard climbed a cherry tree and imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars’. The teenager became possessed with the conviction that it could be done. By 1926 he had launched the first liquid-fuelled rocket. But it was the day of his cherry-tree vision that Goddard commemorated every year as ‘Anniversary Day‘, keeping a photograph of the tree. A Martian fantasy had determined his life’s work.

To achieve breakthroughs, a scientist needs to be artful and imaginative. To be open to paradigm shifts requires creative thinking. The history of modern rocketry depended on an exchange of ideas that tested the boundaries of possibility. Speculative fiction was driving physicists to reach new heights.

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