This essay first appeared in the February 2023 issue of Choice (volume 60 | issue 6).
The idea of space travel was probably not on the minds of people before the development of “fire arrow” rockets in 13th-century China. A. Bowdoin Van Riper explains in Rockets and Missiles that a fire rocket was simply composed of an arrow propelled by a packet of gunpowder, much like some fireworks in use today. These early devices, popular throughout Asia and Europe during the Middle Ages, were designed as weapons that could be effective at long distances. The thought of propelling someone through space using such an explosive device was probably considered fanciful if not downright foolish in those times. It took many centuries before rockets were recognized as a potential means of exploration in space and, finally, just plain transportation.
Notions of space travel likely originated from myths of human flight as reflected, for example, in the early Greek story of Daedalus (the “subtle engineer”) and his son flying out of Crete using wings made of feathers and wax, retold and illustrated in the 1970s by Penelope Farmer in Daedalus and Icarus. The desire to fly like a bird was debatably first put into practice by one Abbas ibn Firnas, a 9th-century North African living in Andalusia who reportedly flew a substantial distance on wings made of feathers, silk, and wood. In 7th-century China, too, large kites made of silk and bamboo had been used to take people on short flights primarily for military operations. The European Renaissance introduced more sophisticated approaches to flying using simple machines such as levers, pulleys, and rotors. But the earliest designs for flying machines created by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) had flaws that would have prevented them from flying. Leonardo’s drawings had little influence on flying machine design until his works were rediscovered at the time of the European Industrial Revolution two centuries later. Throughout the Renaissance era, balloons had proved a more practicable way of flying, and these have evolved into the modern airships being used today.
The Industrial Revolution saw new types of building materials, fuels, and machines that paved the way for the propellor-driven airplane. In his book Visions of a Flying Machine, Peter Jakab discusses how the new British vision for aeronautically designed flying machines inspired the airplane designed by Orville and Wilbur Wright that was used in their first successful flight of 1903. The meticulous research and persistence of the Wrights became the passageway to real aircraft design. Surprisingly, though, the desire for faster airplanes actually revived a first-century B.C. steam propulsion technology called the aeolipile to develop the first jet engine in 1928. John Golley, in Jet: Frank Whittle and the Invention of the Jet Engine, explains how the jet engine came to be, permitting airplanes, and ultimately rockets, to fly to unimaginable heights and speeds.
The jet engine brought the promise of space travel. However, it was the concept of the fire arrow that first made modern rocket ships possible. In Rocket Man: Robert Goddard and the Birth of the Space Age, David Clary explains how Goddard and other scientists working on rockets in the 1920s relied on propulsion fuels that were much more powerful, compact, and predictable than gunpowder. They also learned how the fuel weight could be scaled up effectively, ultimately enabling the 4,500,000 pounds typically sent up into space today. As will be discussed below, contemporary space rocket science went from experimental flight research efforts to government-directed space flight programs, only to be dominated more recently by corporations with commercial interests in space flight.
This essay will survey a selection of mainly popular literature through which readers may trace the emergence of extraterrestrial travel. It will also touch on some historical events and policy developments that have led to the inception of today’s commercial space industry, drawing on further sources that illustrate how the new industry has in turn redefined the goals of space flight and planetary exploration. But the beginnings of this industry cannot be traced without mention of the foundational achievements of governmental agencies such as the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Ministry of Radiotechnical Industry—a government organ of the former Soviet Union. 1
Brian Shmaefsky is Professor of Environmental Science and Chair of the Institutional Review Board at Lone Star College-Kingwood in Houston. His research emphasizes the effects of environmental stress on organismic health. Formerly an industrial biochemist, he has performed experiments in low-gravity environments. Dr. Shmaefsky serves on advisory committees for commercial space flight policies and regulations pertaining to environmental protection and occupant safety.
1 The name of the Ministry of Radiotechnical Industry was changed in 1965, after the events described in this essay, including the launch of Sputnik . See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ministry_of_Radio_Technology_(Soviet_Union).