Travel to outer space was popularized in books, magazines, and movies long before the feasibility of space flight was a reality. The philosopher Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac arguably wrote the first two stories mentioning space travel in the 17th century. He created “Histoire comique des états et empires de la lune” (Comical history of the states and empires of the moon) in 1656, and “Histoire comique des états et empires du soleil” (A voyage to the Moon with some account of the solar world) in 1662. However, as Mildred Butler explains in the pages of History Today, de Bergerac’s interest was not really in space travel.2 Instead, he was using these implausible journeys to satirize contemporary religious views found on Earth, placing humanity at the center of divine creation, as reflected in the astronomical beliefs of his period. However, Butler suggests, de Bergerac may actually have fomented fantasies of space travel among readers, as his stories were popularized following his death.
Jules Verne and Herbert George Wells are the most frequently cited authors of the first fictional accounts of space exploration. Their books, too, were written well before the Wright brothers’ first successful airplane flight of 1903. Jules Verne is most noted for his adventure novels, which depicted travel to unexplored regions such as the center of the Earth, the deepest parts of the oceans, and the Moon, as discussed by Herbert Lottman in his account of the author, Jules Verne: an Exploratory Biography. Verne’s book Around the World in Eighty Days captured the sentiment of popular desire to “exceed the speed limit” on travel during the 19th century. It was then considered pure fantasy to travel the Earth’s circumference of 24,900 miles at an average speed of 13 miles per hour. The fastest conveyance of any known trip at the time, fiction aside, was train travel, going no faster than 40 miles per hour.
Michael Sherborne, in H. G. Wells: Another Kind of Life, explains that Wells enjoyed writing improbable adventure books in addition to his other works on history, politics, science, and social issues. He explored the concepts of space, high-speed travel, life on other planets, and time travel. Like Verne, Wells wrote some of the earliest books in English on travel to the Moon. Verne authored From the Earth to the Moon in 1865, followed by Around the Moon in 1870. In 1901, Wells published The First Men in the Moon. Sherborne observes that traveling to the Moon captured the interests of many Wells readers including film director Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès, who then produced the first space travel movie, Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon), in 1902.
While whimsical stories of spaceflight were being recounted in the early 20th century, serious attempts at space travel using rockets were also being entertained. Russian philosopher Nikolai Federov certainly did not view flying people into space as folly. He wrote serious proposals not only about going into space but also about inhabiting other planets, as recounted in George Young’s study The Russian Cosmists: The Esoteric Futurism of Nikolai Fedorov and His Followers. Moreover, in the collected writings of one important academician, Selected Works of Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky, readers may discover that the Russian aeronautical theorist confessed to being inspired by Fedorov’s writings in his own work, which ranged from improving the aerodynamics of airplanes to designing the first rocket that would in fact be capable of traveling to outer space. Tsiolkovsky hypothesized the necessary thrust and types of fuels needed to propel a large rocket into space in his 1903 article “Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reaction Devices.” His work was not farfetched, and the 1903 article influenced aeronautics engineers thereafter to pursue rockets based on his model. Later notable engineers who modeled their efforts on Tsiolkovsky’s rocket design included Robert Esnault-Pelterie of France, Robert Goddard of the US, and Hermann Oberth and Fritz von Opel of Germany. Two of physicist Goddard’s most highly regarded papers, including his own gentle introductory remarks for each, are available in a Dover reprint of the commemorative edition published in 1946 by the American Rocket Society (Rockets: Two Classic Papers). Fedorov’s and Tsiolkovsky’s early works inspired the formation of the Soviet space program, and the functional rocket designs that emerged from their theories stirred hopes that the US, too, would eventually achieve space travel.
The reality of space travel was overshadowed, however, by World Wars I and II. Interest in space rocketry waned and was supplanted by the more feasible advancement of high-speed and long-distance weaponry borne on airplanes, documented by Justin Murphy and Matthew McNiece in their Military Aircraft, 1919-1945. Developing rocketry for use as a weapon was prioritized worldwide between the wars. However, there were still many limitations related to the payload, travel distance, and stability of the fuels, as explained in Gregory Kennedy’s book Germany’s V-2 Rocket. These barriers had been known to Tsiolkovsky when working on his early rocket designs.
Space travel unexpectedly came to the forefront of aeronautics after World War II, with the 1957 flight of the Russian unmanned Sputnik 1 spacecraft. Paul Dickson, in Sputnik: The Shock of the Century, explains how and why the US government viewed this feat carried out by the Russians as a threat. The idea of threat was foregrounded by the hostile Cold War relationship that had developed between the US and the USSR. Much concern was expressed by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense that the USSR would dominate space both technologically and militarily. Samuel Crompton, in his Sputnik/Explorer 1: The Race to Conquer Space, details how the US government responded to Sputnik by launching a similar satellite in 1958 (Explorer 1), designed by the US Army under the direction of a German rocket scientist. In Dark Side of the Moon, Wayne Biddle describes how Wernher Von Braun became a US space race celebrity despite having been the developer of the enemy V-2 rocket while still living in Germany.
The launch of Explorer 1 was only one component of the US entry into the space race. In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower established NASA as a government agency charged with researching and developing vehicles for manned space exploration, as discussed in detail by Amy Teitel in her Breaking the Chains of Gravity. More broadly, in the new Smithsonian volume Space Craze: America’s Enduring Fascination with Real and Imagined Spaceflight, Margaret Weitekamp describes how the growing efforts of various countries to develop powerful rockets has perpetually rekindled popular whimsical notions about space flight. The success of the space adventure comic strip “Buck Rogers,” created by Philip Francis Nowlan in 1929, provides evidence of this. Weitekamp goes on to explain how the Cold War gave rise to a wealth of fictional space-exploration books, magazines, movies, and television shows. Seemingly, every technological advance in space flight has led to creation of an entertainment genre reflecting the social and political issues of its time. Judith Barad’s The Ethics of Star Trek demonstrates just how much a futuristic outer space travel drama could engage popular culture through her analysis of the societal norms and cultural/ethical systems depicted in the television series that became a classic entertainment franchise. Star Trek in particular represented space travel as the ideal way to surpass existing means of transport to pursue exploration of places we could not readily reach.
2. Mildred A. Butler, “Cyrano de Bergerac: Poet, philosopher and swordsman.” History Today 11 (1978): 722-728.