Entry updated 15 February 2021. Tagged: Theme.
The Chinese were using skyrockets as fireworks in the eleventh century, and adapted them as Weapons of War in the thirteenth. Europeans borrowed the idea, but rocket-missiles were abandoned as muskets and rifles became more efficient. According to Willy Ley in Rockets: The Future of Travel Beyond the Stratosphere (1944), a fifteenth-century Chinese legend tells of one Wan-Hoo, who attached rockets to a chair, strapped himself in, and blasted off for the unknown; alas, this tale seems to be apocryphal and has not been traced to any published source prior to John Elfreth Watkins's "The Modern Icarus" (2 October 1909 Scientific American) – which gives the name as Wang Tu and the source as "Tradition asserts ..." But a similar notion was used by Cyrano de Bergerac in the first part of L'autre monde (1657), in which the hero straps three rows of rockets to his back, intending that as each set burns out it will ignite the next, so renewing the boost; this precursor of multi-stage rockets proves impracticable.
War rockets were used against the British in India at the end of the eighteenth century, and the British reinstituted rocket technology, using rocket missiles in the Napoleonic War and in the US War of 1812; their rockets used in an attack on Fort Henry in 1814 inspired the reference to "the rocket's red glare" in "The Star-Spangled Banner" by Francis Scott Key (1780-1843), who witnessed the battle. Rockets fell into disuse again with the development of better field artillery, but the possibility of using them as a means of Transportation encouraged some early experiments with unfortunate animals as passengers. Elbert Perce's Gulliver Joi (1851), an interesting specimen of nineteenth-century Proto SF, features an early rocket-powered Spaceship.
In 1898 Konstantin Tsiolkovsky wrote a classic article, "The Probing of Space by Means of Jet Devices" (1903); he had earlier written "On the Moon" (1893), "Dreams of Earth and Sky" (1895) and other stories and essays collected in The Call of the Cosmos (coll trans 1963) in company with the didactic novel Outside the Earth (1920; trans 1960 as Beyond the Planet Earth). In the same period the US inventor Robert Goddard (1882-1945) – reputedly inspired by reading H G Wells's The War of the Worlds (April-December 1897 Pearson's; 1898) – also began thinking seriously about Space Flight, and in 1911 he began experimenting with rockets. He was working towards a liquid-fuel stage rocket – a notion applied to the business of interplanetary travel in John Munro's romance A Trip to Venus (1897). Goddard launched the first liquid-fuel rocket in 1926. Meanwhile, the German rocket-research pioneer Hermann Oberth – author of Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen ["The Rocket into Interplanetary Space"] (1923) – and others, including Willy Ley, formed a "Society for Space Travel". In 1928 Oberth was offered the opportunity to build a rocket by a German film company, which hired him as technical adviser for Fritz Lang's pioneering Spacesuit Film Die Frau im Mond (1929); his experimental rocket was to be launched before the film's premiere as a publicity stunt, but the project collapsed. Oberth began anew with a number of assistants, including Wernher von Braun, and managed to get a number of rockets off the ground in 1931. The project was abandoned as Germany's economy crashed, but von Braun joined a rocket development project with the German Army while Ley emigrated to the USA. In 1937 the Army project acquired a large research centre at Peenemünde on an island in the Baltic, where von Braun and his staff developed the V-2 rocket bomb. This arrived too late to make any difference to the course of World War Two, and von Braun fled to the Bavarian Alps in order to surrender to the USA rather than wait for the Russians. Goddard had spent World War Two developing take-off rockets for US Navy aircraft.
Von Braun went to work for a US research programme. The project developed the Jupiter rocket to launch the USA's first space satellite in 1958, and ultimately the Saturn rocket which carried the first men to the Moon. During this period a number of US and UK sf writers – most notably Arthur C Clarke, a leading member of the British Interplanetary Society founded by P E Cleator (1908-1994) in the 1930s – were active and enthusiastic propagandists for the space programme. Even before World War Two the sf Pulp magazines had taken a considerable interest in rocket research – Wonder Stories publicized an occasion when "The Rocket Comes to the Front Page" (December 1929) with an unsigned article that was probably by Hugo Gernsback, and Astounding Science-Fiction published such articles as Leo Vernon's "Rocket Flight" (January 1938 Astounding). The UK Tales of Wonder published Clarke's "We Can Rocket to the Moon – Now!" (Summer 1939 Tales of Wonder). After World War Two George Pal made the film Destination Moon (1950), with script by Robert A Heinlein (remotely based on his Rocket Ship Galileo ). Ray Bradbury became particularly fascinated by the mythology of the rocket and followed up his "I, Rocket" (May 1944 Amazing) with the early Martian Chronicles episode "Rocket Summer" (Spring 1947 Planet Stories) and the curious non-sf story "Outcast of the Stars" (March 1950 Super Science Stories; vt "The Rocket" in The Illustrated Man, coll 1951). C M Kornbluth based his novel Takeoff (1952) on the ironic theme of a crackpot project to build an unworkable rocket which conceals a real attempt to build a practicable Spaceship – testimony to the ambivalence of contemporary attitudes to rocket research. As late as 1956 a newly appointed British Astronomer Royal, Richard Woolley, was reported to have declared that talk of space travel was "utter bilge", so encapsulating a considerable body of opinion which endured pugnaciously until the ascent of Sputnik – in 1957.
There is no other historical sequence of events in which fact and fiction are so closely entwined, or which seems to justify so well the imaginative reach of Hard-SF writers. Tsiolkovsky, Goddard and Oberth were visionaries more closely akin to speculative writers than to their contemporary theorists. Rocket research has always been dependent on the practical demands of hot and cold wars, but it is surely true – as laboured in James A Michener's pedestrian epic "faction" Space (1982) – that for some of the people involved the real objective was always that of Cyrano, Munro and Tsiolkovsky. Pierre Boulle's Garden on the Moon (1964; trans 1965), in which the German rocket scientists are entranced with the notion of cosmic voyaging even as they develop the V-2, probably has an element of truth in it. [BS]
- Francis Spufford. Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin (London: Faber and Faber, 2003) [nonfiction: hb/Andy Bridge]
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