Today’s aerospace engineers got where they are by standing on the shoulders of giants … plus some weirdos. Read on for some of the many ways people thought we’d be able to travel across the universe.
1. PSYCHIC TRAVEL
In the early 20th century, two upper-class Victorian Spiritualists met regularly in a London house, where they reportedly used astral projection to travel to Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. They attempted to visit the Sun, but were blocked by “an unbearable light” and heart palpitations—or so their excuse went, anyway.
2. SPACE CANNON
Jules Verne may not have meant his fanciful 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon to be taken literally, but it was. Physicists gave serious consideration to the absurdly long space cannon used by his characters to launch themselves to the Moon. The wildly successful book inspired generations of children, some of whom would go on to become prominent inventors, physicists, and engineers.
3. ROCKET PROPULSION // KONSTANTIN TSIOLKOVSKY
Three men hold the title of “Father of Rocketry” (and two of them, Russia’s Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Romania’s Hermann Oberth, attribute their interest in space to reading Verne’s book as children). Tsiolkovsky developed the Tsiolkovsky Formula, a rocket equation, which still serves as the foundation for most of the work spacecraft engineers do today. Tsiolkovsky was a big believer in the need to explore beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. “Earth is the cradle of humanity,” he once said, “but one cannot remain in the cradle forever.”
4. ROCKET PROPULSION // HERMANN OBERTH
Hermann Oberth’s personal mission: “To make available for life every place where life is possible. To make inhabitable all worlds as yet uninhabitable, and all life purposeful.” Oberth struggled to be taken seriously until 1929, when he published a detailed text explaining exactly how a rocket would be able to leave Earth’s atmosphere. Oberth received a patent for his design and launched his first rocket in 1931.
5. ROCKET PROPULSION // ROBERT H. GODDARD
The American Father of Rocketry, Robert H. Goddard, is credited with the creation of the first rocket to rely on liquid fuel. Experts compare this inaugural 1926 flight to the Wright Brothers’ success in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in terms of the event’s historic import.
6. SPACE ELEVATOR
Rocket man Konstantin Tsiolkovsky also envisioned a massive space elevator. Inspired by the Eiffel Tower, Tsiolkovsky proposed an orbiting “Celestial Castle” connected to a very tall tower on Earth. Absurd though it may sound, the space elevator concept is still being kicked around today, as a possible alternative for space shuttles.
7. SPACE BALLOON
The 1930s were a heady time, when we pretty much did whatever we could think of without a thought to safety (roller coasters without lap bars, anyone?). One such project was the space balloon—or space balloons, we should say, since, unsurprisingly, the first one was a bust. Aimed for Earth’s high atmosphere, the metal balloons weighed more than 600 pounds apiece. Filled with helium and stuffed with scientific equipment, cameras, two pilots, and lead shot for ballast, the second balloon ascended more than 13 miles into the sky.
8. SPACE STATION
The idea of a space station was first proposed in the mid-1860s, but it wasn’t seriously considered until 1929. An Austrian engineer wrote an entire book on the potential engineering problems associated with space travel. The book as a whole was a marvel, but it was its section on the realities of building a space station that made its author famous.
We’ve come a long way from the days of the space cannon. Click here for a sneak peek at what the next 100 years might have in store for would-be space travelers.