Saturday, January 15, 2005

Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science - A book-length history of the period between Sputnik I and the creation of NASA, by the NASA History Office.

From the site:

The rocket apparently made its debut on the pages of history as a fire arrow used by the Chin Tartars in 1232 for fighting off a Mongol assault on Kai-feng-fu. The lineage to the immensely larger rockets now used as space launch vehicles is unmistakable. But for centuries rockets were in the main rather small, and their use was confined principally to weaponry, the projection of lifelines in sea rescue, signaling, and fireworks displays. Not until the 20th century did a clear understanding of the principles of rockets emerge, and only then did the technology of large rockets begin to evolve. Thus, as far as spaceflight and space science are concerned, the story of rockets up to the beginning of the 20th century was largely prologue.

Nevertheless, well before the 1900s numerous authors showed a keen appreciation of what satellites might mean if only a way could be found to launch them. Their fictional accounts of space travel are often cited as early harbingers of the modern space age, and in the light of recent achievements the long history of rockets makes exciting reading. Especially those engaged in space research and exploration find peculiar fascination in reading about Kepler's imaginary visit to the moon, described in the little book Somnium, sive Astronomia Lunaris published in 1634, several years after Kepler's death, or in following the flights of fantasy recounted in Jules Verne's De la Terre a la Lune (1865) and Autour de la Lune (1870). Even the artificial satellite turned up in The Brick Moon by Edward Everett Hale, serialized in the Atlantic Monthly in 1869 and 1870. Launched by huge rotating water wheels, the Brick Moon, a manned satellite, was intended to serve as a navigational aid. In the first years of the space program, John Nicolaides, one of the engineers professionally interested in geodesy and navigation, took great delight in giving his colleagues copies of Hale's little story.

These and numerous other writings of the kind legitimately belong to the lore of the space age. While they predate the emergence of the serious work on large rockets that made the space program and space science possible, they nevertheless have a special significance. Such imaginings reflect [26] the centuries-long interest of mankind in the heavens. Some men climbed mountains to set up astronomical observatories, others to measure how air pressure changes with height. No sooner had the Montgolfier brothers in 1783 demonstrated the feasibility of hot-air balloons than aeronauts began to fly in them. That same year J. A. C. Charles of France ascended in a hydrogen-filled balloon. This first grasp on the age-old dream of flight brought forth an amazing variety of ideas and experiments, and by the end of the 19th century powered balloon flight was a reality, the sausage-shaped dirigible being the most successful form. In the 1920s and 1930s high-altitude ballooning was serious business, with men like Gray, Piccard, Anderson, and Stevens setting one altitude record after another. The record of 22 kilometers gained by the last two in the helium-inflated Explorer II, in 1935, persisted for two decades.

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