Early Science Fiction Concepts

Moon Ship: Jules Verne (1865)

Click here to see a large picture of Verne's prediction of a lunar spacecraft.

Jules Verne knew there was no atmosphere in space though his illustrator appears to be ignorant of that fact in drawing a man waving to those on Earth at an altitude where thin air would make breathing difficult. Verne was proud of his novel's scientific accuracy, but careful study of the text based on current knowledge shows numerous mathematical and scientific errors..

His 900 foot cannon contained 200 foot of explosives. Sunk vertically in the ground, it fired a 9 ft. diameter capsule / bullet whose walls were supposedly a foot thick. Based on Verne's data, the projectile would have a muzzle velocity of 1,200 yards per second, not the 12,000 yards per second calculated by Verne. At this velocity, the space bullet and contents would vertically loft 12 miles before falling to Earth. Not only would the descent have terminated the lives of the passengers, the initial acceleration (from zero to 24,545 miles an hour in 700 feet -if we use Verne's figures) would have turned the contents of the capsule into a puddle of red jelly. At such an acceleration, a 170 pound man would achieve a weight of 3,422 tons in a fraction of a second.

Scenes from "Round the Moon" (Jules Verne)

Click here to see a large picture of Verne's prediction of weightlessness in space."

Verne did predict weightlessness, as did his illustrator in the above drawing. More than a hundred years later, some science fiction comics inaccurately show astronauts experiencing the effects of gravity, though in orbit. Though Verne predicted a zero gravity state for his moon men, he speculates that this is the case only at the midpoint of the journey where the gravity of Earth and Moon cancel one another. Though we know of libration orbits where the Earth's and Moon's gravitational attraction balance satellite and spacecraft orbits, the phenomena of spacecraft weightlessness is a resultof the balancing of centrifugal force with the weight of astronauts.

Click here to see a large picture of Verne's launch concept.

Verne wrote that firing of the space projectile caused the three passengers to be knocked out ( a gross understatement). Remarkably, he correctly predicts the size of the first Moon crew as three men (same as Apollo) and accurately sizes the Columbiad as about the size of the Apollo command module which first orbited the Moon with men in 1968, approximately a century later. Another Verne foresight was the use of retro-rocketry with his attachment of a type of retro-rocket to "break the fall" of his craft on reaching the Moon. Unfortunately, its extremely feeble thrust was much too small to have slowed the Columbiad's mass for capture by the Moon's gravity.

The Girl in the Moon (1929)

Click here to see a large photo of an early sci-fi moon rocket.

Though the picture above shows rocket fins for aerodynamic stability, they could be drawn more streamlined to reduce atmospheric drag during ascent. "Die Frau im Monde" (German for "The Girl in the Moon") was authored by a woman named Thea Von Harbou who consulted German rocket scientists for technical advice on accuracy.

Regardless of how aerodynamic the booster's fins appear, the book did predict the advent of women cosmonauts and astronauts long before Valentina Tereshkova and Sally Ride donned a spacesuit.

Scene from Movie: Die Frau im Monde (1929)

Click here to see a large photo of an early version of a Saturn V booster.

The consultants for the movie, "The Girl in the Moon," were German rocket scientists. Their sizing of the Earth launch rocket is remarkably close to that of a Saturn V moon rocket or a space shuttle launch system. It is interesting to note that the German scientists included a VAB (Vertical Assembly Building). A remarkable forecast!

Early Popular Pulp Science Fiction Magazines

Click here to see a large picture of a "space bus."

Note the windows for passenger viewing. The tram-craft has clustered rockets, a concept much used in booster systems of the 1950s. Clustering helped rocket designers size booster thrust. The passenger craft features several decks similar to ocean liners of the era.

Click here to see a large picture of an early spacewalk concept.

The "Wonder Quarterly" illustrator, Frank R. Paul, "The Great Paul," predicts an extravehicular activity (EVA) with pressure suited astronauts, life support tethers, and guidance gun (later created by NASA using compressed gas rather than combustible propellant). These are remarkable predictions for the year 1929, despite the childish "Tonka Toy" appearance of the bulbous spacecraft. The craft's massive armor plated appearance speaks of the era's limited rocket structure knowledge.

Astounding Stories

Click here to see large photo of a blimp type spaceship of the 1930s.

(Cover by permission of Davis Publishing, Inc., Artist: Hans Wessolowski)

The astounding prices indicate the old age of the magazines pictured above and below. The design of the 1930s rescue vehicles in the above artwork is quite un-aerodynamic. The vehicles escape potential disaster aboard the blimp-like space station but face certain disaster reentering Earth's atmosphere with such a blunt non-streamlined shape.

Click here to see large photo of a Verne type launch concept of the 1940s.

The artist of "Astounding Science Fiction" updates Verne's shotgun barrel launcher with a silo scheme. Note the enormous hex head nuts...OVER A HUNDRED FEET IN DIAMETER! Imagine the size of the wrench! Who would hold it?

Wonder Cover (1930s)

Click here to see a large photo of space "surfing" astronauts.

A striking illustration, this picture is quite inaccurate with regard to space technology. There is no extra vehicular activity (EVA) backpack, tether, or pressurized suit to provide life-support for the space travelers. They simply wear coveralls and motorcycle-like helmets.

Their view of Earth suggests an altitude of more than 50,000 miles. There, the vacuum of space offers no oxygen to breathe. Perhaps, these are not astronauts, but robots who, having no lungs, need no air to breathe.

An additional error shown in the above picture is the trajectory of the "space-divers." Their descent violates Newton's laws of motion. Newton stated that every action requires an equal and opposite reaction. The astronauts float serenely toward Earth as though they are sky-divers drawn to Earth by the force of gravity. In orbit the force of gravity and centrifugal force cancel each other making astronauts weightless.

Imagining that one can space-dive to Earth in the fashion of sky-diving is incorrect, but further discussion of the above cover is useful in explaining orbital mechanics. The craft appears to be passing Earth in route to another destination. Because its engines are firing, an accelerating force is present. While the astronauts are within the vehicle, they also will continue to accelerate past Earth. As soon as each space walker egresses from the side hatch into space, the accelerating force of the rocket no longer acts on the astronaut. Each of the astronauts will continue to travel in the direction of the spacecraft at the ship's velocity at the instant of egress. Since the craft's orbit is likely not around the Earth, none will either orbit Earth or reach Earth's surface. The trail of space-divers would approximate the path of the spacecraft rather than the direction of Earth's gravitational attraction. While Earth's gravity would affect their orbit, it would be a modest factor compared to the orbital momentum established by their spacecraft. Admittedly, the egressing astronauts would form a trail since their egress would be over a period of time. The trail would be a result of the ship's velocity rather than the Earth's gravitational attraction. Also, the trail would be in line with the spaceship's orbit toward Earth.

Before concluding study of the "Thrilling Wonder Stories" cover, note the presence of a thruster rocket plume near the aft engines on the topside of the vehicle. (You will need the large view of the cover to examine this item.) The artist correctly employs a means of steering this interplanetary spacecraft. Unfortunately, no thruster orifices are present other than this single thruster for positive pitch. How would the vehicle pitch in the opposite direction, roll, or yaw without other thrusters for orientation control? Since a clustered propulsion configuration thrusts the ship past Earth, perhaps, selective throttling provides guidance.

Science Fiction Past and Present (1920s - 1990s)

Click here to see large photo of the first sci-fi pulp magazine's planetary lander.

The pictures above and below are two issues of the popular science fiction magazine "Amazing Stories." The first issue (above), published in November 1928, features a painting by Frank Paul of space tourists exiting their planetary lander and setting foot on a lushly vegetated satellite of Jupiter. Nearly 60 years later, the cover of "Amazing Stories" (below) was published (July, 1986). The cover artist, Vincent Di Fate, also depicts a planetary lander touching down on a solar system body other than Earth. Comparing each artist's understanding of space technology shows not only advancement in space technology, but also science fiction artistic realism.

Click here to see a large photo of a 1986 planetary lander.

As a result of knowledge gained from planetary explorers like the Pioneer and Voyage unmanned spacecraft, we know that depicting a satellite of Jupiter as a space traveler's Hawaii is not correct. The lifeless scene characterized by Di Fate is typical of most planetary satellite in our solar system.

The 1928 "Model T" lander sketched by Paul is in certain ways as different from Di Fate's 1986 "Ford Thunderbird" lander as their automotive counterparts. Paul's vehicle lacks fuel tanks. It appears as simply a mission-module type interplanetary habitat for crew ferry between planets rather than the "lunar lander" type craft depicted by Di Fate with its numerous fuel tanks clustered about the descent engine core.

Additionally, Paul's craft lacks most essential spacecraft systems. Where is a communication antenna? Orientation control thrusters? A propulsion system? The 1986 art amply attends to these essentials except for reaction control thrusters, a usual omission even in the 1990s. However, both artists portray deployable landing gear with broad footpads similar to those used by the Apollo lunar lander.

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