“The Earth is the cradle of mankind, but mankind can’t stay in the cradle forever.”
— K. E. Tsiolkovsky
In 1783, the Montgolfier brothers designed a hot air balloon. Unmanned test flights were relatively successful. On the 19th of September, the brothers sent a tethered flight airborne, “manned” by a sheep, a duck, and a cockerel. There was some concern about the possibility of damage from “high altitude” (about 600 meters), and when the animals returned to earth unharmed, there was a great sense of relief. Having vouched for the safety of aerostatic flight, the balloon was ready for a human passenger.
On the 21st of September, physician Pilâtre de Rozier entered the basket beneath the balloon. With an audience of Louis-Joseph, the Dauphin at Château de La Muette, the French physician became a French aeronaut.
Was he the first man to be borne aloft? Depends on how much credence you give to legend. Wan Hu, a Chinese official who lived around 2,000 B.C., supposedly built a rocket chair powered by 47 rockets. Some stories say that after ignition, the chair and the official had “disappeared.” Another account had him burned by the rockets and then paddled by the displeased Emperor, who had been in the expectant audience.
Abbas Ibn Firnas lived in what is now Spain. In the year 875, at the age of seventy, he allegedly tested a self-designed glider. According to the story, he’d not given much thought to landing. He survived the subsequent crash and lived another twelve years.
Lagari Hasan Celebi supposedly made the first rocket flight in the year 1633. Accounts differ, but legend has it that the flight, enabled by 140 pounds of gunpowder, was successful; Celebi’s return to earth facilitated by a hand-tossed parachute.
In the early 1800s, Claude Ruggieri used large fireworks to send mice airborne. According to some accounts, he used a larger rocket to send a sheep 200 feet in the air. Using similar technology, a balloonist named Wilfrid de Fonvielle solicited money to try the same experiment with a small boy. According to Fonvielle’s account, “no capitalist presented himself” and the experiment was never concluded.
Konstantin Konstantinov, a Russian artillery officer, studied the feasibility of manned rocket flight in the 1850s. (He decided that gunpowder as fuel could not deliver the sustained thrust necessary for human flight.)
Meanwhile, space flight had become the stuff of literature. Both H.G. Wells and Jules Verne wrote about moon exploration.
In my novel, Dread Tribunal of Last Resort, my protagonist actually has lunch with Jules Verne. After brutal experiences in the Civil War, Decker Brown needs a dream to latch onto, and Verne has just the notion for a rocketry expert.
Back in the real world, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s 1903 study of how space flight might be accomplished was published in a scholarly work, The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reaction Devices. By 1929, Austro-Hungarian Hermann Potočnik proposed the idea of a space station. Reality followed suit in relatively short order.
As the quote from Tsiolkovsky indicates, whether scientist, adventurer, or author (this one included), spaceflight has been a compelling dream for centuries. We are taking our tentative first steps.
(The accompanying art is the work of Wade Dillon. You can reach him at wadedillonart.com.)
Ali, Naeem. Abbas Ibn Firnas: The World’s First Pilot, 3 Nov. 2013, http://www.forgottenislamichistory.com/2013/11/abbas-ibn-firnas-worlds-first-pilot.html.
Ali, Naeem. Lagari Hasan Celebi – The First Rocketeer, 21 Apr. 2015, http://www.forgottenislamichistory.com/2015/04/lagari-hasan-celebi-first-rocketeer.html.
“Rocket History -.” NASA, NASA, http://www.grc.nasa.gov/www/k-12/rocket/BottleRocket/13thru16.htm.
“The First Hot Air Balloon Flight.” Palace of Versailles, 23 Aug. 2018, en.chateauversailles.fr/discover/history/key-dates/first-hot-air-balloon-flight.
Winter, Frank H. The first golden age of rocketry: Congreve and Hale rockets of the nineteenth century. Washington: Smithsonian Institution P, 1990.