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History of Space Flight

Updated on May 26, 2010

The history of space flight is the story of man's age-old dreams of flight, his gradual awareness of the environment of the earth, the solar system and space, and the development of the technology required to implement travel away from the earth. For hundreds of years, individual speculators and scientists contributed to the growth of man's understanding of the universe, but the story of man's actual achievements in space does not really begin until the middle of the 20th century. At this point in time the desire for space flight was matched at last by an understanding of the space environment, and the technology was finally at hand to build the rocket-powered launch vehicles and spacecraft that could survive that environment.

Growing Knowledge of the Universe. The ancient Babylonians, Greeks, and Egyptians studied the stars and planets and mapped their movements in the sky. However, it was Galileo's use of the telescope on the skies in the early 17th century that added immensely to man's knowledge. Within a few weeks, Galileo had studied the mountains and valleys on the moon, concluding that it was a solid world. He also spotted four tiny specks of light revolving about Jupiter. He deduced correctly that the apparent small size of these moons differed from the earth's moon because of the great distance to Jupiter. Thus in 1610 a scale of distance of the proper order of magnitude for the solar system was established for the first time. Observations made with the telescope also confirmed the heliocentric theory of the solar system developed by Copernicus 100 years earlier. Johannes Kepler in the early 17th century brilliantly established the exact motions of the planets in elliptical orbits. Later in die same century Isaac Newton formulated his "laws of motion," placing astronomy and physics on a solid foundation. Flight in free balloons, commencing in 1783, added to man's knowledge of the atmosphere.

Early Speculations on Space Flight

Persian, Greek, Hindu, and Chinese legends include accounts of men flying to heaven on wings, emulating birds. Lucian of Samos, a Greek, wrote in 160 A.D. of flying to the moon on artificial wings. Many centuries passed, however, before it was learned that the earth's atmosphere, which is necessary for winged flight, does not extend more than one ten-thousandth of the distance to the moon.

The 17th century fictional accounts of flight to the moon by Kepler (Somnium) and Francis Godwin of England (Man in the Moone) took into account the increasing understanding of the moon. For the next two centuries, books on space flight continued to appear, although many were fantasy rather than an attempt to extrapolate man's knowledge of nature. Cyrano de Bergerac, in his mid-17th century tales of voyages to the moon and the sun, was the first to suggest rocket propulsion.

In 1865, Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon appeared and had immense popularity. Edward Everett Hale a few years later had written The Brick Moon, probably the first treatment of the artificial satellite. At the turn of the century H. G. Wells' First Man in the Moon also had wide appeal. The balloon ascents and the relatively great engineering achievements of die Victorians led many to believe that flight to the moon might be possible. In the first decade of the 20th century man did achieve atmospheric flight in great airships and heavier-than-air craft.

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