Poised for the Leap

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In their most inspired moments, visionary authors of the past never imagined a mission so complex. Still, they dreamed endlessly of Apollo-like moon flights. Then, as now, some men yearned for a military base from which terrible new weapons could dominate earth. Some speculated on vast new reserves of mineral wealth. Others yearned for, no more than the challenge of the trip. For whatever reason, the moon, as it still does, beckoned to all. Its lure seems irresistible.

In his True History, written in the 2nd century A.D., a Syrian named Lucian told how a ship and its crew were caught in a whirlwind while sailing beyond the Pillars of Hercules and were lofted all the way to the moon. There the sailors witnessed a war between moonmen and invaders from the sun. It was all so alluring that, in a second book, another Lucian character went there on purpose: he simply donned wings and flew.

Galileo's 17th century use of the telescope to study the heavens spawned a host of moon stories. The Man in the Moone, written by Francis Godwin, Bishop of Llandoff, and published in 1638, offered a hero who was carried to his destination on a frail raft pulled by swans. Unaware of the vacuum in space, the traveler had no difficulty breathing on the trip, but he did find that his weight lessened as he left the earth. That remarkable scientific insight by Godwin preceded Newton's discovery of the laws of gravity by many years.

Cyrano de Bergerac's Voyage to the Moon, 1656, was the first novel to suggest the use of rockets for moon flight.

But it was not in the same scientific league with Somnium, a piece of science fiction by Johann Kepler, the famed 17th century astronomer and mathematician who explained the laws of planetary motion. Describing space flight, Kepler called the "initial movement," or launch, "most uncomfortable and dangerous, for the traveler is torn aloft as if blown up by gunpowder." He explained the bitter cold and airlessness of space, discussed weightlessness, and even suggested the equivalent of reverse thrust to land gently on the moon.

Nursery rhymes, too, began to reflect man's growing lunar interest. One, printed in 1805, even closely anticipated Apollo 8's timetable:

"What is the news, good neighbor, I pray?"

"They say a balloon has gone up to the moon

And won't be back till a week from today."

In his classic science-fiction novel, From the Earth to the Moon, published in 1865, Jules Verne moved even closer to an accurate description of 20th century space flight. His man-carrying space projectile was shot from a giant cannon in Florida, reached an escape velocity of almost 25,000 m.p.h., became almost red-hot as it passed through the atmosphere, was steered by rockets, and circumnavigated the moon.

Flash Powder

Not until close to the turn of the century was man ready to turn his attention from fanciful to actual space flights. By 1898, a deaf Russian schoolteacher named Konstantin Tsiolkovsky had calculated the mathematical laws of rocket motion and begun to publish scores of articles about space travel. His descriptions of earth satellites, liquid-fuel rockets, space suits, solar energy and the eventual colonization of the solar system, stimulated Russia's insatiable appetite for space travel.

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