Part 1 - Research

Chapter 1

The Lure, the Lock, the Key

(TO 1958)

[3] THE yearning of men to escape the confines of their Earth and to travel to the heavens is older than the history of mankind itself. Religion, mythology, and literature reaching back thousands of years are sprinkled with references to magic carpets, flying horses, flaming aerial chariots, and winged gods.1 Although "science fiction" is a descriptive term of recent vintage, the fictional literature of space travel dates at least from the second century A.D. Around the year 160 the Greek savant Lucian of Samosata wrote satirically about an imaginary journey to the Moon, "a great countrie in the aire, like to a shining island," as Elizabethan scholars translated his description 1,500 years later. Carried to the Moon by a giant waterspout, Menippus, Lucian's hero, returns to Earth in an equally distinctive manner: The angry gods simply have Mercury take hold of his right ear and deposit him on the ground. Lucian established a tradition of space-travel fiction, and generations of later storytellers spawned numerous fantasies in which by some miraculous means - such as a flight of wild lunar swans in a seventeenth-century tale by Francis Godwin or a cannon shot in Jules Verne's classic account of a Moon voyage (1865-1870) - earthlings are transported beyond the confines of their world and into space.2

But apparently the first suggestion, fictional or otherwise, for an artificial manned satellite of Earth is to be found in a short novel called "The Brick Moon," written in 1869 by the American Edward Everett Hale and originally serialized in the Atlantic Monthly. Although, like most of his contemporaries, Hale had only a vague notion of where Earth's atmosphere ended and where space began, he did realize that somewhere the "aire" became the "aether," and he also understood the mechanics of putting a satellite into an Earth orbit:

If from the surface of the earth, by a gigantic peashooter, you could shoot a pea upward ...; if you drove it so fast and far that when its power of ascent was exhausted, and it should fall, it should clear the earth ...; if you had given it sufficient power to get it half way round the earth without touching, that pea would clear the earth forever. It would continue to rotate ... with the impulse with which it had first cleared our atmosphere and attraction.

[5] In Hale's story a group of industrious New Englanders construct a 200-foot-diameter brick sphere, which, carrying 37 people, is prematurely hurled into an orbit 4,000 miles from Earth by two huge flywheels.3 Less than a hundred years later, Hale's own country would undertake a more modest and more practicable scheme for a manned satellite in Project Mercury.


The action of centripetal forces as advanced by Isaac Newton: "That by means of centripetal forces the planets may be retained in certain orbits, we may easily understand, if we consider the motions of projectiles; for a stone that is projected is by the pressure of its own weight forces out of the rectlinear path, which by the initial projection alone it should have pursued, and made to describe a curved line in the air; and through that crooked way is at last brought down to the ground; and the greater the velocity is with which it is projected, the farther it goes before it falls to the earth. We may therefore suppose the velocity to be so increased, that it would describe an arc of 1, 2, 5, 10, 100, 1,000 miles before it arrived at earth, till at last, exceeding the limits of the earth, it should pass into space without touching it."


Centuries before Hale wrote about an orbiting manned sphere, Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, and other astronomers had helped put the solar system in order, with the Sun in the center and the various planets, spherical and of different sizes, orbiting elliptically around it. Isaac Newton had established the basic principles of gravitation and mechanics governing reaction propulsion and spatial navigation.4 Thus it was possible for Hale and his fellow–fictionists to think at least half seriously about, and to describe in fairly accurate detail, such adventures as orbiting Earth and its Moon and voyaging to Venus.

Most flight enthusiasts in the nineteenth century, however, were absorbed with the problems of flight within the atmosphere, with conveyance from one place to another on Earth. This preoccupation with atmospheric transport, which would continue until the mid-twentieth century, in many ways retarded interest in rocketry and space travel. But the development and refinement of aeronautics in the twentieth century was both a product of and a stimulant to man's determination to fly ever higher and faster, to travel as far from his Earth as he could. Atmospheric flight, in terms of both motivation and technology, was a necessary prelude to the exploration of near and outer space. In a sense, therefore, man's journey along the highway to space, leading to such astronautical achievements as Project Mercury, began in the dense forest of his atmosphere, with feats in aeronautics.


1 See Gertrude and James Jobes, Outer Space: Myths, Name Calendars, Meanings: From the Emergence of History to the Present Day (New York, 1964).

2 For the long history of space travel fiction see Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Voyages to the Moon (paperback ed., New York, 1960), and Science and Imagination (Ithaca, N.Y., 1965); Willy Ley, Rockets, Missiles, and Space Travel (Rev. ed., New York, 1957), 9-40; Arthur C. Clarke, "Space Travel in Fact and Fiction," Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, IX (Sept. 1950), 213-230; James O. Bailey, Pilgrims Through Space and Time: Trends and Patterns in Scientific and Utopian Fiction (New York, 1957); Roger L. Green, Into Other Worlds: Space-Flight from Lucian to Lewis (New York, 1958); Philip B. Gove, The Imaginary Voyage in Prose and Fiction: A History of Its Criticism and a Guide to Its Study ... (New York, 1961); John Lear, Kepler's Dream (Berkeley, Calif., 1965); and W. R. Maxwell, "Some Aspects of the Origins and Early Development of Astronautics," Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, XVIII (Sept. 1962), 415-425.

3 Edward Everett Hale, "The Brick Moon," Atlantic Monthly, XXIV (Oct., Nov., Dec., 1869), 451-460, 603-611, 679-688. Also published in Hale, The Brick Moon and Other Stories (New York, 1899). Hale is of course better known for another story, "The Man Without a Country."

4 Good treatments of astronomical developments in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries are in A. R. Hall, The Scientific Revolution, 1500-1800: The Foundation of the Modern Scientific Attitude (Boston, 1954); and Alexandre Koyré, From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe (paperback ed., New York, 1958).


This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury
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