Firstly, the firework. Many moons ago, and long before the days of the Darwin award, there lived a man named Wan-Hoo. Wan-Hoo was a minor Chinese official of the Ming Dynasty. He was also the world’s first astronaut. Allegedly.
Legend has it that, early in the 1500s, Wan figured he could launch himself into outer space. Cunningly taking China’s advanced firework technology to his advantage, Wan built his spaceship. A chair. To this chair Wan fastened 47 large rockets. Using what influence he could muster within the Dynasty, Wan called up 47 assistants. Each willing assistant, armed with a torch, was charged with the task of rushing forward and lighting one of the long fuses.
On the day of lift-off, the finely attired Wan climbed onto his rocket chair and his 47 aides lit the fuses. The assistants hastily ran for cover. There was a tremendous roar, and a huge explosion. The smoke cleared. The rocket chair was gone. Wan was never seen again.
Now this tale was first reported, not in ancient Chinese manuscripts, but in Rockets and Jets, and written by an American author, Herbert S. Zim, in 1945. The account was later introduced into China via translation. Nonetheless, the legend lives on. The International Astronomical Union named a crater on the far side of the Moon after Wan-Hoo when the far side was first photographed in the 1960s.
For centuries after Wan-Hoo, writers and engineers grappled with the idea of propulsion. In his 1634 voyage to the Moon, Somnium, Johannes Kepler had his hero spirited away by demons. Francis Godwin, in The Man in the Moone (1638), shipped his protagonist Moonwards using birds he called ‘gansas’. And given that the Sun seems to ‘draw up’ dewdrops, Cyrano de Bergerac, in his The States and Empires of the Moon (1657), suggested that one might fly by trapping dew in bottles, strapping the bottles to oneself, and standing in sunlight. Pure genius.
Jules Verne sent the circus into space. In his 1865 book, From the Earth to the Moon (De la Terre à la Lune), Verne’s preferred method of propulsion was the cannon. Or, rather, the columbiad: a large calibre, smoothbore, muzzle loading cannon. The columbiad was capable of firing heavy projectiles at both high and low trajectories. Verne picked a very high trajectory, and an ambitious target – the Moon.
His chosen cargo, three affluent members of a post-American Civil War gun club, is launched in a projectile-cum-spaceship from an enormous sky-facing columbiad. Verne had included some surprisingly accurate calculations on the requirements of the cannon, though a far longer muzzle would have been needed for the cargo to reach escape velocity. His Moon landing scenario also proved a little bumpy.
Verne’s tale bears uncanny similarities to the Apollo programme. The Apollo 11 command module, with a crew of three, was called Columbia. The dimensions of Apollo command service modules are very close to that of Verne’s projectile, and their chosen launch site is also Florida. Verne had realised, as NASA did later, that a launch is easier from near the Earth’s equator.
But in 1881, Nikolai Kibalchich finally invented the principle of the modern rocket. As he waited in prison to be executed for the assassination of Alexander II, Nikolai, a Russian revolutionary and explosives expert, dreamt up a new method of propulsion: gasses produced by slow burning explosives escaping through a nozzle.
Nikolai became an inspiration for Russian rocket pioneer and science fiction writer, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. The road to STAR WARS had begun.