Culture

How Jules Verne Inspired a Generation of Rocket Scientists

Editor's Note:

Amy Shira Teitel has written for a number of online and print publications including Discovery News Space, Al-Jazeera, The Guardian and Universe Today. She is most recently the author of Breaking the Chains of Gravity, and joins Signature to discuss how a single science-laden novel from Jules Verne impacted an entire generation of rocket scientists.

In the early 1900s, increasingly powerful telescopes tantalized scientists with the prospect of finding life on other planets. But the prospect of visiting those other worlds remained fodder for fantasy. That is, until Jules Verne published From the Earth to the Moon (De la Terre à la Lune) in 1865. This novel presented the first realistic depiction of space travel and inspired early 20th-century pioneers, people who ultimately helped turn humanity into a spacefaring species.

From the Earth to the Moon tells the story of a group of American weapon enthusiasts who, bored after the end of the Civil War, form the Baltimore Gun club and devote their energies to building a massive, sky-facing cannon. At the crux of the story, three members climb aboard the projectile and launch themselves towards the Moon with the goal of landing on its surface.

The story was fantastic, but the science Verne brought to his book was sound.

Verne considered different methods of leaving Earth, settling on the then-popular black powder as the propulsion method for a lightweight aluminum projectile fitted with basic life-support systems for the passengers.

He considered the design and construction of the cannon to launch the projectile, ultimately deciding on a 900-foot deep, cast iron–lined well packed with 400,000 pounds of black powder explosives.

From the Earth to the Moon - Jules Verne

He even selected a southern launch location to take advantage of the Earth’s rotation in getting the projectile off the ground. In picking a time and date for the launch, Verne considered real trajectories for a flight to the Moon.

The thought and care Verne put into his story was such that readers trusted his depiction even though it was impossible; the launch of Verne’s cannon suddenly accelerating the explorers to seven miles per second in just over 900 feet would, in reality, kill the men. And evidence says Verne knew this. But he also knew that using technologies and materials familiar to his readers would give the story a certain believability. Coupled with real science, he ultimately demonstrated that the conquest of space was really just a matter of applying math and physics in the right way.

From the Earth to the Moon struck a chord with Austrian physicist Hermann Oberth. Reading the fictional take while recovering from a bout of scarlet fever in Italy when he was fourteen, Oberth became captivated by the idea of an interplanetary rocket, though he took issue with Verne’s use of black powder. Knowing this could never be powerful enough, Oberth began considering liquid-propelled rockets; his instinct was echoed by Russian rocket theorist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and American engineer Robert Goddard.

Oberth designed a simple proof of concept liquid-fuelled rocket called a recoil rocket. It would propel itself through space by expelling exhaust gases from its rear end. And in the late 1920s, these concept rockets started coming to life.

Hermann Oberth - Jules Verne

Oberth joined one of Germany’s premiere amateur rocket societies, the Verein fur Raumschiffahrt (VfR), whose members included a young engineer named Wernher von Braun. The VfR took on the challenge of building Oberth’s rockets, developing the so-called Repulsor rocket and later the Mirak rocket that had Oberth’s own engine at its core.

It was the Mirak rocket that caught the attention of the German Army when it went to see what the VfR was up to in the spring of 1932. Though army representatives didn’t see a launch that day, Colonel Becker, the army’s Chief of Ballistics, saw enough promise in the VfR to offer them a chance to build a more advanced rocket. The prize, if they were successful, was military sponsorship for their work.

The VfR on the whole ultimately decided not to partner with the German army, though a handful of members did, which led to the dissolution of the society. Among those who did accept a military appointment was von Braun. He led the team that developed the V-2 rocket, history’s first offensive liquid-propelled missile that caught the attention of the American military and top scientists alike.

Von Braun, a handful of his team members, and a significant amount of V-2 hardware were imported to the United States after the close of the Second World War. Working together, American and German engineers used the recovered V-2s as the starting point for new missiles that ended up launching the first satellites and astronauts into space. Within a century, Verne’s fantastical story was no longer fantasy. In 1965, men were orbiting the Earth regularly, and humanity was just four years away from realizing the lunar landing goal Verne’s Gun Club members had set out to achieve.