Jules Verne and Rockets

This from John Gehl dovetails perfectly with our discussion of Wernher von Braun and rockets: In his history of the 20th century space age, William E. Burrows points up the contribution of the Jules Verne imagination. "Reviewers of From the Earth to the Moon and other Jules Verne science fiction tended to dismiss them as children's stories. In fact, From the Earth to the Moon was brilliant scientific prophecy. Rocketry's three giants- -Tsiolkovsky, Goddard, and Hermann Oberth -- not only were profoundly inspired by it but actually learned from it. Far from being a simplistic tale, From the Earth to the Moon and its sequel were serious attempts not only to use science to whet the public's appetite for adventure but to convince it that nature, science, and technology were now and forever

"From a technical standpoint, the two Moon books heralded the space age; the imaginative leap that connected an ancient fantasy with a reality they themselves helped to shape. As might be expected, Verne got a few things wrong. The air-pressure buildup inside the cannon as the projectile races toward its mouth, combined with the immense explosive force behind the vehicle, would have caused it to disintegrate. Yet this does not diminish Verne's extraordinary vision. Tampa, the launch site, is less than 120 miles from Cape Canaveral and is on the correct latitude. The projectile's change in direction near the little Moon anticipated the discovery of the gravity-assisted course change technique in 1961 that would make exploration of the outer planets possible. The projectile's landing in water suggested the splashdowns that would be used in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. His calculation that it would take the projectile four days to reach the Moon given an initial velocity of twelve thousand yards a second was similarly on the mark. The seemingly outrageous prediction that 'light or electricity' would one day be used to propel spacecraft was realized with the discovery that the solar wind -- Kepler's heavenly breezes -- could push interplanetary spacecraft and so could charged particles shot out of an ion engine. The sixteen-foot-diameter aperture telescope used by the Gun Club to find the projectile on the Moon became the Mount Palomar telescope, which went into operation in California in 1948.

"But Verne's greatest and most self-fulfilling prophecy had to do with the use of rockets to break the projectile's descent to the lunar surface. Perhaps more than any of the other innovations that he used for the expedition to the Moon, the rocket engine itself inspired the fathers of the space age. Tsiolkovsky would say: 'For a long time I thought of the rocket as everybody else did -- just as a means of diversion and of petty everyday uses. I do not remember exactly what prompted me to make calculations of its motion. Probably, that great fantastic author Jules
Verne.' Oberth would recall that during his formative years, he 'always had in mind the rockets designed by Jules Verne.' And Goddard was so impressed by From the Earth to the Moon that he noted it in his diary."
[To find a library copy of From the Earth to the Moon visit RLG's RedLightGreen.com:

RH: Question: Did Wernher von Braun read Jules Verne?

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Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: November 24, 2004