We’re entering into a new and different phase of spaceflight, and I think that’s an important concept to grasp. Initially, we had what you might call the “visionary” phase of spaceflight. That was followed by the “command-economy” phase (or perhaps we should call it the “steroidal” phase for reasons I’ll get to later), which was followed by what now promises to be spaceflight’s “sustainable” phase.
In the earliest days of the initial visionary phase, vision was all there was. People were thinking about spaceflight long before they did it. Leaving aside fanciful tales, the first serious thought about spaceflight took place in the late nineteenth century with such works as Jules Verne’s novel From the Earth to the Moon, which was published in 1867, and Edward Everett Hale’s story The Brick Moon, published in Atlantic Monthly in 1869, which concerned an artificial navigation satellite.
The first serious scientific work (as opposed to fiction) was probably that of a Russian schoolteacher named Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. In 1883, he wrote a monograph about the problems of operating in weightlessness while in orbit. In 1903, he published Exploration of Cosmic Space with Reactive Devices which laid out the fundamentals of how to navigate in space using rockets. He continued to explore these subjects for the rest of his life.
Tsiolkovsky envisioned an era in which space exploration would lead to cities in space and, ultimately, to utopian societies throughout the solar system. It is a vision shared by many space supporters today. Since the solar system’s limitless energy and material wealth would be available to these societies, he reasoned, they would be free from the scarcities that plagued earthbound economies, as well as the conflicts caused by them.
Whether the idea of post-scarcity economics appealed to the Bolsheviks, or whether (more likely) the prospect of rockets as weapons tickled Stalin’s fancy, Tsiolkovsky was elevated from being an obscure schoolteacher to a member of the Soviet Academy. There his disciples, such as Sergei Korolev, F.A. Tsander, and Valentin Glushko, began serious work on rocketry that fueled the Soviet Union’s pathbreaking space program of the 1950s and 1960s.
Meanwhile, in the United States, pioneer Robert Goddard was experimenting with liquid-fueled rockets. In 1914, he patented the liquid-fuel rocket engine; five years later, he published a paper entitled “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes” that described the prospects for reaching outer space using rockets. Although Goddard was beset by skeptics – including the editors of the New York Times who, in 1920, mocked him for considering such far-fetched ideas as sending a rocket to the Moon – he devoted his life to perfecting liquid-fueled rockets. (The Times finally retracted its snarky editorial almost fifty years later, after men landed on the Moon in 1969.)
Goddard’s work provided inspiration to a number of German rocket pioneers, who began organizing in the early 1920s. They watched as Goddard successfully launched the first liquid-fueled rocket and demonstrated the first working guidance system. Germany’s pioneers included Hermann Oberth, who in 1923 published The Rocket into Planetary Space (Die Rakete zu den Planetenaumen), an ambitious book that looked at the practicalities of putting humans into space in the relative near term, the need for space suits, and the minutiae of operating spaceships and space stations. Oberth’s book was followed by numerous others, most notably by Walter Hohmann whose work on celestial mechanics, published in 1925, set out principles still relied on today, and after whom the economical “Hohmann Transfer Orbit” used by deep space probes was named. As the focus shifted to engineering, Wernher von Braun and Willy Ley became involved at the rocket-club level. Rocket engines were designed, tested, and launched (when they didn’t explode) and many important technologies, such as the use of fuel to cool the combustion chamber and nozzle, were developed and refined.
In the United Kingdom, the 1875 Explosives Act unwisely prevented private research into ordnance, which effectively and unfortunately barred amateurs from hands-on work with rockets. But the British Interplanetary Society, which included illustrious members such as Phil Cleator and Arthur C. Clarke, turned its efforts to mission design and in 1939 produced a famous plan for a Moon mission that served as the foundation for the actual Apollo Moon landing thirty years later.
But there was only so far you could go as a visionary. In Walter MacDougall’s The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, engineer Willy Ley recalled that by the 1930s von Braun’s amateur rocketry club had reached the point where continuation would have been “too expensive for any organization except a millionaire’s club.” Or a government, as it turned out. This is where the visionary phase ended and the command-economy phase began.