“The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” That notion, set out by science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke in 1962 as one of the laws of science fiction literature, describes the pioneering spirit with which scientists, aerospace engineers, and space enthusiasts pursued the dream of human settlement of the universe during the first half of the 20th century. “We are still drawing on the reservoir of these visions of space today, more than 50 years later,” says historian Alexander C. T. Geppert, who is working at the Friedrich Meinecke Institute at Freie Universität Berlin, researching the history of European visions of space and extraterrestrial life in the 20th century.
Jules Verne was one of the first to cross that boundary into the impossible, back in 1865, when he anticipated man’s journey to the moon in his novel From the Earth to the Moon, more than a hundred years before Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 made it a reality. He did not long remain the only one to publish a fictional, utopian account of travel to the moon: The British author H. G. Wells published his novel The First Men in the Moon in 1901, and the 16-minute film A Trip to the Moon by French cinema pioneer Georges Méliès came out just one year later. In 1929, the final silent film by director Fritz Lang, Woman in the Moon, premiered at the Ufa Palast in Berlin.
Fantastic notions and the serious science of space and space exploration benefited each other. Scientists and researchers drew on the imagination as a source of inspiration, and in return, filmmakers like Fritz Lang set great store by ensuring that technical details were depicted precisely, based on science. Herrmann Oberth, who in 1923 became one of the founding fathers of manned space exploration, advised Fritz Lang on the takeoff and landing of a rocket ship. Literature and film played a role in ensuring that the idea of space flight seemed a realistic possibility to the public at large starting back in the 1920s.
The development of rockets for space exploration made particular progress due to World War II and, later, the Cold War. Rocket engineers were required to create visions and sell dreams in order to come by the money they needed in order to actually develop rockets and not just plan them on paper. “Without the fear that the Soviets would get ahead of the Americans or vice versa, nowhere near that tremendous amount of resources would have been invested in aerospace research,” Geppert says.
Following World War II, many European rocket engineers emigrated to the United States, which wound up winning the “space race” with the Soviet Union with the moon landing in July of 1969. “Whether there is a specific European or American view of space is therefore difficult to discern,” says Geppert. Wernher von Braun, for instance, was a leading figure in the development of the V2 long-range ballistic missile for the Nazi regime; after 1945, he put his knowledge of space at the service of the U.S. rocket program.
“People figured out early on that the actual problem isn’t traveling into space, but rather overcoming the Earth’s gravity,” Geppert says. The idea of first building a space station in low-Earth orbit and permanently settling it was thus older than the idea of landing directly on the moon. The idea behind the space station was to gradually transport smaller loads into space so that spaceships could be assembled in zero gravity, where the effort involved would be lower, and to set out from there to colonize the cosmos – with Mars as the next destination. While people in the mid-20th century associated the vision of a space station with regular vacation trips to the moon or Mars, the International Space Station (ISS), which has existed in real life since 1998 – the most expensive civilian project ever completed in human history – hardly evokes the kinds of visions of the future that were common in the 1950s, the actual “Golden Age of space exploration.”
The idea of a “space elevator,” first put forward in vague form by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in 1895, was supposed to cheat gravity by an even simpler, electromechanical means. Clarke, who presented a fictional depiction of the space elevator in his 1979 novel The Fountains of Paradise, complained of how disparaging experts were at the time regarding what was and was not technologically possible – and of how lies were severely punished over and over again. Practically unnoticed by the general public, researchers are seriously pursuing the development of a space elevator to this day.
“On the whole, we have become a great deal more sober and more realistic,” Geppert says. “We are no longer looking for life on Mars at all. Instead, we are looking for water, meaning for the prerequisites for life to exist.” The more we know, the more we scale back our criteria for success. Our knowledge of space has grown tremendously since Copernicus moved the Earth from the center of the solar system to the periphery, back in the 16th century. And as the world grows more complex, our visions contract. “Our present day is obsessed with the future, but not very open to utopian ideas,” says Geppert. “As a result, serious space scientists nowadays are reluctant to make specific predictions about settling outer space or the existence of extraterrestrial life.”
If we consider unmanned space exploration, many of the visions of the future put forward in the 1930s and 1940s have indeed been made reality. “Back in 1945, Arthur C. Clarke already had the idea of stationing three satellites in terrestrial orbit in order to set up a worldwide communications network,” the historian explains. Without communications satellites of this kind, there would today be no satellite television, no navigation systems, no mobile phones. “What Clarke conceived of so early on turned out to be groundbreaking for unmanned space travel,” Geppert continues. Clarke himself had to admit that he was a bit premature in predicting that by the year 2000, humanity would have established a colony on the moon and visited most of the planets in our solar system. As a precaution, he once stated that if all his prophecies appeared convincing, it meant that he had not succeeded in looking very far into the future.