Universe University

A journey through astronomy and space history to the outer boundaries of the universe.

The First Man

“Every vision is a joke until the first man accomplishes it.”

  • Robert H. Goddard, 1920

Half a century ago today – on July 24, 1969 – the first humans to land on another world returned to the planet Earth safe and sound. For millennia, the idea of such a voyage was mere fantasy. The mission had been boldly proposed by the late President John F. Kennedy only eight years prior. The United States would land a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth. In the end, NASA went even further, landing not one but two men. Space travel, and moon landings specifically, had been written about in science fiction for quite some time before the actual event. Yet it would be Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin who would become immortal in the annals of history for being the first men to land on the moon, turning science fiction into science fact. But who was the first human being in history to realize that landing on the moon would be even theoretically possible? To answer this question, one must take a metaphorical journey back in time and into the minds of the scientists, engineers, and authors who knew it could be done one day.

Even in 1961, at the dawn of the space age, no one could be certain whether such a fantastic and outlandish journey through space was feasible. Consider just how little the United States knew about outer space in 1961. Three years prior to President Kennedy’s pledge, America’s first satellite had discovered two massive, donut shaped swaths of intense radiation surrounding the Earth. These belts of intense radiation became known as the Van Allen Belts. Very little was known about space travel at the time but scientists were well aware of the dangers of radiation to the human body. Dr. Stanley C. White from NASA conceded that the Van Allen Belts could be very hazardous to astronauts. (Ultimately, by 1969, NASA came up with a course that took astronauts through the thinnest region of the belts, traveling through them at extremely high speeds.) That same American satellite, Explorer One, found temperatures in outer space to be about 250 degrees Fahrenheit in sunlight. Since the moon had virtually no atmosphere, its surface would also be quite hot. In fact, the surface of the moon would likely be even hotter, perhaps over 300 degrees in sunlight. Some astronomers speculated that so much lunar dust covered the surface of the moon that a heavy craft would sink into the soil upon landing, leaving astronauts buried alive. No one could say for sure though since the United States had yet to even land a robot on the moon. Even the Soviet Union, a nation that was years ahead of the United States in rocketry and space flight technology, had not achieved a soft landing with any robotic craft. (In 1961, it would be years before the Soviets even attempted such a feat.)

An American astrophysicist named Thomas Gold speculated that lunar dust had been in a vacuum for so long that if it were exposed to oxygen, it might combust and explode when the astronauts repressurized the cabin of their spacecraft after walking on the moon. Even by 1969, this was still a risk astronauts were well aware of. Finally and perhaps most importantly, in 1961, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union had a rocket anywhere near powerful enough to escape Earth orbit and send human beings to the moon.

The first American astronaut, Alan Shepard, had skimmed the edge of space in a tiny capsule just a few weeks prior to President Kennedy’s pledge. He returned alive and well but it had only been a 15 minute flight. Medical experts on Earth knew nothing about how the human body would fare on longer voyages into outer space. A round trip journey to the moon would involve roughly a week in outer space. It was widely known that Yuri Gagarin, the first human being to venture into space, survived a flight of 108 minutes and completed one orbit around the Earth. Yet the notoriously secretive Soviet government had released no details to the world about the flight and certainly no medical information about how the human body reacted to space travel. Some doctors believed that in microgravity, the human eye might float upwards, no longer needing the support of the bone or muscle around it. They thought the eye might change shape, causing blurred vision or temporary blindness. It is indeed sadly ironic that today, half a century after the first moon landing, there are those who say we cannot yet even attempt a voyage to Mars because we do not know how the human body will fare on such a journey and it is simply too dangerous to attemp it! So little was known about long duration space flight that John Glen, the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962, brought a medical kit with morphine for pain relief and medication to treat symptoms of shock!

Even so, a former Nazi rocket scientist named Wernher Von Braun had thought a voyage to the moon was possible for quite some time. By 1961, Von Braun was working for the United States government to make it a reality. In 1962, Von Braun personally addressed President Kennedy’s moon landing proposal by looking the president in the eye and saying, “By God, we’ll do it!” Yet Von Braun’s dream of landing a man on the moon predated the space age. When he was as young as 18 years old in 1930, Von Braun had been telling people that he personally planned on making a voyage to the moon someday! He had been tinkering with model rockets since his childhood and by age 25, he had hundreds of people working underneath him on experimental, long range missiles. So was Von Braun the first human in history to have the prophetic realization that a voyage to the moon was theoretically possible? The answer is no.

Ironically, when Von Braun’s team surrendered to American troops at the end of World War II, they were baffled that the Americans were so impressed with the technological sophistication of the Nazi V-2 rockets. After all, the rocket engineer that Von Braun and his team admired the most was not of German or even Russian ancestry. Von Braun’s idol was American engineer and inventor Robert H. Goddard, who designed and launched the world’s first liquid fueled rocket in 1926. The rocket that Von Braun would later design to send human beings to the moon was also liquid fueled. As early as 1920; Goddard speculated that a rocket could be launched outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, escape from the Earth’s gravitational pull, and reach the moon. Actually, his real dream was to use rocket technology to send spacecraft to the planet Mars but the moon seemed like a more attainable and modest goal in 1920. In a letter to the Smithsonian that same year, Goddard suggested liquid fueled rockets could be launched to take up-close photographs of the moon and other planets beyond. To return the precious photographs to Earth, Goddard proposed using an ablative heat shield to protect the craft from the intense heat of reentering the Earth’s atmosphere. This was the precise method that was later used to protect astronauts during their return to Earth after the first moon landing.

In 1899, a teenage Goddard climbed a cherry tree and dreamt of the technological possibility of a voyage to Mars. He later said, “As I looked toward the fields at the east, I imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars and how it would look on a small scale, if sent up from the meadow … I was a different boy when I descended the tree from when I ascended.” Just a few years after Goddard’s teenage epiphany, H.G. Wells released a novel about a scientist and a businessman that travel to the moon inside a steel sphere that can be steered in outer space. It was called ‘The First Men in the Moon’.

Some may argue that Goddard was the first human in history to realize that an expedition through outer space to another world was theoretically possible. But others had conceived of such a voyage long before. In 1865, author Jules Verne published ‘From the Earth to the Moon’, which told the story of a massive cannon called the Columbiad which fires a hollow projectile on a voyage to the moon. In the novel, three men ride to the moon inside the projectile, which is launched from the Florida coastline… 104 years after the novel, three men launched on a voyage to the moon inside a spacecraft known as the Columbia from a site on the Florida coastline. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, widely believed to be the father of modern rocketry and astronautics, became fascinated with the idea of space flight only after reading Verne’s seminal novel. Tsiolkovsky later realized that the blast of a massive cannon would likely be lethal for any occupants inside the projectile it fired. Instead, he concluded that chemical rockets would be needed for space travel. In 1880, an evening newspaper mentioned Verne’s story in one of its nightly pieces, referring to the hollow projectile in the narrative as a ‘space ship’. This was the first time in human history that this term was ever used.

Interestingly enough, while rockets became the preferred method of launching space ships, massive cannons have indeed been used to launch objects into outer space! The High Altitude Research Project or H.A.R.P. was a collaboration between the Canadian government and the United States Department of Defense to study the ballistics of objects reentering the Earth’s atmosphere. Beginning in 1961, the project opted to use artillery cannons because American rockets at the time were dangerous, expensive, and unreliable as a means of launching objects to high altitudes. The project succeeded in sending objects to the edge of space, though the objects never achieved orbit. Such massive cannons today are sometimes referred to as ‘Verne guns’. So was Jules Verne the first to conceive of such a voyage? Once again, the answer is no.

The basic physics of space flight, to Earth orbit or beyond, were conceived by the brilliant Sir Isaac Newton and published in the early 1700s. He conceived of a thought experiment where a cannon is fired from on top of a mountain at very high altitude. In reality, such a cannonball would likely follow and arc-like trajectory and fall back to Earth at some distance away from the mountaintop. In Newton’s thought experiment though, if the cannonball were fired at an extremely high speed, it would travel in a circle around the Earth. Today, we call such a flight path an orbit. Using Newtonian physics, Tsiolkovsky calculated escape velocity or the speed at which an object must travel to break free from the gravity of the Earth and travel into an orbit. Long before the first human beings landed on the moon, it was known that Earth’s escape velocity was just over 25,000 miles per hour. This was the same speed achieved by Von Braun’s Saturn V rocket when the first astronauts left Earth orbit to land on the moon.

Yet neither Newton nor Verne were the first to conceive of such a journey. An ancient writer of satire named Lucian actually wrote about a voyage to the moon in the second century C.E. In Lucian’s story, the moon is inhabited by physically beautiful beings that resemble humans. Though it wouldn’t be fair to compare Lucian’s work with that of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells. Lucian’s voyage to the moon cannot be considered science fiction in any true sense of the word, since the main character of the story doesn’t use any scientific process or special technology to make the journey. The imaginative work of fiction is mere fantasy. Perhaps Lucian does deserve credit for being the first human being to conceive of a voyage to the moon as a fantasy? One must wonder though whom the first human being was to perceive a voyage to the moon not as a fantasy but as a real, tangible, feasible goal for future explorers.

To understand that a voyage to the moon is a possibility, one must first understand that the moon is an actual place, a location every bit as real as the Earth. Before the advent of telescopes, religion and philosophy sought to answer humanity's questions about the universe rather than hard science. Thousands of years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that while the Earth might be an imperfect world, the heavens were perfect and unchanging. Aristotle believed that points of light in the sky, known as planets and stars, sat on the surface of crystalline spheres. He thought these spheres within spheres orbited around a spherical Earth. (Perhaps Aristotle should at least receive credit for correctly deducing the shape of the Earth.) He believed the moon was a perfectly smooth, translucent sphere. Aristotle’s conception of the universe was the accepted standard that academics and astronomers embraced until the early 1600s. That was when everything changed. At the time, even the Catholic Church had embraced Aristotle’s basic thesis. The Earth was full of flawed, sinful human beings. The heavens were unblemished, uncorrupted, routine, and unchanging. Such a realm does not seem like a place that human beings could ever feasibly travel within. They seem more like a transcendent, ethereal, spiritual realm where mortal man has no claim.

Then in late 1609, Galileo turned his primitive telescope to the night sky and saw the moon in greater detail than any human being in history ever had before. It was a world of craters, ridges, mountains, and valleys. Many of the moon’s features looked strikingly similar to the mountains and deserts of Earth. Galileo was a skilled artist with a keen eye for the contrast of light and dark colors. Night after night, he crafted detailed drawings of the moon’s surface. Just a few short months later in 1610, he published his writings and drawings in a work called ‘The Starry Messenger’. That same year, Galileo engaged in written correspondence with a mathematician and astronomer named Johannes Kepler. It is worth noting that Kepler would later become famous for explaining planetary motion to the world. Galileo was a devout Catholic who had given his own daughters over to the Catholic Church to serve as nuns while Kepler was a committed Lutheran. Despite their differences, their dialogue appeared both productive and friendly.

It was in this 1610 correspondence that Kepler said the following…

“As soon as somebody demonstrates the art of flying, settlers from our species of man will not be lacking. Who would once have thought that the crossing of the wide ocean was calmer and safer than of the narrow Adriatic Sea, Baltic Sea, or English Channel? Given ships or sails adapted to the breezes of heaven, there will be those who will not shrink from even that vast expanse. Therefore, for the sake of those who, as it were, will presently be on hand to attempt this voyage, let us establish the astronomy, Galileo, you of Jupiter and me of the moon.”

Clearly, both men are aware that the moon and the planets beyond are real places and that it is theoretically possible for human beings to make voyages to visit them. Kepler casually predicts the advent of air travel and aviation as a foundation for future space voyages. Of course, the first men to walk on the moon were the test pilots of experimental aircraft before becoming astronauts. Neil Armstrong flew an aircraft known as the X-15 at such high altitudes that he skimmed the edge of space and earned astronaut wings in the process, long before he ever reached the moon.

The scientific revolutions in Kepler’s time made navigating wooden sailing ships across oceans and between continents a reality that previous generations could never have imagined. So naturally, Kepler thought that mastering flight along with building ships that could ‘sail’ in the vastness of outer space would lead to voyages to the moon. Kepler had no understanding how future spaceships would function but his intuition told him that if science could offer a means to travel across oceans and between continents, it could one day provide the means to travel to the moon. In his written correspondence with Galileo, Kepler is so convinced of such a future that he proposes to Galileo that the two men do the preliminary work necessary to survey these worlds for the future explorers who attempt the voyage! Clearly, such a voyage is not an imaginative author’s fantasy but a brilliant scientist’s prophecy.

It was Kepler who was the first human being in history to realize that landing human beings on the moon would be theoretically possible one day. Indeed, well over three centuries prior to the first moon landing, Kepler believed his own work would help to prepare human beings for the journey. He was right. Goddard, the great American rocket scientist, received national attention for his work in 1920, including his speculation about voyages to the moon. Sadly, most of the attention he received was neither praise nor accolades but criticism and ridicule. Following an attack from the New York Times, he simply told one reporter, “Every vision is a joke until the first man accomplishes it.”

The man who first had the vision to land human beings on the moon was Kepler. The men who accomplished it were Armstrong and Aldrin. Ten other human beings would literally follow in their footsteps in the two and a half years that followed. Perhaps at long last, someday soon, there will be others who will not shrink from that vast expanse… brave explorers who will sail on the breezes of heaven and set foot on other worlds yet again.

PHOTO CAPTION: Galileo's artist rendering of the Earth's moon, as seen from his telescope in 1609.

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