This New Ocean: A History of the First Space Age / Edition 1

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John Glenn's return to space is a reminder of the history of the early space program. This New Ocean is a detailed history of the early years of space exploration, from Sputnik to the Space Shuttle, with all the political intrigue and ego-filled infighting that went along with it. Because the space race was more than science, more than just another high-tech industry, the story is complicated. The space race created intrigue at the core of the U.S.-Soviet power struggle. It caused interagency feuds in the U.S. government to boil over. It won and lost elections, and it anointed both heroes and martyrs. This New Ocean chronicles the political, technical, and social evolution wrought by "the first space age."
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Back to the Future

My first memory ever, before the memory of my mother's face or my favorite toy or throwing up creamed carrots, is of watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. I was three years old, and I didn't know anything about JFK's promise a decade earlier to land an American on the moon or of the cold war and the space race it created. All I saw was a man bounding lightly over a gray landscape that I knew was a long way away. I thought that if I went outside, I would be able to see the men walking around.

For better or for worse, the space race changed the planet. It created satellite technology that put every country in touch with each other. It created weaponry powerful enough to travel halfway around the world and land with pinpoint accuracy. It diverted billions of dollars of national treasuries into a small and expensive industry. It helped forge the image of America as the preeminent technological power player.

This New Ocean, chronicles all the details of the political, technical, and social evolution wrought by "the first space age." Because the space race was more than science, more than just another high-tech industry, the story is complicated. It created intrigue at the core of the U.S.-Soviet power struggle. It caused interagency feuds in the American government to boil over. It won and lost elections, and it anointed both heroes and martyrs.

With the cold war now over, the space age moving into a more internationally cooperative stage, and exploration focusing on Mars, it is useful to look back at the history that definedthepresent. And with John Glenn returning to space, it is also enjoyable to remember the early triumphs of the first space age.
— Greg Sewell,

Scientific American
Burrows tells the story engagingly...
Library Journal
The three sometimes conflicting priorities of "the first space age" were research, manned space flight, and the militarization of space. Burrows exhaustively explores how key players with differing agendas shaped the space program and left a complex but promising legacy for the next era of space science. (LJ 9/15/98)
Alex Roland
. . .[B]reaks no new ground. . . .presents a proposal by . ..Dyson for 'Astrochickens'. . .exploratory spacecraft. . . .These craft also want development, but at least they conjure an imagined future that is truly original. . . .While that future takes shape, Burrows' work helps to define where we have been. -- The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
An encyclopedic history of space exploration by an insider and veteran reporter who has lost nothing in his enthusiasm and respect for what humankind has wrought. But he tells it like it is, which means constant rivalry that pitted the air force against the CIA for control of spy satellites and saw the Department Of Defense turn apoplectic with the anointing of a new civilian space agency, NASA, born in 1958. Stir into this brew the science-driven egos at Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech and the rocket boys at Huntsville who were led by the indomitable Wernher von Braun. Now add the critical ingredient: the Cold War and nuclear threat and the loss of face that came with Sputnik and Gagarin. To counter that threat and restore a nation's pride, Kennedy's promise to put a man on the moon before the end of the '60s and explore "this new ocean" was well-nigh inevitable. It also meant that science for science's sake would take a backseat to realpolitik and the media.

Burrows chronicles the events in authoritative if often over-rich detail, but he is enough of a fine reporter to lace the narrative with juicy quotes. When Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay was told of a plan to built a rocket plane to fly into orbit, he reportedly had only one question: "Where's the bomb bay?" Burrows is also not one to overlook the peccadilloes of the original Right Stuff Seven (excepting Glenn). Because of the separate tracks of the manned space program versus the planetary fly-bys and the need to cover Russian as well as American activities in these areas, there is some back-tracking and redundancy in the chronologies, and there are oft-repeated sermons on the disasters of life and science under Communism. But overall, this is likely to be the bible for those tracking a unique period in Earth history, the "first" space age as Burrows terms it.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679445210
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/22/1998
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 723
  • Product dimensions: 6.97 (w) x 9.57 (h) x 1.82 (d)

Meet the Author

William E. Burrows has reported on aviation and space for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He has had articles in The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Affairs, The Sciences, and other publications and is a contributing editor for Air & Space/Smithsonian. He is also the author of seven previous books, including Deep Black, the award-winning classic work on spying from space.


Mr. Burrows is a professor of journalism at New York University and the founder and director of its graduate

Science and Environmental Reporting Program.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Bird Envy

The bronze archer is called the Saltine Warrior. He stands on a pedestal of marble, muscled legs spread defiantly apart, at Syracuse University. Most of his weight is on the right leg; the other is extended far out. His arched torso is also heavily muscled, and his long hair hangs down, nearly touching his shoulders, while he gazes straight up with complete concentration. The Indian's left arm points to where he is looking. His hand grasps a bow pulled so far back that it is bent almost in a semicircle, almost to the breaking point. The fore and middle fingers of his right hand hold an unseen arrow to a taut, unseen string. This bowman is absolutely focused on a distant, unseen target.

    He is not coiled for a quick shot at a formation of geese passing overhead, honking their melancholy cadence, on some long migration. This man's target is beyond birds. It is altitude. He is poised to fire his arrow as high as he can; as high as the force that holds him to Earth will let it go. The Saltine Warrior and every other archer knows in his soul that there is a primal urge to shoot at the sky, to defy the relentless force that imprisons him by riding the arrow to freedom. "I am with you," this archer and all of the others say to their creator. "I too can look down on Earth and touch other worlds."

    So did Dr. Faustus. "I'll leap up to my God. Who pulls me down?" he cried in frustration and anguish. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the great Russian visionary of aerodynamics and rocketry, was an obsessed gravity hater who believed implicitly that only floating in space could unburden the mind and bring freedom to the soul. Tsiolkovsky rode the arrow. And when the people controlling a spacecraft that is approaching Mars announce that "We are thirty thousand kilometers from encounter," it is because they believe on some subliminal level that they're on the spacecraft; that they are riding the arrow too.

    When the history of this century is written, the story of mankind's first breaking gravity's relentless hold and touching places beyond Earth will be one of its most exciting and important chapters, together with the development of the computer, the discovery of the genetic code and the engineering that soon began to follow, and only a handful of other remarkable advances. The story of the first space age is set in a cauldron whose soup is laced with altruists and scoundrels, visionaries and parasites, heroes and knaves. It is the story of political ideologies that fought relentlessly above the atmosphere, as they did on the planet beneath it, in a dangerous duel for a global supremacy that was more illusion than serious possibility. Using space to help humanity communicate, forecast the weather, and accomplish other beneficial things, and traveling there for the ultimate adventure and refuge, was the central core of the idea. It was the great philosophical driving force, the engine, that seemed to make a presence in space imperative.

    Yet space could be reached only by rockets and the shame of it was that rockets were conceived, and reconceived time and again, expressly to wreak unparalleled destruction and kill large numbers of the very people whose enlightenment and salvation they promised. So there are dark shadows here. Every rocket that has ever carried instruments to record solar activity or gone to Mars to search for life was on a family tree whose true ancestors were designed and built to be people killers with intercontinental reach. Used as they were intended to be used--and fanatics on both sides who longed for that day are part of the story--they would have ended life here before they found it somewhere else. Yet the warriors and those who sold them the means to commit what was euphemistically called mass destruction with re-entry vehicles, as Frank White has indicated, were only the late philosophical aberrations of a much older and deeper drive. What makes them important in this story is the fact that they, and only they, were able to turn fantasy into reality because they could spend vast amounts of government money to do so. But they, too, were riding the arrow. And that arrow, which does indeed go back to the beginning of awareness, remains after the greatest danger this planet has ever faced subsided. That, too, is part of the story.

An Art Unknown

Daedalus, the master artist and craftsman of Greek myth, was the Leonardo da Vinci of the ancient world (he also became history's first genetic engineer by creating the Minotaur when he coupled Pasiphae and the Cretan bull). But Daedalus is best remembered for moving the possibility of flying from fantasy to accepted theory by setting up an actual flight regime. Having been imprisoned by King Minos in the same labyrinth that he had built to hold the dreaded Minotaur and then freed only to find he could not get off Crete because its waters were heavily patrolled, Daedalus "turned his mind to arts unknown," as the poet Ovid later explained in Metamorphoses. "Minos may control the land and sea," Daedalus decided, "but not the regions of the air. I will try that way."

    Daedalus devised a mission plan and a technology to carry it out and in doing so anticipated reality. He came up with a bold plan to break out of the blockade by flying to Sicily, a distance of more than five hundred miles over the Aegean, the way a bird would. He therefore built birds' wings to fit himself and his son, Icarus. Carefully attaching small feathers together with wax, he fashioned them into a gently curved surface, then stitched ever-larger ones in place. Next, Daedalus became history's first test pilot by beating the wings until he could feel himself rising. He taught Icarus to do the same. Finally, father and son took off in formation and headed west. As all the world knows, Icarus was lost at sea because he abandoned the flight plan and, as scriptwriters would put it many centuries later (however erroneously), left his wingman. In an apparent attempt to reach Heaven, Icarus climbed so high that the Sun melted the wax in his wings, sending him plummeting to a watery death. All he left behind were some feathers floating on the sea. But the more conservative Daedalus, who stuck to the mission profile and did not push his vehicle beyond its design capability, reached his destination safely and hung up his wings.

    The father and son's mythical journey became a timeless metaphor for many aspirations, afflictions, and qualities. By Homer's time, Daedalus had become synonymous with artistry; Socrates, himself a sculptor, traced his lineage back to the flying "artificer." That seems to have also made Daedalus history's first science fiction hero. More to the point, the flight out of the maze and into the unknown not only joined art and science, but combined both with courage. And it enlisted all three in the cause of freedom. With Daedalus, flight became a metaphor for spiritual as well as physical liberation. It showed what imagination and daring could accomplish. But it also represented a visceral longing to escape from dangerous or unhappy situations, a motivation that would become one of several leitmotifs running through the reach for space. For his part, poor Icarus only proved the folly of imprudence, hubris, and disobeying orders.

    The later Greek writers, such as the second-century satirist Lucian of Samosata, thought of Daedalus as a master astrologer who taught the "science" of star-reading to Icarus. Astrology would slowly, grudgingly, give way to astronomy in the Middle Ages, and as it did so, pure fantasy would evolve into fiction based increasingly on hard, provable science about the world as it actually exists. Lucian believed that the Moon was another heavenly body, not a symbolic chariot that traveled across the night sky.

    But this flew in the face of a giant's teachings. Aristotle, who taught the importance of the direct observation of nature, nevertheless stubbornly rejected any idea having to do with a "plurality of worlds" or the possibility that Earth moved. The great philosopher insisted that since all matter is contained in one world, there can be no others; that, in any case, other planets would be so heavy they would come together as one. It therefore followed that Earth was the center of the universe. As Willy Ley would note in his fine early chronicle of rocketry, Aristotle's profound mistake was wholeheartedly accepted by Christian teachers well over a thousand years later. "Not only was it simply forbidden to teach anything that contradicted or diverged from Aristotle's statements," Ley wrote, "it was also denied that there was anything that Aristotle had not known." God's creating Earth as the center of everything made perfect sense to the church.

    But Lucian was not persuaded by Aristotle's unsupported argument. And he had his own agenda. In A.D. 160, he wrote the first known story about a voyage to the Moon. It was actually two stories, collectively called Vera historia (True History) and it was intended to poke fun at Phoenician and other storytellers who concocted gruesome accounts of the mysterious region west of Gibraltar that was known as the Pillars of Hercules. (The wily Phoenicians spread the terrifying tales to frighten other sailors and traders so they could ply the eastern Atlantic without competition.) Since Lucian was more interested in spinning an outrageous tale than in where it took place, he decided to get fiction decisively off the ground.

    At one point Icaromenippus, the hero of one of the stories, gazes at the sky and sees "the starres scattered up and down the heavens, carelessly." Yearning for knowledge about the Moon and the Sun, Icaromenippus decides to fly to the Moon from Mount Olympus using one wing from an eagle and another from a vulture (a design improvement that avoided the wax which killed poor Icarus). "At first," he says from his far-off vantage point, "me thought I saw a very little kind of Earth, far less than the Moon; and thereupon stooping down, could not yet find where such mountains were, or such a Sea.... At the last, the glittering of the Ocean by the Sun beams shining upon it, made me conjecture it was the Earth I saw," This made Lucian the first known writer to send his imagination to the Moon and use it to view Earth. Not satisfied with being on the Moon, though, Icaromenippus extends his reach (just as his partnamesake did), continuing on to the stars and finally arriving in Heaven three days later. But since he is considered to be an intruder by the immortals who live there, Icaromenippus is taken back to Earth by Mercury and stripped of his wings because of his impudence.

    The other tale concerns a ship carrying athletes beyond the Pillars of Hercules that is caught in a colossal whirlwind, lifting it from the sea and carrying it high in the sky for seven days and nights. On the eighth day, the passengers and crew discover that they are on a "shining Island": the Moon. In a narrative worthy of the Odyssey, the travelers meet warriors called Hippogypi who ride giant three-headed birds. They are astonished to learn that a war is looming between the Moon and the Sun involving 60 million men, 80,000 of whom are in the aerial cavalry. The fierce combatants are joined by spiders the size of islands, gigantic ants, 30,000 flea riders, a legion of garlic throwers, and lots more. But Lucian has no stomach for gore-strewn battlefields so he sanitizes them. Dead combatants do not litter the Moon, the Sun, or the space between; they conveniently dissolve into vapor and smoke.

    "For Lucian, a trip to the Moon was simply an extension of the traditional traveller's tale in which the fictional description of strange and unfamiliar lands was nothing more than an opportunity for satire," air and space historian Thomas D. Crouch has explained. "It was the purest fantasy," and could as easily have been set on Earth as on the Moon. As such, he added, it led the way to Gulliver's Travels and Alice in Wonderland, but it was not science fiction. As much could have been said of The Wizard of Oz, in which Dorothy and Toto were swept up in a tornado that could have been spawned by Lucian himself.

    Still, True History was a full-blown adventure that probably described for the first time a voyage to another world, a landing on it, encounters with alien creatures in harrowing and bizarre circumstances, and a return home. It was indeed fiction without science. Yet it suggested that there could be many worlds out there, some of them inhabited by aliens. And it took the reader to those worlds, in the process setting the stage for other tales that would adapt well to whatever science could offer. Lucian of Samosata not only set the stage for earthlings to encounter horrific creatures on other worlds, but for the creatures themselves to find and threaten Earth itself, as would happen when H. G. Wells's Martians started The War of the Worlds in 1898.


While Lucian was using only his pen to get earthlings off their planet, alchemists in Cathay were combining physical elements to do it for real, though they didn't know it. They were producing an elixir that supposedly prolonged life and turned ordinary materials into gold and silver. The second quality was helpful for the first, since it was believed that eating and drinking from gold utensils not only extended life but ensured immortality. A succession of emperors who wanted both supported the alchemists, probably making the Han Dynasty the first government to subsidize drug research.

    The concoction's two key ingredients, sulfur and saltpeter, were also known to become explosive when combined with a carbon such as realgar or charcoal. In his book Chen yuan miao yao lueh, the noted alchemist Cheng Ssuyuan warned against heating the sulfur, saltpeter, and carbon mixture and cited instances in which people were hurt and houses burned because the dangerous compound had been mishandled. Firecrackers were first used in China sometime between 200 B.C. and A.D. 200 (at precisely the same time that astronomers there were following eclipses, planetary movements, comets, and other doings in the night sky) and were quickly recognized as potential terror weapons. While their practical use in warfare would have been negligible, the psychological impact on the enemy of seeing and hearing explosions created at will must have been incredible, at least at first. At some point, however, it began to dawn on the alchemists or their leaders that the mixture's explosive force could be used to deliberately blow up things and propel objects. This was good news to a succession of dynasties that faced long-term, unrelenting attacks by marauding Mongol armies and that sought a high-tech weapon for the defense of the empire.

    Over the course of the next thousand years, the elixir of life was gradually turned into the compound of death and destruction: black powder, or gunpowder, as it is more commonly called. This explains why the Chinese picked the name huo yao as a general term for the explosive, fire-producing mixture; it means "fire drug."

    Rocketry, together with guns of great size and range, grew out of the spread of gunpowder. The Chinese developed a "fire arrow" and then a six-foot-long "flying fire lance" propelled by burning gunpowder. Wu-ching Tsung-yoa's Complete Compendium of Military Classics, published in 1054, said that a hundred-thousand-man army laying siege to the city of Tzu T'ung was routed in 994 by regular war machines and fire arrows. A treatise written in 1628 by Mao Yuan-i noted that the larger flying fire lance was propelled by two firespraying cylinders connected in tandem and operating in succession, with the first igniting the second. This made the flying fire lance a two-stage rocket.

    In Korea, the powder was first made in 1377, though it is not known whether the invention was indigenous or spread from China. Within twelve years, Komans were producing a weapon called ju-hwa, or "running fire," which could be shot out of a bamboo tube held by a cavalryman. Although the actual nature of running fire has been lost, it seems to have been a rocket-propelled arrow. "It is detrimental to the enemy," according to one contemporary account. "Its loud noise and shape instill fear and incite surrender. Once used at night, its exhaust flame lights the fields and shakes the enemy's spirits."

    Less than a century later, running fire was replaced by the more advanced magical machine arrow, which came in three sizes and could be fired in salvos of fifteen from magical mechanical arrow launchers that held as many as a hundred of them. The launchers looked something like the multiple rocket launchers used in World War II. The arrows were propelled by paper or bamboo cylinders tightly packed with powder--the propellant--and sealed at the forward end. When lighted at the open end, the burning powder would turn to expanding hot gas, pushing the rocket forward as it escaped through the open end. The key was to control the rate at which the powder burned so that it propelled the rocket rather than exploded. Extra charcoal slowed the burn rate, while making the size of the hole just right allowed the gas to escape instead of turning the rocket into a bomb. (Rocket designers six centuries later would face the same problem calculating the diameter of their own nozzles.)

    Rocketry took hold in Europe by the end of the thirteenth century. Several formulas for "flying fire" are in the Book of Fires for Burning Enemies, attributed to Marcus Graecus (Mark the Greek), who lived at the time. They have been found, sometimes duplicated word for word, in a number of fourteenth-century manuscripts. Here is one of the most popular:

    Take 1 libre [pound] of native sulphur, 2 libra of charcoal of linde or willow, 6 libra of slapetrosum [saltpeter or potassium nitrate] which are all three well mixed on a marble stone. Afterwards place the powder at pleasure in an envelope for flying [a rocket] or for making thunder [a firecracker]. Note that the envelope for flying should be long and slender and filled with powder well packed. But the envelope for making thunder should be short and thick and half-filled with the said powder and strongly tied at both ends with iron wire.

    Rockets were probably first used in Europe for warfare in Silesia in 1241 during a battle between Henryk Pobozny, a Polish prince, and Tartars. Some of the earliest rockets were fired in Italy, where they got their name: rochetta. The word comes from the Latin for "spindle," a tapered cylinder that was used to twist yarn in hand spinning and that still twists it on a spinning wheel. Similarly, the Italian word rocchetto means "spool of thread" which is also a cylinder. Rocket-propelled arrows were fired by Bologna against Forli, a rival city-state, in 1281. By 1488, as a weapons inventory from Aragon shows, they had reached Spain. By the end of the fifteenth century, however, military rockets were sliding into a long decline. They were being eclipsed by conventional firearms and artillery, which were far more reliable and efficient.

Ships to Sail the Heavenly Breezes

Meanwhile, the urges to explore Earth, fly off it, and visit other worlds were coming together like tributaries that formed one of the deep streams flowing into the river that was the Enlightenment. And that particular stream ran into yet another: a scientific revolution of literally astronomical proportion. Courage, imagination, and intellect seemed to be surging everywhere.

    In 1492, Christopher Columbus, a courageous sailor and undoubtedly the greatest navigator of his age, had sailed westward toward an unknown world and ran into Earth's other hemisphere. He found a place that was not only inhabited, which was profoundly important in its own right, but which was alive with indigenous people and other life forms that Columbus found were culturally and physically different from those he and his men had left behind.

    While Columbus probed the Atlantic, Leonardo da Vinci dreamed of doing the same in the atmosphere. In 1495, he came up with an idea for extending the cannon's range to three miles straight up by firing rockets from it. It is the earliest known marriage between a gun and a rocket and it formed a clear link between the Saltine Warrior's arrow and the colossal cannon that Jules Verne used more than three and a half centuries later to fire his heroes to the Moon. The irrepressible Florentine genius studied birds and bats in detail and then came up with a richly detailed treatise on how they fly, correctly noting that aerodynamics and hydrodynamics are intimately related: "A bird makes the same use of wings and tail in the air as a swimmer does of his arms and legs in the water." This led directly to three inventions that were supposed to give man birdlike capabilities: an ornithopter, which a pilot was supposed to fly by flapping its wings; a helicopter, which was intended to screw itself upward into the air; and a parachute, which looked like a tent. Since he understood that his invention was strictly experimental, Leonardo warned potential test pilots that the ornithopter "should be tried over a lake, and you should carry a long wineskin as a girdle so that in case you fall you will not be drowned." He had in effect designed a fifteenth-century hang glider to be flown by a man wearing a fifteenth-century Mae West.

    Three years after Leonardo's death, the remnants of Ferdinand Magellan's crew completed the first circumnavigation of Earth, another of the greatest feats of exploration in recorded history. Before he died in 1521, the stalwart Portuguese seaman ran into enough new and exotic varieties of flora and fauna to bring to mind Lucian's True History.

    Eight years after Magellan's Victoria became the first vessel to circle Earth, Nicolaus Copernicus became the first modern scientist to assert that the planet itself circled the Sun and so did the other planets. Aristarchus of Samos, a pre-Christian Greek astronomer, had actually said it first. In what was undoubtedly the most original scientific work of the time, Aristarchus claimed that Earth made one rotation on its axis every day and circled the Sun once a year. He also said that the other planets similarly moved around the Sun and that the Sun itself, as well as the stars, were actually motionless. Although there is no written record of Aristarchus's theory, it apparently became widely known because Cleanthes, the preeminent Stoic philosopher, said that he ought to have been indicted for impiety.

    That and more: Aristarchus not only challenged God, but he, and then Copernicus, propounded a theory that seemed so stupid on the face of it that even a fool would not believe it. If Earth were spinning, there would be a sense of motion, but there was none. And simple physics would cause people and other things not attached to the ground to fly off into the air. Finally, if the planet and everything on it were spinning, why would an object dropped from, say, the tower in Pisa, fall to the tower's base when the tower itself was moving away from the object? If the fools were right, the object would hit the ground half a mile behind the moving tower. It was obvious that they made no sense.

    Aristarchus had therefore been overshadowed by Claudius Ptolemy, the second-century mathematician, geographer, and astronomer, whose thirteen-volume Almagest stated flatly that Earth--a globe--was the center of the universe and that the Sun, the Moon, and the stars revolved around it in uniform, circular, orbits. That seemed to make sense. Ptolemy's teachings were accepted throughout much of Europe until Copernicus intruded.

    Copernicus explained the heliocentric theory in his immortal De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (Concerning the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies). He calculated that Earth did more than simply rotate. In common with the other planets, it had "several motions." If the other planets were spheres that had gravity and that moved through the heavens, he asked, why would Earth, alone, not move? And there was this: "That it [Earth] is not the center of all revolutions is proved by the irregular motions of the planets, and their varying distances from Earth, which cannot be explained as concentric circles with the Earth at the center." This radical and philosophically dangerous treatise, which was published in 1543 as Copernicus lay on his deathbed, was dedicated to Pope Paul III. Before long a humanist named Giordano Bruno and another astronomer, Galileo Galilei, would learn to their dismay that the Holy See was anything but honored by such gestures.

    As Copernicus thought about the space beyond Earth, the chief of the artillery arsenal at Sibiu, Transylvania (now Romania), thought about extending the rocket's range and of using it to get people to Copernicus's imagined places. Conrad Haas had to deal with big guns; that was his job. But he was obsessed by big rockets. So it occurred to him that as powder burned away inside a rocket's chamber, the diminishing amount of remaining powder had to carry the dead weight of the entire rocket. In other words, as the amount of propellant decreased, the load it had to carry increased, causing a sharp loss of velocity.

    The way to solve the problem, Haas finally decided, was to shed the deadweight. He published a paper in 1529 that described the first true multiplestage rocket. The idea was to connect two or three rocket cylinders, or, as they would later be called, stages. The bottom stage would be ignited and would push the whole contraption off the ground. Its powder would not only turn to hot gas as the stacked cylinders climbed, it would burn the first stage's paper wall in the process, lessening the rocket's overall weight. The last of the burning powder in the first stage would ignite the powder at the base of the second stage, and the process would then repeat itself. At the top of the stages there would be what Haas called a "payload" (a term that would stick). Being an artilleryman, he designed a military missile that carried a small powder keg in its nose. Being a space dreamer, he also designed a small cylindrical house, complete with a round roof, windows, and door as another kind of payload. It was the first known design for a space station.

    Studying the firmament--the night vault that sparkles with thousands of flickering lights--is older than recorded history. By its nature it was a very precise business, even by the time of Ptolemy, and it has remained so. If the purpose of astronomy is to describe the relationship of every object in the heavens to every other object in order to make sense of it all, then the utmost care has to be taken in establishing their relative positions.

    Astronomers have to track a "space race" that started with the Big Bang or earlier and which continues unabated. The planets in this solar system race around the Sun. The system itself is only a minuscule dot in a galaxy among uncounted billions of other galaxies that are also in constant motion. Some, like Andromeda, spin in great spirals like pirouetting starfish or pinwheels; others form enormous cosmic ellipses; still others, like the Magellanic Clouds, are irregular explosions of star systems that defy neat description. None of this, let alone the fact that the galaxies interact through gravitational pull, was known to sixteenth-century astronomers. But they did know that the planets and star formations moved across the sky along routes that could be predicted. And the predictions rested squarely on the excruciatingly patient notation of planet and star positions over very many nights. During the Middle Ages, Arab caliphs built observatories and studied the night sky continuously and systematically, not only out of intellectual curiosity, but also to set feasts and fasts according to the position of the Moon. They got so good at it that they corrected and extended Greek astronomical charts.

    As the end of the sixteenth century approached an astronomer and nobleman named Tycho Brahe, working on the Danish island of Hven, made a series of historic observations of Mars and other planets. Lacking a telescope, which had not yet been invented, Brahe used a quadrant--a four-squared mural--to track and plot the altitudes at which planets and stars crossed the meridian. The measurements were unprecedentedly precise and showed that earlier observations failed to adequately predict planetary positions. The technical rigor of his observations created a vast, valuable library of data. Then his funding dried up. Deprived of a research allowance by King Christian IV, Brahe did what other scientists, artists, and philosophers did and continue to do in similar circumstances. He moved to a more nourishing environment. Under the benevolent patronage of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II, Brahe began publishing his observations in Prague in 1599. But the Dane disagreed with Copernicus's heliocentric theory, believing instead that while the other planets circled the Sun, all of them, including the Sun, circled Earth. Brahe, too, thought he knew enough about physical law to understand that people would be thrown off a spinning planet.

    One of Brahe's assistants was a young German astronomer who also dabbled very successfully in astrology. His name was Johannes Kepler and he had a reputation as an excellent seer who successfully predicted plague, famine, and Turkish invasions (all of which came regularly and fairly often).

    Kepler started to pore over Brahe's observations of Mars in 1601, right after his master died, making detailed calculations that led to a profoundly important discovery: the planets orbit the Sun, not in the perfect circles so beloved by Aristotle and others, but in ellipses. This, the first and most important of three laws postulated by Kepler, would forever form the basis of mankind's understanding of the way the planets in this system move. He published it and a second law having to do with the speeds that planets travel in their orbits in 1609. The book, immodestly but accurately titled A NEW ASTRONOMY, or a PHYSICS OF THE SKY Derived from the Investigations of the MOTIONS OF THE STAR MARS Founded on Observations of the NOBLE TYCHO BRAHE, contained a dangerous idea: celestial bodies are physical objects whose motions are produced by natural causes.

    On the morning of Saturday, February 19, 1600--the year the twenty-nine-year-old Kepler started to work for Brahe--Giordano Bruno, the eclectic Dominican friar and Italian Renaissance philosopher, was taken from the cell in Rome's Nona Tower he had occupied for seven years, stripped naked, gagged, tied to a stake, and paraded through the cramped streets at the head of a hooded group of chanting inquisitors known as the Company of Mercy and Pity. But they had neither. Bruno's tormentors told him that a last-minute recantation for his sins would save him from eternal damnation as a heretic. Bruno could not have expressed contrition even if he had wanted to, since his jaw was clamped shut, a spike pierced his tongue, and another spike stuck in his palate. There was no way the men in the hoods would allow the man they were about to murder to tell the crowd at the Campo de' Fion in front of the Theater of Pompeii, where the procession finally stopped, what he had told Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, the Catholic Church's greatest intellectual: "I neither ought to recant, nor will I. I have nothing to recant, nor do I know what I should recant." Later, he sealed his fate by showing contempt for his accusers. "In pronouncing my sentence," said Bruno, who had taught in Paris, Oxford, and Wittenberg, "your fear is greater than mine in hearing it." With a torch in one hand and a crucifix in the other, one of Bruno's killers demanded repentance one last time. The condemned man disgustedly turned his face away. The fire was lit and one of history's most profound and original thinkers was burned alive.

    The "monstrosities" that Bruno advocated in debates and in writing had to do with astronomy, the least practical of the sciences--least practical but most threatening to men whose power rested on religious dogma and superstition. Bruno described an infinite universe with stars that were suns like Earth's and where other earths circled those suns. Worse, he taught that if God could create life on Earth, He could create it on the other planets, too. Therefore, Earth was Heaven for the creatures on the other planets. And if that was true--if there were indeed Heaven on Earth--then the power to say who went to Heaven and who did not would be lost, and with it, the power of the church. That is why a dangerous rabble-rouser such as Giordano Bruno had to be murdered.

    Bruno's execution--which was condemned by at least one Roman tabloid of the time--was still fresh in the collective memory nine years later when Galileo turned a new invention, the telescope, on the universe. He had come to the conclusion in the waning years of the sixteenth century that Copernicus was right. Then, during a trip to Venice, he heard that a Dutchman had invented a "miracle tube," or "optick stick," sometime before or in 1608.

    Galileo quickly returned to the University of Padua, where he lectured in mathematics, and built his own "spyglasses," as he first called the optical devices (they were not referred to as "telescopes" until 1611). The first dedicated astronomical telescopes were wooden tubes covered with paper or leather with hand-ground convex lenses on one end and a concave eyepiece on the other. He calculated that his first telescope made objects nine times larger than could be seen with the eye alone. But it was only a test model. "I shortly afterwards constructed another telescope with more nicety, which magnified objects more than sixty times," he later reported. "At length, by sparing neither labor or expense, I succeeded in constructing for myself an instrument so superior that objects seen through it appear magnified nearly a thousand times, and more than thirty times nearer than if viewed by the natural powers of sight alone." These were the tools, primitive as they were, that would begin a revolution in how mankind saw itself relative to the rest of creation: not at its center, but as an infinitesimal component. The new tools would bridge the void between distant worlds. And they would eventually do even more than that. They would become time machines that could see far into the past. But first they would draw other worlds nearer to this one. And what could be drawn nearer could be closely studied. And what could be studied might be touched. It was only a matter of improving the bridge.

    On January 7, 1610, one of the telescopes--"a very excellent instrument," in Galileo's estimation--was pointed at Jupiter when he discovered something he had not noticed before because of the limitations of the other telescopes. Three "little stars, small but very bright," seemed to flank the great planet and were at varying distances from each other. The formation was so peculiar that it piqued his curiosity. What is more, they lined up on Jupiter's ecliptic, an imaginary plane running through its equator, and appeared to be brighter than the other "stars" in the region. Galileo carefully drew a diagram of what he saw: two of the stars were east of Jupiter and one rested, seemingly suspended, to its west. He went to bed believing that the three objects were, indeed, stars. But the image of the strange formation would not go away.

    Led by "some fatality," Galileo therefore scrutinized Jupiter with particular care the following night. What he discovered in the black velvet that seemed to surround it would soon do nothing less than revolutionize astronomy, change forever the way the inhabitants of this planet conceived the universe beyond it, and simultaneously land him in the pantheon of immortal scientists and make him the scourge of the Church of Rome. What Galileo noticed on the night of the eighth was that the formation had changed radically. Although the objects that the astounded astronomer saw as he squinted though his eyepiece remained on Jupiter's ecliptic, all three were now due west of the planet, closer together than they had been the night before, and separated by equal distances. The next night, they were seen to have moved again, two by now having returned to the east of Jupiter and one having disappeared altogether (he correctly assumed that it was "hidden" by the planet).

    Galileo himself should describe what happened next. "I discovered that the interchange of position which I saw belonged not to Jupiter, but to the stars to which my attention had been drawn, and I thought therefore that they ought to be observed henceforth with more attention and precision." More carefully diagrammed observations convinced the jubilant astronomer that "there are three stars in the heavens moving about Jupiter, as Venus and Mercury around the Sun; which at length was established as clear as daylight by numerous other subsequent observations. These observations also established that there are not only three, but four, erratic sidereal bodies performing their revolutions round Jupiter" (italics added). Painstaking diagrams made on successive nights left no doubt that all four "stars" were circling the great planet.

    Galileo had spotted four of Jupiter's largest moons. So, apparently, had a German astronomer known as Simon Marius who is often credited with first seeing them on December 29, 1609, ahead of his Italian rival. Marius is the one who named the circling retinue after Jupiter's mythical lovers: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. But Galileo is generally credited with making the discovery first because he published first. (That much has not changed in almost four centuries.) For his part, Galileo wanted to name the moons the Medicean Planets in honor of his patron, Cosimo de' Medici, grand duke of Tuscany. That practice would end when only national treasuries, not princely coffers, could support such research.

    The master astronomer also turned his telescope on his own planet's lone satellite. There he saw, up close, a world similar to parts of his own. In a book rifled Message from the Stars, which was published in 1610 and which made him an instant celebrity, he described regions of the cratered moonscape that reminded him of Bohemia. Galileo, who was a trained watercolorist, made wash drawings in ink of what he saw. And this, in his words, is what that was: "On the fourth or fifth day after a new moon, when the moon was seen with brilliant horns, the boundary which divides the dark part from the light...traces out an uneven, rough, and very wavy line .... There is a similar sight on Earth about sunrise, when we behold the valleys not yet flooded with light though the mountains surrounding them are already ablaze with glowing splendor on the side opposite the Sun."

    Unaided eyes had watched the Moon pass through its phases for uncounted millennia, but the advance and retreat of light on its surface, let alone details on the surface itself, was imperceptible because of the distance. Galileo, however, brought the Moon so close that he (and the princes and compatriots who were soon privileged to peer in awe through his optical tube) could actually see light from the Sun creep across the ancient orb's ghostly mountains, valleys, and craters. "With his first astronomical telescope" the physicist Philip Morrison and his wife, Phylis, have said, "Galileo healed the ancient split between the heavens and the earth."

    By observing that Jupiter's "stars" were actually moons engaged in an intricate but predictable dance around it, Galileo established the fact that Earth was not the only planet to have a moon and that other centers of motion were out there. More important, he quickly came to believe that what he saw--smaller bodies in orderly orbits around a larger one--was a model of the solar system itself and that Copernicus had therefore been right all along.

    But the most significant observational leap, at least where mankind's eventual move to space was concerned, was onto the Moon's surface. By portraying it as being like the Bohemian plains, complete with surrounding mountains, Galileo in effect connected Heaven and Earth. When his friend, the Florentine painter Lodovico Cigoli, was commissioned by Pope Paul V to provide a painting in the dome of a papal chapel, the artist decided to depict a popular representation of the Virgin Mary in Assumption of the Virgin. This time, though, she was not standing on a two-dimensional crescent Moon, as was often the case. She stood on the cratered, mountainous, earthlike Moon that Cigoli had seen through Galileo's telescope. The implication was obvious to everyone who now courted Galileo, whose fame was quickly spreading, as well as to many others. If the Moon was similar to Earth, and if a way could be found to get to it, people could live there. If they could live there, it was entirely possibly that other places existed where they could also live. In fact, if there were such worlds, it was conceivable that there might even be living creatures already on them, as poor Bruno had insisted, meaning that life was not unique to Earth.

    This was not news the church wanted to hear. Dogma had it that Earth, which was created by God for humanity, was the center of creation and was a unique masterpiece. It was therefore the only place that could be inhabited by His creatures. Any theory to the contrary therefore literally challenged the Vatican's interpretation of the world. Furthermore, an unending series of scientific revelations about outer space, one after another, did "not sound very biblical" in the Morrisons' words. A religion that claims divine knowledge and omniscience cannot afford to have its followers surprised and delighted by developments it has neither generated nor understands. In addition, the Pontiff and his cardinals felt beleaguered by the Protestant Reformation, which had by then captured half of Europe. (They had hated Bruno so much they labeled him a despised "Lutheran," which was generic slang for heretic. Ironically, he was a Dominican, and therefore a member of the Vatican's own thought police. "Dominican" translates to "dogs of God.") As a consequence, they were in no mood for new challenges from another quarter.

    Nor did the church stand alone. Sides were drawn from Rome to London. While each new discovery was related with awe from town squares to princely dinner tables, Galileo was vilified, even by Giovanni Magini, the professor of astronomy at Bologna, who swore that the new planets would be "extirpated from the sky." There was a sense among many learned individuals--philosophers, physicians, and poets among them--that the combined doctrine of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo, three revolutionaries, threatened chaos. Their theory of force and change challenged any semblance of permanence and regularity, of worldly order and stability. John Donne reacted by proclaiming that if the new astronomers were right, the world was plunging toward dissolution because they had "replaced the circle of perfection with the straight line of mortality." The Copernicans, as they were pejoratively called, were repeatedly attacked for being "men of no intellect."

    Was it right, one historian of science would ask rhetorically, almost three and a half centuries later, "to subvert the vast and documented discourse of the Schools [including those of Athens], so well based on the familiar evidence of the senses, which allows us to account in an orderly manner for nature and life and the soul itself--and fits in so handsomely with revealed truth--to launch ourselves in a sea of paradoxes and unnatural conclusions, simply because a man has come forward with two lenses and a length of pipe?"

    As the furor built, Galileo sent a copy of Message from the Stars to Kepler as soon as it was published. Kepler was by then solidly in the Copernican school and was quick to grasp the importance of his colleague's new tool, which turned his very soul rhapsodic. "What now, dear reader, shall we make out of our telescope?" he wrote. "Shall we make it a Mercury's magic wand to cross the liquid ether with, and, like Lucian, lead a colony to the uninhabited evening star? Or shall we make it Cupid's arrow, which entering by our eyes, has pierced our innermost mind, and fired us with a love of Venus?"

    It was obvious to Kepler that what could be seen could be reached, so his thoughts instinctively turned to great feats of exploration already accomplished or under way: to the daring voyages of Columbus and Magellan, Balboa and da Gama, Cabot and Drake. Then he replied to Galileo in an open letter on April 19, 1610. Conversation with the Messenger from the Stars, as he called it, predicted the flight of Apollo 11 to the Moon 359 years later in prose that was as hauntingly beautiful as it was prescient:

    Who would have believed that a huge ocean could be crossed more peacefully and safely than the narrow expanse of the Adriatic, the Baltic Sea or the English Channel? Provide ship or sails adapted to the heavenly breezes, and there will be some who will not fear even that void [of space] .... So, for those who will come shortly to attempt this journey, let us establish the astronomy: Galileo, you of Jupiter, I of the Moon.

    Kepler now believed implicitly that the great obstacle was not inhabiting the Moon, but reaching it. While he is best known for the three laws of planetary motion, his other trade, astrology, gave him quite another dimension. He used his vivid imagination and fluid writing skill to craft stories about magic and mysticism.

    One such work, Somnium (The Dream), was another important forerunner of science fiction and was heavily footnoted with astronomical data. In it, a young Icelander named Duracotus returns home after studying with the great Brahe and is lectured by a demon on the nature of the Moon and its relation to Earth. The demon knows about the Moon because he is able to fly there during eclipses and can therefore describe its seas, mountains, long nights, weather, snakelike inhabitants, and what Earth looks like from its surface. Somnium was probably drafted in 1593 and revised in 1609, while Galileo was grinding glass, but it was not published until 1634, four years after its author's death. Since a footnote in that edition says explicitly that it was written to refute arguments against the movement of Earth, and therefore supported Copernicus, it amounted to another challenge to papal dogma.

    Kepler's descendents, after all, would have known that in 1616 Galileo had been summoned by the Inquisition in Rome and forced to renounce Copernican theory, which was declared false and heretical, and then banned. (The ban was not lifted until 1835.) During the ensuing seventeen years, the astronomer was ensnared in vicious intrigues, including the planting of false evidence in his files, that would have done credit to both the Medicis and the Borgias. The Jesuits, who were becoming the general staff of the Church of Rome, showed the pope that the educational system they had carefully built around Aristotle's teachings, and which they hoped would spearhead a counterreformation, was in great danger because of Galileo. In fact, they warned Urban VIII--who was not totally unsympathetic to Galileo--that he might be more dangerous "than Luther and Calvin themselves."

    In 1632, two years before Kepler died, the publication of Galileo's monumental Dialogue on the Great World Systems pushed the Vatican and Galileo's other enemies to their limit. The book, one of a handful of truly towering scientific masterpieces, opened with a frontal attack on the Aristotelian and Ptolemian model of the solar system and used all of the motion in the universe-the spinning planets, exploding stars, racing comets, and whirling moons--to challenge the stubbornly held belief that change was bad and that a lack of it was not only noble but was a sign of perfection. The following year, 1633, the astronomer's now-exasperated inquisitors again forced him, on his knees, to recant Copernican teachings on pain of being burned at the stake. (The church was aware that it had in effect gotten some very bad press because of Bruno, and it was therefore bluffing, but there was no way for Galileo to know that.)

    Dialogue on the Great World Systems was immediately banned, and its author was placed under house arrest in Siena. He was eventually allowed to live in seclusion in a villa outside of Florence, where he died in 1642, still under house arrest. In the same sort of irony that caused Beethoven to go deaf, the father of modern astronomy became blind before he died. But blinder still were his enemies in the church and other reactionaries. Dialogue on the Great World Systems, considered to be a kind of scientific pornography, was condemned to the index of forbidden books until 1823. It took 359 years for the Vatican to admit that Galileo had been right after all. On October 31, 1992 (ironically, a pagan holiday in much of the Christian world), Pope John Paul II told the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that Galileo's persecutors "unduly" mixed the doctrine of faith with scientific investigation.

    Galileo left a rich legacy to the scientists and explorers who came after him. Perhaps the most important of these, as the Morrisons have said, was the telescope itself. "The telescope continues, it lives .... [T]he point is that out of new experience come new questions, new explanations, then an extended theory, with new concepts," they have written. "Fifty years after the telescope, twenty years after Galileo's death, there may have been a dozen active observatories in Europe. They had better instruments, able to see more detail, able to find fainter objects, able to measure more carefully, and able to understand much more of what they saw."

    Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, and Galileo changed mankind's concept of its place in the world. So would Isaac Newton. Galileo's purging and public embarrassment had the effect of moving the scientific revolution out of Italy's chilly environment and sending it north to France and England. Newton's Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), published in 1687, is generally considered to be the single greatest scientific work ever written. It contained two sets of laws that would profoundly influence the development of rocketry and space travel. The first was the law of universal gravitation. This explained the motion of all of the heavenly bodies found by the astronomers and how they affected each other in a vastly complex and infinitely subtle relationship that even extended to the caressing of Earth's oceans, which causes the tides.

    The second set were the three laws of motion. The first said that objects remain at rest or in motion until some other force causes change. Applied to space, it would mean that a body moving through a vacuum would head in one direction and at a constant speed until its direction or speed or both were changed. The second law had it that a force acting on an object will make it accelerate in the same direction as the force and that the amount of acceleration will be proportional to the force and inversely proportional to the mass of the object. This would quantify the amount of force a rocket engine would have to exert to move an object. The third, and most famous of the three, said that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In other words, a rocket engine firing at one end of a projectile will, if powerful enough, move the projectile in the opposite direction (and it will keep going in that direction, according to the first law, until another force--say, gravity--changes it).

    "These great achievements mark the closing of an epoch in the history of the thought of the world and the beginning of a new, for they entirely overthrew earlier views respecting the nature of the cosmos and established others which were entirely different," the eminent British astronomer and mathematician Forest Ray Moulton has written. "They permanently removed man from his proud position at the center of creation and placed him on a relatively insignificant body; but, as a compensation, they rescued him from a universe of chance and superstition and gave him one of unfailing and majestic orderliness."

    And they did more than that. They bridged the ancient world and the modern, in the process showing humanity the way out of its confinement and pointing to a place that in comparison is awesome in its size, grandeur, process, and possibility. The body of work that accomplished that feat--astronomy and the laws of the planets--is the least practical for the public at large. Yet it is the most supremely enlightening of the sciences. Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton stand with Bach, Mozart, and Wagner; Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe; Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Cezanne in their towering nobility. They did nothing short of start a scientific revolution that moved Earth away from the center of the universe and put it where it belongs, in the process launching a whole new way of understanding this world and all of those beyond it. This was fundamental to the move to space. And so too, of course, was the means of reaching it.

Riding Skyrockets

Princes of theory such as Brahe, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and other ingenious astronomers and mathematicians always had less intellectual counterparts, the blacksmiths, jugglers, and acrobats of spaceflight's prehistory, who just wanted to get off the ground. They popped up (or at any rate tried to) in many places throughout much of recorded history, which, if nothing else, shows that the urge to fly is universal. If the beginning of astronomy is lost in the mist of time, so is the beginning of the daring business of test piloting. But its patron saints (who came to be called daredevils until technology brought a degree of predictability to their profession) certainly spent time considering where burning gunpowder and other devices could take them. The question would have been obvious enough: If a small amount of gunpowder could propel an arrow or a lance high into the air, could not a much larger amount propel a man?

    Legend has it that a Chinese mandarin named Wan Hu took the first rocket ride, or at any rate tried to, in A.D. 1500. As he sat on a chair, the story goes, forty-seven coolies lit forty-seven black-powder rockets that were attached to it. Wan Hu traveled a short distance and then disappeared in an explosion and a cloud of smoke. If it really happened, Wan Hu had the triple distinction of being the first person to ride a rocket, the first to fly on a self-propelled, heavier-than-air device, and the first rocket pilot to get killed during a test flight. Frank H. Winter, a historian at the National Air and Space Museum, has called the experiment highly improbable for several compelling reasons and has suggested that since Wan Hu is roughly translated as "crazy fox" the story is merely a fable warning against the kind of overexuberance that got Icarus in trouble. Whatever the truth, Wan Hu remains the first Chinese to have a crater on the Moon named after him.

    Then there was a Turk named Larari Hasan Celebi, who, it is claimed, was shot into the sky by fifty-four pounds of gunpowder to celebrate the birth of Sultan Murad IV's daughter, Kaya Sultan, in 1623. Before his skyrocket blasted off on the banks of the Bosphorus, Celebi is said to have told the sultan: "Your Majesty, I leave you in this world while I am going to have a talk with the prophet Jesus." The rocket then carried Celebi high into the air, where he opened several "wings," and then glided to a safe landing in front of the royal palace. "Your Majesty." the young Turk reportedly told the sultan while crowds cheered, "Prophet Jesus sends his greetings to you." Celebi was rewarded with a pouch of gold, made a cavalry officer, and is said to have been killed in combat in the Crimea. At least two respected Turkish sources give this account. Norwegian and Turkish scientists took the story seriously enough to suggest in 1986 that the bottom of the Bosphorus be searched for the remnants of Celebi's rocket. There is no evidence that anyone actually did so, however.

    Another somewhat credible account, titled "On Fire Balloons," appeared in a London newspaper in September 1784. It described a celebratory launching at a reception given by the king of Siam for a new French ambassador. "The inventor of this firework, sitting himself down on the end of one of these rockets, ordered it to be fired and was whisked up into the air higher than any four steeples in the world could reach were they set upon one another," the correspondent reported. "The rocket having spent its strength, and being ready to fall down, all luminous with the infinite number of stars that broke from it every moment, the engineer opened a sort of umbrella he had carried with him, when it was extended, was less than 30 feet in diameter. This umbrella was made of feathers.... The engineer, by his great umbrella, came to the ground, surrounded with stars, as gently as if he had wings." As late as 1978, according to Winter, very large, gunpowder-filled bamboo rockets were in fact used at a festival in northeast Thailand in an ancient attempt to persuade the rain god to help grow rice. The historian himself witnessed the building and firing of the rockets and reported that the average flight time was twenty seconds, easily enough to get one of them to an altitude of four steeples. "It is conceivable that one of the expert 17th century rocket-makers from the northeastern part of the realm was sent south to dazzle the Ferengs (`foreigners') with a special treat," he has written.

    Then there was the strange, but fully documented, case of Frederick Rodman Law, or just Rodman Law, alias the "Human Fly" and the "Human Bullet." Law was the brother of Ruth Law, a famous pilot, and was a movie stuntman who specialized in parachuting out of airplanes and burning balloons and off bridges, skyscrapers, and other edifices, including the Statue of Liberty. On March 13, 1913, Law climbed into the top of a forty-four-foot-long skyrocket that was pointed straight up at the end of Williams Avenue in Jersey City, New Jersey. The thing had been packed with nine hundred pounds of gunpowder by its manufacturer, the International Fireworks Company (later the Unexcelled Fireworks Company of New York). Law, who sat in the nose of the rocket wearing goggles and what appeared to be a leather football helmet, announced that he intended to fly to 3,500 feet and then bail out. With a crowd of 150 people, including a movie cameraman and reporters from the Herald Tribune and The New York Times looking on, the "Human Bullet" told Samuel L. Serpico, the manager of International Fireworks, to "light the fuse when ready." Serpico did as he was told. "After a few seconds" according to one witness, "there was a terrific explosion with a shock that threw most of the crowd to the ground [as] the big projectile burst into a thousand pieces." Law was thrown thirty feet and landed unconscious, his hands and face scorched and his clothes torn, muddied, and charred. But he soon recovered from his injuries and continued to perform stunts, though never again in a rocket.

Rocket Building Takes Shape

Rocket theory in England goes back at least to the Epistola, a Latin treatise on gunpowder written by the monk Roger Bacon in the middle of the thirteenth century. The problem with Bacon's formulas, as well as those concocted elsewhere in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia between 1100 and 1800, was that the rockets they powered were literally hit or miss. The range and velocity of any model--all of them crafted by hand--could vary quite a bit depending on the powder formula, how the powder was packed, the weight of the casing, the size of the exhaust nozzle, and other factors.

    The first major battles with rockets that involved Europeans occurred during a revolt against the British which began in 1781 in the Mysore region of southwest India and lasted through 1799. The Indians fired crude but effective rockets against British regulars during battles at Seringapatam in 1792 and 1799. "No hall could be thicker," a young English officer named Bayly lamented in his diary. "Every illumination of blue lights was accompanied by a shower of rockets, some of which entered the head of the column, passing through to the rear, causing death, wounds, and dre

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Table of Contents

1 Bird Envy 3
2 Rocket Science 36
3 Gravity's Archers 74
4 Missiles for America 108
5 The Other World Series 147
6 To Race Across the Sky 186
7 War and Peace in the Third Dimension 219
8 The Greatest Show on Earth 274
9 A Bridge for Galileo 311
10 To Hit a Moving Target 345
11 From the Earth to the Moon 387
12 Destination Mars 434
13 A Grand Tour: The Majestic Adventure 474
14 The Roaring Eighties 505
15 Downsizing Infinity 551
16 The Rings of Earth 591
17 The Second Space Age 610
Notes 647
Sources 679
Index 703
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