By Ron Miller
Artist, author, and science fiction eminence Ron Miller gives readers the scoop on how he put together his massive and hugely entertaining Ron Miller Classics of Science Fiction ebook series. The collection debuts in January 2013, and titles will be added throughout the year until Ron’s amazing curatorial and artistic effort is complete with well over 100 books.
About twenty years ago I came up with a bright idea for a book. It was going to be a visual chronology of every spaceship ever conceived, starting in the third century BC. This eventually wound up being a monster called The Dream Machines (Krieger: 1993), with 250,000 words and more than 3000 illustrations. In the course of researching this thing, I found myself more and more having to locate copies of scarce books and novels. Some of these I could find in libraries or private collections, but others were available only through antiquarian booksellers (if I could find them at all). All too often, this would mean an investment of many hundreds of dollars—money I simply couldn’t afford to invest in the project. This was frustrating, since I didn’t really need to own the book, I just needed the information it contained...and I couldn’t see spending, say, $500 for the privilege of looking at a single paragraph.
I knew that other researchers have had the same problem. There were ordinary readers, too, who were looking for good reading copies of obscure books but, like me, were unwilling or unable to pay hundreds of dollars solely for the chance to read a book.
A few years ago I decided to address this problem. Of course, by that time, at least one aspect had been solved by online archives like gutenberg.org. The text of thousands of obscure and rare titles were now freely available. Still. . . this wasn’t quite the same thing as owning a book and for someone who might want a little more than the bare text, it wasn’t enough. There were also some of the necessary limitations imposed by etexts, such as their inability to handle italics, foreign characters and other typographical problems. Often missing, too, were any illustrations that may have accompanied the original book.
So I decided to set out to create a library of reprints. They would feature handsome new covers, a carefully edited text, attractive design, illustrations (where appropriate) and footnotes, appendices, etc. whenever possible. Books that bridged the gap between etexts and the original editions, books that would be easy to read, good to look at and an attractive addition to any book collector’s shelf. In addition, I tried to emphasize books that were not easy—or were even impossible—to find online. The books would also focus on a very particular theme (or two, as it turned out). The main collection consists of early books and novels that deal with space travel or rocketry. One of my motives in this activity was to illustrate how far back the concept of space travel went, to say nothing of how prescient many early writers were in anticipating everything from solar sails and rocket-powered spacecraft to spacesuits and nuclear propulsion.
I am of course, limited myself to books that are in the public domain. However, this worked out fine for me since my main interest is in books published prior to the 1930s.
II The Dreamers
Until the invention of the astronomical telescope by Galileo Galilei in 1610, the heavens were thought to be no great distance from the Earth, and the Sun and the Moon were thought to be the only material bodies with which we shared the universe. Some few of the early Greek philosopher-scientists speculated on the relative distances of the sun, Moon and planets, such as Anaximander in -600. Pythagoras and Aristotle both theorized that the Moon might be spherical. But these and others were all based on quantitative measurements—little thought, if any, was given to what the Moon was. When the question was considered however, speculation knew few limits. Anaximander thought that the Moon might be a kind of fiery chariot wheel and Anaxagoras suggested that it was an incandescent solid (albeit with “plains, mountains and ravines”). But by the time Plutarch was writing, foundation for the thousand-year-long Dark Ages was being laid. During that bleak millennium the Earth was clearly the center of the universe, there were no other worlds than this one and the Moon was a perfect, pristine sphere since Providence would be incapable of creating anything less than ideal. If the Moon showed spots, these were nothing but the reflection of our own imperfect world in the Moon’s mirrorlike surface. Change and decay were limited to the Earth; the heavens were immutable and eternal. To question any of this was dangerous heresy.
Galileo’s revelation changed all of that forever. With his first observations he immediately realized that the Moon was not a pristine disk or sphere, but rather a world as imperfect as our own, with mountains, valleys, plains and hundreds of odd, circular ring mountains and craters.
The Church forced Galileo to recant his discoveries and his interpretations of them, but the damage had already been done. When human beings looked skyward they no longer saw abstract points of light. They saw the infinite possibilities of new worlds.
At the time of Galileo’s discovery of new worlds in the sky, there were new worlds being discovered right here on Earth. Scarcely more than a century earlier, the continents of North and South America had been discovered lying unsuspected and unknown on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean. Since then, John and Sebastian Cabot had explored the coasts of North America for Great Britain, while the Portugese and Spanish were laying the groundwork for a vast empire in the southern continent. Between 1519 and 1522, Magellan and Del Cano made their epic voyage around the now undoubtedly spherical Earth. By the time of Galileo, hundreds of ships and thousands of explorers, colonists, soldiers, priests and adventurers had made the journey to these amazingly fertile, rich and strange new lands. Now they learned that an Italian scientist had found that not only did our own Earth harbor unsuspected worlds, but that the sky was full of them, too.
How frustrating it must have been! The new worlds of the Americas, which could not even be seen and which existed for the vast majority of Europeans only in the form of traveler’s tales and evocative if imaginative charts, nevertheless could be visited by anyone possessing the funds or courage. But now here were whole new Earths—Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and the Moon—which could be seen by anyone and even mapped; whole new planets with unimaginable continents and riches . . . yet there was no way to touch them! They were like a banana dangling just beyond the reach of a monkey.
It is little wonder that Galileo’s discoveries could not be suppressed. Their publication was quickly followed by a spate of space travel stories: Somnium, The Man in the Moone, Voyage to the Moon, A Voyage to the World of Cartesius, Iter Lunaire*, John Daniel*, Micromegas, A Voyage to the Moon and countless others. (*included in this collection.) There were poems, songs, stage plays and sermons, all inspired by the possibility of traveling to the new worlds in the sky. If it were not presently possible to reach them in reality, it could at least be done by proxy.
Bishop Wilkins had no personal doubts that these voyages would eventually be made. He wrote in his Discovery of a New World (1638),
“You will say there can be no sailing thither [to the Moon] . . . We have not now any Drake, or Columbus, to undertake this voyage, or any Daedalus to invent a conveyance through the air. I answer, though we have not, yet why may not succeeding times raise up some spirits as eminent for new attempts, and strange inventions, as any that were before them? . . . I do seriously, and upon good grounds affirm it possible to make a flying-chariot . . .” Galileo’s discoveries, and the discoveries of other great astronomers soon afterwards (the rings of Saturn, Saturn’s great Moon Titan, the dusky markings on Mars and even a new planet, Uranus), had a another profound effect on the evolution of the spaceship, in addition to inspiring the need for such a machine. Since the Moon and planets were now known to be real worlds, it was no longer possible to employ them as merely metaphorical symbols. It was one thing to speak of visiting a vast mirrored disk suspended in the heavens, a disk that, so far as anyone knew, had no real physical existence. Now that the Moon was known to be a real place, transportation there could not be shrugged off onto some vaguely described magic. If one were to write seriously about traveling to the Moon or planets, then the method of getting to them had to have at least the ring of plausibility.
Even Bishop Francis Godwin with his fantastic Moon-bound swans was compelled to add such materialistic and realistic details as the construction of the birds’ harnesses and the framework that bound them together. He even computed their top speed. Cyrano de Bergerac, although writing a burlesque, felt constrained to limit himself to pseudoscientific methods of spaceflight. Though he was striving for strictly comic effects, it is important to note that none of his methods depended upon magic or the supernatural. He took a great deal of care in describing the fantastic devices he used in his attempts to travel to the Sun and Moon, even managing to stumble, however accidentally, upon the use of rockets.
These and many other authors of the time were discovering verisimilitude—the evocation of a sense of reality by the use of masses of convincing detail . . . or convincing-sounding detail, at least.
Still, the writers of space travel stories before the end of the 1700s were groping in the dark: there simply was no method by which a human being could leave the surface of the Earth. In all the history of mankind no one had ever left the Earth any farther than human muscles could push.
III The Invention of the Spaceship
The invention of the lighter-than-air manned balloon was a major revolution, and revelation, in mankind’s perception of his capabilities of exploring the universe. On two counts: For the first time in history a human being had gotten further away from the Earth than the distance one could jump. And it was not accomplished by magic or occult means but by the use of a man-made machine, a device of science. Although by the end of the eighteenth century balloons had drifted everywhere across the landscapes of France, England and other European countries, they seldom reached an altitude of more than a few thousand feet. The Moon was a great deal farther away than that, to say nothing of the planets. Nevertheless it seemed to the most enthusiastic and imaginative dreamers that if it were possible for a human being to lift himself from the surface of the Earth even half a mile, then a flight to the Moon was merely a matter of magnitude. This is the altered perception that is most important to realize: that by means of a manmade instrumentality, employing well understood physical principles, it was possible to leave the Earth. Therefore the problem of traveling to the other worlds that shared the universe with the Earth ought to also be surmountable by means of science and mechanics. That is, even if the wiser heads were aware that it was unlikely that anyone would ever travel to the Moon in a balloon—hot air, gas or otherwise— they were also cognizant that the idea of traveling there somehow was no longer a matter relegated to pure fantasy.
As the nineteenth century progressed, it began to seem that there might, quite literally, be nothing that was beyond the abilities of science and engineering. Between 1800 and 1865, an astounded public saw the introduction of electric batteries, steam trains and steamboats, ironclad warships, photographs, gas lighting, telegraphy, high-speed rotary printing presses, and color printing, electric motors, calculating machines, blast furnaces, anaesthetics, revolvers, electric lighting, typewriters, sewing machines, Bessemer converters and transatlantic telegraph cables, among literally thousands of other inventions and discoveries in technology and science. Meanwhile, engineers were building vast iron bridges, cutting canals through deserts and jungles and spanning continents with railroads. At this same time, explorers were opening the hitherto unknown territories of Africa and the Poles. For the first time, engineers, explorers and scientists were considered public heroes; they were held in an esteem previously reserved for generals and admirals.
By the arrival of the latter half of the nineteenth century there seemed to be little that science and technology could not accomplish.
In the field of space literature, Edgar Allan Poe introduced scientific verisimilitude. His novelette Hans Pfaal*, in spite of its satiric and comic overtones, was packed with realistic and well-researched details; so much so that his description of a high altitude balloon flight reads almost interchangeably with one of the stratosphere balloon flights of the 1930s or 1950s.
Poe was the first author since Kepler to take the scientific basis of a fictional story seriously and consequently was a major influence on a Frenchman who was a great admirer of Poe and his works and was an erstwhile author of scientific romances himself. If Edgar Allan Poe was the grandfather of realistic space fiction, Jules Verne was surely the father. Verne has had more positive influence on the development of astronautics than possibly any other author of fiction or nonfiction, at least until the early decades of this century; and even these latter authors—such as Hermann Oberth, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and others—owed their introduction to spaceflight to Jules Verne.
Whenever space travel was the subject, it was assumed that it would be accomplished by some sort of mechanical device; Jules Verne’s classic From the Earth to the Moon (1865)* is a literal paean to the engineering arts and American enterprise.
The first author to provide an unambiguous description of a rocket-propelled spacecraft was Elbert Perce. In his 1852 novel, Gulliver Joi*, he wrote of a torpedo-shaped projectile provided with a padded passenger compartment, instruments and a combustion chamber and nozzle. Only a decade later, Jules Verne became the first author to treat space travel as a problem in mathematics and engineering.
Before the publication of From the Earth to the Moon* (1865), no one had ever applied Newton’s laws of motion to the problem of space flight—not even Newton himself. With the help of a cousin who taught math at the Sorbonne, Verne became the first to calculate the escape velocity needed to leave Earth and the trajectory needed to reach the Moon. He even appreciated the need to place the launch site as near the equator as possible. Much has been made of Verne’s use of giant cannon to launch his spacecraft—which would have been disastrous for both the projectile and its occupants—but it is clear that Verne realized the problems involved. Among the several reasons he had for choosing a cannon (not the least of which was his need to parody the American military-industrial complex, which existed even then) was the simple fact that rockets in the mid-nineteenth century were little advanced from fireworks. Nevertheless, Verne used rockets to steer his spacecraft and act as retrorockets—and was the first writer to appreciate the fact that rockets would work in a vacuum.
However, while it seemed perfectly clear what a spaceship must be like in order to survive the ordeals of interplanetary space and, most importantly, allow its passengers to survive as well, it was far from clear what would be the most plausible method of getting the spaceship from the surface of the Earth and into space. In fact, while there were numerous proposals for reaction-powered aircraft during the nineteenth century, there were less than half a dozen suggestions made that rockets might be useful in space travel. Most writers realized, as Verne did, that the state of the art of rocketry was utterly inadequate for the task.
By and large, the propulsive method of choice for the last century (and, for that matter, well into this one) was antigravity, which was, in reality, only the magic and occultism of previous centuries given a pseudoscientific guise. The important difference is that it was felt necessary to put on that guise. And no matter what the method of propulsion ultimately chosen, writers still had to deal with the known reality of conditions beyond the Earth’s atmosphere and on other planets. The airlessness of the interplanetary void, its extremes of cold and heat, the danger of meteorites, the problem of providing food and oxygen . . . all had to be dealt with believably, especially since the facts of astronomy were quite well known to the science-knowledgeable nineteenth century reader. Between the time of Jules Verne’s two lunar novels and the flight of the first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926, most of the theoretical groundwork for spaceflight was laid, and most of the possibilities had been imagined. To mention a very few:
Edward Everett Hale described the first artificial manned satellite in his novelette The Brick Moon (1869)*, in which he listed nearly every function applied to modern satellites. The story describes the launch of a 200-foot sphere (made of brick to withstand the heat generated by atmospheric friction—and thereby anticipating the ceramic heat shields of today’s spacecraft). Once in orbit, the artificial moon acted as a navigational aid while its passengers transmitted observations regarding weather, crops, etc. back to the Earth.
In 1881 Hermann Ganswindt first described his interplanetary spaceship. While never quite grasping the principles of rocket propulsion, Ganswindt did take into consideration the possible need for artificial gravity. He created this by spinning his spacecraft; he anticipated Hermann Oberth by nearly forty years by suggesting that two spacecraft could be joined by a cable and spun around their common center. Although he made errors in detail, he was one of the first to suggest the use of rockets in spaceflight, and the drawing he commissioned to illustrate his invention is one of the few nineteenth century depictions of a manned rocket operating in space.
The year 1880 saw the appearance in St. Nicholas magazine of the charming short story “A Christmas Dinner With the Man in the Moon”* by Washington Gladden. The giant spaceliner Meteor traveled to the Moon on the “great electric currents” that passed between the Earth and its satellite. The iron hull of the spaceship was magnetized to take advantage of the currents. The Meteor was spindle-shaped and equipped with giant paddle wheels that raised it to the upper atmosphere. Because of the thinning atmosphere, Gladden equipped his passengers with respirators.
A sign of the changing times came with the publication, in 1880, of Percy Greg’s two-volume novel, Across the Zodiac*. In the story, a mysterious force called “apergy” was used to negate gravity, providing the means for a voyage through space to Mars. The spaceship Astronaut was a monstrous affair with 3-foot thick metal walls. The deck and keel were described as “absolutely flat, and each one hundred feet in length and fifty in breadth, the height of the vessel being about twenty feet.” The apergy receptacle was placed above the generator, both located in the center of the ship, and from there “descended right through the floor a conducting bar in an antapergetic sheath, so divided that without separating it from the upper portion the lower might revolve in any direction through an angle of twenty minutes.” This sheath was used to direct a “stream of repulsive force” against the Sun or any other body.
Greg’s “apergy” was apparently such an appealing element that it appeared in several other novels, notably John Jacob Astor’s A Journey in Other Worlds (1894)*. It is not particularly important what happened on Mars, which was reached in a little over 40 days. What is important is that the red planet was beginning to receive the attention of writers of space fiction that it astronomically deserves. By the onset of World War I more than one hundred novels and stories had been published, all dealing with flights to Mars. All of this was a result of increasing observational knowledge about the planet itself and the development of some meticulously worked-out concepts of the origin of the Solar System, of which Mars was an especially interesting component. It was the period of the discovery of canali on Mars by Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli (who interpreted them as naturally occurring channels or grooves) and their popularization—or perhaps sensationalization—by Percival Lowell (to whom they were artificially constructed canals), the discovery in 1877 of Mars’s two small Moons by Asaph Hall (which up-to-date Greg described), and of other phenomena that seemed to suggest that Mars might be much like the Earth, only older. For years, Lowell excited professionals and laymen alike with his proposition that Mars was inhabited by an advanced race of intelligent beings.
Kurd Lasswitz’s Auf zwei Planeten carried the Mars theme several notches higher in the literary scale. Published in 1897 (but not translated into English until 1971 as Two Planets), it took a very logical look at the supposition that since Mars was the happy abode of a higher intelligence than Earth, it would not be Earthmen who would first go to Mars, but rather the opposite. Thus, it was Martian space travelers who flew to the Earth and set up a base on the North Pole. Why they chose such a seemingly inconvenient location is explained in the dialogue: “You must realize . . . that the Martians can only land on Earth in the areas of the north or south poles. Their spaceships try, as soon as they have reached the outer border of the atmosphere, to approach in the direction of the axis of the Earth. But it is dangerous for them to enter the atmosphere. Therefore, everyone agreed with the suggestion my father had made to build a station outside the atmosphere but in the direction of the axis of the Earth, on which the ships would remain and from where they would descend to the Earth in a different manner.” The method of crossing space relied on a gravity-nullifying material, although the actual propulsion was provided by rockets. Lasswitz’s novel was enormously influential on the growing interest in rocketry and spaceflight then taking place in Germany.
Capitalizing on the growing popularity of Mars, H. G. Wells wrote his acclaimed War of the Worlds*, serialized in magazine form in 1897 and published as a book in 1898. The story dealt with the hair-raising tale of a Martian invasion of our planet. What appeared initially to be a successful conquest of the Earth ended in failure as Wells had the Martians die from terrestrial diseases against which their organisms had no defense. In a retaliatory vein, American astronomer Garrett P. Serviss wrote Edison’s Conquest of Mars, which began serialization even before the last installment of the Wells novel saw print! In this story, Serviss created the first-ever scenes of massed fleets of interplanetary spaceships. Serviss was an experienced astronomer and science writer, and while he was eventually to write far better-polished fiction, this, his first novel, has a much more sound scientific basis than even the Wells original.
In 1889 a three-volume set of novels, Aventures extraordinaires d’un savant Russe (The Extraordinary Adventures of a Russian Scientist) by G. Le Faure and H. de Graffigny, was published. It is a veritable catalog of imaginative spacecraft, ranging from Vernian projectiles to rockets to solar sails. The three books dealt with adventures on the Moon, the inner planets, comets, asteroids and the giant outer planets. A fourth volume, Les mondes stellaires, was published but immediately withdrawn and destroyed with the result that only a handful of copies are reported to have survived.
Perhaps the most astonishing, if not most imaginative, method of travelling to the Moon was described in Andre Laurie’s 1887 novel, Conquest of the Moon*. An entire iron ore-rich mountain is turned into a titanic electromagnetic by means of electricity generated by batteries of solar-powered generators. The plan is to draw the Moon down to the surface of the Earth. The plan backfires when, just as the Moon is about to make contact with the surface of our planet, the mountain—inhabitants and all—is ripped bodily from the Earth and lands on the Moon.
By the end of the nineteenth century science had made amazing strides and atomic-powered spacecraft were now being described. Garrett Serviss’ A Columbus of Space* (1909) was one of the first novels to include a spacecraft explicitly powered by nuclear energy, even if the details were a little vague. This can’t be said of the Flying Ring in The Moon-Maker, a novel published in 1915 by Robert Wood and Arthur Train. It is propelled on a mission to intercept an asteroid by a beam of alpha particles produced by the disintegration of uranium. (Not only were the authors the first ever to suggest the potential danger of an asteroid collision with the Earth, and to suggest a solution identical to those being proposed today, they included one of the first female astronauts in literature, the amazing Rhoda Gibbs.)
With the dawn of the new century, the spaceship as we know it today had been fully developed in the fiction of the age.
IV The Experimenters
The problem of spaceflight gradually evolved away from the purely speculative and theoretical. A more or less developmental approach was undertaken by those interested in the possibilities of spaceflight, though this approach was in many ways dictated as much by necessity as by intent. It was far simpler, cheaper and safer to experiment with small-scale rockets than with full-size spaceships; it was realized very early on that the exploration of space would be a fabulously expensive and difficult proposition.
In 1903 Tsiolkovsky published the first of his spacecraft designs; it employed liquid fuel and gyroscopic stabilization. In outward appearance his spaceship laid the groundwork for the modern spaceship to come.
Between 1913 and 1916, Andre Mas, Drouet and Henri de Graffigny devised schemes for centrifugally launched spacecraft, thrown from the rims of rapidly-spinning flywheels. Arthur Train and Robert Wood described the Flying Ring, a 66-foot-diameter torus propelled by an atomic motor suspended in gimbals from the apex of a tripod over the center of the doughnut-shaped ship. The fuel was uranium, producing a beam of alpha particles as it disintegrated.
The year 1923 saw the publication of Hermann Oberth’s seminal Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (The Rocket in Planetary Space), one of the theoreticial cornerstones of modern spaceflight. In it he first proposed his “Model E,” an enormous manned rocket that finally settled the outward form of the classic spaceship. It was an artillery-shell-shaped hull 100 feet tall and 30 feet in diameter that stood erect on the tips of four big fins. Oberth later elaborated upon the design in the 1929 revised edition of his book, Wege zur Raumschiffahrt (Ways to Spaceflight). In it he described a fictional circumlunar flight by the Model E spaceship Luna (on June 14, 1932). It was a three-stage rocket launched from the Indian Ocean. The pilots were ensconced in a small cabin shaped like an oblate spheroid, contained in the nose of the third stage. This was equipped with a parachute for the final descent to the Earth. Oberth, with his typical meticulous care, considered every detail: how his crew were to eat in free fall, waste disposal, heating and cooling, etc.
Oberth’s Model E formed the basis for the design of the spaceship Friede, which he provided for Fritz Lang’s 1929 motion picture Frau im Mond, the first realistic spaceship in movie history.
At about this same time rocketry pioneer Max Valier was actively publishing his own designs for spacecraft. A hyperactive proselytizer of space flight, he lectured all over Europe while his magazine articles were republished in every language all over the world. His influence over the popular conception of space travel was equaled only by that of Wernher von Braun in the 1950s.
Although Valier evolved his spaceship from existing aircraft—they even took off more or less horizontally from inclined ramps—the final design was aesthetically more pleasing than Oberth’s rather ultrafunctional rockets. Valier’s final design was a chunky streamlined spindle with curved fins at the rear and two outrigger nacelles containing the rocket motors near the front of the craft. A similar design, but with the rockets in the rear, would have been launched from the back of an enormous rocket-powered flying wing. This version was elaborated upon in Otto Willi Gail’s novel Hans Hardt’s Mondfahrt (Rocket to the Moon) (1930)*.
Gail, combining the ideas of Valier and Oberth, described the spaceship Geryon in Der Schuss ins All (A Shot Into Infinity) (1925)*—a three-stage rocket with folding wings (a feature of which Oberth disapproved). It reappeared in Der Stein vom Mond (The Stone From the Moon) (1926)*, along with the space station Astropol. In this novel—which mixed space travel with the bizarre “Cosmic Ice Theory” of Hörbiger then popular in Germany—the spaceship Ikaros made a voyage to Venus (where it remained in orbit while a small lander made the actual descent).
R. H. Romans’ novel The Moon Conquerors (1930)* described the 1945 flight of the spaceship Astronaut. The rocket was the result of an international competition for the best scheme for reaching space (152 of the submitted plans “were for a Goddard rocket”). It was a slender torpedo with narrow fins running its length. Romans described the rocket in some detail. It was launched horizontally, its initial velocity provided by an electromagnetic cannon. For propulsion between the Earth and the Moon, it used the pressure of light on special black vanes.
(The electromagnetic cannon itself—aka the “mass driver” —was invented by engineer E.F. Northrup. He built numerous working models and eventually described his work in the strange novel Zero to Eighty* (1937), in which he developed the idea as applied to the launching of spacecraft.)
Most of these concepts were illustrated by Frank R. Paul, who was almost solely responsible for a great majority of the artwork in Hugo Gernsback’s large stable of magazines. Trained as an architect and engineer, Paul’s vaguely baroque spacecraft had an unprecedented aura of believability.
Many other fictional rockets continued to contribute to the collective and cumulative design of the spaceship. The 1922 animated film All Aboard for the Moon featured a streamlined rocket launched from a rooftop, carrying tourists to the Moon. Miral-Vigee’s 1922 novel L’Anneau des Feu (Ring of Fire) based its atomic-powered spaceship on the theories of Robert Esnault-Pelterie, the French aviation and space pioneer. The 1930 Hollywood musical Just Imagine featured the ultimate Art Deco spaceship. It became the representative prewar spaceship after it was recycled in the immensely popular Flash Gordon serials.
By this time—in the “real world”—Tsiolkovsky had published extensively and his plans included not only large manned rockets but lunar rovers and self-contained space colonies.
The Russian Fridrikh A. Tsander designed enormous biplane spaceships that fed upon their own structure for fuel, and Franz Ulinski published his schemes for electrically propelled spacecraft. In 1925, Walter Hohmann not only designed his “powder tower” spaceship, an enormous cone-shaped rocket with an egg-shaped manned capsule at its apex, but his work on interplanetary orbits became so fundamental that these energy-saving orbits have been named for him.
Franz von Hoefft proposed an evolutionary spaceship design, employing the lifting body concept. Using standardized units spaceships could be customized for particular missions. He laid out a systematic and progressively more ambitious scenario for the exploration of outer space, employing a series of eight spacecraft, designated RH I-VIII. Hoefft’s unique design resembled the blade of a shovel with a pair of slender pontoons beneath, since the larger ones were to be launched from water.
In the late 1920s, Eugen Sänger began his researches into spaceflight, basing his hopes on the development of an “aerospaceplane” This eventually resulted, a decade later, in his famous “silver bird” antipodal bomber concept, the immediate precursor of today’s Space Shuttle and modern aerospace planes.
By the time Goddard and the VfR flew their first liquid-fueled rockets, these dreamers and theorists—and scores of others—had not only established that space travel would ultimately take place, but had anticipated virtually every step on the road to achieving it.
During the 1920s and 1930s three highly influential organizations were formed: the Verein für Raumschiffarht (or VfR, the German Society for Spaceship Travel), the American Interplanetary Society (later the American Rocket Society) and the British Interplanetary Society (the only one of the three to exist in more or less its original form today). The first two of these three groups performed many of the earliest serious and controlled liquid fuel rocket experiments. Robert Goddard, who had made the first liquid fueled rocket flight, was working in strict secrecy, allowing little if any news of his work to be available to other researchers. The societies, however, were entirely open and freely shared the results of their experiments. Much of the development of modern rocketry, at least up until the 1960s, can be traced directly to the experiments of the VfR and ARS. Meanwhile, the BIS, prevented by law from experimenting with rockets, devoted itself to the theory and promotion of spaceflight, a service it still performs to this day. For example, in 1939 the BIS published the results of the first-ever detailed scientific and engineering study for a manned lunar rocket and lander.
With the advent of hostilities in Europe at the end of the 1930s, the work of the VfR, as well as many of its most brilliant members, was usurped by the German military machine, disappearing into well-kept secrecy, a secrecy broken only by the first V2 missiles dropping onto London. At the same time, ex-members of the ARS formed the private companies that produced wartime rockets and JATO units for the United States military and, later, the propulsion systems for the first American rocket-propelled aircraft. High-altitude balloonists were taking their “spaceships” to the limits of the Earth’s atmosphere (by the mid-1930s altitudes of 12 miles or more were being reached), and rocket-powered gliders and aircraft were being flown—great advances being made in this area by the Germans and Russians.
V The End of an Era
Rocket research and development progressed dramatically during World War II...with no greater example of this than the spectacular V-2, a rocket that—in spite of the intervening 70 years of advancing technology—has become the iconic symbol for “spaceship.” It was by far the largest rocket ever launched. The fournteen ton missile was 46 feet tall and five feet six inches in diameter. Its fins spanned eleven feet nine inches. It could carry a payload of one ton of high explosives. On its first flight, the giant rocket reached an altitude of 53 miles and a range of 118 miles.
General Walter Dornberger, who was in charge of developing the V-2, exclaimed: “Do you realize what we accomplished today? Today the spaceship was born!”
But at the same time an era died. Before that day in October, 1942, the spaceship had been a device of the imagination. Traveling in space would surely come about some day. . .but a day that was in the far distant future. Now that a man-made device had reached the very fringes of space, travel to the stars seemed less of a remote possibility. It was clear that it was only a matter of time, money. . . and will.
While there were many imaginative spaceships yet to come— both in and out of fiction—such as those of the fabulous “Collier’s Space Program” devised by Wernher von Braun and his colleagues—spaceships now had a reality they’d never before possessed. There was little question in anyone’s mind that the conquest of space was just around the corner. So the cut-off date imposed on my series by copyright restrictions (with a few happy exceptions), seems less arbitrary and more appropriate.
VI Finding the Books
The first hurdle in creating the series was finding the books in the first place.
I already had an extensive collection of literature devoted to spaceflight and rocketry. This was the result of, first, a life-long interest in the subjects. I have been accumulating such books since I was a little kid. I had never been an especially serious collector, however, until I began working on a book called The Dream Machines (Kreiger, 1993). This was a massive chronological history of the evolution of the spaceship that required research into literally thousands of vintage books and magazines, ranging from the present to several hundred years in the past. I haunted bookstores, both real and online, eBay, and fellow collectors. Someone who was both an inspiration and an invaluable source was Fred Ordway, whose collection of science fiction and space-related material was second to none. His collection of 900 SF pulp magazines now resides in the Harvard Library and his books at the Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville. His encouragement and generous access to his collection were invaluable.
My own collection, while attaining nowhere near the volume and completeness of Fred’s, still fills three seven-foot bookcases and more than a dozen file boxes.
However, even given all these resources there were still books that were unobtainable. Fortunately, I had another excellent source—the existence of online resources such as gutenberg.org. While there are many typographical, formatting and editing issues that still need to be addressed, the texts available through this excellent service provided an essential foundation.
VII Creating the Books
Most of the titles are reproduced from books in my collection, books that were accumulated during the many years I spent researching The Dream Machines. For the most part, these are books that are not available as etexts anywhere else. Many are from vanishingly rare books, such as To the Moon and Back in Ninety Days*, which had been privately published in 1922. For biographical information regarding the author of this book, I managed to track down his surviving relatives.
Other books unique to the collection include The Moon-Maker (which includes its prequel, The Man Who Rocked the Earth), The Moon Colony (which is the first to suggest terraforming the Moon), Zero to Eighty and many more. These titles are already part of the published collection while others are still being prepared.
The books are scanned and converted to editable texts with an OCR reader. This is then carefully edited by comparing it to the original book. Obvious typographical errors (inevitable with scanned text) are corrected, but factual and other errors are left intact as written.
Occasionally, a book I have in my collection is replicated in the Gutenberg library or another online source, which saves me the trouble of scanning hundreds of pages. If the text of a book was obtained this way, I converted it to the typeface and formatting I desired for the finished book. I also went through the text to make sure that italics and other special characters—such as mathematical symbols or words in Greek, for example—appear properly.
As with the books scanned from my collection, chapter breaks are made on new pages as well as any special formatting, such as decorative chapter titles or drop caps. Every effort is made to either replicate the appearance of the original book or create a new design appropriate to the era and subject. If the original book was illustrated, I try to track down the best quality copies of these I can find. Sometimes I have these already in my collection. Finally, if the book warrants it, I add footnotes, biographies or explanatory appendices. I do this for several reasons. One is that I feel a need to add something extra for the reader, to set these books apart from a text that might be found online. Another is the need to provide background and context, to help the reader understand and appreciate the full importance of the book they’ve read.
Finally, there are a small number of books that are appearing in English for the first time in their current form. For instance, Arnould Galopin’s Doctor Omega (1906) enjoys its first unabridged publication in English.
Doing this is a laborious task, since my command of French is painfully limited. With the aid of translation software, dictionaries, earlier translations and an intimate knowledge of the book itself, the job gets done.
Special attention has been paid to Jules Verne in this regard, who is not only one of my favorite authors but has historically suffered from ridiculously poor translations. For instance, the “standard” translation of 20,000 Leagues was created by a British Protestant minister, and Verne was a French Catholic liberal. Anything of which the translator didn’t approve was simply cut out. The result was that nearly 20 percent of the book was eliminated! To make things worse, he had a slippery command of French and no grasp at all of science. The result was literally thousands of errors. . .errors which for nearly a century had been blamed on Verne by his American and English readers. Because this translation has been in the public domain for generations, it’s the one most likely to be reprinted
For my new edition of the book, I replaced the missing text and corrected all of the translation errors and factual mistakes (for instance, having Professor Arronax return from the “Badlands” of Nebraska instead of the original version’s “disagreeable territory”). The book also includes numerous maps, appendices, and a detailed schematic of the Nautilus.
From the Earth to the Moon and Round the Moon have been translated entirely from scratch, with thousands of words of text restored that have never before been seen in any other English edition. Like the other Verne titles, they contain extensive notes and appendices.
Journey to the Center of the Earth is another new translation that also includes maps and some three hundred notes. The new editions of Off on a Comet! and Purchase of the North Pole are based on vintage nineteenth century texts which have been carefully edited for errors and missing text. In addition to the Verne novels I’ve included a brand-new translation of Doctor Omega (1906), by Arnould Galopin. This will be the first time this classic novel about a trip to Mars has appeared in English complete and unabridged. The original illustrations are also included.
All of these books were designed for print editions. Adapting the book for ebook editions brought an entirely new set of problems, largely generated by the inherent simple nature of the electronic book. For example, much, if not all, of the special formatting and typography of the originals had to be abandoned. Illustrations could be retained, however, which pleased me since they not only added character to all the books, they were an intrinsic part of many. Leaving the art out of some of them would be like Alice without Tenniel.
In the end, I hope to have created not only a library of fascinating books that may be entirely new to many modern readers, but also a kind of monument to those pioneers who laid the foundation for space exploration. For I very much believe that while engineers and scientists made space travel a reality, it was invented by Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne. H.G. Wells, and their scores of less illustrious colleagues who not only bore the torch when science laughed at the possibility of leaving our planet, but inspired those who ultimately made that dream come true.
Ron Miller is a writer and illustrator living in southern Virginia. He is the author of something like 50 books, mostly about science, space and astronomy. Most of these have been for young adult readers. His books have won numerous awards and commendations, such as the Award of Excellence in Science Writing from American Institute of Physics and a Hugo for his biography of Chesley Bonestell. His artwork appears regularly in magazines such as Scientific American, Discover and Astronomy as well as numerous international magazines. He has created postage stamps (one of which is attached to the New Horizons Pluto probe) and artwork for motion pictures, such as Dune. Miller has a abiding love for the history and lore of spaceships. This resulted in "The Dream Machines", a comprehensive illustrated history of spacecraft. This eventually led to the creation of the Ron Miller Classics of Science Fiction series of reprints of classic space-related books and novels.