Home » The Narrative Origins of Spaceflight: Alex MacDonald at TEDxAuckland (Transcript)

The Narrative Origins of Spaceflight: Alex MacDonald at TEDxAuckland (Transcript)

So it was in this context, in 1835, that the next great story of spaceflight was written, by Edgar Allan Poe. Now, today we think of Poe in terms of gothic poems and telltale hearts and ravens. But he considered himself a technical thinker. He grew up in Baltimore, the first American city with gas street lighting, and he was fascinated by the technological revolution that he saw going on all around him.

He considered his own greatest work not to be one of his gothic tales but rather his epic prose poem “Eureka,” in which he expounded his own personal view of the cosmographical nature of the universe.

In his stories, he would describe in fantastical technical detail machines and contraptions, and nowhere was he more influential in this than in his short story, “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall.”

It’s a story of an unemployed bellows maker in Rotterdam, who, depressed and tired of life — this is Poe, after all — and deeply in debt, he decides to build a hermetically enclosed balloon-borne carriage that is launched into the air by dynamite and from there, floats through the vacuum of space all the way to the lunar surface.

And importantly, he did not develop this story alone, for in the appendix to his tale, he explicitly acknowledged Godwin’s “A Man in the Moone” from over 200 years earlier as an influence, calling it “a singular and somewhat ingenious little book.” And although this idea of a balloon-borne voyage to the Moon may seem not much more technically sophisticated than the goose machine, in fact, Poe was sufficiently detailed in the description of the construction of the device and in terms of the orbital dynamics of the voyage that it could be diagrammed in the very first spaceflight encyclopedia as a mission in the 1920s.

And it was this attention to detail, or to “verisimilitude,” as he called it, that would influence the next great story: Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon,” written in 1865. And it’s a story that has a remarkable legacy and a remarkable similarity to the real voyages to the Moon that would take place over a hundred years later.

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Because in the story, the first voyage to the Moon takes place from Florida, with three people on board, in a trip that takes three days — exactly the parameters that would prevail during the Apollo program itself. And in an explicit tribute to Poe’s influence on him, Verne situated the group responsible for this feat in the book in Baltimore, at the Baltimore Gun Club, with its members shouting, “Cheers for Edgar Poe!” as they began to lay out their plans for their conquest of the Moon.

And just as Verne was influenced by Poe, so, too, would Verne’s own story go on to influence and inspire the first generation of rocket scientists. The two great pioneers of liquid fuel rocketry in Russia and in Germany, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Hermann Oberth, both traced their own commitment to the field of spaceflight to their reading “From the Earth to the Moon” as teenagers, and then subsequently committing themselves to trying to make that story a reality.

And Verne’s story was not the only one in the 19th century with a long arm of influence. On the other side of the Atlantic, H.G. Wells’s “War of the Worlds” directly inspired a young man in Massachusetts, Robert Goddard. And it was after reading “War of the Worlds” that Goddard wrote in his diary, one day in the late 1890s, of resting while trimming a cherry tree on his family’s farm and having a vision of a spacecraft taking off from the valley below and ascending into the heavens. And he decided then and there that he would commit the rest of his life to the development of the spacecraft that he saw in his mind’s eye. And he did exactly that.

Throughout his career, he would celebrate that day as his anniversary day, his cherry tree day, and he would regularly read and reread the works of Verne and of Wells in order to renew his inspiration and his commitment over the decades of labor and effort that would be required to realize the first part of his dream: the flight of a liquid fuel rocket, which he finally achieved in 1926.

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So it was while reading “From the Earth to the Moon” and “The War of the Worlds” that the first pioneers of astronautics were inspired to dedicate their lives to solving the problems of spaceflight. And it was their treatises and their works in turn that inspired the first technical communities and the first projects of spaceflight, thus creating a direct chain of influence that goes from Godwin to Poe to Verne to the Apollo program and to the present-day communities of spaceflight.

So why I have told you all this? Is it just because I think it’s cool, or because I’m just weirdly fascinated by stories of 17th- and 19th-century science fiction? It is, admittedly, partly that. But I also think that these stories remind us of the cultural processes driving spaceflight and even technological innovation more broadly.

As an economist working at NASA, I spend time thinking about the economic origins of our movement out into the cosmos. And when you look before the investments of billionaire tech entrepreneurs and before the Cold War Space Race, and even before the military investments in liquid fuel rocketry, the economic origins of spaceflight are found in stories and in ideas.

It was in these stories that the first concepts for spaceflight were articulated. And it was through these stories that the narrative of a future for humanity in space began to propagate from mind to mind, eventually creating an intergenerational intellectual community that would iterate on the ideas for spacecraft until such a time as they could finally be built.

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