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

Here is the full text of Alex MacDonald’s talk titled “The Narrative Origins of Spaceflight” at TEDxAuckland conference.

In this talk, Dr. Alexander MacDonald, describes the history of spaceflight stories, how they inspired and influenced the development of space launch vehicles, and how the stories we tell as a society shape our collective future.

Dr. MacDonald is the senior economic advisor at NASA and the founding program executive for NASA’s Emerging Space Program. With the rising interest in commercial and private space exploration, Alex bridges the knowledge gap and provides the economic expertise.

Dr. Alexander MacDonald – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT

I want to tell you a story about stories. And I want to tell you this story because I think we need to remember that sometimes the stories we tell each other are more than just tales or entertainment or narratives. They’re also vehicles for sowing inspiration and ideas across our societies and across time.

The story I’m about to tell you is about how one of the most advanced technological achievements of the modern era has its roots in stories, and how some of the most important transformations yet to come might also.

The story begins over 300 years ago, when Galileo Galilei first learned of the recent Dutch invention that took two pieces of shaped glass and put them in a long tube and thereby extended human sight farther than ever before. When Galileo turned his new telescope to the heavens and to the Moon in particular, he discovered something incredible.

These are pages from Galileo’s book “Sidereus Nuncius,” published in 1610. And in them, he revealed to the world what he had discovered. And what he discovered was that the Moon was not just a celestial object wandering across the night sky, but rather, it was a world, a world with high, sunlit mountains and dark “mare,” the Latin word for seas.

And once this new world and the Moon had been discovered, people immediately began to think about how to travel there. And just as importantly, they began to write stories about how that might happen and what those voyages might be like.

One of the first people to do so was actually the Bishop of Hereford, a man named Francis Godwin. Godwin wrote a story about a Spanish explorer, Domingo Gonsales, who ended up marooned on the island of St. Helena in the middle of the Atlantic, and there, in an effort to get home, developed a machine, an invention, to harness the power of the local wild geese to allow him to fly — and eventually to embark on a voyage to the Moon.

Godwin’s book, “The Man in the Moone, or a Discourse of a Voyage Thither,” was only published posthumously and anonymously in 1638, likely on account of the number of controversial ideas that it contained, including an endorsement of the Copernican view of the universe that put the Sun at the center of the Solar System, as well as a pre-Newtonian concept of gravity that had the idea that the weight of an object would decrease with increasing distance from Earth. And that’s to say nothing of his idea of a goose machine that could go to the Moon.

And while this idea of a voyage to the Moon by goose machine might not seem particularly insightful or technically creative to us today, what’s important is that Godwin described getting to the Moon not by a dream or by magic, as Johannes Kepler had written about, but rather, through human invention. And it was this idea that we could build machines that could travel into the heavens, that would plant its seed in minds across the generations.

The idea was next taken up by his contemporary, John Wilkins, then just a young student at Oxford, but later, one of the founders of the Royal Society. John Wilkins took the idea of space travel in Godwin’s text seriously and wrote not just another story but a nonfiction philosophical treatise, entitled, “Discovery of the New World in the Moon, or, a Discourse Tending to Prove that ’tis Probable There May Be Another Habitable World in that Planet.”

And note, by the way, that word “habitable.” That idea in itself would have been a powerful incentive for people thinking about how to build machines that could go there. In his books, Wilkins seriously considered a number of technical methods for spaceflight, and it remains to this day the earliest known nonfiction account of how we might travel to the Moon.

Other stories would soon follow, most notably by Cyrano de Bergerac, with his “Lunar Tales.” By the mid-17th century, the idea of people building machines that could travel to the heavens was growing in complexity and technical nuance. And yet, in the late 17th century, this intellectual progress effectively ceased. People still told stories about getting to the Moon, but they relied on the old ideas or, once again, on dreams or on magic.

Why? Well, because the discovery of the laws of gravity by Newton and the invention of the vacuum pump by Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle meant that people now understood that a condition of vacuum existed between the planets, and consequentially between the Earth and the Moon. And they had no way of overcoming this, no way of thinking about overcoming this.

And so, for well over a century, the idea of a voyage to the Moon made very little intellectual progress until the rise of the Industrial Revolution and the development of steam engines and boilers and most importantly, pressure vessels. And these gave people the tools to think about how they could build a capsule that could resist the vacuum of space.

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.

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.

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.

This process has now been going on for over 300 years, and the result is a culture of spaceflight. It’s a culture that involves thousands of people over hundreds of years. Because for hundreds of years, some of us have looked at the stars and longed to go. And because for hundreds of years, some of us have dedicated our labors to the development of the concepts and systems required to make those voyages possible.

I also wanted to tell you about Godwin, Poe and Verne because I think their stories also tell us of the importance of the stories that we tell each other about the future more generally. Because these stories don’t just transmit information or ideas. They can also nurture passions, passions that can lead us to dedicate our lives to the realization of important projects.

Which means that these stories can and do influence social and technological forces centuries into the future. I think we need to realize this and remember it when we tell our stories. We need to work hard to write stories that don’t just show us the possible dystopian paths we may take for a fear that the more dystopian stories we tell each other, the more we plant seeds for possible dystopian futures.

Instead we need to tell stories that plant the seeds, if not necessarily for utopias, then at least for great new projects of technological, societal and institutional transformation. And if we think of this idea that the stories we tell each other can transform the future is fanciful or impossible, then I think we need to remember the example of this, our voyage to the Moon, an idea from the 17th century that propagated culturally for over 300 years until it could finally be realized.

So, we need to write new stories, stories that, 300 years in the future, people will be able to look back upon and remark how they inspired us to new heights and to new shores, how they showed us new paths and new possibilities, and how they shaped our world for the better.

Thank you.


For further reading: (Book)

The Long Space Age – The Economic Origins of Space Exploration from Colonial America to the Cold War


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