Thursday, 28 May 2009

Steampunk Space Exploration

Given the interest upon the topic of Steampunk Spaceships in my accompanying blog upon steampunk art and fiction, I thought perhaps further exploration upon the notion of a neo-Victorian Space Programme might be in order.

Fellow enthusiasts upon the subject of space exploration will be aware of the meta-narrative: that, despite previous investigations upon the possibility of flight beyond the atmosphere, it was the experimants and achievement of engineers under the auspices of the Nazi regime and the achievements of Wernher von Braun with NASA in the USA which saw man first standing on the Moon. The Russian space programme took an alternative route, based upon home-grown talent, epitomised by the genius that was Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky, about whom I have previously written in connection with the Space Elevator.

It is with Tsiolkovsky that the premise of a nineteenth century space programme lies. In true 'mad scientist' guise, Tsiolkovsky spent most of his life living in his log cabin in Kaluga 200 km south of Moscow, where he worked as a school mathematics teacher until retiring in 1920. Self-taught due to his deafness, and misanthropic my nature, he was viewed as eccentric by the locals, being an almost deaf old man walking along the street, mumbling something incomprehensible to himself.

Born in 1857, Tsiolkovsky was sixteen years old when he was struck by a fascinating idea: Why not use centrifugal force to launch a spacecraft from earth? He was the first to develop a theory of rocket flight and the first to consider hydrogen-oxygen to propel rockets. Tragically, however, the significance of his theoretical work upon flight and rocketry was not recognised until 1924, when Tsiolkovsky read an article upon Robert Goddard's work (Goddard pioneered the US research into liquid-fuelled rocketry), and re-published his own early works.

Tsiolkovsky was a true pioneer, and his 500 odd publications include multi-stage rocket design, steering thrusters, multi-stage boosters, space stations, airlocks, and closed-cycle biological systems for space colonies. The most important innovation, however, was his 1903 rocket equation which considers the principle of a rocket:

V = Vj ln(Mo/ Me)

where: m0 is the initial total mass, including
propellant, in kg (or lb) ; m1 is the final total mass in
kg (or lb) ; ve is the effective exhaust velocity in m/s or
(ft/s) or is the delta-v in m/s (or ft/s).

The equation shows that rocket vehicle velocity is directly proportional to the rocket exhaust jet velocity. The latter is essentially constant for a given rocket design, propellants, and operating conditions. It depends upon the amount of heat energy released during combustion, the combustion pressure, the combustion products, and the nozzle for expanding the gases. It is this equation which enabled homosapiens to leave the confines of his home planet.

Crucially, Tsiolkovsky's 1883 paper Free Space demonstrated his first conception of a manned space vehicle, with cosmonauts in weightlessness, an airlock, and gyrscopes for control.

In his 1903 paper, he wrote "Visualize . . . an elongated metal chamber . . . designed to protect not only the various physical instruments but also a human pilot . . . ." and pictured such a craft:

Tsiolkovsky appears to have been unaware of the ideas of Nikolai Ivanovich Kibalchich, the Russian inventor and unfortunate revolutionary. Whilst awaiting execution for his part in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, Kilbalchich sketched and outlined his design for a solid-fuel manned rocket.

In an alternative Steampunk world, these ideas would have been taken forward much earlier, creating a space race and pitching the Polish Russian Tsiolkovsky against the American Goddard, who published his paper A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes in 1919, or even against the British William Hale, inventor and rocketeer, whose space programme would be based upon the work of William Congreve (the inventor and artilleryman whose pioneering work included The details of the rocket system (1814) and The Congreve Rocket System (1827)), and whose new form of rotary rocket improved on the earlier Congreve system by developing a spin stabilization technique. Hale's rockets were used in the American-Mexican and Crimean Wars.

In this world, Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon (1865) may have been reflecting contemporary technologies and society, and the literary genre of science fiction may not have been born! The various Empires would have colonies in space, and the planets of the Solar System claimed in the names of the Imperial Majesties, as illustrated by Tsiolkovsky's Dreams of Earth and Sky (illustration left)

For further information on the history of rocketry, try this, and on the pioneering work of Goddard and Tsiolkovsky, here. More on Kibalchich may be found here, and combined information on rocket pioneers here.
For an interesting, if little known, story of Victorian space flight, and a superb sequel to HG Wells' War of the Worlds, I recommend Garrett P Serviss's Edison's Conquest of Mars .