EXPLORING new worlds seems a particularly appropriate topic in
1992, the 500th anniversary of the voyage of Columbus.
While the 15th-century navigator sought lands over the horizon,
20th-century explorers have managed to abandon Earth altogether, in
favor of the heavens.
"Blueprint for Space: Science Fiction to Science Fact" at the
IBM Gallery of Science and Art here documents that longing to break
Earth's hold. It looks at how the task was inspired and achieved,
and how space continues to beckon us.
The exhibition is based on the personal collection of Frederick
I. Ordway III, astronautics historian of the Space and Rocker
Center in Arlington, Va.
The very age of exploration that launched ships for the New
World also launched thinking into the nature of the solar system.
Galileo's discovery in 1610 that the moon and planets were actually
other worlds began an era of speculation about them. In 1687, for
example, Aphra Behn, a woman playwright, wrote "The Emperor of the
In the late 19th century, Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio
Schiaparelli discovered what he called "canals" on the surface of
Mars. American astronomer Percival Lowell became convinced that
they were made by intelligent beings, setting off speculation about
the possibility of life on other planets.
Writers such as Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Rice
Burroughs began producing popular stories about interplanetary
travel. Pulp magazines like "Amazing Stories" romanticized space
travel for new generations in the first decades of the 20th century.
Speculation about space travel might have stayed just that had
the rocket not been invented, the exhibition shows. Traceable back
at least to 12th- or 13th-century China, the rocket was developed
as a military weapon and as a source of public entertainment.
But in the early 20th century, four pioneers - Konstantin
Tsiolkovsky in Russia, Robert Esnault-Pelterie in France, Hermann
Oberth in German-speaking Transylvania, and Robert Goddard in the
United States each independently began to write about rockets - and
in the case of Oberth and Goddard, experiment with them - as a way
to propel man into space.
It took World War II for the next great advance in rocketry. The
V-2 was designed by German scientists to rain bombs on Britain. But
it also contained the potential to launch a space vehicle.
"The linear descendants of the V-2 are the Saturn rockets that
took us to the moon," Mr. Ordway explained in an interview at the
opening of the show. …