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Excerpts from Mike Gruntman's From Astronautics to Cosmonautics, BookSurge, No. Charleston, S.C., 2007, Chapter 1.



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Chapter 1.  Astronautics Was the First

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Robert Esnault-Pelterie, 1881–1957, one of the four great space pioneers, introduced the word astronautics. The Frenchman Esnault-Pelterie, also known by his initials as REP, graduated in engineering at the Sorbonne University. The fourth man in France to obtain the pilot’s license, he made remarkable contributions to development of airplanes. He became an accomplished inventor and engineer and a sculptor. The French Academy of Sciences (Académie des Sciences) elected him a member in the Division of Applications of Science in Industry (Division des application de la science à l’industrie) on 22 June 1936.

In the public mind in the beginning of the 20th century, rocketry and space exploration belonged more to the realm of science fiction than to the field of “serious” research pursuit. Artillery had decisively won the competition against military rockets by that time (Gruntman 2004). The men of plume replaced the men of swords as the keepers of the public interest in rocketry and spaceflight. Fiction writers occasionally sent their characters on journeys through space. Nobody captured the imagination of the public more than the French writer Jules Verne.

It was at this time that isolated visionaries and thinkers, including amateurs, sketched the sinews of the spaceflight concept. Technical details of rocketry and space travel had precarious credibility. Consequently, usual all-knowing intellectuals of the day dismissed them as ridiculous. The word astronautics did not exist yet. Actually, science fiction literature had used the word astronaut by that time (see text box), but astronautics was unknown as a term of science and engineering.

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Esnault-Pelterie’s credibility of an accomplished engineer and fame of an aviation pioneer helped him to gain acceptance by mainstream scientific audiences. On 15 November 1912, he delivered a lecture “Considérations sur les résultats d’un allégement indéfini des moteurs” (“Consideration of the Results of the Unlimited Lightening of Motors”) at the meeting of the French Physical Society (Societé française de Physique).

As a scientist, Esnault-Pelterie emphasized the importance of addressing physical foundations of spaceflight,

Numerous authors made a man traveling from star to star a subject for fiction ... . No one has ever thought to seek the physical requirements and the orders of magnitude of the relevant phenomena necessary for realization of this idea ... This is the only aim of the present study. (Esnault-Pelterie 1913, 218)

In his lecture, Esnault-Pelterie discussed the acceleration of a rocket and derived the rocket equation. He considered the energetic properties of guncotton, hydrogen-oxygen mixture, and radium as propellants. Then he provided estimates of the required velocity increments and flight times for travel to the Moon, Venus, and Mars and requirements to the propellant for such missions. Considering interplanetary flight of humans, Esnault-Pelterie proposed passive spacecraft temperature control,

... a vehicle built in such a way that one half of its surface would be of polished metal ... . The other half of the surface ... would be ... a black surface. If the polished surface turns to the sun, the temperature would decrease. In the opposite position, the temperature would increase. (Esnault-Pelterie 1913, 228).

The abbreviated form of his 1912 presentation appeared next year in the respected archival physics journal Journal de Physique (Esnault-Pelterie 1913). The subject of the lecture “seemed to be so ahead of its time that its publication, in a more or less shortened form, sent the secretary of this learned group in the abyss of anxiety and [it seemed that] the study of this problem [of spaceflight] remained temporarily without any future” (Moureu 1963, 3). Esnault-Pelterie’s lecture and the following publication became the first significant step in scientific “legitimization” of spaceflight.

A number of years had passed. On 8 June 1927 another prominent learned group, the French Astronomical Society (Société astronomique de France), held its annual general meeting in the splendid Richelieu amphitheater at the Sorbonne University. There, Robert Esnault-Pelterie delivered a lecture “L’Exploration par fusée de la très haute atmosphère et l’avenir des communications interplanétaires” (“Rocket Exploration of the Very High Atmosphere and the Future of Interplanetary Communications [Travel]”). He began with emphasizing the connection to his groundbreaking presentation fifteen years earlier,

Mr. President, Ladies, Gentlemen. Our [Society] president, General [Gustave] Ferrié, on the suggestion of our colleague Mr. [André] Hirsch, asked me several times to present, with more details, to our Society the lecture [on rocketry] that I had given on 15 November 1912 to the French Physical Society ... (Esnault-Pelterie 1928, 2)

The Esnault-Pelterie’s lecture “aroused lively interest” and the audience “frequently interrupted it with applause” (Touchet 1927, 320).

The mentioned above André Louis-Hirsch, 1899–1962, the son of an important Parisian banker, Baron Hirsch, showed interest in science since the early age. (André Louis-Hirsch was often referred to as André Hirsch.) Hirsch joined the French Astronomical Society when he was only 13. In January 1918 during World War I, André — still a teenager — took a patent for a technique of secrete long-distance telegraphy using infrared radiation. The scientific reputation of Hirsch had made him a close friend of Robert Esnault-Pelterie, who was 18 years older than André.

A half a year after his lecture on 26 December 1927, Esnault-Pelterie and Hirsch organized a dinner to discuss the future of the emerging science of space travel (Heflin 1961). Several prominent men gathered at the house of the mother of Hirsch, including physicists Jean Baptiste Perrin (Nobel Prize in physics, 1926) and Charles Fabry, astronomers Ernest Esclangon and Henri Chrétien, director of the hydrological service of the French Navy and president of the French Astronomical Society Eugène Fichot, General Gustave Ferrié, who had pioneered many applications of radiotelegraphy, and a science-fiction writer J.H. Rosny the elder.

The guests discussed the name that should be given to the new science of spaceflight. André Hirsch suggested the word cosmonautique (cosmonautics), but it did not appeal. Then Esnault-Pelterie proposed sideration, the word structured similarly to aviation (Ananoff 1978, 20–21). It was not accepted either. Then, Rosny proposed the word astronautique (astronautics). This was it! The scientists adopted the word at once (Heflin 1961; Ananoff 1978).

The French Astronomical Society boldly extended its support to what many considered at best a utopian pursuit. In the February issue of its bulletin, the society president Eugène Fichot announced to the world creation of the new science,

Mr. Esnault-Pelterie wished to place this science of tomorrow, astronautics, — so magnificently named by one of our most powerful writers, Mr. J.H. Rosny the elder, and encouraging by its magic evocation of the remote past of the humanity to [advance to] the prophetic vision of the future — under the aegis of the most ancient and most beautiful of sciences, astronomy. (Fichot 1928, 59)

In a month, the French Astronomical Society published the expanded version (under a slightly modified title) of the Esnault-Pelterie’s June 1927 lecture in a special supplement to a March issue of its bulletin (L’Astronomie ... Souplément, March 1928) and as a separate book “L’Exploration par fusée de la très haute atmosphère et la possibilité des voyages interplanétaires” (“Rocket Exploration of the Very High Atmosphere and the Possibility of Interplanetary Travel”) (Esnault-Pelterie 1928).

The word astronautics appeared — for the first time as a scientific term and in quotation marks — on page 64 of this Esnault-Pelterie’s book. The author wrote,

… it is rather curious to note that going from the means of locomotion [motion, transportation] on earth to aviation and then to “astronautics,” one changes [respectively] from the means of motion with velocities changing at will to the means of motion with constant velocities and finally to the means of [motion with] constant acceleration.

In a footnote on the same page, the author added,

I seize the occasion to offer my thanks here for creation of this word [astronautics] to Mr. J.H. Rosny the elder to whom the authorship [of this word] goes.

Esnault-Pelterie also recognized Rosny on p. 94 of the book,

… it appeared to me desirable to create a motion of interest in favor of this future locomotion [in space] and, first of all, I desired that this locomotion receives a name. Mr. J.-H. Rosny the elder happily invented the word “Astronautics” which I immediately adopted.

Further in his book, Esnault-Pelterie also wrote about “… the probability that the astronauts find life on Mars and on Venus …,” using the word astronaut (Esnault-Pelterie 1928, 91).

The acknowledged creator of the word astronautics J.H. Rosny the elder was senior of two brothers, born in Brussels, Joseph Henri Honoré Boex (1856–1940) and Séraphim Justin François Boex (1859–1948). The brothers split in 1909 and the Joseph wrote since then under the name J.H. Rosny aînée, the elder or the senior. The French-speaking world considered him a leading science fiction writer.

At the same eventful dinner on 26 December 1927, the guests also worked out the plan to establish an annual award in astronautics. Esnault-Pelterie and Hirsch provided funds, 5000 francs annually for three years, to the French Astronomical Society for the REP-Hirsch International Astronautics Prize, or Prix REP-Hirsch (Fichot 1928; Astronomie March 1928, 120, 140).

The Society formed a Committee of prominent scientists to award the prizes. A stellar scientific reputation of the Committee members helped to establish the respectability of the emerging science. The first REP-Hirsch Award went in 1929 to Hermann Oberth for his book “Wege zum Raumschiffahrt” (Road to Space Travel) (Oberth 1929). The awards were given until 1939 and played an important role in stimulating development of rocketry. In addition, they helped in building links among rocketeers of various countries. The REP-Hirsch Encouragement Award also recognized — in 1934 — Ary J. Sternfeld, who introduced the word cosmonautics.

In the epilog of his award-winning book Oberth wrote,

The French Astronomical Society recognized this book (Wege zum Raumschiffahrt) with the REP-Hirsch Award. In addition to great advantages that this award has brought me and will bring in the future, it had also a not-small moral effect. I did not sincerely believe that a German would be awarded such a prize in France, especially since good French, Russian, Italian, and English works were also submitted [to the competition]. One can see that science and education are capable of bridging national divisions. I think that I cannot thank the French Astronomical Society better than to pledge here to also work for science and education and to judge others only by their accomplishment. (Oberth 1929, 424)

The World War II would soon reduce the emerging international links into smoking ruins. The first winner of the REP-Hirsch Award Hermann Oberth relocated to Germany during the war and became a German citizen in 1940. He joined Wernher von Braun in 1941 as an advisor at the Peenemünde rocket development center. In 1943, Oberth was transferred to development of solid-propellant antiaircraft missiles elsewhere in Germany. The Peenemünde center produced the formidable A-4 ballistic missile, also known as the V-2. On 8 September 1944, the German Army launched the first V-2 missiles in a combat operation against London and liberated Paris, the city where the REP-Hirsch Award in rocketry and space exploration had originated 15 years earlier.

Robert Esnault-Pelterie and his friend André Hirsch have thus made a significant step in transforming a pursuit of spaceflight into a serious scientific and technological undertaking. A leading learned society “anointed” astronautics. Bringing rocketry and spaceflight into the scientific and engineering mainstream proved indispensable to realization of the space age. Amateur societies, rocket enthusiasts, and popular magazines would have never brought space exploration to where it is today in the 21st century.

Two years later in 1930, Esnault-Pelterie wrote a comprehensive treatise on rocketry and spaceflight under the title “L’Astronautique” (Esnault-Pelterie 1930). He presented the new science in a consistent and detailed way: discussed rocket motion in vacuum and air; considered gas flows in converging-diverging nozzles; applied thermodynamics to the combustion processes of various fuel-oxidizer combinations; and pointed out the exceptional properties of atomic hydrogen as propellant. Esnault-Pelterie outlined possible rocket applications including studies of the aurora borealis and of the upper atmosphere, missions to the Moon and to the planets. He suggested reaction wheels for spacecraft attitude control and discussed the effects of spaceflight on humans.

The name of the new field in science and engineering — astronautics — has thus been firmly established and quickly accepted. The French scientists did not consider the word astronautics as a word of science fiction literature: they coined it for the emerging science field. The word astronautics became known to the world exactly in the intended meaning, the art or science of designing, building, and operating space vehicles, and it entered many languages.

The New York Times published editorial comments titled “Astronautics” on 8 March 1928, perhaps the first use of the word in English in a major publication (New York Times 1928). The rapid favorable reaction of The New York Times to the appearance of the new science and establishment of the REP-Hirsch Award (announced in the February issue of the Bulletin of the French Astronomical Society) was remarkable. Only several years earlier in 1920 the newspaper editorial ridiculed the idea that rocket propulsion would work in vacuum and questioned the integrity and professionalism of Robert H. Goddard (Gruntman 2004, 117). The American Interplanetary Society, the predecessor of the American Rocket Society, changed the name of its official monthly publication from “Bulletin” to “Astronautics” in May 1932.

Esnault-Pelterie was primarily interested in theoretical astronautics. He, however, also initiated practical development of liquid rocket engines (Gruntman 2004). In 1931, Esnault-Pelterie demonstrated an engine working on gasoline and liquid oxygen. In October of that year, he lost the ends of four fingers on his left hand in experiments with gasoline and tetranitromethane as rocket propellants. This accident led to selection of less-dangerous liquid oxygen as oxidizer for the future French rockets.

The world war brought an end to Esnault-Pelterie's work in 1939. After the war, he settled in Switzerland. The leader of the astronautical group in the Aero-Club de France (French Aero Club) Alexandre Ananoff observed in 1950 that Esnault-Pelterie “definitively lost interest in [active] research in interplanetary communications [travel]. We ... very sincerely regret the loss that this state of things caused in the science of astronautics” (Ananoff 1950, 440). The First International Astronautical Congress opened that year in Paris, organized by Ananoff. The meeting began a series of annual congresses conducted under the aegis of the International Astronautical Federation, formed in 1951 (Gruntman 2004). The new generations of “astronauts,” as they were called in the early heroic days of 1920s and 1930s, now led the charge.

Robert Esnault-Pelterie passed away in 1957. His courageous and generous friend André Louis-Hirsch joined the French army as a reserve officer in communications with the beginning of the World War II. He was decorated by the Croix de Guerre (Military Cross) in the first combat actions against Germans. Hirsch became a prisoner-of-war in 1940 but did not cease resisting the enemy. As a result, he spent almost all his captivity in confinement in the fortress of Lubeck. André Hirsch passed away in 1962.

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