Jules Verne: The Man Whose Fiction Launched a Thousand Rockets

Star Bound №24: Lesser-Known Legends

Bruce McCandless III
13 min readMar 21, 2024

A Look at Some of the OTHER Rocketry Pioneers

You know the Rocket Gods. They’re the Big Three: Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (the Dreamer); American Robert Goddard (the Doer); and the Romanian-born German, Herman Oberth (the Proselytizer). Each of these men were present at the beginning. In fact, in their own ways, they were the beginning, and they left their mark on the development of rockets and space travel continued by their equally famous heirs and disciples: Wernher von Braun and Max Faget in the U.S. and Vladimir Korolev and Valentin Glushko in the Soviet Union.

But the fact is, concentrating on the accomplishments of the Big Three risks overlooking lots of other brilliant and inventive people, from that day to this. Science isn’t practiced in a vacuum — an intellectual vacuum, anyway — and it’s hard to pinpoint who exactly first thought of any particular notion. These lesser stars may not be as famous or as fecund as the Big Three, but they nevertheless made important contributions to our understanding of and ambitions for journeys into the cosmos.

So here’s a list of a few other space pioneers:

Jules Verne. Okay, so this guy isn’t exactly unknown. Born into a well-to-do family in Nantes, France in 1828, Verne studied law as a young man and became a licensed attorney, though he was never enthusiastic about the profession. He chose to write instead, and went on to become one of the best-read and most-frequently translated authors in history. Nevertheless, it seems fitting every once in a while to recall specifically just how radically potent his influence was on many of the early rocketeers. Verne’s seminal 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon: A Direct Route in 97 Hours, 20 Minutes and the 1869 sequel, Around the Moon, are routinely cited as inspirations for Robert Goddard, Wernher von Braun (who wrote a fair amount of sludgy science fiction in his younger days), Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and any number of other prominent space engineers and theoreticians. The key to Verne’s appeal seems to have been not only the imaginative ambition of his tales, but also the author’s attempt to provide a factual grounding (“I have invented nothing,” he once claimed) for the phenomena that fill his pages. In this regard he practically invented a strain of fiction that Arthur C. Clarke and Andy Weir have successfully cultivated since. And the Moon novels were surprisingly prescient. Though Verne’s crewed space bullet was fired straight up from a huge cannon — not a viable method for leaving the Earth with your crew alive — he got a lot of details about lunar launches more or less right: a take-off from Florida, splashdown in the Pacific, several days to make the journey, etc. Rocketry and science fiction have always been close friends. For some years, in fact, they were inseparable. Jules Verne was the one who introduced them.

Do You Have My Helicopter Footage? Portrait of Hermann Ganswindt

Hermann Ganswindt. The earliest born of our rocket engineers, and the first of a perplexingly large number named “Herman,” Ganswindt was born in East Prussia — part of what is now Poland — in 1856. He too studied law but was eventually kicked out of the University of Berlin for failure to attend class. Despite his family’s urgings that he become a solicitor, young Hermann found the prospect unappealing and became an inventor instead. Ganswindt had close-set eyes and a determined, piercing sort of expression, almost as if he’s looking out of photographic portrayals to examine the camera. The impression is perhaps amplified by the wire-rimmed pince-nez and the Van Dyke beard he favored. Sometime after 1880, Ganswindt conceived of what may have been the first “reaction” rocket — i.e., one operating on the principle that an explosion’s exhaust, channeled in one direction, would move an object like a rocket in the other direction. The propulsion for the device was to be furnished by a series of dynamite-powered explosions — an idea that also animated Robert Goddard’s early (but unsuccessful) rocketry work. In order to lift this heavier-than-air contraption, Ganswindt also designed an early version of the helicopter, which allegedly flew in 1901, though film of the event was later lost. The short flight — fifteen seconds of airtime, barely enough time to butter a bagel — demonstrated the potential of rotary-winged aircraft. Ganswindt was a prolific inventor, though most of his ideas were too far ahead of his time to be produced, and he was largely dismissed as a crank by his peers. Later in life he lost most of his money, and as a consequence died penniless in Depression-era Germany. While it came late, recognition of Ganswindt’s genius did come: journalist Willi Ley popularized his ideas for a 20th century audience, the City of Berlin named a bridge after him, and Ganswindt is the namesake of a crater on the moon.

Guido von Pirquet. Born near Vienna in 1880, the Austrian von Pirquet studied mechanical engineering at university and went on to co-found the Scientific Society for High-Altitude Research, Europe’s first rocketry association, in 1926. He built and tested rocket models and wrote extensively on issues of ballistics and trajectories, sharing his ideas through The Rocket, the journal of the German Society for Rocket Travel (the Verein für Raumschiffahrt, which at one point boasted some 500 members). According to the International Space Hall of Fame, von Pirquet “described the most fuel-efficient trajectories for reaching the planets Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. His trajectory for a space probe to Venus was identical to the one used by the first Soviet interplanetary spacecraft, Venera 1, launched to the planet Venus in February 1961.”

Von Pirquet calculated the size of a rocket exhaust nozzle that would be needed for launching a rocket to the moon, and concluded that it would be much too large to be practical. He proposed instead launching spaceships from space, in low-Earth orbit, where much less fuel would be needed to overcome Earth’s gravitational pull. With Herman Nordung (see below), von Pirquet was thus an early proponent of space stations, proposing three different types: low-earth orbit, intermediate orbit (for launching and fueling space vehicles that could travel to other planets), and a third type that would orbit around both the Earth and the moon. According to various sources, his interest in rocketry waned following Nazi Germany’s takeover of Austria in 1938, an action that sickened and dispirited many Austrians, though others actively assisted it. Sources agree that Von Pirquet was one of several scientists of the pre-spaceflight era who understood the promise of the “gravity assist” method for reducing flight time and increasing payload on flights to the outer planets. He worked out detailed formulas showing how close passage of Jupiter could be used to make a large change in the velocity and orbital energy of a spacecraft. In recognition of his accomplishments, Pirquet is a member of both the British Interplanetary Society and the International Space Hall of Fame. He also has a crater on the moon named after him.

Hermann Nordung was the pseudonym of Herman Potočnik, a military officer and engineer of Slovenian ancestry who was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1892. Potočnik’s military career was undistinguished. Afflicted (like American rocketry pioneer Robert Goddard) with tuberculosis, he was weakened by the condition and forced to enter civilian life. He became interested in issues related to space exploration. Through correspondence with Herman Oberth, he was encouraged to publish his book The Problem of Space Travel: The Rocket Motor in 1928. In 188 pages and 100 handmade illustrations, Potočnik described a plan for establishment of a permanent human presence in outer space. While Potočnik was certainly not the first person to conceive of a habitation in Earth orbit, he may have been the first to set out any sort of rigorous space station architecture, including the use of airlocks, solar power, and — according to a NASA publication — rotation of the vessel to create artificial gravity. Like von Pirquet’s, Potočnik’s ideas were disseminated through publication in The Rocket, and may well have influenced Wernher von Braun’s later advocacy for the importance of space habitations. He described the use of orbiting spacecraft for detailed observation of the ground for peaceful and military purposes (ideas later picked up in planning for both the Skylab and Manned Orbital Laboratory projects in the U.S.), and theorized how the special conditions of space could be useful for scientific experiments. Potočnik died at the age of 37, not long after his book was published.

Frank Malina was born in Texas in 1912, the child of Czech immigrants. In contrast to the lives of other rocketry men who grew up in or near centers of learning like Berlin, Vienna, and Paris, Malina spent his formative years in Brenham, a rural Texas town known mostly as the birthplace of Blue Bell ice cream. He attended Texas A&M University, where he studied engineering and played in the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Marching Band, which doesn’t actually do much fightin’ but nevertheless wears military-style uniforms, marches with marvelous spryness, and is famously large and loud. Malina, trim and soft-spoken, a romantic at heart, never quite fit in with the brassy boosterism of his fellow students. After graduation in 1936, he headed west to study aircraft design at Caltech. There he blossomed under the tutelage of Professor Theodore von Kármán. When Malina became interested in rocketry, still considered a dubious area of study for serious scientists, von Kármán helped as best he could, offering the young grad student the use of on-campus facilities to conduct his experiments. At around this time, Malina met and began working with Ed Forman, a mechanic and metal worker, and an amateur chemist, Jack Parsons, who specialized in blowing things up. As the trio began working on rocket designs, Parsons was made the group’s rocket fuel expert. He had other interests as well. A large, good-looking man with a head of jet-black hair that rose like a storm cloud above his head, Parsons fancied himself a sort of latter-day Lord Byron — mad, bad, and dangerous. He drank, experimented with drugs, and dabbled and later dived headlong into an odd and occult theology.

Portrait of a Beatific Hsue-Shen Tsien

Members of the group, which eventually included Malina’s fellow student, mathematician Hsue-Shen Tsien (sometimes rendered as Qian Xuesen, with the last name coming first, according to Chinese usage), started cobbling together their own rockets in the 1930s in a dusty arroyo outside of Pasadena. The reliability and accuracy of these early devices is reflected in the name bestowed by Caltech students on Malina and his friends. They were known as the “Suicide Squad.” But the rockets got better. As the Second World War approached, the Army Air Force contracted with the squad for production of solid-fuel rockets called JATOs (Jet-Assisted Take-Off rockets) that could be mounted to aircraft and fired to assist the planes in taking off quickly. Parsons developed a solid fuel that would burn evenly and consistently, using asphalt in his JATOs to pave the way, so to speak, for a successful and ultimately quite lucrative relationship with the Pentagon. The JATOs led to experiments with liquid-fueled motors and eventually from aircraft into rockets that aimed considerably higher than contemporary airplanes could reach. Ultimately Malina was instrumental in creating a series of sounding rockets called the Private, which were tested in the deserts of southeastern New Mexico. A version of their WAC (“Without Attitude Control”) Corporal, next in the evolutionary line, was the first U.S. rocket to fly higher than 50 miles, and thus reach space.

Despite his successful career in rocketry and contributions to the U.S. war effort during the Second World War, Malina was investigated during the postwar “Red Scare” years by the FBI, which suspected that he was a member of a local cell of the communist party. The whisper campaign against him was similar to the backroom allegations made against other prominent thinkers in the fifties, including Robert Oppenheimer. Though Malina had in fact espoused left-wing causes at various times in his career, there was no evidence that he’d done anything other than exercise his First Amendment rights in doing so. Nonetheless, he and Tsien, who had been born in China, were harassed by the federal government in various ways for their suspected political sympathies. Each man ended up leaving the United States. Malina moved to Europe, where he worked for a time for UNESCO and eventually became an artist of some renown.

Tsien’s story is even more remarkable. He was at one point detained by federal authorities, who believed him to be a communist spy. He denied such allegations, and was backed up in his denials by fellow academics, including Theodore von Kármán. Some observers pointed out that Tsien had worked to develop technology to aid U.S. combat aircraft during the Second World War. He had also held the temporary rank of colonel in the U.S. Army when he journeyed to postwar Europe to interview German rocket scientists, including Wernher von Braun, for possible admission to the States. This record of service seemed to make no difference. After years in legal limbo in the U.S., and active FBI surveillance, Tsien was allowed to “self-deport” himself to China in August of 1955, apparently as part of a deal involving the release of American servicemen captured during the Korean War. Embittered by his experience with McCarthyism, Tsien went on to become an important contributor to the Chinese space program — the father of modern Chinese rocketry, as generations of Chinese students have been taught. He survived the venomous political backbiting of the Cultural Revolution, passed away in 2009, and is now a secular saint, with his accomplishments enshrined in a Shanghai museum featuring what one source claims are “70,000 artefacts.” Scholars doubt that Tsien was really an agent of Beijing, which means that chasing him out the country and into the arms of Mao Zedong could be considered an embarrassing “own goal” by American security officials. The story remains a fascinating subplot to both the Red Scare days in the United States and the story of the American space program.

The Suicide Squad’s work in rocketry was institutionalized in both Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or “JPL,” an important component of NASA, and the Aerojet Engineering Corporation, which members of the squad formed to sell JATOs to the Army Air Corps. JPL went on to build America’s first satellite, Explorer 1, and dozens of important and advanced robots and space probes since. Shares in Aerojet, which eventually merged with other companies and is now known at Aerojet Rocketdyne, eventually made Malina a wealthy man — a wealth that he enjoyed abroad, as he was reluctant to return home for fear of being arrested.

The Flying Frenchman: Esnault-Pelterie

Robert Esnault-Pelterie. Born in Paris in 1881, Esnault-Peterie studied Botany, Physics, and Chemistry at the Sorbonne and had a distinguished early career building airplanes, inventing, among other things, the use of ailerons for steering, an internal metal framework rather than external wires for bracing and support, and the “joystick” as a standard pilot control. The young Frenchman was a dashing, almost comically handsome individual who resembled a cross between Inspector Clouseau and a Magnum, P.I.-era Tom Selleck. A crash in 1912 left Esnault-Pelterie severely injured, and he gave up piloting and began to study the possibilities of space travel instead. He soon produced a paper that set out his own version of the rocket equation, first applied to rocketry by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and calculated the energies required to reach the Moon and nearby planets. He invented the term “astronautics,” advocated for use of swiveling, or “gimbaling” thrusters, and was among the first to propose the use of both atomic energy to power a space vehicle and “aero-braking,” the use of atmospheric drag to slow and thus allow capture of a speeding rocket by a planet’s gravitational field. In 1929, Esnault-Pelterie proposed the idea of the ballistic missile for military bombardment, and, with a colleague, eventually persuaded the French War Department to fund a study of the concept. He began experimenting with various types of rocket propulsion systems, including liquid propellants. During an experiment with a rocket design using tetra-nitromethane, he lost four fingers from his right hand as a result of an explosion. Ultimately, his work failed to create an interest in rocketry within France — which was fine, of course, as France had a perfectly secure 300-mile border with Germany and thus nothing to worry about. Nevertheless, Esnault-Pelterie kept working. In all, he was awarded numerous patents (one source says 200, another claims it was 120) for his work, which included innovations in metallurgy, electricity, magnetism, fluid dynamics, thermodynamics, and, of course, rocketry. Moon crater? Check: Esnault-Pelterie Crafter 5028 h3, on the far side of Luna.

Any list lauding a few is an offense against others, and there are certainly many others — thousands — who could be cited as contributors to the global effort to get off the globe. Leather-jacketed Homer Boushey, for example, defied his own misgivings and the dictates of common sense to pilot the first American jet-assisted aircraft in 1941. The tireless Georgy Babakin spearheaded the Soviets’ regolith-breaking Lunokhod robotic lunar rover missions in the 1970s, as documented in Jay Gallentine’s great book Infinity Beckoned, while multi-talented head of the Soviet Space Research Institute Roald Sagdeev, an architect of the Venera missions that brought us photographs of the surface of Venus, gave the world perhaps the best explanation of why the U.S. was able to outperform the Soviets in many areas of space exploration: “Because they are sons of a bitch!” Sagdeev thundered. The suave and fearless Italian-born German Max Valier wrote about rockets, drove rocket-powered vehicles, and blew himself up in 1930 while working on a liquid-propellant rocket engine. Japan’s Dr. Rocket, Hideo Tokugawa, braved political opposition and financial hardship to test Japan’s first sounding rockets, using “pack animals to carry equipment to the launch site — a remote island,” according to historian Bleddyn E. Bowen.

As society changed, and opportunities opened up for women and people of color, the list of space pioneers expanded as well. Welcome, Nancy Grace Roman, Mary Jackson, and Poppy Northcutt! All of this is to say that the development of space technology wasn’t the work of a few or even a hundred individuals, but rather of a multitude of intelligent and creative men and women who dedicated substantial portions of their lives to making the dream belch smoke and head skyward. Investigation of a single story almost always leads to others, inextricably linked, equally interesting. Together they comprise the saga of our attempts to reach space — a saga that, despite its metallic glint, is a human story, and one that’s just getting started.



Bruce McCandless III

I'm an Austin-based writer trying to figure out space, science, and Texas politics. For more, see: www.brucemccandless.com