All my life, I've been speculating in my head about all kinds of "alternative timelines". One of the most intriguing to me are all the ones that concern space and "steampunk" technology.

Recently, I watched the movie "First Man" (2018), which contain a few minutes of juicy, realistic space footage, including an early 1960s experiment to just about "enter space" (weightlessness) with a very crude and air-plane-looking "space craft", just barely making it back down again due to malfunctioning hardware. The sounds made inside the vehicle are extremely disturbing. Later in the movie, we get to see them going all the way to the moon and land it there, all using very analogue and, frankly, scary equipment.

There's something inherently frightening to me about the cold, dead, unfriendly void out there, and the thought of going there in basically a glorified tin can with a large ball which physically spins around to show you the angles of the spacecraft and whatnot, well, it makes me feel uneasy. Even though obviously very smart people were working on these things, with massive funding, the thought of sitting there hearing the barely-space-tested diesel engines coughing as you fire up another rocket to propel you further and further up and finally reach "space"... and then you hear metal parts creaking ominously and you pray to God that it actually is properly sealed, doesn't leak oxygen, and that the on-board computer won't start malfunctioning. Not to mention keeping contact with "ground control". My skin starts crawling just thinking about it. I'm definitely not one of those "brave pioneers"...

Of course, the 1960s technology was cutting edge to them, so they wouldn't be seeing it with quite the same eyes as I do now, after being fed countless movies where they have incredibly advanced sci-fi-like space ships with fancy interiors where you can just walk around and there's tons of room for everyone, etc.

This made me think again of a crazy thought I've had in my head since I was very young: would it have been possible to somehow go to the moon, or at least go up into weightlessness and get back down again with a man-made contraption of some kind in the year 1850-1860?

I picked the year span 1850-1860 because it's not too close to the 1960s, but also not as far away as to be completely out of the question. I figure that by the mid-1800s, they at least had rather advanced factories and means of producing large parts/objects for huge metallic ships and trains and stuff like that.

As the question title says, everyone magically comes together to provide as much funding, expertise, cooperation, etc. as possible, but they are obviously still stuck with whatever had been invented at that point, or possibly 1850 + 10 years at most. So they get 10 years to do this. (If there is no time limit, the year will soon be 1969...)

Note: Nothing says that it must resemble or use the same methods as what we made in the 1960s. It can be much larger in size, it can be fired from a giant space gun, it can be insanely wasteful, it doesn't need to be "clever" in any way, it doesn't even need any windows if they can navigate without them, etc.

Yes, this is a crazy question, and I'm almost certain that any responses will say that it's just not possible, but I sure would like to hear the details, and possible ways that this could have actually happen. As you can imagine, the thought of sitting inside some huge metallic vehicle constructed in 1860, with much cruder science than the 1960s (which look like something from the far future by comparison), really freaks me out. But it also intrigues me, which is why I'm asking.

Since this didn't actually happen, we are assuming that, in this theoretical timeline, everyone in those days for some reason got a very strong urge/incentive to do this, and really wanted it to happen.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's utterly speculative $\endgroup$ Jan 2 '20 at 2:12
  • $\begingroup$ You'll need Babbage's Analytical Engine as your flight computer. $\endgroup$
    – Bit Chaser
    Jan 2 '20 at 2:37
  • $\begingroup$ If the question is closed and you'd like to reopen it, you might both shorten it (remove what you think the answer might be or what answers should consider, and just ask the question) and narrow it down. For example, just ask which technologies didn't exist at all or which principles had not yet been discovered or understood. That way answers can be fact-based, which is what's considered the best way to answer a question posted in Stack Exchange. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jan 2 '20 at 2:57
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    $\begingroup$ maybe Worldbuilding? $\endgroup$
    – user20636
    Jan 2 '20 at 10:53
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    $\begingroup$ This question would be a better fit for Worldbuilding SE. $\endgroup$ Jan 2 '20 at 10:59

I think it's just barely possible that 1850s technology could achieve a crewed suborbital launch above the Kármán line, similar to the first crewed Mercury missions, but that anything beyond that would not be possible.

Without modern rocket engines, the best propulsion option is a black powder rocket. This has a specific impulse of about 80 seconds (a measure of fuel efficiency), as compared to modern kerosene-oxygen engines with specific impulses above 300 seconds. Unlike the single-stage Redstone launcher of the early Mercury program, this would be a three-stage solid rocket, with a total launch mass of around 620 tons (500 ton first stage, 100 ton second stage, 20 ton third stage). I'm assuming it would be possible to make a wood-reinforced solid rocket tube with 15% dry mass, 85% propellant -- but I don't know anything about building large wooden structures, so that may be way off. It would be of the same general scale as the tallest wooden buildings of the era. I don't know if the propellant grain could be reliably shaped as it is today; this would help a great deal with structural loads, as an end-burning constant-thrust rocket would peak at over 6g on the final stage. The last portion of each stage's grain would contain a fuse to ignite the next stage.

The passenger capsule could be little more than a ballasted wooden barrel. Since this is a short suborbital flight of around 15-20 minutes duration, you'd only need about 200 liters of air -- about a 55-gallon drum's worth. I'm not sure how hard it would be to make a barrel that was structurally sound and nearly airtight against a 15psi differential; if wood doesn't serve, a metal shell would do, although that would come with a weight penalty.

Reentry is, of course, a major challenge. Cork has been used as a heat-shield material, though, and the reentry heating for this brief suborbital trajectory is minimal compared to that of orbital reentry, so I think that with enough layers of cork, and the right adhesive, the capsule could survive. Asbestos cloth was also known (though not yet industrialized); the USSR's Vostok capsule used resin-impregnated asbestos for a heat shield.

Silk parachutes with vented canopies date back to the early 1800s. With no electronics or communications equipment, the passenger's sole responsibility in the flight would be to stare at their pocket watch and pull a lever to release the parachute at a certain time after liftoff.

The biggest concern here is the rocket's trajectory. It would have to be very carefully pointed at launch -- too steep a flight and the capsule comes down too hard and fast, crushing the passenger to death as it decelerates in the atmosphere; too shallow and You Will Not Go To Space Today. Fixed tail fins would help stabilize it but I don't know how repeatable the trajectory would be - any unevenness in the packing of propellant, for example, would cause some divergence in the flight path.

It would be a vast undertaking, but I don't think there's anything physically impossible in this approach.

Achieving a full orbit would be much, much harder than this. You have to keep the passenger alive for two hours; you have to reenter at a much, much higher speed, and above all you need a rocket that produces three times as much delta-v, which, for black powder, means 6 more stages, each 5 times as big as the one above it. This comes to about 10 millon tons, which is around 3000 times the size of a Saturn V. Getting to the moon and back is another exponential leap beyond that.

  • $\begingroup$ Good answer. I was wondering if your estimated impulse of 80 seconds for black powder rocket assumes use of some kind of de Laval nozzle? Goddard tested black powder rockets in 1915 and found their efficiency to be only around 2% (although I'm not sure how this is defined (maybe ratio of achieved kinetic energy to theoretical energy of the charge?). Only with use of de Laval nozzle he managed to achieved 64% efficiency) $\endgroup$ Jan 2 '20 at 5:08
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    $\begingroup$ I assume it's with a good nozzle; it just seems to be the widely distributed answer when I google "black powder specific impulse". $\endgroup$ Jan 2 '20 at 5:27
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    $\begingroup$ If this is the case, then they would have to had the nozzle invented and applied in this 1850's R&D effort, as historically the nozzle was invented a few decades later: "The nozzle was developed (independently) by German engineer and inventor Ernst Körting in 1878 and Swedish inventor Gustaf de Laval in 1888" $\endgroup$ Jan 2 '20 at 5:39
  • $\begingroup$ Gun cotton was available then, barely. Verne even suggested it’s use do lunar travel, though that was in 1865. But I don’t whether it’s a better or worse propellant. $\endgroup$ Jan 2 '20 at 6:01
  • $\begingroup$ I wonder what pre-Laval nozzles actually looked like. $\endgroup$
    – ikrase
    Apr 26 '20 at 4:57

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