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I'm reading a thoroughly ridiculous book, Calling Captain Future. It was written as a pulp serial in the 1940's, and is set in a very futuristic 1990. In addition to its many rather entertaining literary faults, it makes several errors about space and space travel. It made me curious about how much scientists knew when it was written in 1940.

First, Earth is described as a "green planet" when viewed from space, not the blue-and-white orb we have seen so many times by 2021.

When did we first see our planet from space?

Second, the protagonist's spaceship The Comet makes a journey from Venus to Mars in the time of a short conversation, approximately five minutes. https://nineplanets.org/distance-between-planets/ lists the distance between Venus and Mars as 0.8 AU, or 74,402,987 miles. I'm a novice to be sure, but a ship would have to travel 133% the speed of light in order to make that journey, wouldn't it?

$$74,402,987*(60/5) = 892,835,844 mph$$ $$892,835,844 /(60*60) = 248,009 mps$$

I read that the speed of light has been known since the 17th Century (link). Today, 80 years after the book was published, we certainly aren't very close to making anything as bulky as a spaceship travel at anything approaching the speed of light. But did the 1940s-era scientists have reason to believe that by 1990, we might be able to do this?

What was known about the likelihood traveling beyond light-speed in 1940?

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  • $\begingroup$ "By whom" should be specified in the question. A lot about space was known by humanity, but not by as much people as now. $\endgroup$ Nov 29 '21 at 3:55
  • $\begingroup$ Please don't edit your question to make significant additions after answers have been posted. $\endgroup$ Nov 29 '21 at 14:00
  • $\begingroup$ "Was much known about the surfaces, temperature, and atmospheres of the other planets?" ... how much is known by you about the universe these stories are portrayed in? You've already missed the FTL vibration drive, terraforming and colonization of multiple planets,.... $\endgroup$ Nov 29 '21 at 14:25
  • $\begingroup$ Hey all, I see that people object to there being 2 questions in one here, and that's why it was closed. I'd like to edit this down to one, but is there a way to duplicate this post and edit THAT one to hold only the second question? I'm interested in both questions but happy to edit to one question per post. $\endgroup$
    – nuggethead
    Dec 2 '21 at 2:24
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Excellent question, with easy answers!

  1. Humanity first saw our planet from space in 1946 (in black & white), thanks to a camera strapped to a suborbital altitude test of the A-4/V-2 ballistic missile [1]. Von Braun, the Nazi scientist responsible for building this missile, would later put man on the moon using his Saturn rocket. Of course, we had excellent maps of the world long before the 1940s telling us the world is mostly water, and we were certainly aware that between the obviously blue ocean & our obviously blue atmosphere, the earth would appear more-blue-than-not from space.

  2. Einstein's theories of relativity are how a) we know we can never travel at the speed of light and b) how we know it is very, very difficult to ever travel near the speed of light. These theories were developed in the 1900's, proposed in the 1910's, and well-accepted by the 1940s. The atomic bomb wouldn't have ever been developed if not for these same theories--because the energy stored in the atom is described no other way. Further, that particles gain momentum as a non-linear function of momentum was experimentally demonstrated before 1920 [2]. Thus, it was well-known that you could not go past the speed of light.

Recall that man was in orbit by the early 1960s and on the moon by the end of the 1960s. The 1940s was less than 20 years prior--while we hadn't been there yet, we had a pretty good understanding of how space worked, just from scientific theory.

I suspect the inaccuracies in your story are present for the exact same reason they exist in modern scifi--for the purposes of telling a story the author feels like telling. Why does the author choose to write a story that is scientifically inaccurate? Likely, the author doesn't know, doesn't care, or both.

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    $\begingroup$ "would later put man on the moon" he had help $\endgroup$ Nov 29 '21 at 1:50
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    $\begingroup$ There's an adage, "why ruin a good story by including facts". $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    Nov 29 '21 at 10:38
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe something we didn't know in the 40s was how bad Venus was... If I recall correctly it was only relatively recently that we understood that Venus is a nightmare planet.. I believe in the 70s/80s the URRS had some interest in it. Before then Venus was thought as a possible second Earth in terms of habitability. Or am I mistaken in this regard? $\endgroup$
    – GACy20
    Nov 29 '21 at 11:16
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    $\begingroup$ May I suggest another answer by somebody else: how widespread "knowing about space" was pre-space race? Would be very interesting, and multiple answers are always preferred on a question. $\endgroup$ Nov 29 '21 at 17:22
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    $\begingroup$ @AntonHengst agreed! I've started the reopen process now that the OP edited and deleted the "extra question". Once four more reopen votes are cast additional answers will no longer be blocked. (votes to close are votes to block answers from being posted) $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Nov 29 '21 at 23:06

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