Before the space race or modern technology of 20th century, what was the earliest point in history that space exploration was attempted? If available, I'd love to read the documentation.

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    $\begingroup$ Bob jumped off a haystack while looking at the moon. Thus was born the Apollo missions. $\endgroup$
    – user12
    Commented Jul 29, 2013 at 19:08
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    $\begingroup$ As Undo implied, do you mean attempted, or successfully attempted? The latter is very well documented, the former - not so much... $\endgroup$
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented Jul 29, 2013 at 19:52
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    $\begingroup$ If I'm looking through a 'scope, I'm exploring space. Or even just looking with the naked eye, to some degree. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 30, 2013 at 2:41
  • $\begingroup$ I just found a history page on NASA that if anyone is interested in heres the link: history.msfc.nasa.gov/rocketry/tl1.html $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 4, 2013 at 15:44

3 Answers 3

  • Wan Hu (16th century A.D.):

According to legend, Wan Hu (possibly 萬虎 or 萬戶) was a minor Chinese official — supposedly of the middle Ming dynasty (16th century) — who attempted to become the world's first "astronaut" by being lifted by rockets into outer space. The crater Wan-Hoo on the far side of the Moon is named after him.

                     Wan Hu

                     Quote and picture source: Wikipedia on Wan Hu

  • Lagâri Hasan Çelebi (17th century A.D.)

Lagâri Hasan Çelebi was a legendary Ottoman aviator who, according to an account written by traveler Evliya Çelebi, made a successful manned rocket flight.

   Lagâri Hasan Çelebi

        Quote and picture source: Wikipedia on Lagâri Hasan Çelebi

  • First man-made object in space (3 October 1942)

The first steps of putting a man-made object into space were taken by German scientists during World War II while testing the V-2 rocket, which became the first man-made object in space on 3 October 1942 with the launching of the A-4.

   A U.S. Army cut-away of the V-2.

    Quote source: Wikipedia on Space exploration - History of exploration in the 20th century, cut-away source: Wikipedia on V-2 rocket

  • First flights (4 October 1957)

The first successful orbital launch was of the Soviet unmanned Sputnik 1 ("Satellite 1") mission on 4 October 1957. The satellite weighed about 83 kg (184 pounds), and is believed to have orbited Earth at a height of about 250 km (160 mi). It had two radio transmitters (20 and 40 MHz), which emitted "beeps" that could be heard by radios around the globe.

    Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite

    Quote and photograph source: Wikipedia on Space exploration - History of exploration in the 20th century

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    $\begingroup$ Oh man, this is exactly the kind of information I was looking for. Thanks for taking the time to post this Tildal :D $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 29, 2013 at 20:18
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    $\begingroup$ @TidalWave, your V2 entry is incorrect. The 1st successful launch of V2 was indeed 1942 Oct 3, but it only went up to 60 km. This is below space and below the 50 mi height used by the US Air Force later. Ironically, most employed V2s reached a suborbital apogee of 90 or 95 km during their trip to London (or wherever they were targetting). The most reliable record of a V2 going above 100 km was in June of 1944 when von Braun decided to do more vertical test launches. Unfortunately, he did not write the exact date, and none of his companions remembered it either, so we only know is was June '44. $\endgroup$
    – DrZ214
    Commented May 29, 2015 at 18:52
  • $\begingroup$ @DrZ214 The V-2 rocket that was launched on 3rd of October 1942 (serial number V-4 or A-4 depending on your source) reached an altitude of 85 – 90 km (53 - 56 mi), and that was, as you mention, at that time considered outer space. See the List of V-2 test launches. If you have a source claiming it only went up 60 km, I'd like to see it, and if that proves reliable, I'll update my answer. $\endgroup$
    – TildalWave
    Commented May 29, 2015 at 19:02
  • $\begingroup$ @TildalWave The source I had listed in my files was www.astronautix.com/lvs/v2cology.htm , which unfortunately has gone dead, and the usual chronology of launches for V2s on astronautix's V2 page does not list the apogee for it. Also, I wouldn't rely too heavily on that cited source on the wikipedia page you provided, because i found another here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… , which claims that the 1942 Oct 3 V2 went above the karman line and cites apparently the same source as your wiki page does. I will continue hunting for more info. $\endgroup$
    – DrZ214
    Commented May 29, 2015 at 20:22

If we accept bibical references, it's arguable the Tower of Babel tried to reach space, given that it was an attempt to build a city with a tower "whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth."

enter image description here

(from Wikipedia)

The Book of Jubilees (not biblical) mentions the tower's height as being 5,433 cubits and 2 palms, or 2,484 m (8,150 ft), about three times the height of Burj Khalifa, or roughly 1.6 miles high.

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    $\begingroup$ oh nice reference to even more history pertaining to space. Interesting connection! +1 $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 30, 2013 at 5:55
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    $\begingroup$ We are looking at references from historical point of view not mythological point of view. $\endgroup$
    – Rolen Koh
    Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 9:34
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    $\begingroup$ To build a high tower, this may fully be an actual attempt once tried in the past. A first attempt to build that would be called "space elevator" now. $\endgroup$
    – Nightrider
    Commented Jul 17, 2019 at 14:28

The first recorded attempt with a credible method and strong historic basis would have to be 20th century - and that would be the rocketry approach of the Russian and American space programs.

Historic attempts before the 1950's all used bad methods - methods that cannot work according to our current understanding of physics. So we can just ignore those using balloons.

If we accept legends using the correct methodology but incorrect math, we get a wide variety of "early attempts."

The legendary Icarus and his wax wings can be excluded, as it's a method reliant upon atmosphere and impossible physiology.

Wang Tu, aka Wan Hu, is the next oldest legend. He is said to have attempted to fly to the heavens by mixture of kites and rockets. Rockets are a viable method - and kites are a good way to get a weight airborne. High efficiency parasails, anchored to the ground, can be used to easily lift a human to upwards of 1000' AGL in areas of constant 15 knot winds. Wang Tu couldn't have succeeded due to the nature of the available materials, and the traditional date given of 2000BC is implausible, but that the tradition is recorded in October 1909 by Scientific American indicates that it was considered to be at least informative. At the earliest, Wang Tu's attempt would be after gunpowder in China, which puts it somewhere around 1100 AD.

Some legends put the use of a large canon or catapult as Western equivalents, but they post-date Wang Tu even in their claimed dates. A sufficiently strong one could achieve orbital launch, but would kill the human due to the accelerations involved, or, like the proposed US Space Canon, be several miles long.

So, reliable and effective? The US and Russian missile programs leading to Sputnik and Vanguard. At least on the right track? The Legendary Wang Tu.

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    $\begingroup$ "Historic attempts before the 1950's all used bad methods" The Germans of 1942 would like to have a very stern word with you. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 10, 2015 at 21:30
  • $\begingroup$ The germans weren't making attempts at space in 1942. Von Braun had dreams of it, but was building rockets to bomb england, not aiming for space. $\endgroup$
    – aramis
    Commented Mar 29, 2015 at 18:51

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