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