What got me thinking about French influences on early solar sail work in Russia yesterday was the realization that science fiction was much stronger in Europe, and particularly France, in the latter part of the 19th Century than we Americans might realize. Hugo Gernsback to the contrary, the genre did not emerge in 1926 with the appearance of Amazing Stories, nor did key early texts like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein launch the genre in England. Brian Aldiss would probably argue with this (see his Trillion Year Spree, 1973), but I agree with Brian Stableford in seeing a true genre emerging first on French soil.
Whether you agree or not, have a look at Stableford’s essay The French Origin of the Science Fiction Genre, where I find this in reference not only to Verne but writers like George Sand (Laura: voyages et impressions, 1865) and Camille Flammarion (Récits de l’infini, 1872):
These works were sometimes referred to by contemporary commentators as examples of roman scientifique — a phrase that can be translated, because of the flexibility of the first word’s range of reference, as “scientific fiction,” “scientific romance,” or “the scientific novel.” Verne’s work in particular attracted numerous imitators because of its enormous popularity, and eventually inspired the founding of a specialist periodical, the Journal des Voyages, in 1877, dedicated to fiction in that vein.
Novelist Stableford is, in addition to being a critic, a fine translator of numerous French works from this period. Much of this work remains little read in our time, and I suspect some enterprising historian of science will one day mine further connections between French scientific romances and the early history of astronautics, particularly their influence on Tsiolkovsky, Fridrikh Tsander and the evolving philosophical movement known as Cosmism, that emerged as a way of integrating natural history with a human future in space. Tsiolkovsky believed that colonizing space would transform Earthly human life into an existence blessed with immortality.
Image: Novelist and translator Brian Stableford. Credit: Brian and Jane Stableford.
The whole interplay with cosmism and Russian space exploration is a vast topic — for more, I’d recommend George Young’s The Russian Cosmists (Oxford University Press, 2012), which focuses on life extension advocate Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov but examines the work of all his followers as well. Thinkers who believed that humanity was evolving into a space-going species, these people were fascinated with technology’s potential, and it’s not surprising to me that early rocketry and sail advances should be associated with them.
Znamya: Testing Deployment Technologies
When it came to practical sail experiments, though, that work would have to wait until the end of the 20th Century when Russia performed the first demonstrations of sail technologies in space. The Znamya project involved mirrors rather than sails, but learning how to spin up a 20-meter mirror in Earth orbit involves many of the same methods that sails would demand. The idea was to test whether it would be practical to brighten remote polar and sub-arctic settlements after dark, the first deployment occurring on February 4, 1993 from a Progress supply ship.
Image: The deployed Znamya mirror attached to the Progress spacecraft after deployment in 1993.
After a successful deployment, the Znamya mirror illuminated a spot on Earth five kilometers in diameter that had the intensity of a full moon. Traveling at approximately eight kilometers per second, the beam swept through Europe and into western Russia, but Europe was covered with clouds that day and the beam could be seen by only a few. More to the point in terms of sail technologies, though, the use of centripetal acceleration of the spinning canister proved a viable way to deploy the film.
Znamya was de-orbited after several hours and burned up upon re-entry, giving way to the larger Znamya 2.5 mission, whose deployment in February of 1999 was a failure, as the mirror film caught on an antenna on the Mir space station and became tangled. Unable to free the material for full deployment, controllers de-orbited the Znamya 2.5, and it too burned up upon re-entry. An even larger Znamya 3 was never built as interest in the space mirror project waned.
Fifteen years later, we have seen successful deployments of free-flying solar sails in space, and are getting closer to bringing some of Tsiolkovsky and Tsander’s notions to fruition, with the launch of NASA’s Sunjammer sail scheduled for next year. The 38 X 38 meter sail, like IKAROS, will doubtless have much to tell us about deployment issues and performance as it moves toward the L1 Lagrangian point. I, for one, love the science fiction reference in its name, a nod not only to Arthur C. Clarke’s 1964 story but also to a Poul Anderson tale that ran under the pseudonym Winston P. Sanders in Analog in 1964. Both brought science fictional methods to bear on a promising technology that has taken all too long to begin active space testing.