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From Cosmism to the Znamya Experiments

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.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • ljk March 19, 2014, 11:36

    Znamya shows what is wrong with our current age and space programs.

    In the early days of the Space Age, rockets exploded and satellites failed during missions all the time. The engineers and managers learned from their mistakes, made the proper changes, and kept on until they were successful.

    The Ranger series to Luna is a prime example here: Six failures in a row, then three great successes concluding in the first close-up images of the surface of our celestial neighbor.

    Now we are so risk and cost-adverse that I am amazed we even have a space program. Oh yes, to look back on our navels – I mean Earth – and practical yet boring services like comsats (except for the one with the EchoStar 16 Artifact attached to it, of course). There is a glimmer of hope with real and daring exploration with that Europa life search mission plan, but we shall see if it becomes more than just more words and few start up dollars.

    Humanity’s salvation as a technological species lies in space. They knew this decades ago as the recent Centauri Dream articles contest, when not a single rocket had done more than make some splashy fireworks or bombed an enemy target.

    If we want to maintain or improve upon our current level of existence – which many do not enjoy even now compared to the richest nations on Earth – we need to expand into the Cosmos. Otherwise if our population keeps overpopulating as it is this very second, we can expect to run out of land and resources eventually, with the results being stagnation, regression, or outright extinction.

    Even worse, we may end up with some kind of equilibrium state where everyone is in some level of comfort but we no longer want to – or allowed by the State – expand our horizons. We will become literal sheep living in fantasy worlds at best and focusing on trivialities. We are not completely there yet but the signs are certainly present.

    My prediction for the first interstellar “mission”: A billionaire or trillionaire will purchase a suitable planetoid, modify it for livability and leaving the Sol system, then put aboard all his or her concubines, family members, and chosen followers and head on out into the wider Milky Way galaxy. They may aim for a suitable star system with a planet that is either habitable or can be made so. Or perhaps their Worldship will be their permanent home with visits to other worlds only for resupply missions.

    This depends on whether we will still have individuals who can remain in that state in the future and have the wealth, resources, and drive to accomplish such a plan. Because I am leery of certain governments ever getting their acts together in such a fashion. I am also uncertain about private industry as they tend to do things that will only return a profit to the shareholders. Saving humanity and doing things for the common good are usually not money makers unless you know how to sell it right.

  • Andrew Palfreyman March 20, 2014, 1:56

    It’s not right that the best-funded space program is tragically underfunded, and highly risk-averse to boot. It’s not right that we have multibillionaires (especially when education and healthcare are not free) but a few of these will lead the vanguard into space, it seems. We are far away from any sort of golden mean situation here. It is far from ideal.