Geek Trivia: Stationary perspective

What science-fiction work was the first to propose a manned artificial satellite—a space station?

Editor's note: The Trivia Geek is on extended leave, but he did get off his slacker butt long enough to pull this Classic Geek, which originally ran on April 18, 2006, from the archives.

In the words of Obi-Wan Kenobi, "That's no moon, that's a space station." Almost 36 years ago, you could have legitimately uttered this quote when the world's first space station—the Soviet Union's Salyut 1—launched on April 19, 1971. (Granted, Master Kenobi didn't actually originate the quote until the release of Star Wars six years later, but I'd never let a silly issue like linear time stop me from free-associating space trivia and Jedi wisdom.)

Salyut 1 inaugurated the era of manned artificial space installations that operated separately from crew transport vehicles (a rather laborious definition of a space station). It also serves as a harrowing reminder of how dangerous space exploration can be.

The crew of Soyuz 10, launched four days after the station itself, was unable to board Salyut 1 due to a failure of the docking mechanism to provide an adequate airtight seal between the capsule and the station. However, the Soyuz 11 crew was able to board Salyut 1 on June 7, 1971 and successfully manned the station for 22 days—despite having to contend with a station fire halfway through the stay.

Tragically, all three Soyuz 11 cosmonauts died of asphyxiation during the return trip to Earth. While undocking from the Salyut station, a damaged control valve on the Soyuz capsule caused an irreparable air leak that doomed the crew. Four months later, the Soviets allowed Salyut 1 to burn up in Earth's atmosphere, never having hosted another crew.

Still, Salyut 1's triumphs arguably outweigh its failures. These achievements, as well as those made by the subsequent American Skylab and Soviet Mir stations, paved the way for the contemporary International Space Station.

Moreover, the reality of Salyut 1 validated the various works of science fiction that had long promised the potential for humanity to construct and maintain a habitable artificial satellite. Indeed, the first work of science fiction to propose a space station predated the launch of Salyut 1 by more than a century.

WHAT SCIENCE-FICTION WORK WAS THE FIRST TO PROPOSE A MANNED ARTIFICIAL SATELLITE—A SPACE STATION?

What work of science fiction was the first to propose a manned artificial satellite, a prescient work published more than a century before the launch of Salyut 1, the world's first space station?

In 1869, author Edward Everett Hale published a short story in the Atlantic Monthly titled "The Brick Moon." In that story, Hale described an inhabited, artificial satellite used to help sailors navigate at sea—a crude and wildly implausible vision of a space station—which nonetheless marks the first time any such concept appeared in fiction.

Bear in mind, when I say wildly implausible, I mean wildly implausible. Literally made of brick, Hale's moon hung in an "orbit" low enough to be visible to ships at sea, serving as an astronomic counterpart to the North Star. Moreover, the inhabitants of this "moon" would alert ships to danger by jumping up and down on the object's surface, thereby causing it to wobble. (Apparently, Hale was the only person with a worse grasp of physics than the Trivia Geek.)

Of course, one might cut Hale a bit of slack since he wasn't really a science-fiction author; "The Brick Moon" was more or less his only foray into the genre. Instead, Edward Everett Hale—the grandnephew of martyred American Revolutionary spy Nathan Hale and son of a Boston newspaperman—was a noted man of letters whose fiction was more political than technical in nature.

Hale's best known work in this vein was the short story "The Man Without a Country," which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1863. Noted for articulating the Union position during the American Civil War, the work had a profound effect on the public consciousness of the times.

Besides being an author, Hale was a Unitarian minister and outspoken abolitionist. In 1903, he became chaplain of the U.S. Senate. Hale died in 1909 at the age of 87, unaware that in some 60 years' time, his fanciful notion of a "brick moon" would become a startling reality. Such is the basis of imaginative Geek Trivia.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia—namely, when the Trivia Geek gets back from his extended leave. (To read the original quibble from this article, see Listing A.)

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.