Forget Sputnik and Apollo 11 – the space race really began almost 400 years ago, according to an academic.
John Wilkins, a British inventor, drew up plans in the 1640s to send a manned wooden ‘chariot’ to the Moon propelled by gunpowder, feather wings and springs.
Convinced the Moon was inhabited by a race of people called the Selenites, he was determined to visit them to set up trade links.
Records show that Wilkins, who was Oliver Cromwell’s brother-in-law, experimented with flying machines in the gardens of Wadham College, Oxford, around 1654.
Allan Chapman, an academic based at the college, claims Wilkins should be acknowledged for establishing the ‘Jacobean space programme’.
‘His ingenuity was enormous,’ he said. ‘He saw his flying chariot as being the space version of Drake’s, Raleigh’s and Magellan’s ships.
‘This was a honeymoon period of British science. The vacuum had not yet been discovered. In 1640, flying to the Moon was a heroic possibility.’
Wilkins, who was initially a vicar on the Northamptonshire village of Fawsley, before becoming warden of Wadham College, Oxford, outlined his theories in ‘A Worlde in the Moone’.
Discussing his belief that the moon was inhabited, Wilkins said: ‘I must needs confesse, though I had often thought with my selfe that it was possible there might be a world in the Moone, yet it seemed such an uncouth opinion that I never durst discover it, for feare of being counted singular and ridiculous.
‘But afterward having read Plutarch, Galilæus, Keplar, with some others, and finding many of mine owne thoughts confirmed by such strong authority, I then concluded that it was not onely possible there might bee, but probable that there was another habitable world in that Planet.’
He proposed many theories, or ‘prepositions’, including the moon had no light of its own, instead reflecting sunlight.
Some were later proved wrong, including that the celestial body had seas and an atmosphere.
Wilkins is the only person to have headed a college at both the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge.
He is also credited with designing the first airgun, a mileage recorder, a prototype for the pneumatic tyre and a ‘rainbow machine’.
By 1670, scientists knew a Moon landing was way off.
‘They’d made so many discoveries in physics and astronomy in 30 years that they could see that flying to the Moon was not on,’ said Dr Chapman.
As it turned out, Wilkins was a little over 300 years ahead of his time – Apollo 11 landed on the Moon in 1969 – an anniversary celebrated on Monday.
I would not be surprised if the idea of flying to the moon goes back much farther than the 1640s.