Experiments in the Principles of Space Travel

A book arrived in our mail last week. It came in a flat shipping envelope that revealed nothing of the character of its contents. However, those contents have revealed much to us. Books always do.

BranleyBookThe cover didn’t promise much: a thick, industrial-blue cover with no meaningful imagery. The spine tag revealed that this book had come from a library. The numbers and letters on the tag were in the Dewey Decimal Classification format which, to Doug—the librarian—meant that it had likely come from a public library, a school library, or perhaps a smallish academic library.

A few years ago, Doug’s brothers, Richard and David, bought a school in Abingdon, Illinois, were they had grown up, and are converting what would have been an empty, unused building into a place for small businesses. In trying to decide what to do with books left in the school library, Doug’s sister Suellen had seen the book and knew that we would want it as soon as she read the title: Experiments in the Principles of Space Travel.

Upon opening the book, we could see that the paper checkout slip holder was stamped in all caps, ABINGDON JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL. The slip revealed names that Doug knew or had heard, names mostly of boys—one girl’s name appears in October ’69—who’d checked out the book. Inwardly, Doug was shocked, and just a little bit sad, that his own name didn’t appear in the list. In fact, during the years that Doug was in Junior High, the book hadn’t been checked out a single time. For nearly twenty years, between May 1972 and May 1991, Experiments in the Principles of Space Travel sat idle, waiting to be needed. May 1991 was its last checkout, and the Junior High later moved—apparently without the library—to the same building as the high school.

High-Schooler at Dryden (NASA)

Experiments in the Principles of Space Travel, was written in 1955 by Franklyn M. Branley. When we searched for information, we found a couple of other bloggers who’d mentioned the book only weeks ago (here is one). We also discovered that Branley had written more than 140 books, among them the Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out series of science books. He also served as the head of Hayden Planetarium, a spot that astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson now holds. Branley died in 2002 at the age of 86.

In 1955, when Experiments in the Principles of Space Travel was published, Russia had not yet launched Sputnik, and the space program in the United States was yet to ramp up with Mercury, hit its stride with Gemini, and fulfill its promise with Apollo. October 1, 1969, is the first due date on the checkout slip, roughly three months after Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins went to the moon on Apollo 11. By then, the book was fourteen years old, and some of its ideas were already dated.

(NASA image)

Other ideas in the book might have seemed shocking to a twelve-year-old in the late 1960s. In the book’s first chapter, when discussing the problems of bringing along enough food on multigenerational, interplanetary missions, the author suggests a possible solution to sustaining—well, how to say it? If you’ve seen the movie Soylent Green or the “Bart to the Future” episode of The Simpson’s, you know the answer: the younger generations would consume the older generations during the extended journey between planets. Twelve-year-old readers, no matter what year it is, might well find the author’s solution to the problem of not enough food for the long trip, creepy-cool.

The book, however, is essentially about simple experiments, ostensibly related to space travel, that can be performed at home. There are experiments to teach children about streamlining, drag, and airflow over surfaces. Another experiment explains parallax and how it can be used to measure distances. The tabletop apparatus needed for a parallax-based measuring device, which the author points out is similar to naval optical range finders used in WWII, is described with detailed steps for its construction.

Reading the instructions, we were often struck by the asides that Branley makes, such as, “If a power saw is available and you have permission to use it, this will give you better cuts.” Branley doesn’t recommend adult supervision for using the power saw, only permission. Warnings like this permeate the book. The experiment on streamlining and drag involves cutting metal and contains its own aside in a parenthetical: “(Caution: Edges of tin may be sharp. Be careful to push only on the flat surface.)” Other experiments involve drills, heat lamps, and open flame.

(National Museum of American History)

This book brought back memories of our own childhoods. Anna helped her father put in a drop ceiling—including insulation—in a basement and helped him build a dollhouse out of plywood. In Doug’s case, he especially remembers watching his brothers and friends like Joey Kjellander, all of whom were more adept with tin snips, soldering irons, and drills. Doug himself wielded a jigsaw now and then.

Of course, reading Branley’s book also reminded us how how much things have changed. In particular, “Chapter Four: Powering the Ship” includes experiments that would likely strike modern readers as fairly dangerous. One fairly complicated experiment involved a sealed coffee can, corn starch, and a candle. Analogies to the inner workings of various kinds of combustion engines are made: piston engines, jet engines, and rocket engines. But let’s be honest here. While combustion may be an engineer’s term, what the author means is an explosion. To Branley’s credit, he comes out and says it: “There will be a sharp explosion and the lid will blow off the can.”

The sort of experiment encouraged by Branley in 1955 resulted in Kiera Wilmot being arrested and expelled from school in 2013. Wilmot knew that it would cause some smoke to mix toilet bowl cleaner and aluminum foil before school one April morning. She thought of it as a science fair experiment, though her science teacher wasn’t there. When the principal heard the loud pop and saw the smoke—more smoke than Wilmot had expected—zero tolerance kicked in, and felony charges ensued.


International Space Station (NASA)

Homer Hickam heard about Wilmot’s predicament. The charges had been dropped, but the girl’s academic future remained in question. At NASA, Hickam trained astronauts for Spacelab and the International Space Station. But we imagine Hickam’s early days, perhaps grabbing Experiments in the Principles of Space Travel from his local library the summer it was published, when he was twelve years old. One doesn’t have to stretch one’s imagination too far to know what Hickam’s childhood entailed, for he wrote the memoir Rocket Boys, which was made into the film October Sky. He and his friends launched 34 rockets as teenagers.

Homer Hickam to Kiera Wilmot’s rescue. Hickam is sending Wilmot and her twin sister to the Advanced Space Academy designed for high-schoolers. Undoubtedly, Wilmot will be introduced to all sorts of experiments in the principles of space travel.

For some up-to-date space-related experiments for kids in grades 5-8, check our NASA’s suggestions HERE.

We, too, are off to a science camp of sorts and will write more about that later this month.

4 thoughts on “Experiments in the Principles of Space Travel

  1. I always feel the need to re-appropriate old books left idle. I collect them like spinsters collect cats.

    Your mention of Hickam brings our own father to mind. He was also twelve in the summer of 1955. I wonder what path his mechanical mind might have taken had he found this gem in the library of Abingdon Junior High. I like to think that instead of hoping to engineer land crafts for Ford Motor Company he might have been inspired to design vehicles for the air.

    By the way, now that I have turned thirty, I think I might start a cat collection. Thoughts?

    1. Ah, the serendipity keeps spooling! To think that Hickam and Rick Dechow were pondering at twelve years old in ways that would lead them to become engineers.

      As for cats, perhaps they should not be collected like books. After all, they resist being read.

      1. Cat collections are like book collections in one way: it’s best to start with the small ones. Tigers, like War and Peace, take up a lot of space, physically and mentally.

      2. They are rather inscrutable. I mean cats, of course, although I once had a Calculus textbook that was absolutely unreadable.

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