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Rocket to Venus (because Mars was too far, and the Moon was burnt out)
May 3, 2013 8:31 AM   Subscribe

In 1928, the Ohio-born inventor Robert Condit wanted to make a pioneering flight like Charles Lindberg the year before. But instead of traveling around a portion of the earth, he wanted to leave it entirely. Destination: Venus. Condit had built a rocket of sorts, and planned to launch from Florida in March, but postponed due to imperfect atmospheric conditions. Between then and August, he made his way to Baltmore, where he worked with the brothers Sterling and Harry B. Uhler to make or modify his space craft. Harry remembered their efforts well, recounting the events leading up to an actual attempt to launch the craft (PDF with photos), made of varnished sailcloth, wrapped around a structure of angle iron ribs, bolted into shape.

They had latched onto the rocket craze, of which Fritz von Opel was a prominent proponent. "Rocket Fritz" had successfully tested solid-fuel rocket-powered cars in March and May of 1928, with the second test car (German narration) reaching a speed of 230 km/h (143 mph). Von Opel made some versions of a rocket-boosted train, though these did not fare well, but the later rocket-powered glider was a moderate success (German narration). More on Von Opel rocketry, with English narration.

Condit and the Uhler brothers had big ideas, but not a whole lot of planning. Though their rocket design looked impressive (scroll down to "Venus Rocket"), their knowledge of space travel was limited, and their understanding of Venus was far from adequate, much like the rest of the world. A few years earlier, Robert Goddard had published a theoretical treatise, A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes (PDF), which was mocked in an editorial of the New York Times (but a "correction" was posted three days before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon), and Goddard "refuted some popular fallacies", seen there in a Google books view of the Scientific American article. Goddard had also built the world's first liquid-fueled rocket, which could have been some vague inspiration for the gasoline-fueled craft built by Condit and the brothers Uhler.

As for Venus, the planet was assumed to be earth-like, due to it's size and orbital radius being similar to earth. It wasn't until the 1958 study of Venus by microwave, which indicated that the planet was up to 600 K, contrary to science fiction of the time, which was based on optical observations of Venus. Still, Condit's dream sparked the imagination, seen there in a scan and transcription of a two-page spread in Modern Mechanics.

After the failure of the Baltimore launch, Harry B. Uhler wrote
That test firing showed us we couldn't get a ship into space without helping it along with a booster rocket, and we estimated that would cost another $10,000 at least. So we gave it up. Our wives were against the whole deal, anyway.

Condit came back in a few weeks, loaded the rocket on a truck, and hauled it off to Florida. I never saw him again, but I expect he did real well for himself somewhere. He was a mathematical genius.
According to the grandson of Robert Condit's brother, after gathering investors money, Condit blasted off in a stolen mail truck to California. There, his internet trail seems to fade out.

If all this gets you dreaming for the stars, you can start by reading It's ONLY Rocket Science: An Introduction in Plain English (Google books preview), from Dr. Lucy Rogers.
posted by filthy light thief (26 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
This bold mission is commemorated in Baltimore by the restaurant where you will often find the best outlaw BMW motorcycle mechanic in town stopping in for a meal. Somehow, it all starts to make sense.
posted by sonascope at 8:37 AM on May 3, 2013 [6 favorites]


Also, though real Venus will melt lead, Bradbury's Venus had Sun Domes, clean, dry robes, and hot chocolate waiting for the bone-tired water-weary traveler on his way...assuming you don't blow your brains out first.
posted by sonascope at 8:41 AM on May 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


If all this gets you dreaming for the stars, you can start by reading It's ONLY Rocket Science: An Introduction in Plain English (Google books preview), from Dr. Lucy Rogers.

Also Ignition! (which I discovered via a big chemistry post awhile back) but check it out from a library. Rocket people are/were flat-out crazy.
posted by curious nu at 8:45 AM on May 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Thanks for this, fascinating. Needs the "magnificentobsession" tag though.
posted by Rumple at 8:45 AM on May 3, 2013


Reminded me a bit of Kornbluth's "The Rocket of 1955."
posted by Chrysostom at 8:47 AM on May 3, 2013


Reminds me of The Ship That Sailed To Mars
posted by islander at 9:14 AM on May 3, 2013


I don't think he would have made it there.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:14 AM on May 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Make me think of an issue of Planetary.
posted by Apocryphon at 9:15 AM on May 3, 2013


I'm always enchanted by the contrasting expectations of Venus and the reality. Our early observations held out such hope that it was another place much like Earth only to find that it a radically hostile environment.
posted by dgran at 9:50 AM on May 3, 2013


Sonascope, I haven't made it into Rocket to Venus yet, but I'm glad to have a reason to change that now. I type this sitting in my office just two blocks from where they tested the rocket on Morling Ave. What an amazing story!
posted by postel's law at 10:17 AM on May 3, 2013


And in fairness, filthy light thief also included the restaurant link in the post. Thanks to you both!
posted by postel's law at 10:19 AM on May 3, 2013


Brandon, I'm not sure if he really meant to get there. They had some water, a few tanks of oxygen, some food tablets (which they hadn't actually made yet, so it sounds), a few flashlights and a first-aid kit. From Harry's telling, there were considerable gaps in their plans:
There were details we hadn't quite worked out. Was there water to drink and food to eat on Venus? We figured Condit would find that out when he got there, and come right back if there wasn't any. How to take off and get back home again? Something else for Condit to figure out for himself. We didn't bother setting up any sort of a radio hook-up, figuring that Condit would tell us all about it when he got back.
Was Robert Condit really that excited to try that he wasn't bothered about food and water on Venus? Did he really think it was a lush, jungle planet, so he wouldn't have to worry about air? I didn't see any mention of a space suite. And did he really think he could somehow make his way back, once landing on the planet, assuming the 25' silk parachute would be properly deployed by Condit?

Given the comment from the grandson of his brother, it sounded like a crazy scheme to drum up publicity and bilk investors. Until I read that, I just figured he was willfully ignorant of the realities ahead.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:19 AM on May 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


filthy light thief, awesome post. But, I think you meant "Baltimore" where you wrote "Boston" above.
posted by dubitable at 10:20 AM on May 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Ignition!" is a great read, you can get a PDF of it here.
posted by mrbill at 10:34 AM on May 3, 2013


This is Baltimore, Morling Ave
posted by stbalbach at 10:35 AM on May 3, 2013


This is a Kerbal Space Program thread, right. Because I have rather a lot to contribute if it is.
posted by 256 at 10:52 AM on May 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


The Goddard PDF link is amazing as a window into how much we did not know about anything further away than about 20 miles from the earth's surface, around a century ago:
Speculations have been made as to the nature of the upper atmosphere--those by Wegener being, perhaps, the most plausible. By estimating the temperature and percentage composition of the gases in the atmosphere, Wegner calculates the partial pressures of the constituent gases, and concludes that there are four rather distinct regions or spheres of the atmosphere in which certain gases predominate: the troposphere, in which are the clouds; the stratosphere, predominatingly nitrogen; the hydrogen sphere; and the geocoronium sphere. This highest sphere appears to consist essentially of an element, "geocoronium," a gas undiscovered at the surface of the earth, having a spectrum which is the single aurora line, 537µµ[sic] and being 0.4 as heavy as hydrogen. The existence of such a gas is in agreement with Nicholson's theory of the atom, and its investigation would, of course, be a matter of considerable importance to astronomy and physics as well as to meteorology. It is of interest to note that the greatest altitude attained by sounding balloons extends but one-third through the second region, or stratosphere.
[From A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes by Robert H Goddard, December
1916]
Geocoronium, an undiscovered element lighter than hydrogen? Of course, even helium had only been detected a few decades prior…
posted by jepler at 11:09 AM on May 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think you meant "Baltimore" where you wrote "Boston" above.

Sorry B-more! Tags added, comment flagged as "HTML/display error"


This is a Kerbal Space Program thread, right. Because I have rather a lot to contribute if it is.

Nope, you missed the launch by a few months.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:26 AM on May 3, 2013


I am right now reading both Ignition and It's ONLY Rocket Science, and both are great, great books. Be advised, though, that to read Ignition it really helps to have a strong interest in chemistry. Like, a lot. Still, it's the most colorful book about propellant research you are ever likely to read.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 12:08 PM on May 3, 2013


This is a Kerbal Space Program thread, right. Because I have rather a lot to contribute if it is.

Why is getting to Moho so difficult?!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:11 PM on May 3, 2013


[Fixed city name issue. ]
posted by restless_nomad at 12:18 PM on May 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh man, Ignition! PDF! That's great, thanks so much.

I have no background in chemistry, but am interested in it. Some of the comments went over my head a little bit ("Looking at this formula makes me sweat bullets"; why?! explain to meeee -- maybe I'll use an ask.mefi for that) but I still enjoyed the whole thing.
posted by curious nu at 12:18 PM on May 3, 2013


I think my favorite part is when he talks about the oxidizing and reducing ends of a monopropellant molecule being separated by "two firmly-crossed fingers".
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 12:54 PM on May 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


There's also a bit where he's talking about some kind of green, molten salt that's liquid at room temperature and has just been discovered, and no one knows what it's good for, but it should be good for something because it's just so cool.
posted by curious nu at 1:02 PM on May 3, 2013


The Milwaukee Journal article is pretty sarcastic. It looks as though the writer saw through the scam and only barely went along with it, but not without dropping a few clues in the copy.

The wrong "meteoric conditions" is an obvious bogus excuse, and the idea that anyone would risk his life in such a flimsy craft is so laughable that it took a lot of willpower not to see through it.
posted by Repack Rider at 2:21 PM on May 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is a wonderful post and it would have worked too if only they had a dog to help them and a plentiful supply of crackers.
posted by gamera at 3:53 PM on May 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


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