The Evolution of Commercial Space Flight (February 2023)

This essay first appeared in the February 2023 issue of Choice (volume 60 | issue 6).


The idea of space travel was probably not on the minds of people before the development of “fire arrow” rockets in 13th-century China. A. Bowdoin Van Riper explains in Rockets and Missiles that a fire rocket was simply composed of an arrow propelled by a packet of gunpowder, much like some fireworks in use today.  These early devices, popular throughout Asia and Europe during the Middle Ages, were designed as weapons that could be effective at long distances. The thought of propelling someone through space using such an explosive device was probably considered fanciful if not downright foolish in those times. It took many centuries before rockets were recognized as a potential means of exploration in space and, finally, just plain transportation.

Notions of space travel likely originated from myths of human flight as reflected, for example, in the early Greek story of Daedalus (the “subtle engineer”) and his son flying out of Crete using wings made of feathers and wax, retold and illustrated in the 1970s by Penelope Farmer in Daedalus and Icarus. The desire to fly like a bird was debatably first put into practice by one Abbas ibn Firnas, a 9th-century North African living in Andalusia who reportedly flew a substantial distance on wings made of feathers, silk, and wood. In 7th-century China, too, large kites made of silk and bamboo had been used to take people on short flights primarily for military operations. The European Renaissance introduced more sophisticated approaches to flying using simple machines such as levers, pulleys, and rotors. But the earliest designs for flying machines created by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) had flaws that would have prevented them from flying. Leonardo’s drawings had little influence on flying machine design until his works were rediscovered at the time of the European Industrial Revolution two centuries later. Throughout the Renaissance era, balloons had proved a more practicable way of flying, and these have evolved into the modern airships being used today.

About the Author:

Brian Shmaefsky is Professor of Environmental Science and Chair of the Institutional Review Board at Lone Star College-Kingwood in Houston. His research emphasizes the effects of environmental stress on organismic health. Formerly an industrial biochemist, he has performed experiments in low-gravity environments. Dr. Shmaefsky serves on advisory committees for commercial space flight policies and regulations pertaining to environmental protection and occupant safety.