The idea that characters can fly from planet to planet or from star to star, despite current science and technology, is central to science fiction. Although some of these ideas existed before the space age, after the 1950s, fictional representations of space travel had to suggest conceivable ways to cross interstellar distances in order to appear plausible. Some authors suggested drives faster than light, hyperdrives, jump drives, wormholes, and black holes.

The scientific understanding of the speed of light as an absolute natural limit results from Albert Einstein’s publications on the special theory of relativity from 1905, which were confirmed by his work on the general theory of relativity from 1916. In classical physics, speed knows no limits. However, the relativistic theory shows that the mass increases with acceleration until the mass becomes infinite at the speed of light. In his “Skylark of Space” stories, author EE “Doc” Smith imagined spaceships traveling faster than the speed of light. Smith’s cover story appeared in the same issue of Amazing Stories in 1928, which included Philip Francis Nowlan’s first short story about Anthony (later “Buck”) Rogers.

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Within a few decades, the fictional idea of ​​traveling faster than light made intuitive sense to an audience familiar with recent supersonic flights. In 1947, Chuck Yeager broke the speed of sound aboard the Bell X-1 Glamorous Glennis. The authors extrapolated supersonic speeds into the idea that spacecraft fly at multiples of the speed of light. Frank Hampson’s British comic, Dan Dare, featured one of the earliest uses for travel faster than light. In 1955 he introduced interstellar travel in the trilogy “The Man from Nowhere”. The technology, however, was inherently alien, and trips faster than light were no longer featured regularly afterwards. Forbidden Planet (1956) was the first film to feature a fictional spaceship made by humans. From the outside, the C-57D ship was an undifferentiated flying saucer. After a loudspeaker announcement, however, the crew stood in “DC stations” which they held immobile while the ship slowed. However, in the mid-1960s, when both the United States and the Soviet Union conducted regular human space flights, science fiction audiences became more intuitively aware of the time it took to travel in space.

Consists of three main sections: a saucer-shaped primary body that houses the command section; a secondary, cigar-shaped hull (engineering area) connected by a large, sloping pylon below; and at the rear of the saucer, which is connected to the body of the technology by pylons, are the two long, protruding engine capsules; The row of small domes in the upper center of the saucer is the bridge, the command and nerve center of the ship, which contains all of the computer controls. The primary command body could be operated independently of the other components and contained its own pulse motor in the rear of the saucer, but was limited to speeds in poor light conditions. Overall painted gray and gray-green.

The USS Enterprise, created for Star Trek (NBC, 1966-69), was a huge step forward. Walters “Matt” Jefferies, a World War II flight engineer and private pilot, used “airplane logic” to design a vehicle with components that visually communicated their purpose. With the two engine nacelles, Jefferies effectively invented warp drives, fictional engines that could propel the ship at a multiple of the speed of light. As seen in Star Trek: First Contact (1996), the first flight of Zephram Cochran’s chain-able phoenix showed the mark of a culture ready to participate in interstellar civilization. Jefferies’ design raised the bar for imaginary vehicles. After Star Trek, undifferentiated flying saucers and flame-spitting pointed rockets largely disappeared from fictional representations. Instead, the imaginary drive that bends space-time or crosses alternative dimensions is becoming more common.

Instead of just making the vehicles fly faster, some science fiction films have suggested traveling through or outside normal four-dimensional space (including time) by either jumping into normal space, using hyperspace, or using natural or artificial shortcuts can be used by the room. From the 1940s, Isaac Asimov included jump drives in the short stories that later became his Foundation (1951) series of novels. Since fictional jump drives turn long flights into direct hops and ships can vanish from one location and reappear in another, they make storytelling easier without interrupting it. The revised Battlestar Galactica (2003) uses the same type of travel but calls the mechanisms “FTL drives”.

A production model of the Millennium Falcon was exhibited in the museum in 1998-99 as part of “Star Wars: The Magic of Myth”.

The Star Wars universe postulates a hyperdrive, a computerized system that allows spacecraft to enter hyperspace faster than the speed of light and navigate a distant destination to a successful exit. Solo: A Star Wars Tale (2018) reveals that the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive computer’s extensive navigation maps and fast arithmetic are indeed the downloaded memories of L3-37, a spirited and female-identified droid pilot.

The 25th Century Buck Rogers Two Seasons Program (NBC, 1979-1981) showed that interstellar travel is conducted with stargates. Four lights arranged in a diamond in space indicated that the stargate had opened and allowed access to hyperspace. A similar concept was more physically present in Babylon 5 by J. Michael Straczynski (Syndicated & TNT, 1993-1998). In this show, external jump gates, shown using computer-generated imaging, provided a physical infrastructure to create stable vortices to hyperspace.

The idea of ​​artificial space-time vortices as conduits drew from speculations published in technical and popular literature. However, speculations about wormholes need to be distinguished from black holes, which are true astronomical phenomena. Black hole stories often involve time dilation. Einstein’s theories – including special and general relativity – explain that a person moving near a massive gravitational field experiences time more slowly. The plot by director Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) used time differences for dramatic purposes and also represented a huge leap in visual effects. To achieve the fast spinning black hole effect, theoretical astrophysicist Kip Thorne assisted the Interstellar production team. The resulting black hole appeared as a three-dimensional, spherical hole in space-time, drawing in all of the light around it. When the Event Horizon Telescope project mapped a real black hole in 2019, this image showed how close the fictional imagination of Interstellar had come to reality.

This explanation of the various aspects of a black hole shows the current three-dimensional visualization.

Although writers have envisioned travel to space-based destinations for hundreds of years, the use of travel faster than light as a narrative tool is still relatively new. As the sound barrier disappeared and the space age dawned, the authors began to envision ways for interstellar travelers to overcome the vastness of space. More importantly, the audience expected plausible explanations for trips faster than light in order to keep the stories believable.

Dr. Margaret A. Weitekamp is the Chair of the Museum’s Space History Department and author of Ahead, Warp Factor Three, Mr. Sulu: Introducing Interstellar Travel Faster Than Light in Space Science Fiction. The Journal of Popular Culture 52 (2019), 1036-57.