What was the earliest mention in recorded history of travel through space? Admittedly, I am not really a history buff, but I am writing a scientific paper related to space travel, so I wanted to give a brief (1-2 paragraphs) historical account of it. I searched the web and couldn't find any prior to the 20th century.

Did ancient Greeks ever talk about actually traveling to the stars? Did Galileo ever talk about it?

I appreciate any insight!

edit: Wow, I'm blown away at the response. Thanks so much to everyone who gave me some historical insight! I'm writing my thesis in the field of propulsion in general relativity and wanted to give a short historical account. I think I'm well-suited to do that now!

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    At 4am, I looked at the updated worldwide COVID-19 case numbers, and I mentioned moving to another planet. 4am is pretty early... does that count? ;) – RockPaperLz- Mask it or Casket Feb 5 at 1:53
  • Let me recommend a super book on the topic: Voyages to the Moon, by Marjorie Hope Nicolson (worldcat.org/title/voyages-to-the-moon/oclc/301750892) – kimchi lover Feb 5 at 1:59
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    Tsiolkovsky, Konstantin E. (1903), The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reaction Devices. - "While the derivation of the rocket equation is a straightforward calculus exercise, Tsiolkovsky is honored as being the first to apply it to the question of whether rockets could achieve speeds necessary for space travel." – Mazura Feb 5 at 2:19

You should define more precisely what do you mean by "space travel" when you are talking about pre-Galileo times.

For example, Elijah, the prophet, was taken to heavens in a chariot of fire, according to the Bible (2 Kings 2:3-9). Mohammed also traveled to heavens, on a winged horse, according to Koran.

A travel to heavens is described in Dante's Divine Comedy (1320).

I doubt that these examples can be really described as "space travel" from the modern point of view.

Space travel in the modern sense begins in literature at the time after Galileo's discoveries, and one of the earliest examples is Kepler's Dream (1608) where he describes how Earth looks from the Moon, according to a traveler who arrived from there.

More famous is the novel of Cyrano de Bergerac (1657) which describes a travel from Earth to the Moon. In 18 century, space travel becomes a popular subject in fiction (for example Voltaire's Micromegas).

Ref. On the early history of space travel (that is before actual travels started) there is a good book by Willy Ley, Rockets, missiles and space travel.

  • Awesome! I just looked up Keplers dream and I think I'll mention that in my writing. It is the Somnium you are talking about? Thanks for the help! – shanedrum Feb 4 at 13:44
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    @shanedrum: Yes, Somnium. – Alex Feb 4 at 16:01
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    Ironically, had the OP asked this on the Science Fiction SE, your answer would have been deleted because they have a standing rule against using Biblical (or other religious) references as sources of science fiction or magic tropes. – Graham Feb 5 at 1:16
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    Older than Galileo or Rostand, there's the scene in the Orlando Furioso where Astolfo travels to the Moon on the hyppogryph.. – Denis Nardin Feb 5 at 7:45
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    @Graham: SFSE may be right; labeling the Bible or Koran as SF is probably incorrect, and may be offensive to some. Notice that I did not use any labels in my answer, just stated the facts. – Alex Feb 5 at 11:09

The earliest mention I know of the possibility was the novella A True History by Lucian in the 2nd century AD, where at one point the protagonists are taken to the moon by a whirlwind, meet the strange creatures living on the moon, and discover a war between the kingdom of the sun and the kingdom of the moon.

Outside of European / classical culture, the Hindu Ramayana (4th/5th century BC) supposedly features flying machines travelling in to space, but I'm not familiar with it, and have no idea now much of that comes from the text and how much is modern ideas finding unintended similarities in the past.

No idea whether there are similar ancient stories in say Japanese or Chinese literature, but since the fantasy idea of travel to the moon is a concept that several cultures have hit upon in ancient times, I'd expect there to be something of the sort in Asian cultures somewhere.

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    China has the legend of Chang'e: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chang%27e – Jan Feb 4 at 13:16
  • There are numerous accounts of travels to outer worlds and hence through outer space in Hinduism scriptures. I am not sure those sources Will be valid here or not. But I surely try to update the answer with some other reference (post Ramayana) like those found in Vedic astrological scriptures. – SwiftPushkar Feb 4 at 13:25
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    BTW this will help a bit - hinduism.stackexchange.com/q/3927/5620 – SwiftPushkar Feb 4 at 13:31
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    oh excellent! Thanks for the insight! I didnt know the Ramayana mentioned space travel – shanedrum Feb 4 at 13:43

Definitely not as old as the other answers, but a classic book about space travel is Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon, dating back to 1865. I'm quite surprised you didn't find that one.

Of course, the concepts were still pretty crude at the time (firing a spaceship with a cannon!), but it was the inspiration for many later works, including the first science fiction movie (A Trip to the Moon, Georges Méliès, 1902), was referenced in many subsequent works as well as by Neil Armstrong while returning from the Moon.

Even though the exact method wasn't quite the right one and many other details are very definitely technically incorrect with today's understanding, it nevertheless got quite a few things right, like a departure from Florida or a splash down in the ocean, and it's probably a lot more believable than most earlier stories.

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    "a projectile endowed with an initial velocity of 12,000 yards per second, and aimed at the moon, must necessarily reach it." - that's 25,000 MPH, which is exactly what it takes to reach the moon from Earth. He did his research, and he gave Orson Welles grief about not adhering to reality as closely as could be. Which is why he wins first book to talk about REAL space travel. Also, the book was reviewed by a newspaper whom first coined the term 'space-ship'. – Mazura Feb 5 at 2:05
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    Are you confusing the actor Orson Welles with the writer H. G. Wells? – bof Feb 5 at 11:45
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    @Mazura Verne researched the physics, but not the biology of the effect that such rapid acceleration would have had on his astronauts. Wells’s space travel was plausible because it invoked unknown technology; Verne’s was not plausible, because the technology he described couldn’t work. . – Mike Scott Feb 6 at 11:32
  • The acceleration would have been biologically deadly (as @MikeScott remarks), but it is interesting to note that Project HARP used cannons to fire projectiles into space (once reaching a height of 180 km). But, the speeds were still well below escape velocity. – John Coleman Feb 7 at 18:49

The Epic of Gilgamesh dates from as early as the Third Dynasty of Ur (c. 2100 BC), and mentions travel, e.g., see the Standard Babylonian version tablets II–V, specifically:

he spoke to Young Hero Utu, the son born of Ningal: ‘Now, when (as the Sun God) you make an opening in the Netherworld, bring his servant up to him from the Netherworld!’ He made an opening in the Netherworld, by means of his phantom he brought his servant up to him from the Netherworld. epubee.com

Also, see the Bull of Heaven portion of the story

Inanna [has brought] the Bull of Heaven [down from the sky.] archive.org

Furthermore, see this portion about climbing to the sky:

Who is there, my friend, can climb to the sky? Only the gods [dwell] forever in sunlight. As for man, his days are numbered, whatever he may do, it is but wind archive.org

Because this is a Mesopotamian story, you will not find texts from an earlier civilization. Perhaps a cave drawing depicting travel to/from the sky would be present somewhere though…

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    I was going to post a joking comment yesterday that it was only a matter of time before someone posted a Gilgamesh-based answer... – jeffronicus Feb 5 at 19:13
  • @jeffronicus - 😁 – A T Feb 6 at 5:22

One book which mentions many early stories of sort of space travel is Rockets, Missiles, and Men in Space by Willy Ley. My edition, published in the mid 1960s, starts with several chapters covering the prehistory of space travel stories from before the discoveries of Galileo to early stories of travel to the moon or other planets to 19th and early 20th century science fiction stories of space travel.

There is also Into Other Worlds: Space-Flight in Fiction From Lucien to Lewis, Roger Lancelyn Greene, 1975.

Science-Fiction Handbook, L. Sprague de Camp, 1953, 1975,1977, has a chapter or two about the history of science fiction.

The online article "Space Flight" in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, has links to many other articles in the Encyclopedia:

I hope these might be of some use.


The earliest reference to space travel by means of a rocket was written by William Leitch in 1861 in "Good Words". He describes a rocket as the only means to travel through a vacuum. He goes on to describe a journey through the solar system on a comet, which he regarded as a natural rocket. As the article was printed in a religious journal there are many careful references to Gods Glory in the Heavens.

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