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Newton's law of universal gravitation has been known since 1686 and it states that gravity is proportional to inverse square of the distance, but never fades to 0. This led to stories where various astronauts traveling e.g. to the Moon don't experience zero (or micro) gravity at all (e.g. The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall by E.A. Poe from 1835), or only at the L1 point where Moon's and Earth's gravity are equal (From the Earth to the Moon by J. Verne, 1865).

If I am not mistaken, even C.S. Lewis made this mistake in his Out of the Silent Planet as late as 1938.

What then was the first fiction (book, movie, short story) that described the zero-g during space travel according to currently known physical laws?

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I bet Konstantin Tsiolkovsky got the weightlessness right in his 1916 novel Вне Земли (Beyond Earth) but I don't have a copy and don't know Russian. – user14111 Mar 6 at 23:33
Oops, our simultaneous edits crossed: I didn't intentionally change "work of fiction" in the title. – deltab Mar 7 at 0:30
The point where gravity balances in "From the Earth to the Moon" is not the L1 point, but between the two bodies and the Sun is ignored. – Oldcat Mar 7 at 23:29
@Oldcat The L1 point is between the two bodies, isn't it? – user14111 Mar 8 at 0:49
IIRC, the "gravity balance" point in Verne's story is exactly the one where gravity balances (i.e. with distances proportional to square roots of the masses - in the Moon's case, this means almost precisely 90% of the way). If so, it is slightly off from actual L1, which allows for centrifugal force as well (IIRC, in Moon's case, it is about 84% of the way). Of course the Sun's gravity on this point is higher than either the Earth's or the Moon's (by a factor of roughly 1.7) - something that, had Verne known it, would've probably immediately made him realize that his theory is faulty. – January First-of-May Mar 8 at 3:12
up vote 19 down vote accepted

It's not much of a book admittedly, but despite its scienific foundations, "Breakfast in a Weightless Kitchen" (Завтрак в невесомой кухне), a 1914 short story by Yakov Isidorovich Perel'man (1882-1942), is anything but scientific in form.

Specifically, it is written as a "missing chapter" (today we would probably call that a fanfic) for Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon, where the main characters try (fairly badly) to make a breakfast in surprisingly well described microgravity.

It was originally published in 1914 as a stand-alone short story; since 1916 it had appeared in the second volume of Physics for Entertainment.

I actually was surprised to find out it was that early. Its depiction of zero-g is so good that it almost looks based on actual orbital flights, and the only reason I knew it wasn't that late is because, well, it can't have been any later than 1942 since the author died in that year.

Though yes, it's very possible that Tsiolkovsky managed to publish something on that topic earlier.

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Is it clear that the author understood that you'd be weightless for the whole trip as long as the rockets weren't firing, rather than just near the Lagrange point as in Verne's story? – Hypnosifl Mar 7 at 0:13
@Hypnosifl - in the Physics for Entertainment version, the story is prefaced with this very statement (that the passengers would be weightless for the entire trip). I didn't look for the specifics of the original 1914 version; it's possible that this point was not mentioned there explicitly. The author definitely understood, though, or he would not have written the story. – January First-of-May Mar 7 at 0:33

Probably someone will find an earlier example, But the Soviet film Kosmicheskiy reys (Cosmic Journey) (1936) is mentioned on p. 21 of Reconsidering Sputnik as "the first Soviet film which showed weightlessness in action" (edit: after a little more checking, it looks like my earlier possible example below probably counts as a physically accurate depiction, and January First-of-May's answer is even earlier and sounds like it's accurate as well, but I'll leave this answer up in case people are interested in the earliest filmed examples), you can see it online here:

The launch begins around 27:40 in the video, with the astronauts earlier shown being put in liquid-filled tanks to help them withstand the initial acceleration. At 29 minutes in, the translation of the subtitles says "In the 5th minute of the flight Sedych switched off the rocket-fires and at that very moment the astronauts became weightless". So, seems to be an accurate understanding of the idea that you'd experience being heavier during the initial accelerating phase of a rocket launch, then as soon as the rockets stopped you'd be in free fall and therefore experience weightlessness.

An earlier depiction of travel to moon, Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon) (1929) directed by Metropolis director Fritz Lang, did show weightlessness for part of the trip, but not when they initially turned the lever to stop the intense acceleration which was exerting huge pressure on them, weighing them down. It's possible the idea was just that they were continuing to fire the rockets at a lesser rate to cause 1G acceleration (edit: actually it seems pretty definite this was the intention, see my comments below), but p. 15 of The Spacesuit in Film suggests it might have been due to a misunderstanding of when weightlessness would occur:

Once the pressure is gone, crew members awaken, not yet weightless. (At the time, some believed that weightlessness would only occur when a ship passed from Earth's gravitational field into the Moon's field.) In later scenes they employ straps on the floor to walk about in weightlessness, and Gustave floats in the air. A frustrating attempt to drink a beverage is dealt with by scattering the liquid into floating bubbles which astronauts catch in their mouths.

The movie is available here:

The initial launch happens at 1 hour 34 minutes, then at 1:37:38 a character pulls a lever and the acceleration on a dial is shown dropping back down to about 10 m/sec^2 (about 1G). And note that a subsequent shot at 1:37:59 shows that there's still an exhaust trail behind the rocket, so I think it's actually more likely they understood that the only astronauts could experience 1G in flight was if the rocket was still firing, rather than making the mistake about the Earth's gravity suggested by the book above. Another reason I doubt they were making such a mistake is that the movie had a technical consultant, Hermann Oberth, who was an early pioneer of rocket science, and as described on p. 5 of this paper he had actually done experiments with weightlessness:

Oberth was born in the Transylvanian city of Sighisoara, Romania to a Saxon family. Around the age of 11 he became fascinated with spaceflight through the writings of Jules Verne’s, “From the Earth to the Moon” and “Around the Moon”, rereading the books to the point of memorization. He constructed a model rocket as a student when 14 and conceived a multistage rocket.

He was drafted during World War I into a German infantry battalion and in 1915 was reassigned to a medical unit in a hospital where he conducted experiments concerning weightlessness. He later resumed his rocket designs. In 1919 after the war he moved to Germany to study physics. In 1922 his doctoral dissertation, “By Rocket into Planetary Space”, was rejected as “utopian”. He privately published it in 1923 and expanded the work to, “Ways to Spaceflight”.

In 1929 Oberth became a scientific consultant in Berlin on the first movie to film scenes set in space, “The Woman in the Moon”. His main task was to build and launch a rocket as a publicity stunt before the movie’s premiere. He was teaching at the Technical University of Berlin and his students, one who was Wernher von Braun, helped with the rocket.

And a scene at 1:52:48 seems to clinch that they knew what they were doing--it shows a logbook entry which is translated as "On board everybody is fine. We have reached the distance of 227,000 km from earth. Stopped the last jets. Flying now without jet power. Weightlessness on board." Immediately subsequent to that, the crew is indeed shown as being weightless.

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+1 Very nice. I see that the movie is dedicated to the scientist K. E. Tsiolkovsky. There must be earlier descriptions of zero-g in the scientific writings and fiction of Tsiolkovsky. – user14111 Mar 6 at 22:52
@user14111 - Good idea, this page mentions a piece by him called "Free Space" from 1883 which describes weightlessness, but it seems to be theoretical rather than fiction--there's some info on his fiction pieces here. – Hypnosifl Mar 6 at 23:47
I'd guess that "first" here means earliest publication date. The Science Fiction Encyclopedia mentions a 1916 novel Вне Земли and some earlier stories from the 1890s. – user14111 Mar 6 at 23:50

It's not easy to be absolutely sure but I think the first use of a similar term was by Jack Binder. He coined the term zero-gravity in an article published in "Thrilling Wonder Stories" in 1938, but it referred to the absence of apparent gravity at the center of the Earth.

I think the first modern use of zero-g was in the 1952 novel "Islands in the Sky" by the late, great Arthur C. Clarke. But someone could have use the term earlier and I just don't know about it.

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I understood the question as being about the accurate description of weightlessness, rather than the use of the specific terms "zero gravity" or "zero g". – user14111 Mar 6 at 22:17
Yes, I am interested in the first occurrence of realistic weightlessness during space travel, not the term itself. – Yasskier Mar 6 at 22:19
It's been years since I read the Clarke book, but as I remember, its usage of zero-g was accurate. But I'm going to have to try to track down a copy to be sure. – rosesunhill Mar 6 at 22:32
I think I can take you back earlier. In 1931 David Lasser accurately described weightlessness in "The Conquest of Space." I haven't read it, but I'm basing that on a description of it here: – rosesunhill Mar 6 at 22:45

Microgravity on an artificial satellite orbiting the earth is described, though perhaps not with perfect scientific accuracy, in Edward Everett Hale's 1869 novella "The Brick Moon", which was also proposed as an answer to a question about "earliest science-fiction mention of space stations".

It was originally published in The Atlantic Monthly in two parts, as "The Brick Moon" in the October-December 1869 issue, and its sequel "Life in the Brick Moon" in the February 1870 issue. According to Bleiler's Science-Fiction: The Early Years, an "edited, combined version" was published in Hale's 1872 collection His Level Best and Other Stories, and reprinted in his 1899 collection The Brick Moon and Other Stories. The description and quotations below are based on the Project Gutenberg etext of The Brick Moon and Other Stories.

Hale's "brick moon", 200 feet in diameter and made of bricks (duh), was intended to be an unmanned satellite, an aid to navigation. By accident it was launched prematurely, with 37 people on board and orbits the earth at an altitude of about 5000 miles. It is clear from the following passages that the inhabitants of the brick moon do not feel earthly gravity, but only the microgravity of their little world:

Could it be possible? It was possible! Orcutt and Brannan and the rest of them had survived that giddy flight through the ether, and were going and coming on the surface of their own little world, bound to it by its own attraction and living by its own laws!

As I watched, I saw one of them leap from that surface. He passed wholly out of my field of vision, but in a minute, more or less, returned. Why not! Of course the attraction of his world must be very small, while he retained the same power of muscle he had when he was here. They must be horribly crowded, I thought. No. They had three acres of surface, and there were but thirty-seven of them. Not so much crowded as people are in Roxbury, not nearly so much as in Boston; and, besides, these people are living underground, and have the whole of their surface for their exercise.

{. . . .]

I knew that at half-past ten they would pass into the inevitable eclipse which struck them every night at this period of their orbit, and must, I thought, be a luxury to them, as recalling old memories of night when they were on this world. As they approached the line of shadow, some fifteen minutes before it was due, I counted on the edge thirty-seven specks arranged evidently in order; and, at one moment, as by one signal, all thirty- seven jumped into the air,—high jumps. Again they did it, and again. Then a low jump; then a high one. I caught the idea in a moment. They were telegraphing to our world, in the hope of an observer. Long leaps and short leaps,—the long and short of Morse's Telegraph Alphabet,—were communicating ideas. My paper and pencil had been of course before me. I jotted down the despatch, whose language I knew perfectly:—

[. . . .]

Meanwhile, every day I slept. Every night I was glued to the eye-piece. Fifteen minutes before the eclipse every night this weird dance of leaps two hundred feet high, followed by hops of twenty feet high, mingled always in the steady order I have described, spelt out the ghastly message: "Show `I understand' on the Saw-Mill Flat."

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