I am not sure Verne had a clear understanding of the nature of the space between Luna and Earth -- at his time, since balloons were the only method of reaching high altitudes, no one had ever reached an altitude at which atmospheric pressure was anywhere near zero although surely some people hypothesized that the thickness of the atmosphere continues to drop as altitude increases. On the other hand, I think Verne had Luna itself possessing a breathable atmosphere so perhaps he did not imagine that at any point between Earth and its satellite there was nearly complete vacuum or maybe it did not come up since no one did a space walk or whatever on the way to Luna (I think it was ballistic and the passengers were primarily interested in landing, not the journey itself.)

Did Verne or earlier writers discuss the vacuum of space and how that would affect humans, in particular sound transmission and breathing? Basically, who was the first writer to discuss the near vacuum of space and its consequences?

Note: I am especially interested in details. How communication between people might require hand signals if they were outside the ship, etc.

  • I'm not a scientist, but wouldn't Newtonian celestial mechanics require the planets to be moving in a near vacuum? But you want the earliest fiction writer to make a point of the vacuum of space, is that right?
    – user14111
    May 8, 2023 at 8:29
  • In "Round the Moon" Verne indeed said that there was vacuum between the Earth and the Moon, and the travelers dispose of rubbish by venting it out from the craft through "air chutes" (i.e. air locks). May 8, 2023 at 8:44
  • @user14111: always thrilled to discover an author most do not know about who comes up with some pretty "hard" science fiction before Verne was even born. And maybe this is the first to discuss the void twixt Luna and Earth? Someone else brought up another author who concerned himself with superluminal travel 5 years before Einstein was even born -- en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tachypomp, the obscure genius Edward Mitchell, beat out Wells also with a time machine novel.
    – releseabe
    May 8, 2023 at 8:52
  • At the beginning of "From the Earth to the Moon" when Michel Ardan publicly explains his intention to travel with the projectile to the moon, Cpt. Nicholl as a heckler in the crowed points out that Ardan will suffocate, the lack of lunar atmosphere being proven by the lack of refraction when observing the lunar disk. Ardan replies that there might be some residual atmosphere in deeper craters. I take from that that Verne was quite aware of the scientific observations and speculations regarding the topic. May 8, 2023 at 16:37
  • It was understood by the late 17th century that space is a vaccum. In earlier times, it was generally believed that a vacuum is physically / philosophically impossible, as mentioned in en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vacuum There's some relevant info in physics.stackexchange.com/q/669115/123208 & space.stackexchange.com/q/63029/38535
    – PM 2Ring
    May 8, 2023 at 21:34

2 Answers 2


1827: "A Voyage to the Moon", a novel by George Tucker, available at Project Gutenberg.

The machine in which we proposed to embark, was a copper vessel, that would have been an exact cube of six feet, if the corners and edges had not been rounded off. It had an opening large enough to receive our bodies, which was closed by double sliding pannels, with quilted cloth between them. When these were properly adjusted, the machine was perfectly air-tight, and strong enough, by means of iron bars running alternately inside and out, to resist the pressure of the atmosphere, when the machine should be exhausted of its air, as we took the precaution to prove by the aid of an air-pump. On the top of the copper chest and on the outside, we had as much of the lunar metal (which I shall henceforth call lunarium) as we found, by calculation and experiment, would overcome the weight of the machine, as well as its contents, and take us to the moon on the third day. As the air which the machine contained, would not be sufficient for our respiration more than about six hours, and the chief part of the space we were to pass through was a mere void, we provided ourselves with a sufficient supply, by condensing it in a small globular vessel, made partly of iron and partly of lunarium, to take off its weight.

  • 1
    If this is the first, how remarkable: Adams and Jefferson had died the year before, Verne was not yet born and here's an American (when we were not remotely tops in science and would not be for more than a century) writing serious science fiction that I had certainly never heard of. I continue to be amazed what humans imagined years before I would have guessed. In real science also, obscure discoveries were made that somehow were overlooked until I guess a "promoter" came up with the same idea. Sometimes geniuses are suppressed by short-sighted people also. We salute their perseverance.
    – releseabe
    May 8, 2023 at 9:00
  • Newton must have known the planets were moving in a vacuum, as he assumed that the only significant force acting on them was gravitation. So this must have been common knowledge by the time George Tucker wrote his story.
    – user14111
    May 8, 2023 at 9:07
  • I do not know if it was common knowledge but my main interest is a story which dealt with things like the lack of breathable air and perhaps sound transmission not happening. Really exciting would be a very early treatment of how a human is affected by vacuum without a helmet as in 2001 -- I doubt if people had a clear idea of this prior to mid 20th century and it is still argued whether the astronaut could have gotten back into the Discovery (I think the answer is "yes" although not unscathed).
    – releseabe
    May 8, 2023 at 9:12
  • 2
    One of the earliest stories where a human survives exposure to the vacuum is Stanley Weinbaum's "The Red Peri" (1935). archive.org/details/Astounding_v16n03_1935-11/page/n11/mode/2up I think Nat Schachner had an earlier one but I don't recall the title at the moment.
    – user14111
    May 8, 2023 at 9:28
  • 3
    "Exiles of the Moon", a 1931 serial by Schachner & Zagat. At the end of part 1 Dore Swithin is accidentally spaced. At the start of part 2 Garry Parker goes out in a spacesuit and rescues him. A fan questions Swithin's survival in the 01/32 lettercol; Schachner replies in 04/32.
    – user14111
    May 9, 2023 at 2:54

It's somewhat later than the above, but Edison's Conquest of Mars (1898) by Garrett P. Serviss explicitly describes the problems of communicating in the vacuum of space.

The necessity of some contrivance by means of which we should be enabled to converse with one another when on the outside of the cars in open space, or when in an airless world, like the moon, where there would be no medium by which the waves of sound could be conveyed as they are in the atmosphere of the earth, had been foreseen by our great inventor, and he had not found it difficult to contrive suitable devices for meeting the emergency.

Inside the headpiece of each of the electrical suits was the mouthpiece of a telephone. This was connected with a wire which, when not in use, could be conveniently coiled upon the arm of the wearer. Near the ears, similarly connected with wires, were telephonic receivers.

An Aerial Telegraph.
When two persons wearing the air-tight dresses wished to converse with one another it was only necessary for them to connect themselves by the wires, and conversation could then be easily carried on.

It's not just voice, no sound transmits at all:

As quickly as possible I sprang to his side. I was just in time to note the familiar blue gleam about the instrument, which indicated that its terrific energies were at work. The whirring sound was absent, because here, in open space, where there was no atmosphere, there could be no sound.

And distant people can be seen to gesture, but cannot be heard:

The doings of the flagship had been closely watched throughout the squadron. The effect of its blow had been evident to all, and a moment later we saw, on some of the nearer ships, men dressed in their air suits, appearing upon the deck, swinging their arms and sending forth noiseless cheers into empty space.

In addition, men exposed to space are nearly asphyxiated, except for extremely fast response. (Though explosive decompression doesn't crop up.)

One of the heavy circular glasses covering a window had been smashed to atoms. Through this the meteor had passed, killing two or three men who stood in its course. Then it had crashed through the opposite side of the car, and, passing on, disappeared into space. The store of air contained in the car had immediately rushed out through the openings, and when two or three of us, having donned our air-tight suits as quickly as possible, entered the wrecked car we found all its inmates stretched upon the floor in a condition of asphyxiation. They, as well as those who lay upon the exterior, were immediately removed to the flagship, restoratives were applied, and, fortunately, our aid had come so promptly that the lives of all of them were saved. But life had fled from the mangled bodies of those who had stood directly in the path of the fearful projectile.

There is previously a mention of the deep cold of space, but presumably these people were saved before they could freeze.

  • Interesting indeed and I am surprised that wireless was not suggested. I believe even without radio there was telegraphy that used induction (IIRC, very cool thing: a train could past a station and sort of upload telegraph messages without a direct connection -- I need to find out more about how this worked in detail: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Granville_Woods) --- but even without the induction idea, radio was definitely something (the early work of Rutherford was with radio) that many were aware of.
    – releseabe
    May 8, 2023 at 14:19

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