NEW YORK — EXPLORING new worlds seems a particularly appropriate topic in 1992, the 500th anniversary of the voyage of Columbus.
While the 15th-century navigator sought lands over the horizon, 20th-century explorers have managed to abandon Earth altogether, in favor of the heavens.
"Blueprint for Space: Science Fiction to Science Fact" at the IBM Gallery of Science and Art here documents that longing to break Earth's hold. It looks at how the task was inspired and achieved, and how space continues to beckon us.
The exhibition is based on the personal collection of Frederick I. Ordway III, astronautics historian of the Space and Rocker Center in Arlington, Va.
The very age of exploration that launched ships for the New World also launched thinking into the nature of the solar system. Galileo's discovery in 1610 that the moon and planets were actually other worlds began an era of speculation about them. In 1687, for example, Aphra Behn, a woman playwright, wrote "The Emperor of the Moon: a Farce."
In the late 19th century, Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli discovered what he called "canals" on the surface of Mars. American astronomer Percival Lowell became convinced that they were made by intelligent beings, setting off speculation about the possibility of life on other planets.
Writers such as Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs began producing popular stories about interplanetary travel. Pulp magazines like "Amazing Stories" romanticized space travel for new generations in the first decades of the 20th century.
Speculation about space travel might have stayed just that had the rocket not been invented, the exhibition shows. Traceable back at least to 12th- or 13th-century China, the rocket was developed as a military weapon and as a source of public entertainment.
But in the early 20th century, four pioneers - Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in Russia, Robert Esnault-Pelterie in France, Hermann Oberth in German-speaking Transylvania, and Robert Goddard in the United States each independently began to write about rockets - and in the case of Oberth and Goddard, experiment with them - as a way to propel man into space.
It took World War II for the next great advance in rocketry. The V-2 was designed by German scientists to rain bombs on Britain. But it also contained the potential to launch a space vehicle.
"The linear descendants of the V-2 are the Saturn rockets that took us to the moon," Mr. Ordway explained in an interview at the opening of the show.
Following the war, the US brought Germany's greatest rocket scientist, Wernher von Braun, and some 100 of his associates to this country, the "greatest single technology transfer in history," Ordway says.
The centerpiece of the exhibit is illustrations from a series of articles by von Braun and others in Colliers magazine that appeared in the early 1950s. They laid out a plan for manned flight into Earth orbit, then to the moon, and, finally, to Mars. "So brilliantly illustrated were the Collier's articles that likenesses of von Braun's space vehicle designs soon appeared in movies, books, posters, even children's lunch boxes," writes Ordway and co-curator Randy Liebermann in the exhibit catalog.
Though undisputably influential, the Colliers illustrations, even 40 years later, would not be classified by most critics as true "art." But Mr. Liebermann points out that Michelangelo was also an illustrator under commission when he painted the Sistine Chapel. If you like a Colliers illustration, he says, "if it strikes a chord, if it says something to you, I think it's good art."
In retrospect, the popularization of space travel by the Colliers series, and a later Walt Disney television series based on the Colliers articles, was perfectly timed. When President Kennedy looked for an American response to Soviet successes in space, the von Braun scenario was at hand. It was followed, at least in broad outline, including trips to the moon, reusable space vehicles, and ongoing plans for an orbiting space station.
But in many ways, the exhibition shows, von Braun proved too optimistic a prognosticator. He saw a visit to Mars as possible as early as the 1980s, as much underestimating the politics involved as the technology.
The debate over the value of space exploration has wandered on for two decades since the moon landings, while both the US and the former Soviet Union nibble at near space. For von Braun, who died in 1977, there would have been little need for debate. Writing in 1969 (in an unpublished article intended for Readers Digest and printed for the first time in connection with this show), he said: "Exploration of space is the challenge of our day. If we continue to put our faith in it and pursue it, it will rewa rd us handsomely."
'Blueprint for Space' is on view at the IBM Gallery of Science and Art through March 28. It will reopen at the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum in October 1992 and is expected to travel to other US cities and abroad.