For about a day in my childhood, I owned a bottle rocket. A day, I say, because I’m pretty sure that on its maiden voyage the damn thing either exploded or blasted off to explore the final frontier, where no child has gone before: into a tree, or a mean neighbor’s yard, or on top of a roof. In any case, I destroyed or lost it so fast that I purposefully forgot the embarrassment of its destruction. But I never forgot its moment of ignition, the beauty of its ascension. Whether store-bought or made out of a soda bottle, a bottle rocket is an elegant design: Half-filled with water, air is injected into it with a bicycle pump until the internal pressure exceeds the strength of its cork and lift-off is achieved in an explosive spray and a wet contrail.
Jet propulsion in the animal kingdom is exclusively found in aquatic creatures: the nymphs of dragonflies, the sea slug-like Sea Hares, some species of fish, and most famously, the cephalopods: squid and octopuses. By forcing water in the opposite direction of momentum, and thanks to Newton’s First Law of Motion, these animals don’t just swim through the water they live in; they use it as fuel. No bird, bat, or flying lizard ever evolved jet engines in its wings to propel air through them. But isn’t there anything that flies through the air with the power of a bottle rocket? Of course there is.
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a flying squid! The flying squid is not a species but a family, Ommastrephidae, among other squids that have achieved the same trick. Unlike flying fish, flying squid are nocturnal, and therefore are rarely seen coasting over the waves. Until recently, there was some controversy as to whether a squid which was found on ships’ decks in the morning actually flew, or was simply leaping and gliding. But recent photographic and eyewitness evidence shows there is no doubt that this cephalopod has wings. They are fins on either side of its mantle, which flap to achieve lift once the squid has become airborne on the jet of water it spits from its mouth. Additionally, it widens and flattens its tentacles to create a primitive airfoil or tail once it hits the atmosphere. But its “wings” — the equivalent of a rocket’s fins, really — and the airfoil are secondary to the primary means of propulsion: the jet.
Rocketry was invented by the Chinese, who discovered gunpowder by accident while seeking the Elixir of Life. First used for fireworks, it did not take mankind long to figure out how to use it as a weapon of war. The first missiles were fired during the Chou Dynasty, around 1155 B.C., after which the technology spread throughout Asia to the Arabs and eventually the Europeans, becoming ever more aerodynamic or, in other words, more squid-like. But the concept of rocketry as a means of transportation never achieved lift-off (pun intended) until mankind realized it might have places to go that only a rocket could take us. Victorian authors H.G.Wells and Jules Verne practically invented the concept of interplanetary travel in their fantastic books about Martian invasions and Venusian dynasties, and in doing so, science fiction inspired actual science. In Russia, high school math teacher Konstantin Tsiolkovsky published the first scientific book outlining the possibility of space travel, including the formula that remains the guiding principle for modern rocketry: the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation. But it wasn’t until 1914 that an American, Robert Goddard, divined through tortuous trial and error the correct balance of fuel and thrust, lift and drag, that would propel a rocket through the Earth’s atmosphere. In 1926, he launched the first liquid-fueled rocket in Auburn, Massachusetts. In 1942, the Nazis launched the V2 missile into space. The Russians launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, and Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first man to orbit Earth in 1961. Tsiolkovsky and Goddard, among others, may have invented jet-powered flight through an inspired dream of touching the red soils of Mars, but it was the warlike competition between their countries that propelled the evolution of space travel. As in Nature, adaptations evolve faster when there’s an enemy hot on your tail.
I’ve rhapsodized before about flying fish, and the flying squid represents no less a marvel of evolution. To pass through the border of the medium in which you exist is a practiced miracle. It is theorized that birds, like the pterosaurs before them, jumped, jumped further, and finally flew to exploit a niche that had only yet been conquered by the insects. They were chasing opportunity; the air was a bountiful place of possibilities and nourishment for them. But many more species have taken up flight because they’ve been pushed over the precipice by an immediate threat: a shark in the water, a fox in the trees. The flying squid invented airborne jet propulsion by necessity. Already we’ve seen how the snake and the lizard and the frog have all invented their own unique means of flight both to travel and to evade predators. When mankind crosses the next frontier of flight — interplanetary or even interstellar travel, where fueled rockets would fail us — what will be out inspiration? Will space travel at near light-speed be borne from an noble desire to explore, or will we eventually leap from our own solar system with the jaws of some catastrophe biting at our heels?