Can gunpowder get you to the moon?



In 'From the Earth to the Moon' (1873) by Jules Verne, A huge cannon is used to send a spaceship to the moon. A lively discussion in chapter IX leads to using 400,000 pounds of fulminating cotton to launch their ship to the moon.

Two questions;

  1. Does 1,600,000 pounds (725,748 kg) of powder equal 400,000 pounds (181,437 kg) of fulminating cotton, for lift?
  2. Putting aside all the other issues, would either amount of lift get you to the moon?

James Jenkins

Posted 2013-07-29T15:08:19.763

Reputation: 10 973

34Sounds like a job for Mythbusters. – None – 2013-07-29T15:19:35.470

Without actually looking up the energy density of gunpowder, I'd wager no amount could get you to the moon. – None – 2013-07-29T15:20:52.950


@deltree Far more relevant:

AJMansfield 2013-07-29T19:40:25.667

2I think you need to clarify (2) do you mean "get something to the moon" or "get a person to the moon". These are two entirely different endeavors as getting a piece of metal there requires somewhat different capabilities than getting a living person there.jmoreno 2013-07-29T20:17:54.080

Chemistry and Materials Science issues might get in your way long before the ballistics get in your way. The level of energy released by that scale of explosion, assuming you could manage to ignite gunpowder at that scale, would blow apart your cannon long before it would launch your projectile upwards at 12 kilometers a second. I'd be shocked if you could even launch a stainless steel ball into space this way.Warren P 2013-07-29T20:49:56.573


Topics for required reading: V-3 and Gerald Bull.

Deer Hunter 2013-07-30T05:35:45.330

Reading about Gerald Bull's work, you'd think it could be done. If you imagine a large enough, long enough, strong enough gun barrel, and a large propellant charge ignited at the bottom, could you expect the propellant to burn from the bottom up, so that the expanding gasses remain below the unburnt propellant, so that the projectile could go on accelerating as long as there is still fuel to burn, and barrel to contain the gasses? You wouldn't be limited by the speed of the detonation front because its all moving with the accelerating projectile.Anthony X 2013-08-07T19:09:35.453

This challenges the scope a little bit, but here's another What If? about using firearms to produce thrust:

Ellesedil 2015-02-13T19:04:27.463

Biggest problems would be: g forces - long enough barrel / sufficiently large but progressive burn to achieve escape velocity at an acceptably low acceleration; friction within the gun barrel at hypersonic velocities; hypersonic travel in a low altitude atmosphere with attendant heating and loss of velocity. Perhaps possible, but far from practical.Anthony X 2017-05-20T18:16:45.380



The Delta V requirement to launch is about 14 km/s to low lunar orbit, per Wikipedia. That means that you would have to achieve a speed of 14 km/s in order to orbit the moon. Some of that will need to be done from space, but most of it could theoretically be achieved from the ground. So, what do you need to do to make that happen?

In World War II, the Germans developed an artillery shell that could travel at 1.67 km/s. It used 200 kg of powder, and fired a 106 kg shell. Let's just suppose that you could scale that upward infinitely (Not likely, but we'll just assume for a moment). Furthermore, let's assume a mass of 1000 kg for the ship (Likely would be higher). Given all of that, you would need 10 times as much to launch the ship the same speed, and about 72 times as much to launch the ship to lunar orbit. That would scale to about 14400 kg of powder, or about 16 tons of powder, much less than Jules Vern stated you would need. So, why don't we do that?

While in theory one could get to the moon like this, pure cannon thrust would not be sufficient to land on the moon, at least in a controlled manner. You would end up landing on the moon at the lunar escape velocity of 2.4 km/s, without a rocket to stop you. Furthermore, the gravity forces exerted on you would at launch would be enormous, artillery shell electronics have to be rated at 15000 Gs. Good luck getting a person to survive that. And also, the physics doesn't quite scale as I indicated here, but the numbers provide a good first order approximation.

The launch profile of a rocket is near best case for getting astronauts to Space, in terms of the amount of gravity. You really do need to be continually thrusting for some time. However, a rail gun could provide some of the velocity needed to orbit, if you plan carefully to make this happen.


Posted 2013-07-29T15:08:19.763

Reputation: 67 296

I thought the main counter-argument was that once you pass the thermal velocity of the reaction products, you basically get no marginal utility in terms of increasing velocity.AlanSE 2013-07-29T17:49:42.500

1@AlanSE: Feel free to write up your own answer, mine's very rough, I'll admit. To me, the biggest problem is the fact that you couldn't stop if you depended on a canon to launch to anywhere, so...PearsonArtPhoto 2013-07-29T17:50:40.427

Although obviously there would be issues accelerating and decelerating if people were involved, could a system like this (theoretically) be used to resupply raw materials from earth to a lunar base? Maybe make a bed of crushed moon rock/dust to land in, or some sort of air cushions.. would that be enough to keep from blasting chunks of the moon off with each resupply?PeterL 2013-07-29T19:08:02.790

@PeterLeppert: Yes, that is possible, but probably not using a cannon approach. Perhaps a railgun, per reasons otherwise stated.PearsonArtPhoto 2013-07-29T19:10:11.393

3The launch would be deadly enough to kill everything that could be killed by landing...Danubian Sailor 2013-07-29T19:24:50.373

1@ŁukaszLech No, the launch would not kill anything that happened to be on the moon near there when the ship lands. Why do you claim it would?AJMansfield 2013-07-29T19:42:57.630

@AJMansfield I meant, everything that would happen to travel with such ship.Danubian Sailor 2013-07-29T19:45:30.973

112km/s is a speed necesary to reach Earth's low orbit. To shoot projectile to the moon you have to be able to reach the Lagrangian point between Earth and Moon. It is situated 385000 from the earth so the projectile speed necessary for the shot should be much greater to reach it then just to reach low orbit possible with 12km/h shot.kolja 2013-07-30T00:57:48.213

10 to reach low earth orbit, 14 to reach LLO. Ooops... Will adjust as required.PearsonArtPhoto 2013-07-30T01:11:35.717


As far as I know, the shock wave in detonating explosives does not go faster than about 2.5 km/s, so a bullet will not be propelled beyond that speed, however many barrels of gunpowder you accumulate. The shock wave can be sped up if the operation occurs in a high pressure environment, though, but reaching enough speed to get to orbit (about 8 km/s) seems hard, let alone going to the Moon.

You can make a multi-stage system, though: one cannon which shoots another cannon which shoots a third cannon, and so on. Ultimately you end up with a rocket, not a cannon. It is a bit of a question of definition...

(A variant with an explosive a bit more punchy than gunpowder is being seriously investigated, but I doubt it will happen any time soon.)

The acceleration would also flatten in a very literal way any vertebrate unlucky enough to have been selected for this trip. Space cannons are more than idle speculation, but they are for launching bulk materials, not people.

Thomas Pornin

Posted 2013-07-29T15:08:19.763

Reputation: 1 372


The absolute theoretical maximum mass that 1,600,000 lbs of powder could launch to the moon is a bit under 35,500 kg. The calculation is not all that difficult (introductory calculus-based physics), but is somewhat long and involved, and would be quite ugly on a site like this without mathjax. However, that makes two major assumptions that cannot actually happen: no air resistance, and all of the powder burns instantly, transferring all its energy to the rocket (none to a visual flame, none to sound, etc. I'm still working on a quantitative analysis of these effects, but I'm quite certain that accounting for either air resistance or the finite burn speed of the rocket would make it impossible to reach the moon.

The maximum speed a propellant-powered rocket can reach depends on the rocket's mass, the mass of propellant, and the exhaust velocity of the exhaust. As per James Jenkins, the ship was 20,000 lbs; the propellant is, of course, 1,600,000 lbs. Using a typical black powder exhaust velocity of 800 m/s. Without fighting gravity, that amount of gunpowder could propel the ship to a bit over 3,500 m/s, well short of the Earth's escape velocity of 11,200 m/s. Turning it around a bit, that mass ratio would require an exhaust velocity of nearly 2,550 m/s. And for completeness, the given 160M lbs of propellant could launch a rocket of a bit under 1.5 lbs; it would take 24 billion pounds of propellant to launch the full 20,000-lb rocket.


Posted 2013-07-29T15:08:19.763

Reputation: 210

Jules Verne's ship was 108 inches in diameter, weighing 20,000 pounds (9,071kg)

James Jenkins 2013-07-29T22:57:26.580


There is a story told that the first manmade object to achieve escape velocity, was a man hole style cover, over an exhaust vent, from an underground nuclear bomb test.

However, they quote this on the website.

But the assumption that it might have escaped from Earth is implausible (Dr. Brownlee's discretion in making a priority claim is well advised). Leaving aside whether such an extremely hypersonic unaerodynamic object could even survive passage through the lower atmosphere, it appears impossible for it to retain much of its initial velocity while passing through the atmosphere. A ground launched hypersonic projectile has the same problem with maintaining its velocity that an incoming meteor has. According to the American Meteor Society Fireball and Meteor FAQ meteors weighing less than 8 tonnes retain none of their cosmic velocity when passing through the atmosphere, they simply end up as a falling rock. Only objects weighing many times this mass retain a significant fraction of their velocity.

From another amusing perspective, there is a great science fiction story, called King Davids Spaceship by Jerry Pournelle that postulates a universe where the interstellar faring societies will not intervene unless your planet can reach orbit, and for political reasons a planet requires space flight as soon as possible, so they build a manned craft, that uses the approach of firing a gun downward, (sort of chemical version of Orion) to reach orbit.

Pournelle is fun for writing good science fiction, and it has interesting discussions of the issues involved.


Posted 2013-07-29T15:08:19.763

Reputation: 47 599

1Why is it impossible? Going to escape velocity doesn't require the vector to be along the "local" horizon.Deer Hunter 2013-07-29T19:33:17.340

3I'm not entirely sure how this answers the question? While interesting, I presume it's an urban myth only, and no part of it actually attempts on answering the question. :|TildalWave 2013-07-29T19:33:43.447

@DeerHunter - Wouldn't the manhole cover pulverize under such immense pressure before it could reach escape velocity, or at least burn in flames while in lower atmosphere?TildalWave 2013-07-29T19:37:01.277

@DeerHunter I meant impossible for orbital not escape velocity. But escape velocity seems inordinately high for even a nuclear event.geoffc 2013-07-29T19:45:09.063

@TildalWave It answers it by analogy. If even a nuclear event is unlikely to have succeeded at generating sufficient impulse for orbit/escape velocity, it seems very likely that any gunpowder event would not succeed either.geoffc 2013-07-29T19:46:38.820

Geoffc: It is not unthinkable from a purely ballistic viewpoint (if it weren't for the lower atmosphere) to imagine achieving orbit with a straight-up shot, as going around the Moon can pull the periapsis a bit... (yeah, I know, idle speculation) @TildalWave - the latter (burning in flames) is quite likely.Deer Hunter 2013-07-29T19:50:43.590

Geoffc - analogy is not scientific. Beware of analogies when you haven't done or cannot do the calculations, even on the back of an envelope.Deer Hunter 2013-07-29T19:51:57.813

Has anyone asked about this bomb on []?Iszi 2013-07-29T20:07:45.897


This was the Pascal-B test of Operation Plumbob. Initial velocity was a minimum of 66km/sec; any slower and it would have been observed on more than one frame of the highspeed camera filming the test:

Dan Neely 2013-07-29T20:08:31.540

1@DanNeely: I believe that article is the source of this, and in fact, has a quote that directly relates to the question at hand. As such, I've edited the question to include the relevant information.PearsonArtPhoto 2013-07-29T23:31:01.247

Actually I think this is one of the best answers because it highlights what a rocket can do that gunpowder cannot and that is lift something relatively slowly through the atmosphere until it can safely be accelerated to orbital / escape speeds without burning up.WetSavannaAnimal aka Rod Vance 2015-02-13T12:30:47.383