Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Space Race that Never Was

The other day, I was watching Gerry Anderson's 1969 movie Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, and I found myself dozing off during the middle part of the film. It starts off well enough with some spy plot which is never fully explained, and the last third of the movie introduces an intriguing concept, but the middle is totally devoted to the development of a manned space flight to a planet on the other side of the sun. We see astronauts training, a giant rocket being built, and pudgy, sweating bureaucrats huffing about the cost and international politics. It's painfully slow and could never be done in a modern movie, but it illustrates how strong the fascination was with space exploration during the 1960s.

Having just missed space-mania (I turned 5 years old when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon), I was always fascinated by the residual artifacts of this period which were still around during the 1970s. One of the names that surfaces fairly frequently was Willy Ley (1906-1969). Ley spent much of his adult life popularizing the idea of space exploration. He wrote several books on rocketry and outer space, first in Germany and later in the U.S. It was during the 50s and 60s, when he teamed with such people as Wernher Von Braun and artist Chesley Bonestell on books about space, that a popular public image of space travel was created.

The spaceships that these men envisioned were sometimes sleek and aerodynamic, other times clunky and utilitarian, but all were imaginative and fun. During the late 50s, Ley worked with the Monogram model company to create a series of conceptual space vehicle models. I was not aware of these models until they were re-released by Monogram in the late 1990s. Just getting back into model building after a long hiatus, the sight of these model kits on the hobby shop shelves took me back to those days of my childhood when I was teased by the images in Ley's books.

The first of these models that I built was the Space Taxi. I assume the purpose of the vehicle was to shuttle people and provisions to space stations or even the moon. It's an awkward sort of thing, but it has a certain charm. My favorite part of the design was having the wire tethers for the astronauts so they appear to be hanging in freefall.

The second Willy Ley model I built was called the Passenger Rocket. I don't have it anymore because it was destroyed when I moved from my old house to my current home, but it was a chunky red ship similar to Thunderbird 2 from the show Thunderbirds. A smaller, streamlined ship looking like a 50s-style jet fighter rides piggyback on top of the larger craft. According to the illustration on the box, the larger ship was designed to carry the smaller ship out of Earth's atmosphere and launch it once it was in space.

The variety of designs showed that Willy Ley put a great deal of thought into what an extraterrestrial society would need to function, and the fantasy that such a thriving community could exist within our solar system is exciting to ponder. I'm sure in the 1950s, with the start of the space program, it also seemed within reach.

As a teenager, long before I even knew of the Willy Ley models, I stumbled onto a spaceship model called Mars Probe. It's origins are unclear to me. It certainly was not tied into any merchandising campaign for a movie or TV show. However, the look of the craft is reminiscent of the ships Willy Ley and Chesley Bonestell envisioned. Based on what we know about the requirements for a manned flight to Mars, this rocket looks completely impractical, but it looks way cooler than the Lunar Module or the Space Shuttle.

More recently, while browsing through a hobby shop, I came across a curiosity called Apollo 27. Put out by Pegasus Hobbies, the model appears to be a fantasy vision of where NASA could have gone had they not stopped with Apollo 17. The copy on the side of the model box conjures up the hyperbolic language of the early space race: Blast off into the unknown and explore the furthest reaches of the Cosmos with the new Apollo 27 Rocket! Designed to safely transport its two man crew to wherever their mission takes them, it also provides then with an all around view was never been available to the other astronauts who traveled before them. Hyper-dynamo-tension rocket engines give the Apollo 27 an acceleration rate that staggers the mind, and yet completely protects the crew from the massive amount of G's that would normally crush them! This makes far journeys possible in just a few short months, not decades. Mars is just a hop away now!
I get a chill from that sort of thing! It's the kind of "why not?" enthusiasm that faded away after the Apollo astronauts hit a couple of golf balls around the lunar surface. With the end of the Apollo program and the appearance of Star Wars a few years later, space adventure shifted from what could actually happen to pure fantasy in a galaxy far, far away. The general public doesn't cares about making it a reality anymore. In a way,  space exploration seems just as distant to us now as it did to the early readers of science fiction pulps almost a century ago. It makes me sad.