Tuesday, June 03, 2014
Preface to Space
There's a new book called Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program by David Meerman Scott and Richard Jerek (MIT Press.) It's a large format, coffee table-sized book with lots of photos but a pretty smart text as well.
The title makes the content sound a little crass, but the fact is that Americans had to be "sold" on the space program because even in the 1950s or early 60s, the idea of people going to the moon was considered loony. Until well into the 20th century it wasn't just the general public, the press and politicians who thought space flight was a nutty dream--it was also the scientists.
This book quotes astronomical artist Ron Miller: "Astronautics is unique among all the sciences because it owes its origins to an art form. Long before engineers and scientists took the possibility of spaceflight seriously, virtually all of its aspects were explored first in art and literature..." Much of that was of course science fiction.
"No one had considered the actual technological problems of space flight until Jules Verne," Miller asserted. Thanks mostly to weapons of war in the 20th century, scientists and engineers became deeply interested in such technological problems. But the goal of manned space flight for the purpose of exploration was still for dreamers.
But what interested me most about this early chapter was the emphasis the authors placed on the speculations and artistic renderings in the popular press in the 1950s (notably Collier's Magazine) and particularly the three programs produced by Walt Disney, aired in the first years of his now-classic anthology program, known by many names over the years, but which started out as simply Disneyland.
The significance the authors place on these programs got my attention because I remember them so vividly, especially the first one, "Man in Space." Disneyland the program (like Disneyland the theme park in California that had not yet opened when the TV series started) was divided into four categories: Adventureland, Fantasyland, Frontierland and Tomorrowland. Almost all the programs however were in the first three of those categories. I remember tuning in every week, waiting, waiting for Tomorrowland. I mean I loved Davy Crockett like everybody else, but I craved the future. And then one night, it appeared.
I'm guessing I saw it more than once that first year--Disney was never shy about rerunning programs. I soaked up every second of it. And I pined for more.
Road to the Stars (1957). This film wasn't available in the West for a long time, but as the Marketing the Moon book says, it was one of the visual sources for Stanley Kubrick's 2001, along with the Disney films. The version on YouTube--in Russian, and with closed captioned English subtitles that are only marginally less understandable than the Russian for we non-Russian speakers--is a very good print. Thanks in part to the always-smiling cosmonauts in their naughty leather flightsuits, it's fun to watch.
The three Disney TV films ran from 1955 to 1957. Disneyland moved from ABC to NBC in 1961 to take advantage of NBC's leadership in color television broadcasting, and changed the name to Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color. Undoubtedly these space films got a second life in color then. I suspect they were on TV when the look of Star Trek was first being developed. But even before color broadcast, there were Dell magazines and books that captured the color illustrations.
"Man in Space" was first broadcast on March 9, 1955. Let's first place that date in historical perspective. Sputnik I was the first artificial satellite to be launched into space in October 1957. The US launched its first satellite in January 1958. John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as President of the US in January 1961. The first manned spaceflight was by the USSR in April 1961, with Yuri Gargarin's orbital flight. In May 1961 the US sent its first man into space, Alan Shepard in a suborbital flight. Also in May 1961, President Kennedy proposed the goal of sending a man to the moon and returning him safely to the Earth--what became the Apollo program. John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth in February 1962. On Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong became the first human to touch the surface of another world in 1969.
In other words, "Man in Space" was made and broadcast before any satellite or any human had reached outer space. So was the second, "Man and the Moon." Only the third, "Mars and Beyond," was broadcast after Sputnik, by about two months. (And even though "man" was used in its general sense as "human," it pretty much was just men in space. Though the Russians sent the first woman into orbit in 1963, none of the US programs before the shuttle had women astronauts.)
"Man in Space" is introduced by Walt Disney, who refers to space as "the new frontier" (JFK's campaign slogan in 1960 became The New Frontier.) The bulk of the program is a very fine history of rocketry and an illustration of possible perils of humans in space, introducing the concept of weightlessness. Rocketry pioneer Willy Ley is among those who explain various concepts but much of the explanation is through animation, some of which is still funny. I remember in particular that this is where I learned Newton's third law of motion, which as this film put it means "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." It's still about all the physics I know.
The history of rocketry leads up to the V-2, the last German rocket built in World War II. Several blast-offs of this handsome rocket are shown, though it's not clear if these are German films or films of the launches of some of the 75 V-2s the US captured and brought back after the war, to essentially create the US rocket program. Many launches of a dazzling array of differently designed rockets follow.
The London Blitz at first consisted of attack by German bombers, and then the V-1 rockets. Londoners learned to listen for the V-1 and for the silence after the motors cut out--if it sounded close, then the bomb was apt to fall nearby. The V-2 however was supersonic--the bomb arrived before the sound was heard, making it even more of a terror weapon. In Thomas Pynchon's famous novel Gravity's Rainbow set in London during the V-2 bombing, one of the characters seems to have precognition of where the bombs will land.
The reason for the Disney film's silence on the uses of the V-2 was simple: Wernher von Braun was one of the chief scientists who designed the V-2 but by 1955 he was working for the US government on its military rocket programs. And about a half hour into the 49 minutes of this show, he appeared on camera to explain his design for the rocket that would take Americans into space.
Then comes the animated first launch of man into space. The style is hyper-realistic, with a dramatic music score. It's only about ten minutes but for me it was unforgettable. (The illustration at the top is from this segment.)
Probably the funniest detail now is that the crew wasn't taken to the rocket until 20 minutes before launch. Watching the real launches I recall those poor astronauts sitting strapped-in for hour after hour, through the long countdowns, through launch holds and scrubbed missions.
"Man in Space" was directed by Ward Kimball, who also appeared as a kind of host (as he would at times in the following two programs.) The voice-over narrator is Dick Tufeld, familiar from lots of Disney productions but also as the voice of the robot in Lost in Space (Danger Will Robinson!) on TV in the 60s (and later reprised on The Simpsons.)
"Man in the Moon" was first broadcast on Disneyland on December 28, 1955. It starts with animation illustrating the human conception of the moon throughout history, narrated (as is the rest of the film) by Hans Conreid, a famous face as well as voice of the 50s and 60s, frequently in Disney productions.
From a fanciful history of stories the program moves onto the science. It's unfortunately noticeable now how casually Walt Disney himself mentions that the universe is at least 4 billion years old. A mention like that in the currently running 2014 version of the Cosmos series is routinely attacked by fundamentalists, but in 1955 this caused no controversy. In a program built on science, it was perfectly natural.
The basic astral mechanics and the then-current knowledge about the solar system is well told with animation of various kinds, though details like the number of moons of the outer planets are now far out of date.
Then von Braun appears again to talk about the process of a human voyage to the moon. Again he's thinking very big, ultimately about a craft that carries ten. But a major part of this process is the construction of a space station, as an embarkation point for the huge moon-bound craft. The space station itself is immense--much larger than today's International Space Station. And it is in the now classic shape of the wheel.
The dramatization of the actual voyage from the station to the moon is the most elaborate of the series. It involves animation but also models, and live actors and sets. The models and sets are particularly interesting--the spacecraft are all white, while the interiors favor primary colors. It's all surprisingly 1960s Trek-like. The first pass of the moon has some Trek resonance as well.
Mars and Beyond was first broadcast on December 4, 1957. It's narrated by Paul Frees, an actor who did a lot of voice-over work for many decades (he was everybody from the unseen millionaire on The Millionaire to Boris Badenov on Rocky and Bullwinkle.) His most prominent s/f appearance was in the 1953 George Pal version of The War of the Worlds: he was the first of the narrators, and played a role as a radio announcer. As this program begins he seems to be trying to sound like Orson Welles, but by the end he's using the portentous voice he employed when talking about Mars in The War of the Worlds.
This show begins with animation about human conceptions of the nature of the stars and the cosmos and life on other planets. The concepts are often so weird that the animation gets wildly creative. At times it seems very Cubist, as if Picasso is the strangest thing the animators could think of. There are also suggestions of such later animations as Yellow Submarine.
To suggest the variety of possibilities for life on other planets, the show tells the story of Earth's own history, from carbon atoms to proteins to organic compounds in the primordial sea. "Now with time as the main ingredient the evolution of life is inevitable." Visually arresting enough for children, the script is surprisingly sophisticated and eloquent. While the accompanying images sometimes go off on playful tangents, the narration is carefully scientific. Again, it's sad to compare what was uncontroversial for a family audience in 1957 compared to the regressiveness of 2014.
The program's attention finally turns to Mars, and the question of whether humans could exist there--a question, the narration states, that arises because of human overpopulation and depletion of resources on Earth. This is 1957! (Which is getting close to the time that the correlation between fossil fuel burning, higher CO2 in the atmosphere and the warming of the global temperature is being determined.)
There's also the question of what kind of life could exist on Mars. STAR TREK ALERT! Some of the forms discussed are silicon based lifeforms, and creatures that eat through rock. Though they're up on the surface, unlike the Horta.
This is a much briefer depiction of a trip of a six ship convoy, beginning at the space station (which we've seen in animation being built) and ending with speculation as to what the craft will find on the surface (though a planet totally devoid of life isn't among the speculated possibilities).
The "beyond" part is briefer still, as a flying saucer--apparently of advanced electro-magnetic drive to neutralize gravity--zips off towards the infinite, looking like the opening of Forbidden Planet (or perhaps the end of The Day the Earth Stood Still) with small saucers disappearing into the belly of a much larger mothership (This Island Earth to Close Encounters of the Third Kind.)
This is the spaciest of the series, with imagery that suggests some of the wilder parts of 2001 a decade later (which maybe why they didn't surprise me?) It also has the most eloquent script. Its description of the possible lifeforms on Mars is the most imaginative I've ever seen illustrated. Think of what they could do with the tools of today.
The function of this series at the time was to excite the imagination while showing through scientific explanation that these age-old dreams of exploring outer space, the moon and Mars were within the realm of possibility in the near future. And as it turned out, with some modifications, some of them were.
Yet something about these programs apparently transcended their time, for they continued to play fairly often on the Disney Channel into the 21st century, long after their speculations became obsolete. Although I'm sure children were still fascinated with the space shuttle missions and remain interested in the International Space Station (especially when astronauts interact with schools), the heroic age of space turned out to be surprisingly brief. Less than a decade and a half after "Man and the Moon" first aired, men actually went to the moon, and then stopped, never to return in the more than 40 years since.