Watching the Space Race: The Ley of Space

by Walt Staples

The old green fan slowly oscillated with a barely discernible electric whirl. The only other sound in the Williamson Road Branch of the Roanoke City Library was the soft thump as the Librarian stamped the book of the occasional patron. Like church and funeral parlors, this cool, quiet refuge from the heat of a 1957 July afternoon was one of those places one did not talk. At the very most, a kid could whisper to the august personage who ruled the vault of the written word. I now approached that tall, thin lady with her cat's-eye glasses hanging by a chain and a pencil thrust through the hair bun on the back of her head. Being one of the ones she didn't have to shush, she smiled at me as she leaned down and whispered, “May I help you, sonny?”

I whispered back, “Yes, ma'am. I'm looking for a book about rockets and outer space, please.” When you're from the South, you talk like that.

She sized me up, then stepped around the counter and hooked a finger for me to follow her. Librarians wore rubber-soled nurses' shoes back then, so she cat-footed ahead as she led me to the 600s. She looked down at me again, came to a decision, and unerringly plucked a yellow dust-jacketed book from the shelf. On the front was a breathtaking picture of a pair of spaceships, one all cylinders and spheres and the other sporting huge wings in addition. In large black letters, the title above the picture read, Rockets, Missiles, & Space Travel. At the bottom in red letters of a size, was the author's name, Willy Ley. After the Librarian softly stamped the book, making it mine for the next two weeks, I sat at a table, opened the book, and was never quite the same afterward.

Dr. Wernher von Braun (center), then Chief of the Guided Missile Development Division at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, discusses a "bottle suit" model with Dr. Heinz Haber (left), an expert on aviation medicine, and Willy Ley, a science writer on rocketry and space exploration. Photo found in Wikipedia.
Willy Ley, as far as I know, never actually launched a spaceship. Rather, he did something perhaps more important; he helped launch the idea of the spaceship. Rather than a designer or a technician, he was what's known as a “popularizer,” and a darn fine one. A popularizer is one who takes an arcane subject and makes it and its implications clear to the nonspecialist. To do this, the author has to know the ins and outs of the discipline and be able to explain it clearly and entertainingly. Very few technical types have this, what I consider, innate ability to communicate to the population at large while avoiding producing either drivel or dryness reminiscent of Death Valley.

Willy Ley was born in Berlin during the reign of the emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, in1906. At Berlin's university, he studied physics, astronomy, zoology, and vertebrate paleontology (considering his course of study, one is left with an impression like that of Buckaroo Banzai, who reputedly was born going in several directions at once). He moved to the University of Koenigsberg in East Prussia (now Kaliningrad in Russia) where he took a degree in journalism. After reading Hermann Oberth's By Rocket into Planetary Space (bear with me here—I haven't the foggiest notion how to get umlauts using Open Office, so all titles will be translated into English...probably badly), Ley became taken with the idea of spaceflight. In 1926, he was one of the founding members of “Spaceflight Society,” Wiemar Germany's amateur rocket club and edited the club's journal, “The Rocket.” Among other members were Wernher von Braun, Hermann Oberth, and many of the men who would design and build the V2 ballistic missile used against London, Paris, and Antwerp in 1944 and, after 1945, America's launch systems.

In 1935, Ley, sensing which way the wind was blowing after the Hitler's Nazis were voted into office in 1933, left for the United States by way of England. Arriving in the U.S., Ley joined the American Rocket Society and participated in experiments with mail carrying rocket planes in New York's Orange County (home of screaming chopper builders).

A fan of science fiction, Ley was dismayed at the general American opinion that rockets and space travel were something for the next century, if then. He set out to change this this by authoring nonfiction articles on rockets and spaceflight that ran in the popular press. Among the magazines to which he contributed factual articles was Astounding, a science fiction magazine skippered by a very no nonsense editor by the name of John Campbell. Ley also wrote a regular science column for Galaxy Magazine for 19 years, beginning with its premiere issue and ending only on his death (I only got to enjoy his columns for the last seven or eight years of their run).

Besides, his columns and articles, Willy Ley produced a stream of books (approximately 28 different titles). The one I held in my hands that summer afternoon started life as Rockets in 1944 (three printings), went on to become Rockets and Space Travel in 1947 (two printings), Rockets, Missiles, and Space Travel in 1951 (six printings), Rockets, Missiles, and Space Travel: Revised Edition 1957 (two printings)--the edition I was reading, and Rockets, Missiles, and Space Travel with Sputnik Data 1957—the copy lying on my lap as I type this. The final incarnation was entitled Rockets, Missiles, and Men in Space (first printing in 1968, and Lord only knows how many times that and its predecessor were reprinted—for the purposes of this column, I'm counting this book and all its ancestors as only one title). He also teamed with the first great planetary painter Chesley Bonestell to produce The Conguest of Space (on order from at the moment), The Conquest of the Moon with Wernher von Braun and Fred Whipple (maybe next month?), and a number of others dealing with space and Earth sciences.

Besides his writing, Ley acted as a technical advisor for several movies and TV shows (including Fritz Lang's movie, “The Woman in the Moon” in 1931, “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet” 1950-1955—which I vaguely remember watching in a 34 foot Spartan house trailer somewhere in the wilds of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley-- and the animated serials,“The Space Explorers” and “The New Adventures of the Space Explorers,” in the late 50s—which I watched religiously on WTOP-Washington's “Ranger Hal” each morning before launching for school—yeah, I'm proud to say I've been a “space case” most of my life).

Another advisory gig in which I ran into Willy Ley was when Monogram Models hired him to design  several spaceship kits and write a informative booklet to go in the box of each. Ley was the kind of writer who caused kids pull the booklet out first and read it a couple of times before turning to build the kit.

As hard as Willy Ley worked toward the realization of spaceflight to other worlds, he just barely missed the denouement of his career. Willy Ley, age 62, died 26 days before Neil Armstrong set his foot on the lunar surface.

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