Watching the Space Race: Popular Science Education

by Walt Staples

When the reality of spaceflight jumped out at Americans in the fall of 1957, we kids at least were primed for it by our long hours of education, mostly spent in front of black and white TVs and occasionally in darkened movie theaters on Saturday afternoons.

With the exception of half hour snippets of intense scientific information from TV shows such as “Tom Corbett: Space Cadet,” “Rocky Jones: Space Ranger,” and “Science Fiction Theater,” long term study opportunities were afforded by WDBJ Channel 7's “Science Fiction Saturday” and downtown Roanoke's American Theater.

Television broadcast of movies tended to lag six and seven years behind their theatrical showings, thus, we were able to view such select fare as:

“Cat Women of the Moon” (1953)

            Lesson learned: The last few woman surviving on the moon could control Earth women by mental telepathy and Earth men by wiggling. (Happy, being six-years-old, we were immune.) Looking at the lunar inhabitants' costuming, it's possible this is where the term “cat-suit” originated.

“Radar Men from the Moon” (1952)

            Lesson learned: Tony Stark had a predecessor—Commando Cody, a wealthy industrialist and mind-boggling engineer. We also learned that “Cat Women of the Moon” was  apparently incorrect that the moon was airless; both good guys and bad guys wandered it's surface under an atmospheric pressure of around 15 pounds per square inch (it's 1957, we haven't heard of metric yet) and within a 1G gravitational field. The grip of this serial masterpiece was so strong that 15 years later the world was enlivened by the music of Commando Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen (the group's lead said he lost the toss so he had to be Commando Cody).

“Abbott and Costello Go to Mars” (1953)

            Lesson learned: The importance of good navigation. Like Voltaire's remark about the term, “Holy Roman Empire,” being a fallacy, there was a basic flaw involved in this one's plot, it'weren't Mars they hit. Instead, they ended up on a Venus ruled by (what else?) beautiful women, by way of New Orleans (a planet all its own). This movie blazed the way for a later movie entitled “The Queen of Outer Space” (a 1958 satire on this more serious work).

“Rocketship X-M” (1950)

            Lesson learned: If you're a lousy navigator, maybe chemistry can save your fantail. In this jewel, the intrepid astronauts (a term coined eight years in the--then--future) manage to miss the moon—hey, it could happen to anybody; after all, it's only 2,160 miles wide—and fly on to Mars. The rocket's engine cuts out half way to the moon (those old Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems A6s did tend to vapor lock at high altitudes) and the crew mixes a special fuel and restarts the engine with it. The EPA mileage must have been pretty impressive as they find themselves waking up an hour later and 50,000 miles from Mars. The acceleration involved to travel 50,000,000 miles in a hour makes for an interesting thought picture of the number of Gs they must have pulled. (Actually, I may do them wrong, with that much “umph,” they may have hit the moon, blown through, and out the other side—if you're going to chuck small matters like physics over the side, why stop there?) Another thing learned is that Mars is so cold and the atmosphere so thin that people on the surface must dress in leather A2 flight jackets and use World War II era aviator's oxygen masks.

“Destination Moon” (1950)

            Lesson learned: Somebody in Hollywood was actually awake during high school physics and astronomy. This movie stands out from the rest because George Pal tried very hard to get the science right. No monsters, no fatal women—actually, no women at all in the last two-thirds of the movie—and lunar vacuum can kill you. In this one, a consortium of private businesses build and fly a mission to the moon and back because the government can't or won't afford it (I wonder if the folks at Orbital Science Corporation, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic saw this movie as kids). The space suits (NASA uses “spacesuit,” but it's several years in the future when I'm watching this) were so good and “right” looking, that they were used in films and TV shows into the mid-to-late 60s. Chesley Bonestell's moon was harder surfaced and craggier than that seen by TV audiences all over the world 19 years later, but the actors did indeed appear to be functioning in one-sixth gravity.

“Conquest of Space” (1955)

            Lesson learned: Even your mom can be interested in science fiction if it's done well enough. I got to stay up 'til nine on a school night when she took me with her to see this one downtown at the American Theater (unlimited buttered popcorn refills). As in “Destination Moon,” George Pal worked hard to get the science right on this trip to Mars. Everything was 1955 state-of-the-art—the Mars ship and space station were straight out of Wernher von Braun's books, Project Mars: A Technical Tale (a novel he wrote in the late 40s as he cooled his heels in Fort Bliss while the Army decided what to do with him—frankly, it probably reads better in the original German) and The Mars Project (this is the one with lots of graphs, charts, formulae, and a requirement for heavy-duty slide rule slipping). It also included von Braun's horizonal aircraft-type Mars landing and erection of the return portion of the ship. Pal's Mars is red, dusty, cold, and very thin-atmosphered—kinda like the real thing.

Thus, when the Soviets shoved the U.S. into the space age, the kids of America were ready.

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