Wednesday, April 10, 2013

An Alternate Space Age

Back in the early 1950s, a group of visionaries, led by rocket pioneers Werhner von Braun and Willy Ley, astronomer Fred Lawrence Wipple, among others, and ably abetted by famed illustrators Chesley Bonstell and Fred Freeman, published a series of articles starting in the March 22nd 1952, issue of Collier's Magazine, entitled “Man Will Conquer Space Soon.”

Can you imagine how this looked to someone for the first time?
Only it wasn’t so much as a series of articles, as it was a manifesto. Featuring beautifully rendered space shuttles with sweeping fins that looked like they could’ve come off a Cadillac, towering rockets the size of Saturn Vs that looked like the overgrown children of the V-2, wheel-shaped space stations that were spun for artificial gravity and plans to land on the moon, and after that, Mars, the series, published by Collier's between 1952 and 1954, was a call to action for nothing less than a step-by-step exploration and colonization of the solar system by man. “What are we waiting for?” asked one article. In 1955, the cause would be taken up by Walt Disney who produced the ground-breaking  “Man in Space” series for his Disneyland television series, hosted by von Braun that picked up from where Collier's had left off. 

The booster on its pad. Freaking huge.
The campaign succeeded in that it set the pattern in the popular consciousness and media for the next decade of what exactly manned spaceflight would look like. However, when we got there, things turned out a little differently. We got to the moon. We got  had our space shuttle and we got our space station. But that’s it. A permanent human presence on the moon, never mind a trip to Mars, seems as far off as it was back in 1952.  I don’t know about you, but when I look back at what could’ve been and what was being planned, I feel ripped off.

The fleet of moonships being assembled in earth orbit.
Note the space station and winged orbiters in the background.
Despite the disappointment, or perhaps because of it, this has proven fertile ground for the field of alternate history.  The first, was Allen Steele’s “Alternate Space” Series, composed of the short stories “Goddard’s People,” “John Harper Wilson” and the novel The Tranquility Alternative.  The two short pieces are stand-alones, while the novel is an interesting, if slightly cynical, look at this world of missed opportunity, combined with an actual-but-never fulfilled U.S. plan to base ICBMs on the moon as some kind of Cold War super-deterrent.  As I like Steele as an author already, this was a treat when he combined his brand of gritty realism and detail with that lost sense of wonder. My only complaint that hopefully may be addressed in a future reissue is that the complete series was never issued under a single cover.  However, if you wish, you can track down the two short stories in Steele’s Rude Astronauts anthology of short fiction. They're both well worth the trip to your local used book store.

The Tranquility Alternative

The second person to approach the Collier's 1952 space program as alternate history is  documentary filmmaker David Sander, with his Man Conquers Space feature film project, that sets out to tell the story of the Collier's space program as if it actually happened. Unfortunately, Sander has been beset by a series of bad breaks, but has continued to search for funding. Despite it all and in the meantime, he has still managed to produce some superb trailers that fill you will both a sense of wonder and loss (I hope he'll forgive me for posting these here).

Ultimately, Man Conquers Space is a movie that should be made, and in a perfect world will be made. I still have hopes that someone will come forward and help Sander to finance this worthy project, which like the best of alternate history, potentially has the power to shed a light on how we got to our present situation in our own world. If a movie like Veronica Mars can be crowd-financed on by its fan base, then why not this one?

Meanwhile, you can help out a poor unemployed writer by purchasing both Elvis Saves JFK! for just 99 cents and War Plan Crimson, A Novel of Alternate History, for $2.99 (both are free to preview). Both books are also available through such fine on-line retailers such as Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes Store.  And if you’re looking for an experienced marketing communications guy, do me a favor and have a look here. Thanks.