All posts by GalacticJourney

Brrrr!  IGY wrap-up (12-18-1958)

Last time, I talked about some of the wonders of the International Geophysical Year.  The term is a bit of a misnomer–it has actually lasted some 18 months, and the dividends from its successes will be paid out for many years to come.  For those who don’t know, the “IGY” is actually the third event of its kind, a twice-a-century international effort to learn about Earth’s more exotic mysteries.  Originally, the event was known as the International Polar Year; the first started in 1882, and the second in 1932.  Due to the growing science of aeronautics and the newfound ability to directly measure the astronomical medium, the scope of the IPY was expanded to include outer space, and the IGY was scheduled to occur just 25 years after the last IPY.  In this period, America has launched seven successful (or semi-successful) space missions, and the Soviets have launched three.  As discussed last time, American submarines have stayed underwater for months on end and have cruised underneath the North Pole.

In keeping with the original intention of the international year-and-a-half of science, the poles have been subject to the most massive investigation in history, particularly the forbiddingly cold continent of Antarctica.  The United States, the United Kingdom, France, Japan, and the Soviet Union all have sent large teams into the frozen wastes of the world’s southernmost continent, and more than 50 other countries have contributed scientists and resources. 

As the punctuation mark to cap off an unprecedented 18 months, an expedition has finally arrived at one of Earth’s most exotic locales–the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility.  You are likely familiar with Earth’s South Pole, the southernmost point of Earth’s axis of rotation, and also with the Earth’s South Magnetic Pole.  The Southern Pole of Inaccessibility was a headscratcher even for me when I first heard it.  It is the point in Antarctica equidistant from any ocean shore.  It is probably the hardest place to get to in the world (hence the name).  Of course, calling anything inaccessible is just begging to be challenged.  It is appropriate that the team that made it there, just in the nick of time, was from a country quite used to freezing climes: the Soviet Union.

On December 14, a team of the Third Soviet Antarctic Expedition reached the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility and established a small research facility.  Yes, you can now get weather reports even from the bottom of the world (or the top, if you’re from Australia).  This team will brave the -72°F temperature for two weeks.

So let us all give a nazdarovya toast to our brave Soviet comrades.  One can only imagine where we’ll be for the next IGY in 2007.  Colonies on the moon, under the deep sea, and at the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility, I’ll wager!

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February 1959 Galaxy Wrap-up (12-16-1958)

At long last, the February 1959 Galaxy is done, and I can give my assessment of the new bi-monthly format.  It is likely that this issue was composed of material the editor, Mr. Gold, had accumulated before the decision to reduce the number of annual issues.  Therefore, the real proof of the pudding will happen when the next issue comes out in the first week of February next year. 

Two stories remained to be read when last you saw me.  One is by newcomer, Ned Lang, whose short story, Forever is about the peril one faces when one has developed the world’s first immortality serum.  Or, at least, when one thinks he/she is the first.  It’s not a bad story, and it has a cute ending, but the writing has a certain clunkiness to it.  I suppose allowances have to be made for neophytes, especially ones working for a penny-and-a-half a word.

The other story, a novella by J.F. Bone called Insidekick, is quite good.  This is, in part, because it turns a genre on its head.  Thanks to people like Bob Heinlein, the “Body Snatcher” trope is well-known: Evil, amorphous alien insinuates itself into its host human and turns it into a hollow shell.  In particularly gory instances, the parasite eats its host like the larvae of the Digger Wasp.  I have a friend who is relatively immune to the most nauseating of phenomena, but show him a movie about bodysnatching beasts, especially when they enter through cranial orifices, and he fairly faints.

In Insidekick, however, the symbiont is charitable rather than menacing.  The Zark, as it is known, only wishes to help its host survive as best it can, for in doing so, the chances of success for both host and symbiont is maximized.  The host, in this case, is a government agent by the name of Johnson, who is investigating a corrupt interstellar corporation under suspicion of growing tobacco illegally for profit on the planet Antar.  Johnson is quickly fingered, and he certainly would not have lasted long were it not for the happy accident of his meeting with the Zark, a native to Antar.  As the union of the two creatures occurs while Johnson is unconscious, he is unaware of the relationship.

The results, however, quickly become obvious.  In Bone’s story, all humans have a certain degree of psionic potential.  Practitioners of psi, on the other hand, are universally psychotic and, thus, only marginally useful.  The Zark unlocks Johnson’s psionic potential without precipitating any nasty psychological effects.  Johnson gradually realizes he has become a telepath and has the ability to teleport.  Telekinetic and precognitive ability follow soon after.  With his newfound skills, he is able to evade death and take down the criminal organization.

What makes the story so fun is how nice the Zark is.  Who wouldn’t want a benevolent guardian angel living inside him/her, and thus enjoy a panoply of superpowers?  Better yet, there is no sting in the story’s tail.  Johnson isn’t doomed to die prematurely; it doesn’t turn out the Zark is really planning on eating Johnson; the Zark isn’t part of an alien invasion.  The story simply is what it is—the happy tale of a man and his symbiont.  The only weakness is the two-page coda, which feels tacked on. 

If I did not know that Bone is a real flesh-and-blood person, I’d think he was a cover for Bob Sheckley (who also appeared in this issue, finishing up Timekiller).  Insidekick has that same light, pleasant touch.

To wrap things up, let’s give the new giant-sized Galaxy a final score.  Timekiller was decent, Installment Plan was flawed and disturbing in its politics, but the rest of the magazine ranged from good to quite good.  Let’s call it three out of five stars. 

And good news!  I managed to secure a copy of F&SF.  Stay tuned!

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Fact and Fiction (February 1959 Galaxy, Part 2; 12-14-1958)

For your reading pleasure today, a piece in two parts.  First a bit on fiction, and then a bit on the other stuff.

Plowing on through the new maxi-sized Galaxy, the first story after Installment Plan is a slight bit of atmospheric by Charles A. Stearns called Pastoral Affair.  If you’ve read the Wells classic, The Island of Dr. Moreau, then you’ve essentially read this story.  Stearns, I understand, largely wrote for the pulps and less prestigious magazines, and his work reads like something from the 30s.  Not bad, just not much.

But the succeeding Fred Pohl piece, I Plingot, Who you?, is quite good.  My father was a science fiction fan of “Golden Age” vintage before his untimely passing some twenty years ago.  He once said, rather presciently, that the only way one could ever really unite the world would be the invention of an external threat, perhaps a world-destroying asteroid or (even better) an extraterrestrial invasion. 

Pohl takes this concept and turns it on its head: What if someone convinced all of the world leaders separately that an alien race was approaching, and the first to encounter it would get an exclusive and most rewarding deal?  And what if the race landed their spacecraft not in America or the U.S.S.R., but in the neutral powder-keg of French Algeria.  Why, it might kick off a bloody competition resulting in an all-out atomic war!  Now, what if that instigating someone were actually a representative of an alien species whose job was to fabricate the alien arrival to cause the destruction of Earth and ensure that interstellar competition was kept to a minimum?  You’d get Plingot.

The pacing and the writing really make this story, as well as the unexpected ending (which is very Heinlein-esque).  The story is from the eponymous Plingot’s point of view, and his wording and mood are subtly and suitably alien.  Interestingly enough, it is decidedly fixed in a very specific period of time—perhaps the next few months.  For the flag of the United States has 49 stars, and it is pretty clear by now that Hawaii will be a state very soon, to balance Republican and Democratic votes in the Senate, if nothing else.  Moreover, given the recent turmoil in France that brought DeGaulle back to the fore and created yet another French Republic (Number 5!), I can’t imagine that France’s hold on Algeria is anything but tenuous.  This all works, however, since the story is not a prediction of the future but rather a prediction of how the present might deal with a futuristic threat.

Now the non-fiction.  Willy Ley’s article this bi-month wraps up his article on “The World Next Door:” the alien realm of the deep sea, and ties in nicely with the unusually large number of undersea accomplishments achieved by the United States this year.  Did you know that the nuclear-powered submarine, the U.S.S. Seawolf stayed underwater for 60 consecutive days?  The air its crew left port with was the air the crew breathed for two straight months.  That kind of self-contained endurance is relevant to travel in Outer Space, where fresh air is even less accessible.

The Seawolf is the younger sister of the U.S.S. Nautilus, which made history in August by being the first ship to travel to the North Pole under water.  I saw/heard in a recent newsreel that there is talk of opening up underwater polar trade routes between East and West.  I don’t know how feasible that would be, but it is exciting nonetheless. 

So stay tuned!  I predict that the undersea science fiction genre (heretofore severely underrepresented—Fred Pohl’s Slave Ship serialized two years ago in Galaxy, is one of the few examples) will become a big component of published sci-fi in the near future.

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The Incomplete Enchanter (12-12-1958)

It occurs to me that it has been a long time since I’ve given anything unreserved praise.  Moreover, it’s been a while since I’ve reported on anything really fun.  To that end, I recently picked up and re-read my well-thumbed copy of The Incomplete Enchanter by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt. 

Sprague is a titan in the science fiction and fantasy fields.  Aside from his quite impressive chin of beard, I hold him in highest regard for his alternate historical Lest Darkness Fall and the collection Wheels of If (which lead title is also alternate historical—my tastes are obvious).

Pratt, of course, left us quite unseasonably two years ago.  He didn’t write much fiction on his own, though he did produce a couple of good novels.  He is perhaps better known for his historical expertise and especially his set of naval miniature wargame rules, with which he occupied a good deal of floor at the Naval College. 

Plenty talented on their own, the two were dynamite together.  Enchanter is my favorite work of theirs—a riproaring fantasy of the best caliber.  It details the adventures of Harold Shea, a darkly almost-handsome practitioner of magic.  Sort of.  You see, it turns out that it is possible to travel into mythological universes just by concentrating really hard (excuse me, through the use of “Symbolic Logic”).  Once there, a canny fellow can utilize the magical laws unique to that universe and become a powerful wizard.

Enchanter contains two of Shea’s adventures.  They are essentially self-contained, which makes sense; both of them were originally published as separate novellas in Unknown back in 1940.  In the first, Shea tries to visit the realms of Irish mythology.  He misses and winds up in Norse mythology just in time for Fimbulwinter, the prelude to the epic clash of the Gods and Giants known as Ragnarok.  None of the accoutrements of modern science that Shea brought (his matches, his stainless steel knife, etc.) are functional.  On the other hand, Shea does figure out how to make use of the Magical Law of Analogy.  This is the theorem that creating an effect in miniature can produce a larger, similar effect. 

While in the Norse realm, Shea meets up with all of the main Gods, is captured along with the God, Heimdall, by trolls, and ultimately escapes and ensures that the Gods will be have a fighting chance in their final fight against the giants.  All of this is written with a fun, light touch.  Things never go as planned, yet somehow, they don’t go too badly. 

Once returned to our world, Shea is eager to go on another expedition.  This time, he is joined by the creator of Symbolic Logic, Reed Chalmers.  They also hit their target: the world of Edmund Spencer’s poem, The Faerie Queen.  It is a bright and colorful medieval universe, quite the contrast to the grim and whited-out world of the Norse.  Magic is a bigger deal here, and there are plenty of powerful fighters and enchanters (male and female—I especially like the woman knight, Britomart).  It’s all very satisfying to the Middle Ages buff and great fun.  It’s also a romance: both Shea and Chalmers leave Spencer’s realm with brides, though not without considerable travail on both their parts!

It is difficult to do justice to the novel with a review.  There are so many fun scenes.  For instance, when a very bored Shea and Heimdall race cockroaches while in gaol; before each race, Heimdall solemnly states, “I shall call mine ‘Goldtop’, after my mount.” Or when, in the second story, Shea faces off with a knight in shining armor.  Shea has a thin rapier while his opponent brandishes a mighty broadsword.  The victory goes to the more agile of the combatants (Shea), who wins with myriad pricks inside his opponent’s armor.  These are just lovely moments.

In short, if you are a fan of Norse mythology, or The Faerie Queene or light fantasy, or any combination of the three, you either have already read Enchanter… or you really must do so post-haste!

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The way it is (February 1959 Galaxy, Part 1; 12-10-1958)

December is here, and San Diego is feeling the uncommonly cold bite of near-winter weather.  Why, temperatures barely make it into the upper 60s around noon-time.  I’m not sure how we manage.

My subscription copy of F&SF never arrived.  I may have to pick it up at the newsstand, if there are any left.  Luckily, the February 1959 double-sized edition of Galaxy did arrive.  That’s how I was able to finish “Timekiller.”  Yesterday, while briskly walking along the beach dressed appropriately for our local sub-arctic temperatures, I finished the lead novella, “Installment Plan”, by Clifford Simak.  This will be the subject of today’s piece.

For those who don’t know Cliff, he has been a staple of science fiction for a couple of decades now.  I first encountered him in 1952 with his excellent story in Galaxy, “Junkyard.”  Since then, he’s written the serialized novel, “Ring Around the Sun,” and a number of shorter stories.  I like Cliff, but I find his work tends to be aimless, though completely readable.  “Installment Plan” is no exception.

It starts out promisingly-enough with a pack of biblically-named anthropomorphic robots and their human coordinator, Steve Sheridan.  They have been sent to clinch a trade deal with a race of backwards humanoids on Garson IV.  The Garsonians have a cash crop that, properly distilled, produces the galaxy’s most potent tranquilizer.  The deal had been set up fifteen years prior by previous expeditions to the planet and then left to languish.  By the time Sheridan gets to the planet, however, the natives universally refuse to deal.  Thus, there is a double-mystery to solve: how did this turn of events come about, and is there any way to make a deal?

The story is interesting throughout.  The problem is that it wraps up altogether too quickly and conventionally.  The thoughtful tone and the careful characterization are, in my opinion, wasted.  Moreover, it appears Simak is attempting to make some allegorical points, but he never quite gets there.

For instance: Sheridan’s robots are portrayed as a friendly, competent, and essentially human lot.  Yet, Sheridan muses, despite their abilities, and despite their being better than humans in terms of endurance and ability to learn (since their skills are banked in storage units called “transmogs”), they lack that spark necessary for independent operation.  They need a man around to lead them, tell them what to do. 

In other words, these beings may look like us, but their proper place is in servitude rather than self-mastery.  With a proper guiding touch, we can help them accomplish what they are simply unable to do themselves.  I don’t think the parallel to slavery and its attendant rationalizations is accidental.  Whether Simak meant his portrayal of robots to condone or condemn this mindset is not clear, however.  It is never made the point of the story.

Slightly more developed is the phenomenon of the bilked aboriginal.  The natives of Garson IV are portrayed as an honorable but stupid, primitive lot.  They seem ripe for the cheating, which is why their being uncheatable is so frustrating and incomprehensible to Sheridan.  Sheridan is further hamstrung by his government’s rules that strictly prohibit the wholesale appropriation of native land or slaughter of its owners. 

It ultimately turns out that the Garsonians have already been bilked–by another race.  Having committed themselves, under most unfavorable terms, to this other debtor, they have nothing left to trade to the humans.  Moreover, the provisions of the deal include the mass exodus of the natives from their planet, leaving it fallow for the taking.

It’s an uncomfortably familiar scenario, one that has been repeated on Earth on many occasions when “civilized” men have encountered “primitives.”  Again, I waited for some kind of commentary from the author.  Instead, Simak has Sheridan capitalize on the opportunity.  With no one on the planet, the government’s rules regarding non-interference are inapplicable; Sheridan plans to establish his own corporate farm and milk the planet for all its worth.

Put this way, the story sounds like satire.  It is written completely without irony, however.  I’ve said before that our cultural prejudices are the air we breathe.  It takes conscious effort to take a deep whiff and catch the stink.  Science fiction should be (and occasionally is) more progressive than your average literature, but too often, as happened in this story, it is simply a product of its time.  In the end, Simak put some interesting and challenging ideas into this novella, and they would have made interesting stories in their own right.  As is, they instead seem to tacitly condone a status quo I’m not comfortable with.

(on the other hand, at least the protagonist has a beard, and skintight clothes are available for all genders in this future!)

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Oops, Part 4 (12-08-1958)

Well, at least we’re consistent.

The past few months, the newspapers have run headline after headline describing America’s failures in trying to shoot the Moon.  The Air Force had the first at-bat with its three Pioneers.  #0 blew up so early that it wasn’t even dignified with a name.  #1 limped about halfway to the Moon before falling back down.  #2’s performance was somewhere in the middle.

If you believe the papers (and/or the Vice President), all of these flights were successes.  After all, any launch, even one that doesn’t meet its goals, is a learning experience.  Sarcasm aside, Pioneers I and II were not total washes–they sent back a lot of good data on the Earth’s magnetic field and the radiation trapped therein.  Moreover, they went a lot higher than any of our previous probes, certainly higher than anything the Russians have sent up.

The day before yesterday (Dec. 6, 1958) was the Army’s chance to step up to the plate.  If hitting the Moon is a Home Run, I’d say they hit a double.  Pioneer III, a teeny 13-pounder launched on a Juno II made it out about 67,000 miles before falling back to Earth.

As always, I collected as many papers as I could and kept my ears glued to the radio.  Early editions simply announced the launch, but it was clear pretty quickly that something had gone wrong.  Apparently, Pioneer’s rocket ran out of fuel about four seconds early, which sent the probe off at too low an angle.  Even though Pioneer III left Earth with more speed than Pioneer I, its journey was only half as high.  38 hours after launch, the poor little probe was ashes in the ionosphere. 

Silver lining: A good 22 hours of data was collected from the probe, and it is already adding to our knowledge regarding the two (count them: two!) radiation belts girdling the Earth.  As a matter of fact, those belts are the only phenomenon Pioneer III could report on.  Unlike Pioneers 0-II, which had a whole suite of experiments including even a TV camera, Pioneer III had just one experiment: a pair of Geiger-Muller tubes for counting the cosmic radiation particles hitting the spacecraft.  I am not sure why Pioneer III was such a simple probe.  It may be that the Army got the assignment in a hurry and had to rush things.  It might also be that the Army’s Juno II doesn’t have the enough strength to lift anything heavier.

In any event, this isn’t the last we’ll be hearing from the Army.  Pioneer IV will be up sometime soon, though Major General John Medaris, head of the Army’s rocket development center in Alabama, had no firm dates for the press.

“See me after Christmas,” he told the television people.

Get a load of that puss.  That looks more like a toothache than a booster failure. 

Here’s an interesting question: The Space Race has been marked by more failures than successes.  Did anyone ever write a science fiction story that predicted this level of teething pain in a space program?  It seems to me that space vehicles in fiction simply work.  If they don’t work perfectly, they have maintenance issues like those that afflict an automobile or perhaps a naval vessel.  This goes back to my previous comments regarding the focus of science fiction on the pilot rather than the large and necessary logistical tail. 

It’s a pity we don’t see more stories incorporating launch failures.  They could be an exciting dramatic device.

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Killing Time (Robert Sheckley’s Timekiller; 12-06-1958)

Regular readers of this column know that I am unreserved in my praise of Robert Sheckley.  Since bursting on the scene early this decade, he and his alter-ego, Finn O’Donnovan, have graced the pages of Astounding and Galaxy and probably more magazines.  If you haven’t read his three short-story anthologies, you need to plunk down the $1.05 and expand your library.

I’m not quite so enthusiastic about Sheckley’s first novel, serialized in Galaxy as Timekiller.  It’s not bad; it just doesn’t rise to the standard set by his shorter work.

Timekiller is the story of the bland Thomas Blaine, a junior yacht designer from 1958.  He lives a pleasant but uninteresting life as the dogsbody of an East Coast boatwright.  Blaine is charming-enough, but he’s never really scored with ladies, work or life.  On the way home one night, his car swerves out of control causing a fatal collision with an oncoming driver.

Yet Blaine awakens—in 2110!  It turns out that some time in-between Blaine’s death and rebirth, it is discovered that each person has a soul distinct from his/her body, and about one in ten thousand make it through the death trauma with the soul intact.  The soul hovers about in a transition between Here and the Hereafter, occasionally causing unrest on Earth.  Hence the stories of ghosts and poltergeists.

Not long after the discovery that one’s persona survives death, a company is founded to insure that everyone with enough cash on hand can safely navigate death and journey to the Hereafter.  The company is fittingly called “Immortality, Inc.” Unfortunately, the work of this company has played havoc with the world’s religions, who are staunchly against Immortality, Inc.  This is why they tried to save the soul of a 1958 religious leader, who could serve as a spokesman for the company after his resurrection.

Unfortunately for Immortality, Inc., they got Blaine instead.

I commented in an earlier piece that science fiction authors tend to incorporate only one or two truly revolutionary changes into their stories, either for fear of alienating their audiences or for inability to envision more (or both).  Sheckley’s future is not that different, technologically, except for the flying cars that we all expect to be driving.  Instead, Sheckley focuses on the social and medical implications of resurrection.  People sell their bodies in exchange for Hereafter insurance to rich people who want to stay on Earth for another lifetime.  Others transplant their souls to other bodies for kicks or more-nefarious purposes.  Imperfectly transplanted souls never synchronize properly with their host bodies, which become zombies and eventually decay to uselessness. 

In a story about independent souls, the consuming questions to my mind are (1) does a transplant body retain any vestiges of the old soul inhabitant? and (2) what is the Hereafter like?  The first is answered pretty well.  The second isn’t touched upon.  I suppose that makes sense, but it is hardly satisfying.

My issue isn’t with set-up but rather the execution, which is a bit lacking.  Much of this can be attributed to the format.  The novel began serialization way back in the October 1958 issue of Galaxy, and it was spread over an unprecedented four installments.  As a result, the story reads a lot like four connected novellas.  The first primarily deals with Blaine’s arrival, in which Blaine narrowly escapes death at the hands of a body peddler.  In part two, Blaine is a “hunter,” an assassin hired for an elaborate suicide game in which the quarry expects to die in a blaze of combat.  Part three, perhaps the most interesting, reveals a sinister plot against Blaine’s life and introduces us to the subterranean zombie community.  Part four wraps things up in an exciting escape from the country and finishes off with a good (though not unguessable) twist.

Because of the format, Timekiller feels a bit padded and uncoordinated.  I had a similar problem with Heinlein’s latest serial, Have Spacesuit Will Travel; Part 2 of that novel was largely filled with an exciting but rather pointless escape attempt that ended in frustration. 

The characters in Timekiller aren’t terribly exciting either.  Most prominent besides Blaine is Marie Thorne, the scientist in charge of Blaine’s recovery; she ends up largely a love interest.  The rest of the cast is largely forgettable, though I did like Ray Melhill, a fellow target of the aforementioned body peddler, who provides Blaine a lot of assistance despite being dead most of the story.  Smith, a zombie, probably has the most interesting story to tell, and his thread runs from beginning to end.

So what’s the final verdict?  I’m afraid this review makes me sound a bit harsh.  Timekiller is thoroughly readable, and the world it portrays does capture the imagination.  I could see the novel being improved in editing for book publication, which I understand is forthcoming.  As is, however, it is merely competent.

For Bob Sheckley, that’s damned faint praise indeed.

3 stars out of 5.

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What’s in a name? (12-4-1958)

I’m still waiting for my January F&SF to show up, so here’s another topical scientific post.  Just call me Willy Ley’s poor cousin.

The space stories in today’s newspapers are filled with a mixture of alphabet soup and Roman mythology.  Keeping track of what’s what can be a headache.  For instance, there has been a lot of confusion regarding the naming of the rocket that launched Explorer I (and III and IV, and tried to launch II and V).  Some accounts called it a Jupiter-C.  Others have since called it a Juno I.  Which is correct?  Is there a Jupiter missile somewhere in there?  Does it even matter? 

Let me clear things up.  The answer shines an interesting spotlight into the politics of naming and the jockeying for position being done by this country’s armed services.

Back in 1953, Von Braun and his Alabama team of German expatriates finished the first significant rocketry development since the V2 (which they had also built).  It was the Redstone Medium Range Ballistic Missile (MRBM) with a range of more than a hundred miles.  Von Braun knew he had a vehicle that was powerful enough to send something into orbit, and he lobbied heavily for his “Project Orbiter” so that he, and the Army, could launch the first artificial satellite.  He lost that fight to the Navy, who started work on the Vanguard, based in turn on the Viking sounding rockets, which were based on the V2.

Nevertheless, Von Braun did win the contract to build the longer-ranged successor to the Redstone, the Jupiter Intermediate Ranged Ballistic Missile (IRBM).  This let Von Braun keep Project Orbiter alive, at least under wraps.  The first step toward turning the Redstone into a satellite booster was a series of test launches with Jupiter IRBM components on board.  He called the resulting machine “Jupiter-A,” even though at its heart, it was really a Redstone.  This helped ensure launch pad availability, since the Jupiter was a higher-priority program.

Then he added 11 miniaturized solid-rocket boosters called Sergeants (descendants of the WAC Corporal rocket, of course) as a second stage and one more as a third stage.  This new booster was used as a sounding rocket, probing the outer reaches of the atmosphere in short suborbital flights, and was called the “Jupiter-C.”  I don’t know if there were ever plans for a “Jupiter-B.”

Once Sputnik was launched, America was hard-pressed to make a quick response.  Von Braun trotted out the Jupiter-C, all ready to launch a payload.  It wasn’t quite enough to get Explorer I into orbit, however, so another mini-Sergeant was attached to the satellite and placed on top of the Jupiter-C third stage.  This technically made the Jupiter-C a four-stage rocket, even though one could argue that the fourth stage was really part of the payload. 

It was important that there be little connection between the military space programs and the civilian space programs, at least in the press.  That’s why Vanguard was given the nod for the first satellite launch.  While it was developed by the Navy, it was run under the auspices of the civilian National Research Laboratory.  Jupiter-C was renamed “Juno I” to distance the rocket from its military origins.

It was not a very successful move.  Contemporary newspapers universally referred to the rocket as the Jupiter-C (which, of course, it was).  The name “Juno I” is only now common in retrospective use, as its last flight was on October 23.  It is a useful distinction, however, as Von Braun has taken the 2nd, 3rd and “4th” stages from the Juno I and affixed them to a true Jupiter IRBM, thus creating the “Juno II.”  This new vehicle should have about the same lifting capacity as the Air Force’s Thor-Able, maybe a little less.  It will launch Pioneer III next week.  Note: Pioneer III has nothing to do with Pioneers 0-II save that they have the same destination, the moon.

All clear?

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Less is More; Rocket Clusters in Science Fiction (12-02-1958)

Science advances rapidly, and with it, our visions of the future.  People have been dreaming about traveling to outer space for thousands of years, and their dreams have necessarily been based on extrapolations of the time.  For instance, when Daedalus and Icarus made their flights, they used bird-like wings.  What else was there?  When Jules Verne wrote about a trip to the moon, a giant cannon was the propulsion. 

Then the rocket came along, and that became the vehicle of choice for space jaunts.  Yet the portrayal of rockets in science fiction even just a few years ago differs dramatically from how they ended up actually being used for space travel.  One crucial development changed the whole game in the span of just five years.

Two books in my library illustrate what I’m talking about.  In 1953, Jeffery Lloyd Castle wrote Satellite E One, and Murray Leinster wrote Space Tug, both near-future tales of space stations.  In the beginnings of both books, our heroes are blasted into orbit with the use of rockets—lots of rockets.  Castle’s booster is 150 feet tall and has 50 rocket engines.  Leinster’s is even more creative.  Dozens of independent jet engines propel the rocket assembly to about 12 miles up and then detach, whereupon solid rockets fire and subsequently detach.  Finally, the rocket’s own engines (presumably liquid fuel) ignite to finish the journey.

Both of these stories are products of their era.  Until 1953, rockets were pretty small affairs.  In the 30s, they were strictly hobbyists’ stuff.  Even in the 40s, the vaunted German V-2 was what would now be classified a Short Ranged Ballistic Missile (SRBM).  Missile development languished in the early post-war compared to the prodigious effort expended on the development of jet engines.  To science fiction writers, it seemed any space rocket would have to be purpose-built, and it would take a tremendous number of these small engines to get a craft to orbit.  That’s why most predictions saw humanity reaching the moon around the end of the century.  Clarke was particularly visionary in Childhood’s End when he wrote about a manned lunar mission as early as 1975 using atomic rockets.

What few authors predicted was the InterContinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) race.  In 1954, the Air Force and Army began working in earnest to develop titanic missiles to send nuclear warheads across the world.  Since all must crawl before walking, their first product was the Intermediate Ranged Ballistic Missle (IRBM), which will be based in Europe.  The Army finished their first proto-IRBM, the Redstone, in 1956.  All of a sudden, the United States had an off-the-shelf method to send payloads into orbit.  With the completion of the Thor and Jupiter IRBMs in 1957, as well as the Navy’s Vanguard (not a military vehicle but based on the earlier Viking, in turn based on the V-2), America suddenly had a stable of boosters.

That year, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik.  They didn’t use a purpose-built space booster; they borrowed an ICBM from their arsenal and stuck a satellite on top.  We know it was an ICBM for two reasons: the Soviets had, just a few months before, announced that they’d built and tested an ICBM.  And Sputnik III, which used the same launcher as Sputniks I and II (presumably) weighed a ton-and-a-half, so an ICBM class booster was needed to loft it.

We don’t know how many individual rockets make up the Soviet booster, but the Redstone, Thor and Jupiter use just one.  Of course, it is more efficient to send multi-staged rockets into orbit, so the Juno-I that launched the first Explorer actually has 14 engines (the one on the Redstone and 13 solid-fueled Sergeants on top).  The Juno-II also has 14 (Jupiter plus 13 Sergeants).  The Junos are stopgaps, however.  The Thor-Able that launched Pioneers 0-2 only has three engines.  The first crop of American ICBMs, the Atlas and the Titan, have just 2-3 engines.  Even Von Braun’s proposed lunar mission monsters will only have around 12, tops.  So much for cluster rockets with dozens of engines.

It is no coincidence that the Space Race started when it did.  It is a direct side-effect of the ICBM race.  Science fiction authors are going to have to revise their timetables as well as their portrayals of rockets.  It just goes to show that science progresses awfully fast when we want it to, sometimes faster than our ability to predict its progress.

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To the Moon (Alice?); Wrap-up of January 1959 Astounding and more (11-30-1958)

I promised a wrap-up of this month’s Astounding, so here it is.  “Study in Still Life,” by Astounding’s resident satirist, Eric Frank Russell.  It is a 20-page depiction of governmental bureaucracy whose only connection (I should say connexion; Russell is British) with science fiction is its having been printed in a science fiction magazine.  I’m sure some find tedious depictions of tedium humorous (humourous?).  I just find them tedious.  Oh well.

This makes the January 1959 issue of Astounding the worst in quite some time.  With the exception of the lead story, which is undoubtedly good, but not exceptional, and the brief “Seedling,” the book was a bore.  2 stars at most.

Still, it did inspire a think.  I like my science fiction with a touch of verisimilitude.  One of the tropes I find tiresome is the “spaceship as automobile” trope.  Particularly, the one man builds a rocketship in his backyard and flies it to the moon story.  Now, I have no doubts that the Space Age will have spaceship pilots, and they may well be a rare breed.  I also don’t have too much trouble swallowing the idea that, in the far future, spaceships may be as reliable as the present-day automobile. 

But for the foreseeable future, spaceships, and their atmospheric cousins, airplanes, are incredibly finicky beasts that require dozens of hours of prep time for every hour of flight.  The recent Pioneer launches had crews topping one hundred.  Manned jaunts are sure to require more crew, and a lunar shot will have, I’ll bet, thousands of people involved.  A few authors have gotten it right.  I recently read Satellite E One by Jeffery Lloyd Castle, which is half textbook, half British wish-fulfillment, and it does a good job of depicting the long logistical tail any expensive, high-tech aeronautic project has/will have.

I blame World War II, specifically post-war depictions of the war.  We’ve gotten used to tales of doughty pilots soaring into the skies on a moment’s notice, and we’ve forgotten just how much sweat goes into building and maintaining the crates.  Movies don’t get made about mechanics, anymore than they get made about quartermasters and cooks.  And so science fiction stories not only fail to depict their space age counterparts, they omit them entirely.  I think that’s too bad.  While the general public may like reading stories of plucky rocket-jocks making it to the moon on ingenuity and baling wire, I think a far more meaningful story is made when the spaceships sent to the moon (hopefully with more than just one person inside!) have thousands, if not millions of people behind them as part of the effort.  It’s like a mountain, with the spaceship comprising just the very top, and the rest being not just the people who were directly involved in building and supporting the ship, but a collective effort representing all of humanity.

(Note: Danny Dunn and the Antigravity Paint, published in 1956, is actually a delightful story; I almost feel bad using it as my demonstrative picture, but it’s what I have on hand)

By the by, the Air Force may have failed in America’s first efforts toward the moon (Pioneers 0-2), but it looks like the Army plans to launch a probe on a modified Jupiter IRBM next week.  I think their odds are pretty good.  Their “Juno II” rocket is identical to the Jupiter-C that launched Explorer, at least from the second-stage up, and I understand the Jupiter to have a decent record.  Moreover, the probe is smaller and less sophisticated than its Air Force predecessors, and Von Braun said there is no intention of hitting the moon or sending it into orbit; a near miss will be good enough.  I suppose if one sets the bar low enough, it’s hard not to clear it!  I shall cross my fingers, toes and eyes.

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