Skylon, a British invention, taunts us with the idea of Britain taking a lead in space exploration for the first time. This prospect takes me back to the mid-1950′s, when Britain was the leading space power, or at least it seemed that way with the arrival of a popular radio series. On October 20, 1965, a two-stage British rocket was successfully launched from Woomera in Australia carrying a crew of four on the first manned journey to the Moon. The trip was a complete success, and the crew returned safely to Earth. Unfortunately, as we all know, this never actually happened; but back in 1953 this was the scenario presented to the listeners of an amazing science fiction radio programme entitled Journey into Space.
In those days, some four years before the launch of Sputnik 1, it might have seemed to many people that Britain would be at the forefront of any such a venture. Journey into Space was the story of ‘Jet’ Morgan and his crew, and their eventual journey in the British Commonwealth rocket ship Luna. The series was transmitted in the BBC Light Programme slot and soon attracted a huge audience, quickly becoming the most popular production on radio in Britain at that time. In fact, it turned out to be the last radio programme to attract a mass audience before television changed the future of broadcasting forever. In the dreary postwar world where rationing and food shortages were still fresh in the mind, millions sat down each week to this half hour of radio escapism; and it proved so popular that the number of episodes quickly had to be increased from 8 to 18, and include a weekly repeat.
The story envisaged a scenario in which the United States, after launching an advanced version of the German V2 into orbit, found it could not afford to continue due to the high cost of developing conventionally-fuelled rockets. The lead was therefore taken by the British commonwealth because a brilliant Australian engineer had developed an atomic-powered rocket engine. The rocket ship Luna was the result, equipped to transport four people on a return journey to the Moon. The crew became household names in Britain, but bore no resemblance to any astronauts from the American space programme. The captain, ‘Jet’ Morgan, was a Scottish commercial airline pilot; the Cockney, ‘Lemmy’ Barnet (in charge of communications) was an airline radio operator; the doctor, ‘Doc’ Matthews, was a research doctor; and Stephen ‘Mitch’ Mitchell was the Australian engineer responsible for developing the rocket engine. A further pioneering aspect of this series was its accompanying music. This highly-original score was written and conducted by Van Phillips. It embodied the use of recorded sounds passed through the National Physical Laboratory’s reverberation chamber, the first time this had ever been attempted. The music is rarely played these days, but once heard it is never forgotten.
The series was written by Charles Chilton, a scriptwriter who had earlier achieved fame by writing, of all things, a successful radio cowboy series for the BBC called Riders of the Range. Famously he often wrote episodes very close to the date of transmission, sometimes just two days before the broadcast. His success led him to become a member of the British Interplanetary Society, from whom he is supposed to have sought technical advice. He also wrote the three books that accompanied the series.
Several of the actors, such as David Jacobs, Alfie Bass and David Kossof, went on to achieve greater fame. ‘Jet’ Morgan was played by Andrew Faulds, who was to become a long-serving Labour MP. Guy Kingsley Pointer, who played ‘Doc,’ also narrated each episode; his soft Canadian voice, one of the memorable aspects of the series, still echoes down the decades.
The series was quite remarkable for its prescience, in that a number of its elements bore a close resemblance to the Apollo Moon programme of the 1960s. The series fictional Moon landing took place in 1965, only four years before Apollo 11. Like Apollo, the radio programme envisaged the use of a staged rocket ship for a direct journey to the Moon and back, but using a crew of four instead of the three Apollo astronauts. The spacecraft Luna also had something in common with the American space shuttle in that it was a re-usable vehicle with wings that could glide back to Earth. However, the journey to the Moon for Jet Morgan and his crew turned out to be nothing like the one experienced by the Apollo astronauts. It involved travelling back in time at one point and meeting intelligent life from another star system.
The huge popularity of Journey into Space led to the commissioning of a second series entitled The Red Planet, about the first journey to Mars. A third series entitled The World in Peril dealt with a dangerous return trip from Mars. All three series were translated into 17 languages for world-wide production. Journey into Space was conceived in the ‘pre-Suez’ Britain of the early 1950s, when it might have seemed possible for the UK, with the assistance of the developing Commonwealth, to beat the United States and the Soviet Union into space. To some people, a British landing on the Moon might have offered the chance for a new colonial age in space, the existing Empire having by
then entered a period of rapid decline.
Journey into Space undoubtedly inspired a whole generation to take an interest in space. It certainly inspired me.
John Silvester, FBIS (based on an article which first appeared in Odyssey 19 in September 2012)
If you knew Charles, or would like to share any memories of Journey into Space, please contact Mark Stewart at [email protected]