The Untidiness of Space Travel

Space travel isn’t always neat and tidy. This edition published by New English Library 1987. Cover illustration by Danny Flynn.

The images of space travel which we had back in the 1950s were, on the whole, remarkably clean-cut and tidy.  George Pal’s 1955 film The Conquest of Space summed it up – mankind’s first mission to Mars uses a sleek, winged spacecraft which leaves Earth orbit from a location close to a giant spinning space station, appearing as a smooth wheel rotating against the star-strewn blackness.

The imagery of the film was inspired to some extent by the non-fiction 1949 book of the same name by Willy Ley and illustrated by the great space artist Chesley Bonestell, but the concepts were fairly common at the time.  Wheel-shaped space stations, creating a sense of artificial gravity for their occupants, were envisioned by Ley and Wernher von Braun in their famous articles in Collier’s Magazine, and anyone familiar with Dan Dare’s adventures in The Eagle will know that spacecraft were going to be smoothly contoured, and space stations quite luxurious.

But it didn’t turn out like that.  The Apollo spacecraft travelling to the Moon, with the Lunar Module attached to the Command/Service Module, was highly practical but didn’t actually look like a thing of beauty.  Even the partially reusable Space Shuttle had a somewhat clumsy appearance on take-off, with the Orbiter Vehicle attached to an enormous external tank and two solid rocket boosters.

As for the International Space Station, if it wasn’t for the elegance of its solar arrays spreading out on either side, the conglomeration of modules, trusses and other bits that have been added over the years give a sense of considerable untidiness.  So far, for entirely understandable reasons, any aesthetic effect has not been a primary goal of design for space travel.  It’s all, perhaps, a bit scruffy.

Yet not every visionary from the 1950s thought that space travel would necessarily be aesthetically pleasing.  The science fiction author Robert Heinlein gave us an idea of this in his 1951 novel Between Planets.  He describes the Circum-Terra space station as “a great confused mass in the sky.  It had been built, rebuilt, added to, and modified over the course of years for a dozen different purposes.”  It could be a description of the ISS, though this station also has the ‘Goddard Hotel’, a spinning, pressurised drum which provides artificial gravity and atmosphere for humans, which “stuck out from the side of Circum-Terra like a cartwheel from a pile of junk”.

There are some interestingly far-sighted elements in this story from the early 1950s – on only the second page, the hero uses a mobile phone.  However, the less pleasant aspects of space flight are obvious when he, who was born during a space voyage and considers himself a citizen of the Interplanetary Federation rather than any one specific planet, gets severe nausea during his first brief flight after many years; “Oh, no!  It couldn’t be…not space sickness, not to him.  Why, he had been born in free fall; space nausea was for Earth crawlers, groundhogs!”

Heinlein manages to suggest the more ungainly elements of space journeys – to use one of his pithy phrases from the novel in the slightly different context of a long-distance interplanetary trip, it had “more the air of an unmade bed” than any sense of decorous travelling that pleased the senses.

It has been said that he often depicted a future that was smoothly efficient and structured due to a militarised outlook on space travel; one only need think of the influential, and controversial, Starship Troopers from 1959, where a military elite rules the spaceways.  Accusations of glorifying war come fairly easily.  But he could also show less sanitised and scruffier aspects of travel beyond the Earth.

And, the way things are going these days, he might not have been so wrong on other aspects as well.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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