Collier’s: Gorgeous Art, Breathtaking Ideas

by Paul Gilster on October 2, 2012

In the course of an enjoyable dinner with Douglas Yazell, Shen Ge and Al Jackson (this was in Houston at the 100 Year Starship Symposium), I learned that the Houston section of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics was in the process of reprinting, in its entirety, the famous Collier’s series on manned spaceflight. Yazell is editor of Horizons, the bi-monthly publication of the Houston group, and fortunately for all of us, it is both online and free. For me, revisiting these stirring articles will be a priority as each comes out. The July/August issue contains Collier’s for March 22, 1952, first in the series.

I can only imagine how this issue of Collier’s would have drawn the eye in the typical early 1950s newsstand. The Chesley Bonestell cover shows an enormous winged rocket staging as it soars above an Earth flecked with cloud and crimson with distant sunlight. Evidently we have Scott Lowther to thank for scanning and repairing the entire Collier’s series, a fact he reports on his Unwanted Blog, where he notes that this is the first time these articles have been republished in full-color, high-resolution format since their original release. He does point out that some of the numerous original ads have been edited out — Horizons has replaced these with ads from its Collier’s team members.

According to notes offered by Yazell, Collier’s flagged the upcoming series — to be called Man Will Conquer Space Soon! — with a press release on March 13, 1952, previewing the six articles, totalling 25 pages, that would comprise the first installment of the series. In all, eight issues of the magazine, running into 1954, would offer space articles. Magazine collectors know that UNZ.org has offered the Collier’s series for some time (along with a huge amount of other magazine material), but the UNZ.org scans are low-resolution. The Horizons work restores the series in sharp, gorgeous color.

Space Seizes the Public Imagination

What an impact this series had on the imagination of readers at the time, for not only were the articles written by major figures in the scientific community, including Wernher von Braun, Willy Ley, Fred Whipple and others, but the magazine made liberal use of the illustrations of Chesley Bonestell in addition to fine (and too often neglected) artwork from Rolf Klep and Fred Freeman, not inconsiderable artists in their own right. It’s the Bonestell most people remember first, though, and many young people went on to have these concepts ingrained through three episodes in the Disneyland TV series that were based on the Collier’s concepts.

Physicist A. A. Jackson goes so far as to say, in this same issue of Horizons, that the Collier’s series may have made the Apollo program a reality by influencing countless young people to pursue careers in spaceflight. It certainly, five years before Sputnik, seized the public imagination, a possibility von Braun’s friend Willy Ley must have foreseen when he took the idea for the project to Cornelius Ryan, then an editor at Collier’s. The series drew liberally from material von Braun had developed for a science fiction novel he called Project MARS: A Technical Tale, whose appendix would become the basis of a space series in a German spaceflight journal. Von Braun’s Mars novel would eventually find an English publisher and it remains in print through the University of Illinois Press.

Image: Chesley Bonestell’s space station distilled earlier science fiction concepts into a vivid image that would recur in 1950s SF films like Conquest of Space (Bonestell did background space art for the movie, which also tapped von Braun’s ideas). Credit: Collier’s.

If you want to see what space as a goal felt like in the early 1950s, take a look at these pages, where the excitement is palpable and the technology seemed just around the corner. So many of the tropes of the era’s science fiction films had their genesis here, as witness not just von Braun’s winged rockets but the enormous wheel of a space station being serviced by tiny space taxis, the latter rendered in detailed cross-section by Fred Freeman’s talented brush. Bonestell’s painting of a manned lunar orbiter, with its three bulbous chambers connected by scaffolding, captures the wonder of a first glimpse of the far side of the Moon and a soon to be burgeoning space race caught up in the geopolitics of the Cold War. The Collier’s editors were careful to position space as an arena for a competition the US could not afford to lose. From their introduction:

When the atomic bomb program — the Manhattan Project — was initiated, nobody really knew whether such a weapon could actually be made. The famous Smyth Report on atomic energy tells us that among the scientists there were many who had grave and fundamental doubts of the success of the undertaking. It was a two-billion-dollar technical gamble.

Such would not be the case with a space program. The claim that huge rocket ships can be built and a space station created still stands unchallenged by any serious scientist. Our engineers can spell out right now (as you will see) the technical specifications for the rocket ship and space station in cut-and-dried figures. And they can detail the design features. All they need is time (about ten years), money and authority.

Coming up next in the Horizons reprint series is the October 18, 1952 issue of Collier’s, devoted to the Moon and the attempt to land humans on it. The editorial of that issue notes that an expanded version of the March 22nd articles had already appeared as a book called Across the Space Frontier from Viking Press, a sure indication of the surge in interest the magazine had created. It also mentioned the Third International Congress on Astronautics, which had just met in Stuttgart, where a von Braun paper was read. For many, the Collier’s series took science fiction into the realm of engineering reality, matching vivid space imagery with ongoing scientific research. It was a mind-bending, career-changing journey whose pages repay our continued attention.

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{ 25 comments }

Alex Tolley October 2, 2012 at 10:19

This is almost like a trip through my “classic space” book collection. I can highly recommend the Bonestell illustrated books by Willy Ley, especially the “The Conquest of Space”. When I was very young, I had read “Beyond the Solar System” that was in my local library in England. It wasn’t until the age of the internet that I was able to acquire a good copy.

That winged rocket illustration for Colliers has been my laptop’s wallpaper for several years now. I still think it is a stirring image, but my students who see it every time I lecture have never commented on it. Times change.

Abelard Lindsey October 2, 2012 at 11:14

Yes. The Werner Von Braun/Arthur C Clarke scenario.

ljk October 2, 2012 at 12:22

The Conquest of Space, a film from 1955 that ranks among one of the relatively few pieces of science fiction cinema that made a serious attempt to be scientifically and technically accurate. Not only was CoS based on the magazine articles and subsequent books written by real rocket scientists of the day which are the focus of this Centauri Dreams piece, but the models and artwork came from the likes of George Pal and Chesley Bonestell.

So why isn’t the film version of Conquest of Space as popular or well-known as the works it is based upon?

I have watched CoS several times in the recent past. If I had to describe the film in a nutshell, it would be one that strove mightily for realism on a topic in an era before the first satellite had even made it to Earth orbit, let alone sending a whole crew to Mars. The special effects are quite good for their time, even though I could never completely suspend the belief that I was looking at a plastic model suspended by wires rather than a giant, sophisticated wheeled space station circling the planet.

The depiction of the planet Mars was fairly accurate considering that many astronomers still felt there was validity to the existence of the infamous canals and the average member of the general public thought there was still a chance that intelligent and highly civilized Martians existed. Thankfully, not once were the visiting astronauts or the sensibilities of the audience assaulted by a cheesy-looking menace from the Red Planet like so many other science fiction films of that time – though, ironically, that is probably another reason why CoS was not as popular as it should have been.

However, CoS failed rather mightily when it came to its attempts at characterization, humor, and drama – unless you consider a large dose of depressing themes successful drama.

For me a film, a television series, or a novel lives or dies by its characters. There has to be something about the main cast of a show that makes you either love or hate them. By the latter I mean hate as in they are doing a really good job of being the bad guy, if that is their actual intent. However, when you have characters to which you are either indifferent to or outright dislike, then the plot, ideas, and special effects become almost irrelevant. For CoS, the characters fell mostly into the categories of indifference to quite annoying.

Right off the bat, we have Da Guy from Brooklyn who is supposed to be our Everyman among the big, brave, and smart astronauts, but long by today’s standards is a hoary old and rather embarrassing cliché. Yes I know dere was Da Guy from Brooklyn in Destination Moon released five years earlier, but dat – I mean that – film made up for him on almost every other level where CoS faltered.

Then we have the general leading the space mission, who on the way to Mars decides that humanity doesn’t have the literally God-given right to conquer space and twice attempts to sabotage the spacecraft. After the second attempt, his son tries to stop him and accidentally shoots the general dead. The general’s buddy (an Irishman complete with accent and burly ways), who stowed away on the pointy rocket ship by hiding in one of the spacesuits, sees the end result of this and threatens the son – who already feels pretty crappy about killing his own father even if the deranged general had made two attempts to snuff the entire crew – for pretty much the rest of the mission.

Oh yes, and there was an earlier scene on the way to the Red Planet where an astronaut on an EVA is killed by a meteor and his body is left to dangle at the end of a line in full view of the rest of the crew. At one point Da Guy from Brooklyn gets so upset at the sight that he seems ready to crack.

The only seemingly sane and rational crewmember of this voyage is also the only non-white person in the cast, a Japanese fellow who pretty much saves the mission from complete depression and outright failure. Fairly progressive for Hollywood in that era, I presume. Of course no women were allowed on either the space station or the flight to Mars, but I think most of them would have been pretty happy to be shunned in this particular case – especially when the crew finds themselves stuck on the Red Planet for an entire year, right through a miserable Christmas “celebration.”

Even though Destination Moon was basically similar to CoS, complete with the aforementioned Brooklynite and the otherwise fairly bland band of white American males, it succeeded where CoS by having an underlying strong thread of optimism about venturing in space. Certainly DM had its share of drama, tension, and threat of doom to the mission, but that crew handled their problems with a combination of know-how and team spirit, rarely succumbing to feelings of failure because they knew what they were doing was ultimately bigger than themselves. The CoS crew, on the other hand, clearly did not want to be in space or on other world, especially with each other, which in turn made the audience want to be are far away as possible from them as well.

I get the feeling that Pal et al was trying for a sense of realism and riveting drama with CoS, which naturally includes the possibility of people in confined spaces far from home such as the case with a manned mission to Mars turning dark and ugly in their moods and actions. What Pal et al forgot, though, was that just as with most film audiences today, ticketgoers largely want to be enthralled and even scared on occasion, especially when they are being promised a thrilled adventure in space! CoS fairly failure in this regard.

I for one would like to know what the ardent space fan and scientists of 1955 really thought of this film: Would they tend to agree about what I have just said, or were they merely focused on the ideas and special effects?

While I do not dislike CoS and respect what it was trying to accomplish in its time, I definitely prefer the preceding written works. Walt Disney would be far more successful with his Man in Space series on television shortly after CoS, if you want to see how Pal and company probably should have presented CoS. You can find them all on YouTube.

As for the general public and Hollywood, CoS was apparently a bomb which hurt George Pal’s career, enough so that he never did another science fiction film. A real unfair shame when you consider that Pal was the one behind When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds just a few years before CoS.

For a good collection of stills from CoS – if you can get through the snarky comments – see this Web site:

http://davidszondy.com/future/conquest/conquest.htm

FrankH October 2, 2012 at 14:58

The Chesley Bonestell space station with the mercury boilers was issued by Lindberg as a plastic 1/250 scale model in the late 1950′s. Lindberg re-released it a couple of years ago as the “Space Base Satellite Explorer ” and packaged it with their “Mars Probe” rocket. It’s still available.

ljk October 2, 2012 at 15:11

A brief review of von Braun’s Project MARS: A Technical Tale here:

http://www.universetoday.com/1305/book-reviews-mars-a-technical-tale-reference-guide-to-the-iss/

And a paper on how von Braun’s vision of space exploration influenced our space program:

http://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20100025876_2010028367.pdf

Of note: The beginning of his Mars book describes how human civilization became one big happy family by 1980 after a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the USSR! Apparently the USA survived the retaliatory strike with no more than ten to twenty million dead, tops, depending on the breaks.

GCecil October 2, 2012 at 20:16

Readers of this thread may be interested in the alternate history of space exploration that follows the Colliers track by a film-maker in Australia, http://www.manconquersspace.com Wonderful test shots/clips and impressive CGI in the trailers. I hope he finds funding to finish Man Conquers Space.

David Sander October 2, 2012 at 20:59

For those unaware, I am making a movie that could be argued is a cinematic adaptation of the Collier’s space series. The story in the film spans a broader time period than the magazine series, showing the founding of the Space Age and concluding in modern day, but incorporates almost everything von Braun conceived and Bonestell (and colleagues) illustrated. The whole project is presented as a documentary, as if everything proposed had come to pass. It is an independent self-funded feature: http://www.manconquersspace.com

johnq October 2, 2012 at 21:48

“. . . CoS was apparently a bomb which hurt George Pal’s career, enough so that he never did another science fiction film.”

Well, he did do the Time Machine in 1960, still in my opinion the best adaptation of the classic SF novel. I think the smaller the scope of his movies, and the Time Machine is a fairly intimate piece, the better the results (having H.G. Wells provide the source material didn’t hurt either.) But when he went big and tried to do some kind of DeMille number, it just didn’t work. If you ever have a chance to see the movie Atlantis, the Lost Continent, science fiction of sorts, don’t.

Gregory Benford October 2, 2012 at 23:52

I used this same Collier’s cover to kick off a piece for Reason magazine, Science Fiction Faces Facts, about what’s become of the dream since.

http://reason.com/archives/2012/01/25/science-fiction-faces-facts

Al Jackson is quite right: they inspired a generation.

A. A. Jackson October 3, 2012 at 2:18

The Colliers series has such a profound effect when I was 12 and 13 years old (in 1952 – 1953) that I badgered by parents for all the few, very few, books on spaceflight out then. Willy Ley’s magnum opus being one of the best. I had to turn to reading science fiction to feed my passion, which was good because the fabulous Robert Heinlein’s , so called juvies, really hot roded my obsession and 13 years latter , when I was 25, I joined NASA and the Apollo program.

The Colliers series was almost all worked out in 1948 when von Braun and 6 or 7 other of the Peenemünde guys worked on the technical appendix for von Braun’s novel. All who helped are acknowledged by von Braun in The Mars Project … but a little lost is Kraft Ehricke who made major contributions and later emerged as major a visionary as von Braun.

The Mars Project: A Technical Tale was not published until 2006 … as prose it is really Popular Mechanics science fiction and not up to the blistering standards of John W Campbell in 1950! I can see why it did not find a publisher in the 1950 to 1953 time frame.
Still a ton of the Colliers technology appears in the novel from the Space Station , Space Taxis , details of the Ferry ship operations … all that was needed was Chesley Bonestell , Fred Freeman and Rolf Klep’s art to make the package explode.

Oddly when Viking Press reprinted the Colliers series in book form , Across the Space Frontier and Conquest of the Moon they were produced on regular paper the Bonestell’s did not appear on enameled paper until years later.
The Colliers Mars expedition issue never was worked into a book, von Braun later redid the who mission as The Exploration of Mars , 1956, and he pulled in his horns a bit. (von Braun opted , in the Disney series, to go with Ernst Stuhlinger’s ideas (another visionary!).

The whole Colliers series was so beautifully done and detailed!…. that it’s a total shame that someone, at the time, did pull all the articles together into a book since much of the material only appeared in the magazine.

It took us a long time and the help of a space lawyer to uncover that the Colliers work was out of copyright, so, almost 60 years later a preservation is in hand.

Al Jackson

David Warlick October 3, 2012 at 9:35

The first issue of Colliers was published just days after I was born. But it was the presence of publications like these on the news stands of my home town, that helped make me who I am today.

ljk October 3, 2012 at 9:42

johnq said on October 2, 2012 at 21:48:

“. . . CoS was apparently a bomb which hurt George Pal’s career, enough so that he never did another science fiction film.”

“Well, he did do the Time Machine in 1960, still in my opinion the best adaptation of the classic SF novel.”

Oh I can’t believe I didn’t remember The Time Machine, especially since I just saw it on TCM! Thank you for the correction. I have never seen Atlantis, and it sounds like that is a good thing.

Speaking of science fiction films and George Pal, as much as I like his 1953 version of The War of the Worlds, I keep hoping that someone will some day do a cinematic remake of Wells’ novel based on the time and place the written work took place in, England in the late 1890s.

For those who are unaware of this relevant Web site, check out Dreams of Space:

http://dreamsofspace.blogspot.com/

And check out this recent book:

Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race, 1957-1962

By Megan Prelinger

http://www.blastbooks.com/another_science_fiction.htm

Paul Gilster October 3, 2012 at 9:51

David Warlick writes:

The first issue of Colliers was published just days after I was born. But it was the presence of publications like these on the news stands of my home town, that helped make me who I am today.

You and me both, my friend!

Abelard Lindsey October 3, 2012 at 11:42

“The beginning of his Mars book describes how human civilization became one big happy family by 1980 after a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the USSR! Apparently the USA survived the retaliatory strike with no more than ten to twenty million dead, tops, depending on the breaks.”

They did have a cavalier attitude towards nuclear war in the 1950′s. They were cavalier towards nuclear radiation, with the military exposing thousands of troops to nuclear radiation and not giving a rusty f**k. Also, there was project Orion.

Abelard Lindsey October 3, 2012 at 11:45

BTW, I think Kubrick’s “2001″ was the best cinematic depiction of the Von Braun/Clarke scenario. It had the wheel space station, the moon base, and various shuttles traveling between them. Instead of going to Jupiter (or Saturn, I forget which), the good ship Discovery could well have been on its first mission to Mars.

ljk October 3, 2012 at 12:47

Earlier last month, Dreams of Space showed the von Braun story Life on Mars which was part of his giant manned Mars mission plan. This is from the 1960 edition of a periodical called This Week. Fred Freeman’s great artwork is also on display here.

Part 1 starts here:

http://dreamsofspace.blogspot.com/2012/09/life-on-mars-from-this-week-april-24.html

ljk October 3, 2012 at 12:49

And here is Dreams of Space’s colorful tribute to the Conquest of Space series on its 60th anniversary last March:

http://dreamsofspace.blogspot.com/2012/03/colliers-march-22-1952-man-will-conquer.html

Alex Tolley October 3, 2012 at 14:20

Speaking of science fiction films and George Pal, as much as I like his 1953 version of The War of the Worlds, I keep hoping that someone will some day do a cinematic remake of Wells’ novel based on the time and place the written work took place in, England in the late 1890s.

It’s been done. The War of teh Worlds Warning, it very plodding.

Abelard Lindsey October 3, 2012 at 16:59

Consider that Mars was believed to be “Earth-like” right up until that fateful day of the Mariner 4 flyby.

ljk October 3, 2012 at 23:12

Abelard Lindsey said on October 3, 2012 at 16:59:

“Consider that Mars was believed to be “Earth-like” right up until that fateful day of the Mariner 4 flyby.”

I have always wondered if Mariner 4 had taken higher-quality images of the Martian volcanoes at Tharsis or the canyon later called Valles Marineris which is longer than the United States, would that have been enough to keep NASA intersted in sending manned missions to the Red Planet?

Certainly people were thrilled when Mariner 9 made those actual discoveries in 1971, but by then the Nixon regime had killed NASA future plans except for the Space Shuttle so it was too late for exploration and colonization by astronauts.

Another item on von Braun here:

http://amyshirateitel.com/2012/09/17/wernher-von-brauns-smoke-and-mirrors-escape-from-germany/

ljk October 4, 2012 at 10:38

Abelard Lindsey said on October 3, 2012 at 11:45:

“BTW, I think Kubrick’s “2001″ was the best cinematic depiction of the Von Braun/Clarke scenario. It had the wheel space station, the moon base, and various shuttles traveling between them. Instead of going to Jupiter (or Saturn, I forget which), the good ship Discovery could well have been on its first mission to Mars.”

Kubrick may have also been influenced by a Soviet science fiction film from 1957 titled Road to the Stars:

http://www.astronautix.com/articles/roastars.htm

You can see the entire film here:

http://newsfeed.kosmograd.com/kosmograd/2009/06/road-to-the-stars.html

Speaking of major historical space events: Happy 55th anniversary today, Sputnik 1!

http://www.mentallandscape.com/s_sputnik1.htm

ljk October 4, 2012 at 10:48

Oh yes: In the novel version of 2001, Clarke had the crew of the USS Discovery going to Saturn. However, the story goes that special effects artist Douglas Trumbull could not get the rings of that planet to look good for the 1968 film version of 2001, so they had the crew go to Jupiter, where nobody knew about that planet’s ring system at the time – and besides, Jupiter’s rings are pretty thin and dark in comparison.

This is why Trumbull had the action in his 1971 SF film Silent Running take place around Saturn, because he wanted to finally get those rings right. Even though it would have made much more sense to keep the greenhouses much closer to the Sun.

Peter Simmons October 12, 2012 at 10:12

‘in conjunction with the successful rise of science fiction’ … the trouble is, too many people who ought to know better can’t seem to differentiate between SF and reality. They talk of visuals as if they are of real things and not creations of the imagination, and, while those of us into SF in the fifties and sixties knew it was fiction and visualised for ourselves the imaginary vehicles and worlds described. Now since so many movies and CGI, I think some younger people have difficulty separating fact from fiction. And at a point in our history when we are coming close to closing down our evolution by destroying the ecosphere of our planet [as well as wiping out countless other species] and making it unviable for a highly complex and interdependent organism like homo sapiens, many seem to be escaping into fantasy, where it is only a matter of time before we are colonising the galaxy, despite still not having figured out how to stop the destruction of Earth, or how exactly skin-encapsulated ego-bodies can survive the vastness of hostile space where we would fry very quickly if not protected by something we have yet to invent. And that’s not comparing tyhe disparity between our hominid lifespans and the vastness of space. We have as much hope of traversing the galaxy as we have of growing up into a truly evolved species, still being too many ape characteristics, together with homo sapiens lust for blood, power and domination. If we were able to make the journey, and were to find a liveable Earth-like planet, and it had an intelligent species, we would still have to wipe it out just as we have with all ‘new’ lands we have ‘discovered’ much to the indiginous inhabitants cost.
Scientists are still subject to fantasies it seems. And reading much of this site, one might think we were already travelling to the stars, or at least had solved all the problems that would entail. Does this fantasy maqke it less likely we will put in the necessary effort to avert the environmental disaster we have unleashed and which is approaching fast? I suspect it does. So how many people here are a) concerned about climate change b) are doing anything about mitigating it c) think when we have trashed this planet will be time to move to another and begin the process all over again? Still, humans murder each other with monotonous regularity and lack of concern, often is huge numbers in wars, we destroy more effectively than we create, and weapons technology usually leads our development. We are a psychotic ape and I’m not so sure we should even want to get into space, perhaps if there is a ‘superior’ species somewhere, they are watching us in horror and debating whether we should be erased for the good of the galaxy.
Space exploration is not going to happen, and ape-dreams won’t make it so. We have our comms satellites, and that’s about the lot as far as monkeys in space are concerned, ever wondered why fifty years after the ‘moon landing’ nothing much has happened except for unmanned probes and sci-fi movies?
A star wars generation who didn’t get that it was all imaginary, not real, not going to be real.

Peter Simmons October 12, 2012 at 10:17

LJK: “BTW, I think Kubrick’s “2001″ was the best cinematic depiction of the Von Braun/Clarke scenario. It had the wheel space station, the moon base, and various shuttles traveling between them. Instead of going to Jupiter (or Saturn, I forget which), the good ship Discovery could well have been on its first mission to Mars.”

As someone who actually worked on Kubrick’s film creating animated mock-ups for the computer screens in the shuttle [we had no computers back then kiddies] I can tell you that nothing is real, even the ‘wheel base station’ was a set which was a quarter of a wheel, in which the action took place, each shot blended into the previous one to make you think it was a complete wheel he was running round. Smoke and mirrors is all. You can’t believe everything you see.

Rob Henry October 15, 2012 at 16:25

Peter Simmons, you should be very afraid of the path for humanity that you propose. I put it to you that we should try to reduce our environmental footprint whenever the impact on our growth is low, but only in those cases. But now let us see where your path could possibly lead.

In 1939, the German’s showed far more rationality than most like to admit. They had just lost a world war solely because of their poor food security (no, really!). A new leader had come to power, and like many revolutionaries, he wanted hegemony for his country. Now war is normally counterproductive, and there are other more fulfilling ways to achieve such aims, but Hitler wanted a pristine environment and balanced farming practices that could be sustained a thousand years. He preserved wetlands to such an extent that even his autobahns had to curve around them.

I could go on much more, but I think you get the picture. Invading Poland was the rational outcome of wanting sustainable farming practices here and now, and brooking no potential for future technologies to bridge the gap.

Peter, sometimes compromise is best. I put it to you that managing the question of our ecological sustainability is better than solving it.

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