Remembering “Men Into Space”

by Paul Gilster on October 3, 2012

Yesterday’s discussion about Man Will Conquer Space Soon!, the landmark series in Collier’s that so elegantly defined the 1950s view of space travel, has me in a retrospective mood. The Collier’s series was highly visible, and those old enough to have seen it tend to remember its concepts whether or not they’re in an aerospace-related profession today. But a few years later a TV show called “Men Into Space” turned up on CBS, fighting for audience share and generally out-publicised by the network’s “Twilight Zone” offering. It would run only a single season and end in September of 1960, months before Yuri Gagarin’s daring ride in a Vostok.

But “Men Into Space” sticks with me for a reason. Its 38 episodes followed Col. Edward McCauley (played by William Lundigan) through a variety of space situations, using him as a viewpoint character while the astronauts he worked with dealt with breakthroughs and problems. In that sense there was a certain similarity to what would become the Mercury program — we can assume this is exactly what the producers had in mind — but in its relatively realistic view of the dangers of these missions, it also harked back to the era of the rocket plane, when test pilots flew the X-15 and its X-series predecessors to new speed and altitude records.

Image: William Lundigan, star of “Men Into Space,” who portrayed a seasoned astronaut guiding an often-changing cast through the dangers of manned spaceflight. Credit: Ziv Television Productions.

It’s that dual emphasis that makes this series interesting. Back in 2003 when I was researching Centauri Dreams in Cleveland, I was headed out to lunch with Marc Millis and Geoff Landis. This was not long after the Columbia disaster and the idea of risk — and its ability to paralyze the space program — was very much in the air. I quoted Landis on this in the book:

“If a test pilot crashes at Edwards Air Force Base…they name a street after him, and the next day someone else flies another mission to see what went wrong. With space, things are different. Every mission has to be a success, we can tolerate no casualties. It may be a cultural thing. Maybe we’ve grown too afraid of risks.”

My thought was that it’s not the people in the machines who fear the risks but the culture that sends them, and in that I agreed with Landis. But these retrospective thoughts about space in the media have me wondering just why — and when — the risk paradigm changed. If you read Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, you’ll recall the mindset that Wolfe identified at Edwards, where Chuck Yeager cracked the sound barrier in the X-1 and Scott Crossfield pushed the X-15 to every limit in the book (Crossfield is famous for saying that the X-15 was one of the few aircraft that caused grown men to cry when it was summarily retired). Wolfe is worth quoting on the idea of risk and how it looked in the late 1950s, when “Men Into Space” was made.

As to just what this ineffable quality was…well, it obviously involved bravery. But it was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life. The idea seemed to be that any fool could do that, if that was all that was required, just as any fool could throw away his life in the process. No, the idea here…seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment — and then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day, even if the series should prove infinite — and, ultimately, in its best expression, do so in a cause that means something to thousands, to a people, a nation, to humanity, to God. Nor was there a test to show whether or not a pilot had this righteous quality. There was, instead, a seemingly infinite series of tests…

“Men Into Space,” in a post-Sputnik America that was about to go crazy with the idea of going to the Moon, pushed its astronauts into a variety of Moon landings, space station scenarios, the building of a Moon base and two different attempts to reach Mars. The two Mars missions failed and they were not alone, for this was a show where astronauts occasionally died. Things went wrong and, unlike Neil Armstrong and David Scott’s dangerous Gemini 8 flight, which could easily have proven fatal, many of the “Men Into Space” missions lost their crews. Technical glitches were common and astronauts kept going back into space in spite of all this.

I’m an old movie buff and I particularly enjoy the depiction of aviation in movies of the 1930s and 1940s. Recently I was watching Pat O’Brien and Humphrey Bogart in “China Clipper” (1936), in which a turbo-charged Bogart pushes O’Brien’s new clipper design to the limit, flying through an advancing squall line to demonstrate that the design had what it took to survive the Pacific. Pilots died aplenty in the early days of aviation and it was considered part of the price for learning how to build better aircraft, an approach that fed directly into the culture Wolfe describes at Edwards. It’s an attitude that feeds countless aviation films of this era.

Something happened to our cultural risk paradigm between the late 1950s and the end of Apollo, something that was certainly with us when we lost our two Space Shuttles, and I’m wondering just what it was. My guess is that the rocket-plane pilots of Edwards Air Force Base were never in the public eye to the extent that the Mercury 7 were, and that our decision to mount a national effort to reach the Moon in the context of the Cold War elevated our crews into the kind of public figures whose loss would be unthinkable. The risks of these flights were palpable, but the risk paradigm — what we all felt about those flights and those crews — seemed to be changing.

I suspect that if we do enter into a time of commercial space development, with companies like Planetary Resources actually mining asteroids with human crews launched by SpaceX or other companies, the paradigm will begin to shift again. Sheer numbers will eventually force it to, for a large enough population working on a regular basis in space is a different thing than a single crew facing long odds on a dangerous mission. The show that prompted these musings, “Men Into Space,” doesn’t seem to be available in streaming mode, but I do see various DVDs out there. Like the Collier’s series, it’s an interesting illustration of how our thinking on space has changed.

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JoeP October 3, 2012 at 10:04

Frankly, low-earth orbit missions did not fire the imagination and were yet another symptom of risk-avoidance. We did that for decades. No wonder America gave up on government sponsored manned missions.

Tim Kyger October 3, 2012 at 11:38

The complete “Men Into Space” was available on DVD, at least a few years ago when I bought mine. I loved that show when I was a kid. (I was four when it came on to TV.) I still honor the exploits of Col. MacCauley, and still am gobsmacked that what we see protrayed in “MIS” we still can’t seem to do. “Let’s go to the moon.” “OK, we’ll fly tomorrow. I’ll tell operations.” THAT’s the way it ought to be. And I hope will be eventually.

Michael the Usually Civilized October 3, 2012 at 11:45

The series is available on DVD. I spent two days watching the whole thing two or three times, and I think it’s time for me to do that again.

I’ve not counted the deaths in that TV series, but I do remember at least four in two spacecraft crashes. Since the mid-60s, Americans at least have been trained to avoid doing anything that they could not control totally. By the early 70s the first generation of risk-avoiding teachers where in American government schools, and the result stands all around us.

Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey October 3, 2012 at 11:55

Men into Space is one of the series considered by the science fiction critic Gary Westfahl in his new book The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969, which I have not yet read, but which I hope to read soon. He has also written about the series online.

Westfahl coined the term “spacesuit film” for a narrow subset of science fiction movies. For a succinct discussion, see an entry he wrote for the Science Fiction Encyclopedia. Spacesuit films

“are those space films that endeavour to plausibly portray the harsh conditions and novel features of life in outer space and on other planets – such as the absence of air, zero or low gravity, and dangerous radiation– as most prominently indicated by the fact that their characters constantly wear, or are in close proximity to, protective spacesuits. [...] the classic spacesuit films have not been properly appreciated because their recognition of the realities of space has forced them to devise an entirely new sort of cinematic narrative to match this new environment…

Men into Space falls squarely into this newly-invented category of science fiction.

Christopher L. Bennett October 3, 2012 at 13:06

I’m reminded of a movie I saw a while back on Turner Classic Movies, Riders to the Stars from 1954. It was about a very dangerous secret project to send the first men into space — not even deep space, just low orbit — to collect meteorites and discover how they could survive the conditions of space when even the best steel couldn’t, so that it would be possible to develop viable space travel in the future. It was a pretty interesting, somewhat plausible conjectural look at early spaceflight, at least for a time when very little was known about it. And there was indeed a lot of danger for the astronauts and even loss of life. The title song was pretty corny, though.

FrankH October 3, 2012 at 15:34

I watched “Men into Space” on the Sci-Fi channel, back when they showed Science Fiction. The acting was a bit stilted, but the series had a well defined arc that was great to follow.
Unfortunately, while Ziv TV is long gone, the show is not in the Public Domain. MGM Television owns the rights; who knows if/when we’ll see this show on DVD or any other medium.

JoJo The Rat October 3, 2012 at 16:24

I don’t think risk-aversion is so much a real reflection of our cultural attitude toward space as simply the attitude of the political establishment. Manned spaceflight is the single most forward-looking, enlightened, hopeful, and inspiring endeavor it is possible to be engaged in, and as such it tends to inspire visceral loathing in people who are unenlightened, malignant, or parochial.

Whenever there is a tragedy in manned spaceflight, those types in Congress smell blood in the water, because they know that as a simple matter of propriety the defenders of spaceflight can’t be seen as being too insensitive to the human cost whereas the hypocrites who oppose it (largely so they can give the money to the Pentagon) can pretend to care by attacking what the astronauts died for.

A politician saying “So what? Thirty thousand people died for nothing on America’s highways last year. The lives of these astronauts were well-spent” would be widely condemned by the media and colleagues, even if what they’re saying is utterly true, but if they say “This tragedy shows that we need to take a HARD LOOK at America’s space program” (read: Shut it down for years), it’s treated without any skepticism. Frankly, manned spaceflight is one of the few areas of human endeavor where a substantial sacrifice of human life is justified: It certainly isn’t justified for mere construction projects (thousands die every year), other work-related accidents, or everyday commuting (tens of thousands), which is tolerated without comment.

That being said, the Shuttle was never a solution to anything. It was a politically-derived Frankenstein’s monster that tossed away any pretense of intending to lower cost or open up space in general early in the design phases, and became ultimately just an insane pork project. In fact, that shows the hypocrisy of the attitude toward space in politics: STS was never designed to be safe – it was designed to look cool and draw on lots of Senate-friendly contractors while doing very little.

The *perceived* risks of a real exploration program would be minimized in favor of more mundane tasks that would lull people to sleep, but actual risks would be not be reduced at all – in fact, they would be increased in some ways, and only when tragedy struck would their existence even be acknowledged: Always at the expense of the very program that was already being suffocated by that very same attitude.

So Washington basically told NASA, “You’re not allowed to do anything because doing things would be too risky, but we order you use to an unsafe, insanely-designed system along politically-driven schedules to go around in circles and look busy while not really doing anything. When you finally fail to acrobatically dodge the pointless risks we’ve arbitrarily created for you, we’ll declare that manned spaceflight overall is just too hard, shut you down for years, and then play the same games a few years later.” Like saying that driving to the next town is too risky, so you’re just going to drive a few blocks…but in a nitroglycerine-powered rocket truck. That kind of crap was the reason for Challenger and Columbia, not the inherent difficulty of manned spaceflight.

And the public is just fine with people sacrificing to expand humanity’s horizons: It’s just that opportunistic politicians are eager to take advantage of tragedies, and there is no strong, inherent political constituency protecting manned spaceflight from those parasites. The contractors who benefit financially would just as soon get paid to do nothing like they are with the Pentagon, and resent bold initiatives that force them to actually accomplish something. So we could call it a tag-team of lazy mediocrity and depraved realpolitik that keeps screwing NASA HSF over.

Paul Gilster October 3, 2012 at 16:38

Christopher L. Bennett writes:

I’m reminded of a movie I saw a while back on Turner Classic Movies, Riders to the Stars from 1954.

There’s a “Men Into Space” connection here as well, as the TV show’s main character, William Lundigan, appears in “Riders to the Stars” as Richard Donald Stanton. The film was probably what landed Lundigan the TV role.

Murgatroyd October 3, 2012 at 16:44

The space program wasn’t seen as an enterprise of individuals or corporations, it was an extension of America. If Apollo failed, or the Shuttle failed, America failed. We couldn’t have that.

Also, when you only have four shuttles, the damned things are too precious to risk. “Nothing ventured, nothing lost.”

Abelard Lindsey October 3, 2012 at 17:05

The thing is that both Mars and Venus were believed to be habitable up until the 60′s. Can you imagine the space race we would have had with the Soviets had they really been habitable?

stephen October 3, 2012 at 19:07

This isn’t *quite* relevant to risk, but maybe this had an effect.
The moon landings were shown in fuzzy black and white, reminiscent of very early movies. That’s because of the limited budget.
And some of the excursions were broadcast in late night, often after midnight.
If they’d been in Technicolor, and in prime time, that might have been helpful.
Of course, the lack of alien footprints or artifacts was a factor…
What if somebody like Andrew Lloyd Webber had been involved…would that help any?
If only Kennedy had set the goal to the end of the century instead of the end of the decade…or with no deadline at all.

Maybe it wasn’t so much the risks, as the amount of money involved, and the risk was just an excuse…?

Phil October 3, 2012 at 19:34

Collectively, knowledge of the fragility of the planetary ecosystem (ironically something Apollo gave us) seems to have played havoc with that mid century ‘crash though or crash’ mentality. Individually though, voluntary risk taking has never been greater – look at ‘extreme sports’ in all their incarnations. That’s why I alway hoped that emergency personal re-entry systems like the infamous MOOSE would have been developed. I can really see someone trying that just ‘because its there’!

P

coolstar October 3, 2012 at 20:43

I remember loving Men Into Space as a kid and remember it now as being very realistic. I also remembered that people died on a pretty regular basis in its episodes but don’t at all recall the failed missions to Mars. Maybe I will have to hunt for it on dvds, but I’m sorta afraid of having my memories “spoiled”.

An Infinitude of Tortoises October 3, 2012 at 23:27

The last time I looked, all those “DVD” editions of the series one finds on the Web were in fact DVD-R sets: i.e., not quite official releases, regrettably. Still, they’re much better than nothing, and in fact that’s how I discovered the series myself about a decade ago, having tragically managed to miss it prior to that. It now ranks among my favorite TV shows. Is there a more sober, realistic SF series on the early days of spaceflight? Not that I’m aware.

Kathleen Toerpe October 3, 2012 at 23:39

Perhaps there’s a celebrity element here. Starting with John Glenn all the way through the shuttle missions, Americans saw their astronauts as celebrities, visiting their towns in ticker tape parades and their living rooms in televised chats from space. This government and media-created intimacy was crucial to nurturing continued support from a public that didn’t always see the immediate spin-off benefits of space exploration. But it may have contributed to the shift I think you rightly see in the “risk paradigm.” It is much easier to accept the death of unnamed or unknown test pilots; it is much more difficult to lose someone whose childhood nickname you know, whose family you’ve met on TV or in magazines, and who took the time to joke with you from outer space. That contrived sense of intimacy – ironically, with professional risk-takers who are more accepting of their own possible deaths than the rest of us are – may be part of what is holding us back.

Murgatroyd October 4, 2012 at 2:05

I recall one mission to Mars on Men into Space — they made it as far as Phobos, but they couldn’t land on the surface of Mars because of a propellant leak. They patched the leak, but they had only enough fuel left for the return trip to Earth. It was frustrating, seeing them get that close with Mars looming in the sky. (Mars had canals.)

I had a genuine Colonel McCauley space helmet when I was a kid.

ljk October 4, 2012 at 10:15

The astronomer in me has to say it: The Moon in that photo of the Men into Space astronaut is upside down and backwards! And don’t give me that “there is no up or down in space” stuff, either.

Yes, the astronauts back in the day were indeed REAL MEN. Just look at how Men into Space star Bill Lundigan lights up his Lucky Strike before heading off into the Final Frontier:

http://tobacco.stanford.edu/tobacco_main/images.php?token2=fm_st191.php&token1=fm_img5696.php&theme_file=fm_mt023.php&theme_name=War%20&%20Aviation&subtheme_name=Spacemen

When the Mercury Seven were first interviewed by the press in 1959, one of the very first questions a reporter asked America’s first astronauts was how many of them smoked and could they go without a cigarette during their space missions.

Three of the Mercury Seven said they smoked regularly, but all of them said they could handle going without a puff while in Earth orbit. Only one Mercury flight lasted more than a few circuits of the planet anyway, so it would not have been a big deal.

I humbly point out my recent review article on the book The Psychology of Space Exploration for an examination of how astronauts from the Mercury days to the present were treated and reacted to being in space:

http://www.centauri-dreams.org/?p=24523

Bob Morley October 4, 2012 at 14:10

In your Oct. 3, 2012 newsletter you ponder, as I have the issue of what has changed in respect to the public’s acceptance of loss of life in space or missions to space.

The common thread I see from my many experiences is the change from somewhat delayed and not so immediate communications to nearly instant communications available to most.

Delayed communications provided time to “package” the message and at times filter what the general public could see and hear. As a child I fondly remember watching world news at the local theater just prior to the main movie starting. The pleasant voice and background music presented the news, good and not so good leaving us “okay” with the events. TV had not arrived in my small home town of Abilene, Kansas in the middle ‘40’s.

Today, we hear and see more viewpoints than ever before and somewhat like a tribe reaction when a group all start having similar feelings about a common event the rest go along with it. Shielded or slow communications, in my opinion reduced the tribe effect.

Humans will move into space, onto other worlds and go their separate ways creating unique technologies within their unique civilizations. Somewhat similar as earth bound humans began to explore beyond their shore lines and into the vast bodies of water and then onto distant lands. New trade routes, land to support their families, minerals, increasing wealth and power drove early mankind. There was loss of life, concerns and other similar feelings common to the current space program.

We have not changed except for our technologies. Far into the future other technologies will be available and humans will continue to explore for new trade routes, land, minerals, wealth and power that is external to our planet, solar system, galaxy and this universe. Yes, there will be a price to pay for the early explorer that will make it a safer for those that follow.

I trust that humans will never cease to care; having concerns for others welfare while they push beyond into new boundaries creating new technologies and exploring the unknown. It’s in our DNA.

Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey October 5, 2012 at 0:31

LJK writes:

The astronomer in me has to say it: The Moon in that photo of the Men into Space astronaut is upside down and backwards!

You may have an astronomer inside you, but that astronomer seems never to have ventured beyond the Northern Hemisphere.

ljk October 5, 2012 at 10:33

You are quite correct, Bill. I will happily accept an all-expenses paid tour of Australia and various South Sea islands to expand my personal experience in this and other matters. :^)

I would also love to see the Magellanic Clouds some day too.

John C. Fredriksen, Ph.D October 9, 2012 at 14:13

Do you guys do books reviews here? My booklet on Men Into Space will be coming out later this fall–for all you space wonks!

I utterly loved this series, 1959-1960, as I was in the First Grade and totally deranged about all thing space. Writing the booklet brought more than one nostalgic tear to mine eyes.

Paul Gilster October 9, 2012 at 16:26

John, be sure to let me know when your booklet becomes available. Would love to see something more on ‘Men Into Space.’

OM October 12, 2012 at 21:50

…Interesting someone should bring up Riders to the Stars. I came across the full movie on YouTube this morning:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w_j0ixW0LVU

…As always, I suggest getting a YouTube downloading util and snagging a copy to watch before some choad slaps a DMCA notice on it :P

OM

Franklin Carbon February 17, 2013 at 5:32

Life and it’s realities declare the construct of risk..we were less astute technically but certain we could solve any problem..we knew we could c devise any remedy secure any solution..we are LESS certain now we are risk averse and we have become an era that culturally decries the need for calculus..that want’s the easy out..at Boeing Commercial airplanes most of my working life I see it every day…our visa workers are splendid…but as a nation we are overcome by inertia…CULTURALLY we are lazy….and increasingly apathetic toward the dreams of now

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