These days we know that perhaps a million objects the size of the Tunguska impactor or larger are moving through nearby space, and talk of how to deflect asteroids has become routine. Given our increasing awareness of near-Earth objects, it wouldn’t be a surprise to hear of a new Hollywood treatment involving an Earth-threatening asteroid. But I wouldn’t have expected a science fiction series that ran from 1959 to 1960 would have depicted an asteroid mission and the dangers such objects represent.
Nonetheless, I give you “Asteroid,” from the show Men Into Space, with script by Ted Sherdeman. Viewers on November 25, 1959 saw the show’s protagonist Col. Edward McCauley (William Lundigan) take a crew to ‘Skyra,’ a 3.5-kilometer long rock that scientists believed might hit the Earth. The crew assesses whether the asteroid is salvageable for use as a space station and decides there is no other choice but to destroy Skyra, which they do at the cost of considerable suspense as McCauley works to save an astronaut separated from the others while the clock ticks down. The suspense would have been heightened by the fact that this was a show on which astronauts sometimes died and hard sacrifices were the order of the day.
I report on all this with the help of John Fredriksen’s new book Men Into Space (BearManor Media, 2013), which arrived in the mail the other day. Like me, Fredriksen had watched the show in its all too short run while growing up in the Sputnik era. He was taken with the understated but tough role of McCauley, who was depicted as participating in all the significant space missions of his time, from the first lunar journeys to building a space station and, at the time of the show’s cancellation, two attempted flights to Mars that were plagued by problems and aborted.
You could say that Mars as a destination hovers over all this show’s plots. Its final episode, “Flight to the Red Planet,” did get McCauley and team as far as Phobos, where their ship was damaged enough to force an early departure without landing on Mars itself. The Mars of this episode is a compelling target, because from Phobos, in these years not long before Mariner 4, the crew can see waterways that seem to be feeding an irrigation system. This is Percival Lowell’s Mars in an episode surely designed to build into a second season, but that season was unfortunately not to be.
Fredriksen’s book walks fans through all the episodes, with extensive quotes from the scripts and stills that capture the look and feel of the production. If some of these images seem familiar, it may be because Chesley Bonestell was asked to produce concept art for the show, resulting in sharply defined lunar landscapes reminiscent of his paintings. Lewis Rachmil, who produced Men Into Space, would have been familiar with Bonestell’s Hollywood work, which included Destination Moon (1950), When Worlds Collide (1951) and Conquest of Space (1955), not to mention the famous space series in Collier’s.
Frederic Ziv, who headed up ZIV Productions, didn’t stop with Bonestell when it came to making his show as realistic as the times would allow. Sputnik had been launched in 1957 and Ziv had been exploring doing a different kind of space show for CBS ever since. From the book:
Unlike the children-oriented science fiction programming of a few years previous, the tenor of the times now demanded an approach that was rigorously scientific to appease more mature audiences. Ziv, who prized flaunting the technical expertise assisting his programs, also believed that obtaining Department of Defense cooperation facilitated access to their extensive and elaborate space facilities. At length, his show acknowledged help from the Air Force Air Research and Development Command, the Office of the Surgeon General, and the School of Aviation Medicine. Ziv’s credibility was further enhanced with Air Force technical experts who were brought into the scripting and consulting process, receiving credits in the end titles.
Couple this with location shooting at research facilities like Edwards Air Force Base and Cape Canaveral and stock footage of missile launches of the time, along with special effects crews working with von Braun-style three-stage rockets launching capsules that were almost as tiny and cramped as Apollo. Men Into Space turned out to be complicated and expensive. Fredriksen notes that ZIV gave the Air Force the final say in keeping the show realistic, which is why the more fantastic tropes of 1950s science fiction make no appearance. Personality conflicts and equipment malfunctions took the place of ray guns and aliens.
Fredriksen gives all the details, including a summary of each of the show’s 38 episodes. It’s a nostalgic trip for those who remember watching Men Into Space, and it brings back to life memories many of us had long forgotten. After all, this was a short-lived series that survived only in occasional syndication and in some of the space suits and ship interiors that wound up being used again in episodes of The Outer Limits (I knew they looked familiar!). Nominated for a Hugo Award in 1960, the show lost out to The Twilight Zone, and critics sniped at its mundane special effects and earnest quest for authenticity. Despite the promise of Mars, the show was axed in September of that year.
But early impressions count, and it’s safe to say that this show captured more than a few young minds, not the least of them being Fredriksen’s, for whom the experience was indelible:
May future generations rekindle that sense of awe, the ability to dream a better future, and a fixed determination to cross the gulf separating imagination from reality as we did, and joyously so, in the 1950s. If Men Into Space encapsulates the essence of a departed, heroic ideal, it is also a good measure of everything we have lost as a space-faring culture.
As for me, I’ve always been a William Lundigan fan. This is a guy who walked away from Hollywood in 1943 to join the Marines, where he served with the 1st Marine Division on Peleliu, an operation that ranks with Iwo Jima in terms of the ferocity of combat and the staggering percentage of casualties. He went on to Okinawa as a combat photographer and, having received two Bronze Stars, returned to acting after the war. 1954’s Riders to the Stars was his first science fictional outing in a show about astronauts trying to capture meteorites in flight. His work with Ivan Tors on that film fed into a role in the series debut of ZIV’s Science Fiction Theater.
Of Men Into Space, Lundigan would say: “…this was not some Buck Rogers type show. It was not a science-fiction series but a science-fact series. You might even say it’s a combination of a public service show and a dramatic series.” Even he would become exasperated with the quality of writing in some of the later shows, but as Fredriksen’s book makes clear, there was still inspiration to be found here of the kind that awakens young people to careers in engineering and science. With a little better luck and a second season landing on Mars, Men Into Space might be far more than the obscure recollection it is today, and the name ‘McCauley’ might be as recognizable as ‘Kirk.’