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Howlers in Space, Part 3

by Duncan Lunan

Having come this far with ‘Howlers in Space’, and not wishing to continue with it indefinitely, perhaps it’s fitting to end with a film which contains more howlers than almost any others, and yet gets a surprising number of things right – some of them almost unaccountably.  The Conquest of Space  (Paramount, 1955), was the fourth major film made by George Pal with major input from the space artist Chesley Bonestell, considered to be the best in the world and indeed almost the only one at the time.  The work of his UK counterpart, R.A. Smith, was little known outside the British Interplanetary Society, and Fred L. Wolff had only recently begun his work with Martin Caidin in the USA.  (See ‘Eyewitness to History:  Mercury Capsule’, ON, 21st August 2022.)  Bonestell had made his name with space paintings for Life magazine and others in the 1940s, made a big impact when they were reproduced in The Conquest of Space by Willy Ley in 1949, and went on to illustrate major seminars on the space station and missions to the Moon and Mars, organised by Wernher von Braun for Collier’s magazine, published in two books edited by Cornelius Ryan, the author of The Longest Day

The Conquest of Space. Paramount, 1955

Pal and Bonestell had together created Destination Moon, loosely based on a novel by Robert A. Heinlein, The War of the Worlds, a version of the H.G. Wells classic set in 1950s California, and When Worlds Collide, based on the first of two 1930s novels by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer.  In his book Science and Fiction, Patrick Moore considered that the quality of the films went downhill throughout, along with the authenticity, with The Conquest of Space the worst of the lot.  He does have a strong point, but there’s more to it than that – this essay has been waiting to be written since I gave a talk about it to the Glasgow Branch of the Fortean Society, back in the 1990s.  George Pal himself said that he had intended to make ‘the best space movie ever’, but the studio had ruined it for him.

Like the 1960s version of The Day of the Triffids starring Howard Keel, there is fair warning even in the opening titles.  (In the John Wyndham novel, triffids were emphatically not ‘brought to Earth on a meteorite’, and the film gets progressively worse from there.)  The opening titles of The Conquest of Space say that it’s based on the Ley and Bonestell best-seller, to which it has no connection.  It’s actually based on a scaled-down version of von Braun’s Das Mars-Projekt, published in German and popularised in Collier’s, whose 12-ship Mars mission was the inspiration for the second and third of Charles Chilton’s Journey into Space radio serials for the BBC Light Programme.  The slimmed-down version had just two ships, a Mars lander and a return vessel, and was published by von Braun, Ley and Bonestell in The Exploration of Mars  (UK Sidgwick & Jackson, 1956).  The film reduces it to just one ship, redesigned by Macmillan Johnson  (Fig. 1)  and actually an improvement on the Exploration of Mars design, which assumes that Mars is covered in near-flat sand dunes and the ship can land with the return-to-orbit rocket projecting from its nose.  The film has what has turned out to be a much more realistic Mars landscape, and the return rocket is advisedly protected on the upper surface of the flying wing  (Fig. 2), enabling it to be raised to launch position even though the wing crashes against a rock  (Fig. 3) – though the crumpled wing is miraculously repaired when we see it later  (Fig. 4), and in the final liftoff  (Fig. 5).  

As George Harrison said of the Spice Girls movie, this is a film which can be enjoyed more with the sound off – unless you want to follow what is known in Hollywood as ‘the idiot plot’, i.e. the story-line which only works if the characters are unbelievably stupid or actually round the bend.  The central character is a US General, a martinet, preoccupied with issues about food  (much like Queeg in The Caine Mutiny, and destined for an even stickier end).  Fanatical about the exploration of space, he has pushed through the construction of the Mars mission without telling anyone, including his own son who’s second-in-command, what it is.  Believing it to be a Moon ship, another officer asks why it has a huge flying wing, “and look at this booster – all that power!  Are we supposed to go up to the Moon, or through it?”  It turns out that the Moon mission was to be a test flight, and despite Patrick Moore’s sarcasm about it, that is actually not a bad idea.  It’s part of the thinking behind NASA’s plan to build and operate a Lunar Gateway space station, before attempting crewed missions to Mars.  When the Commander receives orders to call off the lunar flight and proceed to Mars  (just before the launch window for a minimum-energy interplanetary transfer), he has to pretend that it comes as news to him.  Yet the only scientist on the mission is a biologist who wants to raise food on Mars, to feed the people of his country  (not clear whether it’s Japan or Korea)  because agriculture there has been ruined by warfare – so he knew where they were going.

Fig 6 Booster ignition

Even before the opening credits, the film has a dramatic countdown and ignition sequence  (Fig. 6).  But in a piece of very bad cutting, it’s been removed from the body of the film to make way for a prelaunch cameo of a broadcast from Earth, about which the less said the better.  We go straight into the launch with the booster already firing  (Fig. 7), and there’s a momentary lapse in continuity when the shadow of the space station falls on the backdrop of the Earth, as it had done during the earlier arrival of a ferry rocket  (Fig. 8).  Control during launch is manual, and Walter Brooke as the Commander has great difficulty cutting the motor when the ‘Space Speed Indicator’ shows that he ought to.  The problem doesn’t seem to affect the outgoing trajectory, and neither does the discovery that his wartime sergeant has stowed away  (“You forgot your toothbrush”), but there’s a truly absurd moment immediately afterwards when he orders, “Turn the gyros on Mars”.  Maybe he meant, ‘Align the attitude control platform to the plane of Mars’s orbit’, or ‘… to Mars’s rotational axis’, either of which would make some kind of sense, but what happens in the film is that the ship makes a right-angled turn in space – impossible no matter how many times you see it in Star Wars.

The extra mass of the stowaway is compensated for when one of the crew is killed, repairing an external camera, when the ship encounters an asteroid – straight out of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, except that this one is red-hot  (Fig. 9).  Presumably that’s due to radioactive decay:  the only asteroid known to approach close enough to the Sun to glow red is Icarus, featured in a short story by Arthur C. Clarke in Tales of Ten Worlds.  (Not to be outdone, the 1961 ATV series Pathfinders to Venus later featured an asteroid which was white-hot, and that was due to radioactive decay.)  The space burial sequence which follows is noteworthy because in it, the twin cones of the Zodiacal Light, generated by interplanetary dust,  can be seen to either side of the Sun  (Fig. 10), though even on Earth they can only be seen in deep twilight.  Sydney Jordan followed the same convention throughout the 34 years of his Jeff Hawke comic strip. 

Fig 9 Avoiding a red-hot asteroid.
Fig 10 Burial in space – note the Zodiacal Light.

The evasion manoeuvre delays the approach to Mars, but allows time for the Commander to lose the plot, both literally and figuratively, deciding that despite his earlier dedication to it, the mission is against the will of God.  His attempt to crash the ship during the landing leads to overshooting the target area and the crash landing above.

Fig 11 Retrofire begins, booster falling ahead.

Nevertheless, the Mars approach and landing has fascinating features.  The booster is discarded on the way in and the retrofire is accomplished with forward-facing rockets  (Fig. 11).  Similar ‘braking jets’ were used in one of Sydney Jordan’s Jeff Hawke stories in the Daily Express  (‘Castaway’, 1956), and for years I thought it was impossible.  First doubts arose with 2010, Odyssey 2, where the Russian spacecraft makes an aerobraking capture into orbit round Jupiter by deploying a gaseous heat shield from the engines.  Arthur C. Clarke discussed the concept at length beforehand with Peter Hyams  (The Odyssey Files, Ballantine Books, 1984), and it appeared to be valid;  SpaceX now routinely uses the technique to retrieve the first stages of their Falcon boosters, to drone ships offshore or to the launch site.  In 1948, Clarke asked the late Prof. Terence Nonweiler if there was no way other than rocket braking to bring spacecraft back to Earth, and Nonweiler’s resulting paper at the 1951 International Astronautical Congress led to the use of aerobraking and heat shields as we know them today;  but there are those who say it may all have been unnecessary.

Fig 12 Booster separation – note cratered Mars in Background

As the booster is jettisoned, however, the planet beyond is coming into clearer view, and it’s astonishing  (Fig. 12).  In the UK, the prevailing view was still that the craters on the Moon were volcanic and wouldn’t be expected on other planets.  One or two US scientists had suggested that dots on the globe of Mars might be impact craters, but the notion was far from universally accepted because the idea that Mars was covered with sand-dunes was dominant.  Still less was there any idea of the huge volcanoes on Mars which were discovered by Mariner 9 in 1971 – in his novel The Sands of Mars  (1951), Arthur C. Clarke had written in italics that ‘There are no mountains on Mars’.  Yet below the retrofire of Fig. 13, there’s an unmistakeable volcanic caldera, as large though not as high as Olympus Mons or the three great volcanoes of the Tharsis Ridge.  The final descent is unquestionably into a field of volcanic cones  (Fig. 14).  (The dust devils in the landscape are also authentic, and have played an important part in cleaning the solar panels of several Mars landers.)  And when the late John Braithwaite first saw the liftoff  (Fig. 15), he said, “If you took out the rocket plume, you could put that image in the Cambridge Photographic Atlas of the Planets, and nobody would bat an eyelid”.

Yet, strangely, in our last view of Mars, we get a glimpse of what might have been an entirely different movie, with the ship climbing away from one of the ‘oases’ of Percival Lowell’s Mars, at a nexus of several ‘canals’.  There are many other oddities which I haven’t mentioned.  When the Commander tries to destroy the ship after landing, we learn that it’s fuelled by a hypergolic mix of aniline and hydrazine.  Yet his draining of the hydrazine tank leaves the ship short of water – and it’s only then that the crew are told they have to wait on Mars for over an Earth year, before there will be a return window to Earth.  Shortly before it, there’s a Marsquake that tilts the rocket, and we learn that it can only launch vertically  (even the Apollo Lunar Modules could launch at up to 45 degrees from vertical, if they had to).  The Commander’s son saves the day by using the rocket motor to hammer the ground under the ship, and when it gives way, it’s one of the few times that the lower gravity on Mars is apparent.  Despite the draining of the hydrazine tank, somehow he still has enough fuel to do that and to launch directly into an Earth-return trajectory.  But the real oddity, since we know the layout of the interior, is that he does it by turning the radio on and off.  The late Danny Kane, curator of Airdrie Observatory, remarked, “It must be radio control!”  But we know the motor controls are in the nose of the ship, and manually operated, with no automatic pilot.

Fig 16Departure from Mars with canals and oases instead.

In looking up details of the film online, I came across a comment that if you’d seen this film when you were ten years old, you’d have loved it and would still have a soft spot for it.  Yes, that’s me – I was 10 when it came out in 1955 – and I can’t argue with that.  I thought it was wonderful, at that age, and I still love the Bonestell-inspired imagery.  But what I haven’t come across anywhere is a suggestion as to how that amazingly accurate vision of the Martian surface came about.

(For help in compiling the images for the talk and this article, thanks are due to Larry Tyler).

Duncan Lunan was science-fiction critic of the Glasgow Herald 1971-1985, and currently reviews fiction for Interzone, ParSec and Shoreline of Infinity, as well as nonfiction for Concatenation.  For details of his own books see Duncan’s website, www.duncanlunan.com.

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