Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.

[92] “To Boldly Go …”


I am going to talk about Astronomy and Space exploration but also about literature and Science Fiction in a fairly rambling sort of way. There can only be one way to start such a treatise.

PKT5802-427642 PATRICK MOORE ASTROLOGY Patrick Moore at the Armagh planetariam.

Patrick Moore

Many will remember Patrick from his years presenting The Sky at Night (from 1957 to 2012). He was a prominent and well-known amateur astronomer, well known for his monocle and rapid speech, and also a self-taught xylophonist. He was a prolific author of books about astronomy and his contribution to the science in the fifties and sixties is illustrated by his early books.

They started with A Guide to the Moon (1953) followed by Mission to Mars (1955), The Voices of Mars (1957), A Guide to the Planets (1960) and Stars and Space (1960) – all produced when we knew virtually nothing about the Solar System from actual observations. I am sure that I read some of these as I have always been interested in the Solar System.

The Solar System

In the fifties, compared with today we knew very little about the planets of our Solar System, in fact almost nothing. Perhaps it’s surprising how much we did know. All we knew was what we could observe with telescopes.


[The picture above is taken recently during an eclipse]

The Moon

The Moon turns exactly once every month. So we can only see one side of it. (Nearly all the large satellites of planets do this. It’s caused by the effects of tidal forces from Earth.) In the fifties and sixties we knew nothing about the far side of the Moon. We might have expected it to be similar to the side we know – but it isn’t.


The picture above shows the near and far sides (with false colours) showing very different surfaces. The far side has many more craters without the flat areas we call ‘seas.’



We may not think of the Earth as a foreign planet but before the age of space we had not seen what it looked like. We had maps in books, constructed by a painstaking process of surveying and trigonometry. We didn’t know much about the atmosphere and weather forecasting was fairly primitive. Even before the fifties, the Meteorological Office (then part of government) needed complex and lengthy calculations and it was one of the earliest users of relatively high powered computers.


We have so many satellites now that we take them for granted. At first we called them artificial satellites to distinguish them from the Moon. In the early fifties we had none. Let’s go back a bit.

Early Space Travel

It’s worth considering what the economic and political situation was back in the fifties. You will remember, from [51] Two Way Family Favourites, that the USSR then was in a Cold War with America. The two countries were competitive and Space was a particular area of competition. The technology was developed from Inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBM) designed to carry nuclear weapons.


Sputnik (1957)

As space travel developed we defined new words from those involved. (US always had astronauts where the USSR had cosmonauts!) Sputnik became the word for satellites, at least for the early Soviet ones.

The USSR were first with a satellite they called Sputnik from what is now Kazakhstan. (The Russian word means something like: fellow traveller.) They launched Sputnik 1 on 5 October 1957, the first artificial satellite. It was small and had no scientific instruments but it began the long ‘Space Race’ between the US and the USSR, with associated technological developments.

In the World today, where satellites are taken for granted, it’s hard to explain the importance of Sputnik 1. It was a major news event (and a disappointment to the Americans, who of course wanted to be first to prove their superiority.) It orbited the Earth every 90 minutes and sent out radio signals which could be picked up by amateur radio enthusiasts around the world. The signals, just blips of sound, only lasted for 21 day until transmitter batteries ran out and Sputnik 1 fell to earth in January 1958.

Sputnik 2, launched in November 1957, carried a dog, ‘Laika.’ She died within hours but started the developments which enabled humans to travel in space. (The secrecy within the USSR meant that it was not until many years later that we learned that Laika had not survived her experience.)


Yuri Gagarin (1961)

The USSR continued to develop their space technology ahead of the USA and in 1961 they successfully launched a Vostok spacecraft carrying a human cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, who achieved fame worldwide instantaneously.

When he visited England soon afterwards he paraded the streets of London in an open car with the registration number YG 1. This number actually belonged to a relatively unknown singer, Yana (Yana Guard) who was at the time away on holiday and unable to give permission for its use!

Several other cosmonauts followed, including the first woman in space, Valentina Tereschkova, in 1963. [It has been technically more difficult to cope with female astronauts because of what we might call plumbing. Valentina was rushed into the USSR programme because she was about to marry an earlier male cosmonaut and the USSR thought it was might be an opportunity to study the effects of space on any possible offspring.]

Early US Space Flights (1961-2)

America was considerable behind and their first astronaut, Alan Shepard in 1961 did not even complete a single orbit. They had to wait until John Glenn in February 1962 for the first full orbit.


Telstar (1962)

The first two Telstar satellites were experimental and nearly identical. Telstar 1 launched in July 1962 and successfully relayed through space the first television pictures, telephone calls, and fax images, and provided the first live transatlantic television feed. Telstar 2 launched in May 1963. Both satellites, though no longer functional, still orbit the Earth.

Things like this made the News. You will also remember, from [34] Music 3, one of my first records was called Telstar, by the Tornados. In those days, electronic music was very new and the sound had some associations with developing space technology (and the earlier blips from Sputnik.)

The advent of telecommunications satellites made significant changes to society. Like so much of what I have to write about, it is hard for those today to appreciate how significant the change was. Back in 1956 the Olympic Games were held in Melbourne. News was not instantaneous. With the use of jet planes (which were then modern) we had fuzzy black and white pictures for the newspapers rushed to us within about twenty-four hours – and we wondered about how things had improved. Now we expect full, high quality colour immediately throughout the World.

Satellites today

There are so many things we now take for granted, that depend on satellites. There are, literally, hundreds of satellites. We have almost instantaneous telephone communication around the World; mobile phones; hundreds of satellite television channels; automatic location by GPSS; overhead maps of the World; accurate weather forecasting and the Internet.


The Americans were disappointed (to say the least) when Soviet technology had shown their superiority in space with Sputnik and men in space. At the beginning of the sixties President John Kennedy made what was then a very rash promise. He said that the US would put a man on the Moon and bring him back successfully by the end of the sixties. Remember that in those days, computers were very primitive by modern standards.

NASA started the Apollo program in 1961 with new Saturn rockets. (The USSR remained silent about its plans and continued with orbital spaceflights.) Large amounts of money, technology and effort went into the Apollo program because of the public declaration made by Kennedy and the competitive nature of the Cold War.


Apollo 8 in 1968 sent three men into Moon orbit, safely returning to Earth. Then Apollo 11 in July 1969 placed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. There were further successful Apollo flights but the dramatic events of Apollo 13, as shown in the film, did actually happen.

(One reason that some conspiracy theories consider that Apollo was a hoax is that it was a very difficult task, challenging to the limits the technology of the day. We didn’t get high quality pictures, just fuzzy black and white images. But it did happen. Believe me.)

The USSR did eventually get to the moon and there have been many more successful ventures in space since then.



I am surprised at the time of writing to see that we now have five spacecraft in orbit round Mars. As shown in the picture above we have now put vehicles on the surface and brought back good pictures. Until the mid-sixties we just had what we could see from telescopes on Earth.

Other Planets

In the fifties, just as we had no knowledge of the other side of the moon, we knew virtually nothing of atmospheric or surface conditions on other planets. Some of what we ‘knew’ has turned out to be wrong. For some planets we didn’t even know the length of the ‘day.’ We knew about their larger satellites (moons) but many smaller ones have since been discovered.

The Voyager 2 mission launched in 1977 a spacecraft that passed Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus before reaching Neptune in 1989.


Since 2015 we even have pictures of Pluto.


With no sophisticated computers to work things out, there were alternative theories about the creation of the Universe. Some supported what we now call the Big Bang theory, but the eminent astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle rejected this in the sixties with his own theory of continuous creation. Now the Big Bang is universal accepted and its time line is described and defined in detail. (We also know so much more about sub-atomic particles, quantum mechanics, general relativity and black holes – but this is not the place for a degree course in astrophysics!)

Science Fiction

I have always been keen on astronomy and other sciences but I have also been an avid reader of Science Fiction literature. When it comes to astronomy and life on other planets Science Fiction has always been far from realistic.

If we start with some views of the planet Mars we can go back as far as H G Wells in 1989 with War of the Worlds, a story in which Martians escape from a dying planet and try to invade the Earth. This story had been famously adapted for radio in 1938 and was notorious for causing public panic when presented as if a live broadcast!

As a fan of the Tarzan stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs, I also read his Martian series starting with A Princess of Mars. Books such as these routinely described the planet as remarkably similar to Earth, inhabited by similar people. There were differences and these differences were part of what made the Science Fiction genre, but the reader never had to think that the gravity or atmosphere or food might be different. We took for granted that alien races would walk like us and talk like us.

Generally science fiction stories about other worlds have always glossed over such minor problems. They generally assume that the gravity, atmosphere, weather and other conditions are so near to our own that they are hardly worth mentioning – and they assume that the people will act more or less like us and speak perfect English.



Doctor Who and Star Trek

I will say something about these two as television later but I have put them here as examples of two things about space travel in Science Fiction. Firstly, in the fifties and sixties all the problems mentioned above were ignored. In particular, wherever the first Doctor went – or the early Star Trek – everyone spoke English without question. In later series, both developed complex technological methods to enable automatic and invisible language translation.

Of course both, by amazing coincidence, only seem to pick places where the temperature, gravity and atmosphere are remarkably similar to ours. Their inhabitants differ slightly from humans – but only as far as we can manage with prosthetic make-up etc.

The other thing that fascinates me about science fiction, illustrated by Star Trek, is how far they can predict the future. Star Trek predicted communicators that foreshadowed mobile phones. But they did not do it very well. They were more like updated versions of old-fashioned walkie-talkies without even an easy way to specify who to talk to! Mobile phones of today make those predicted for hundreds of years in the future look very primitive.

The original Star Trek also had something a bit like a very primitive modern tablet. Captain Kirk could take a quite bulky pad and sign off the orders of the day. Again the prediction is already vastly out-of-date.

More modern science fiction tries to be more realistic in its predictions. Sadly, most of it nowadays is more fantasy based on magic.


Author: Alan

Retired, currently living in Cheltenham.

2 thoughts on “[92] “To Boldly Go …”

  1. Pingback: [99] … Where no Man has Gone Before | Remembrance of Things Past

  2. Pingback: [109] Growing Up | Remembrance of Things Past

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