The Early Days Of Space Exploration

The Early Days Of Space Exploration

Since the beginning of time, mankind has been fascinated with space exploration and reaching up to the stars. In the 1800’s, Jules Verne wrote "From the Earth to the Moon" about the first explorers to take a rocket to the moon. One of the first silent movies was entitled "The Man in the Moon." In the 1920’s and 30’s, the cheap pulp magazines were filled with space titles and stories of exploration.

In the late 1920’s the movement to reach outer space picked up momentum. American Robert Goddard of Massachusetts was annoying his neighbours with his early rockets. In July, 1929, Goddard launched the first liquid-fueled rocket. On the advice of Charles Lindbergh, the Guggenheim Foundation agreed to fund Goddard’s rocket research and moved him to Roswell, New Mexico. This site would become and is still famous for a widely reported crash of a UFO and the death of its space travellers in 1946.

Germany and the USSR had their own teams working on rocket projects, and the Germans turned their program into the first missile program aimed at civilian targets. The famous V-1 and V-2 were employed as weapons of death. At the conclusion of World War II, many of the rocket scientists were recruited under a secret program called Operation Paperclip. Surviving V-2 rockets were shipped to the United States, and rocket testing for satellite launches began at the White Sands, New Mexico proving grounds.

Key German scientists Dr. Werner von Braun, Willy Ley, and Dr. Heinz Haber began to appear in magazines and eventually on early television shows. Some of the first early space collectibles are the Colliers magazines from the early 1950’s and the 1952 book "Across the Space Frontier" published by Viking Press, New York City. The magazines and book featured the art work of Chesley Bonestell, the famous astronomical painter who became even better known for his art work on early space subjects. A single issue of the Colliers magazine sells for at least $100 or more when found in good condition. The book is difficult to find, but can be worth several hundred dollars. The magazines and books laid out how the exploration of space was possible and the type of rockets that could be employed. Another classic is Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘The Exploration of Space." In a paperback it sold for 25 cents. The book envisioned how space stations would be constructed, and a base on the moon and eventually the exploration of Mars, and included drawings.

Willy Ley’s book "Rockets, Missiles, and Space Travel" by Viking Press, appeared in the same period and was updated after the launch of Sputnik in 1957. Ley had been one of the original founders of the German Rocket Society and arranged for the first major North American Space Symposium at the Hayden Planetarium in New York City on Columbus Day, 1951.

In the early 1950’s, space fever was raging. After all, it was not only the time of discussions about satellites, but also the time of UFOs. The public was anxious to see satellites in orbit. In 1954 the Space Flight Committee of the American Rocket Society drew up a proposal which outlined how to put a satellite in space and submitted it to the U.S. Government. At the same time the Walt Disney television program "Man in Space" narrated and designed by Dr. Wernher von Braun drew an audience of 42 million viewers. Disneyland opened in 1955 and one of the major theme areas was Tomorrowland. Souvenirs connected to Tomorrowland offer collectors a wide range of early space items. It seemed every corner store’s magazine racks were filled each week with new publications focused on some aspect of space exploration. Popular Mechanics, National Geographic and aviation magazines were filled with articles on space travel and comic books

The market for space collectibles began to expand rapidly. Model kit companies competed against each other to put out rocket, and space ship kits. Snark, Redstone, Jupiter C, Vanguard, Thor, Atlas. The rockets that had been featured in the "Man In Space" show were produced by the Lindbergh model company. Other early rockets were marketed as kits by Revell, Renwall, Aurora and Monogram. Willy Ley had an exclusive contract to design and advertise Monogram space kits. One entitled "The Space Taxi" features astronauts building a space station. In mint condition with the box - $450. Several of his kits feature space vehicles that bear a strong resemblance to the future Space Shuttle. There was box art on each kit, some of it provided by Chesley Bonestell and other emerging space artists and it was futuristic and, in a word beautiful. Many of the early plastic kits sell for hundreds of dollars.

The Centuri Company of Arizona and Estes of Colorado and other companies jumped on the bandwagon and began to produce safe miniature rocket motors for the budding space scientist to make his own rockets. My cousin and I built our own launch pad, and made the rocket body out of a cardboard tube, the fins of balsa wood, and the nose cone of wood. A small parachute made from a plastic bag deployed to bring the rocket back to earth. After the motor’s fuel was used up the rocket glided until a small explosive charge blew out a wad of paper that pushed out the nose cone. Mid 1950’s catalogues of the two companies are collector items and sell for $25 each. Both companies are still in business and even produce a rocket with a miniature camera.

The U.S. and the USSR were involved in a Space Race to successfully launch the first satellite into earth orbit during the IGY. On October 4, 1957, the world awoke to an announcement from Radio Moscow that the first satellite was in orbit and called Sputnik. The radio broadcast played the sound of signals from the satellite to the earth. The newspapers printed the time when Sputnik would pass over and each night the streets were filled with eyes looking upward, searching for a tiny speck of light the size of a star, but moving across the sky. On November 3rd, Sputnik 2 weighing 1,118 pounds (508.3 kilograms) was placed into orbit. It carried a dog named Laika. This was extremely controversial since a recovery system had not been developed to bring Laika back to earth.

Almost overnight, the next item to reach record sales was the telescope. Companies such as Edmund Scientific could not meet the demand for inexpensive telescopes. That was the item that I had waiting for me under my Christmas tree that year. It cost $19.95 including shipping and handling, and I still use it on cold, clear winter nights or nice summer evenings.

America’s first attempt to launch a satellite in early December, 1957 was a failure. The Vanguard rocket lifted several feet off the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, fell back down and was destroyed in a ball of fire and flames.

Finally, on January 31, 1958 Dr. Wernher von Braun’s team was able was able to place the first U.S. satellite in orbit. It was carried on a Jupiter C rocket and was called Explorer 1. The November 18, 1957 issue of Life magazine featured him on the cover "The Seer of Space." Shortly thereafter President Dwight Eisenhower announced the formation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The goal of NASA was to place the first American astronaut in orbit around the earth.

Since the early 1950’s, material, souvenirs, and memorabilia of all types has been issued to commemorate some aspect of the exploration of the stars. In 1958 the Toops Gum Company of Brooklyn, New York issued a 88 picture card set entitled Space Cards. #1 "Sputnik," #2 "Dog in Space," #3 Launching a U.S. Satellite," #13 Space Suit." The Marx Toy Company released an IGY Satellite Base playset and in 1959 a Cape Canaveral Satellite Base. If you find the IGY set in near mint condition, expect to pay $1,200. Other items include a "Man Into Space" game from the television show of the late 1950’s, and a realistic looking space helmet. The famous map company Hammond issued a "Guide to the Exploration of Space." This was a large wall hanging map that features beautiful scenes of early space exploration., issued in 1957. In the early days of NASA if one wrote with any type of idea for a space rocket or project one would receive a nice letter and an envelope filled with booklets on the early space program. I sent in many ideas and received many letters and booklets which are in my personal collection.

With the announcement of the first seven astronauts by NASA even more material appeared on the market. When John Glenn became the first American in space collector spoons with the image of Friendship 7 Mercury capsule were marketed. There were souvenir glasses with historic space images. There was even a globe with the Friendship 7 on a wire circling around it. For the stamp collector, first day covers and stamps of the various space programs have been issued. The National Geographic of March, 1964 features almost an entire issue on "How We Plan to Put Men on the Moon."

Prior to the Mercury capsule, the first space ship designed was the Dyna-Soar. It was more aircraft than space capsule. It was put on display at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair complete with a mannequin in a space suit. About 15 years ago a small item appeared in a magazine that the Dyna-Soar was still in storage and any individual that wanted it could come and cart it away. My wife refused to let me retrieve it, but I often wonder if it is still there waiting for someone to transport it to a new home. It would have looked great on my front lawn with the space traveller standing next to it reaching for the stars.

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