The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
For another children's book on space travel from 1953, see Space Kit.
The Hayden isn't the first modern planetarium in the world. That would be the one at the Deutsches Museum in Munich, which used the first Zeiss projector. Nor is it the oldest one in the Untied States. That would be the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. It certainly isn't the most iconic. The much-photographed Griffin Observatory on the top of a hill in Los Angeles has that honor.
The Hayden has one gigantic advantage. Sited in the American Museum of Natural History, which faces Central Park in New York's ritzy Upper West Side, everything it does has the potential for becoming a storied national event.
Dr. Clyde Fisher, the first director of the Hayden, had spent ten years campaigning for a similar planetarium in New York once he saw the one in Munich, which he called "the greatest invention ever devised by man as a visual aid in teaching." It opened in 1935, made possible by a $650,000 loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and a $122,000 donation by banker Charles Hayden. (For perspective, the redo opened in 2000 as the Frederick Phineas and Sandra Priest Rose Center for Earth and Space, containing a completely remodeled Hayden Planetarium, cost $210,000,000. The Roses donated $20,000,000. Sadly, Frederick Rose died before the center opened.)
Under Navy veteran Gordon A. Atwater, an expert in celestial navigation who used the dome and its Zeiss projector to teach naval pilots during the war and was named chairman and curator in 1945, the Hayden became known for its lavish productions, special events, public relations, and courses taught by experts, including one called "Life on Other Worlds," held repeatedly in 1948.
In March 1950, the Hayden introduced a new feature, "A simulated trip into outer space by means of paintings and small replicas of other worlds." Atwater came up with a sure-fire gimmick to attract publicity. He took reservations.
Space travel in 1950 belonged to the despised genres of science fiction and comic books. A handful of serious adults had proselytized rockets to other planets for years, but their collective dent on the public consciousness wouldn't comfortably fit a poppy seed. (Destination Moon, a major Hollywood movie co-written by science fiction star Robert Heinlein, made a big splash when it appeared but that was three months later.) An institution with the prestige of the Hayden solemnly vowing to file reservations for an interplanetary trip - beyond the moon! - at the planetarium and turn them over to "any future scientist if and when he has a space ship ready for the trip" boggled minds. Newspaper and magazines across the country headlined the promotion, many reprinting the reservation form (at top) for locals.
The form went public on March 15, 1950. More than 2,000 replies were sent in by March 24, and 10,000 in the first four weeks. That number skyrocketed to 18,000 in November and 19,000 in January. Most reservations were filled out in the large printing of preteens, but don't think the kids of 1950 were unsophisticated. Eleven-year-old Jimmy Knauss of Emmons, PA, wrote that he wanted the Planetarium to insure him for $5,000 just in case he didn't get back.
Parade magazine, a Sunday supplement found in hundreds of newspapers, created a two-page illustrated feature that quoted from the hundreds of begging letters that accompanied the forms.
"What has started out as an amusing stunt to promote the Planetarium's solar show, Conquest of Space, has snowballed into a man-sized travel-booking job." Reservations were coming in at up to 300 a day. And questions.
The harassed young woman at the reception desk was doing her best to accept applications and answer a dozen questions at once.
"When does the first ship leave for Mars?" "In case I change my mind, do I still have to go to the moon if I sign up now?" "What's the gravitational pull on Jupiter? "Will the rocket company provide space suits?" [italics in original]
The uncertainly was part of the excitement. Nobody knew what a trip to space meant. It was a journey into the literal unknown.
Parade magazine, May 14, 1950
A New York Daily News article from January 7, 1951, reported that the fury continued, although applications had receded to only 300-400 a week. By then adults had caught up, making up half the responses. Few of their comments were more level-headed than the kids' wonder. Each had a different rationale.
Queens, NY: "I'm available for any kind of excitement, any time, anywhere. I'm 28 years old."
Connecticut: "The earth is too crowded."
California: "[S]ome people think of going [to Mars] to hunt or start another war. It would be nice if we could all live together without killing for food, fun or war."
Anonymous wrote in with a twist: "You screwballs have ruined the Earth so why not let the Moon alone?"
The article also asked John W. Campbell, Jr., the editor of Astounding Science Fiction, and f&sf writer Theodore Sturgeon to expound on the burgeoning genre. The number of science fiction magazines had burst from seven before WWII to thirty-two in 1950. And:
Just about all the major book publishers are planning long lists of science-fiction novels for next year and some small publishers are doing all right printing nothing else. The movies, radio, television, "slick" magazines have jumped on the bandstand.
All these efforts are supported by devoted and highly-organized groups of fans. These clubs, organized on a regional basis, hold big conferences at intervals in just about every major American city. They correspond regularly with just as avid fan groups in Europe, South America and Australia.
Of more urgent notice was the possibility that reality might already be surpassing science fiction. Secretary of Defense James Forrestal had in December 1948 tossed away a line in his annual report to President Truman about an "earth satellite vehicle program." When questioned, a Defense official made the line more enticing. "It's a matter of the highest secrecy," he said, or didn't say. Did the DoD already have a space ship? Alert reporters noticed another throwaway line in April 1949. The Curtiss-Wright corporation threw a massive Indoor Air Show with a "Span of Flight" exhibit at Hotel Commodore in New York to overflow crowds. A small book called "First in Flight" was prepared, along with an insert suitable for passing out to visitors also called "Span of Flight." The "span" was encapsulated in a chart of the progress of aviation from the Wright Brothers to a "10,000-mile-an-hour space ship." Such a craft, wrote the Daily News reporter, "might be used to break though the Earth's gravity screen to become an 'earth satellite' - an outer space platform, hanging like a tiny moon, thousands of miles above the earth, for guiding or perhaps launching atomic rockets."
Wow. But, um, gravity screen? Although scientists and most science-fiction writers knew better, even the most basic facts about space travel hadn't yet penetrated to the public. An article titled "Rocket to the Moon" in the May 1951 Child's Life magazine spoke of hurtling through the heavens at a speed of "1,000 miles an hour!" That would require ten days to get to the moon and ten more to return, so the "short stay" there had better be worth every second. Didn't seem so from the description. "The color of everything would be brown." Brown?
The Child's Life article is accompanied by several illustrations in the standard mode of the early 1950s, when every rocket ship had fins. I'm not sure whether to congratulate a pilot who could land a finned rocket in that spot or have him cashiered as soon as they returned to Earth.
Another Daily News article, dated January 23, 1952, gave the impression that the fun and games had ended. The Hayden was stopping taking reservations. More than 23,000 had been received. Like Mark Twain's, the announcement of death was premature. 1952 would see the hype reach new heights with a new show relying on the same old draw.
The New York Times Magazine devoted a long, tongue-in-cheek article to the space fad that entranced millions of children and poured millions of dollars into the pockets of the producers of space television and the accompanying merchandisers. Shows like Tom Corbett and His Space Cadets and Captain Video and His Video Rangers were the break-out hits of daytime television. "Blast off, chum," "Blow the starboard rocket," and "Boy, did I get my tubes scorched!" confused and annoyed parents unused to 21st century jargon.
Somewhat more seriously, the article examined the Hayden phenomenon.
Hayden Planetarium in New York City has encouraged space-urge in small fry. It has staged a number of special rocket journeys to Mars, the Moon, Mercury and other next door planets, with amazing realism. Children shriek and thrill through them. The Moon trip covers 250,000 miles and includes one lunar day (two weeks, earth-time) in a moon crater. Passengers are carefully briefed before take-off.
Before these journeys the kids – or their adult escorts – gravely fill out “Interplanetary Tour Reservation” cards which the Planetarium just as gravely files away. …
As the Planetarium darkens for the trip, the lecturer calls to the children to tighten their safety belts for rocket take-off, and though there are no belts on the seats, the children tensely go through the motions of obeying the order.
Realistic rocket take-off, recordings filled with violent hissing and other space-cleaving sound effects, fill the chamber as the space ship lifts the “passengers” 25,000 miles over New York City. The adventurers are carried at roaring speed toward a glowing moon with three-dimensional surface, and get close-ups of stars and asteroids along the way.
Note that viewers still faithfully filled out their reservations. With these shows running 26 times a week for years, the number of forms filed must have amounted to a large multiple of the 23,000 that this article also mentioned. This discrepancy never gets explained.
It would soon get worse. A new "Rocket to the Moon" show debuted in July 1952. Viewers would be whisked "an imaginary quarter of a million miles through space in ten minutes." When they land in a moon crater, sights await them that "should startle and surprise even the most nonchalant passenger."
Even better, a thirteen-and-a-halt foot cutaway scale model of a three-stage moon rocket greeted the small fry when they entered the exhibit area in August.
Was it the rocket? Something clicked, because the media frenzy was huger even than the commotion in 1950. (That two separate shows and two separate publicity campaigns took place tends to get lost in most articles.) Popular Science magazine ran an imaginatively illustrated article that treated the moon rocket as a cruise ship, with hundreds of passengers lined up to embark.
Did you know that a 70 lb kid would weight only 11 pounds on the Moon, but 185 lb on Jupiter? Space facts became part of the craze, with the Hayden's Interplanetary Weight Chart reprinted time and time again for instant edification.
Everyday Magazine, appearing in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on September 14, 1952, featured a long article on page one. As always, the quirks of the public captured much of the reporter's interest.
The Planetarium has a cable from a user-car dealer in Hawaii who wants to start a second-hand automobile mart on Mars. There is a letter from a New York fur broker who wants the trapping rights to a certain section of Venus. An Ohio couple has written for reservations for a trip to Venus in the year 2002; they’re getting married next month and want to spend their golden anniversary on the planet that bears the name of the Goddess of Love. Another women has asked to be put down for any one of the first 19-hour round trips to the moon. She says she wouldn’t want to be gone any longer because she has nobody to feed her cat.
If a twenty-day trip seems ridiculously long today, a 19-hour round trip feels way too short. Even so, that was the number the Hayden itself gave to the journey, as listed on the Space Ship Time Schedule they handed out.
The Hayden, remember, was fighting for dollars against the promotional material kids had become used to from the days of the Buck Rogers Solar Scouts two decades earlier. Everything they did was calculated to allow visitors to take material home with them as souvenirs, be as gaudy as anything Captain Video put on the back of cereal boxes, and yet have some educational merit and the verisimilitude of a real space launch.
Another sign of this came from the "trip" itself, which, as the Everyday article quoted, started with a procedural countdown that uncannily foretold the launch control dialog that would rivet the planet when the Apollo flights began.
Did the Hayden fulfill its promise to keep the reservations for a time that's still distant even a lifetime later? Yes, and even better, it kept all the letters that got sent with them. In 2011, to accompany a new exhibit called "Beyond Planet Earth: The Future of Space Exploration," the staff dug out some of their trove and put them on display. A Wired article shared them for the rest of us to see. Here are a few of my favorites.
The letters were not limited to young would-be spacemen. Many girls were just as eager to launch and paraded their credentials.
Reports don't mention this, but I'm sure the Hayden conceived of their exhibit partly as a response to the flying saucer nonsense that was otherwise flooding newspapers, as this postcard indicates.
And it wouldn't be America if some wise-ass cynic didn't make his two cents known.
The Hayden did more than throw pictures on its dome. A Symposium on Space Travel, with talks by the small crew of leading space scientists, was a huge success in 1950. A Second Symposium occurred in 1952, both timed to pair with the Interplanetary Tour hoopla for maximum publicity.
Never underestimate predictions of the future. They've acted as the contemporary equivalent of clickbait since the 19th century. Jerry Mason understood clickbait. As publisher of the Maco Magazine Corporation, he steered the company into occupying one of the strangest niches in 1950s publishing. His "magazines" were issued in an odd format of 6.5 x 9.2 inches and perfect-bound like an oversized Reader's Digest. They were one-offs, appearing on no known schedule. Yet Mason had an uncanny grasp of 1950s obsessions, releasing The Complete Book of Gardening and Lawn Care, The Complete Book of Cats, The Complete Book of Fishing Tackle, The Complete Book of Horses, The Complete Book of House Plants, and Jim Beard’s Complete Cookbook for Entertaining among others over a three-year span. The intense publicity and popularity of the Hayden programs can best be judged by knowing that among those others was The Complete Book of Outer Space (TCBOOS), which did nothing less than put into print form all the talks given at the Hayden's Second Space Symposium. (Read more about The Complete Book of Outer Space on this page.)
TCBOOS probably had the priceless advantage of coming cheap. Magazines arrived at newsstands crowded with photographs, almost all of them black & white, printed on slick paper rather than the standard uncoated stock of books. As presses were already set up to handle magazines, a collection of pictures surrounded by informative text could be printed for much less than a hardback book. The articles had already been commissioned; Maco merely needed to proffer a nominal reprint fee. Scads of pictures and illustrations of rockets could be obtained through the Department of Defense, the American Rocket Society, the leading military contractors, and science fiction collectors. The cover shot, a painting by the leading astronomical artist, Chesley Bonestell, was a publicity shot for the movie Destination Moon.
Also appearing and making the connection to the Interplanetary Tour solid, albeit tucked in the back as filler, were our friends, the Interplanetary Weight Chart and the Space-Ship Time Schedule.
Interestingly, somebody corrected the Time Schedule from the too swift 9 1/2 hours (and up from the impossible slow ten days) to a reasonable 5 day one-way trip. All the other trips were adjusted accordingly.
TCBOOS was a winner. Gnome Press, one of those small specialty f&sf presses "doing all right" for themselves, purchased several thousand unbound copies and put them into hardcovers, getting the book into libraries and bookstores just a few months later in 1953. The TAB Book Club, the division of the giant children's books publisher Scholastic that catered to middle and high school students, offered a smaller, digest-sized version. Maco reprinted a full-size TCBOOS in 1957, carefully removing the outmoded article on "The Flying Saucer Myth," no longer a front-page topic. The page of "Space Charts and Tables" remained.
And that still wasn't the end. TCBOOS, despite its schoolroom appearance, was a serious book aimed at adults. Younger kids may have marveled at some of the pictures, but the text would be well beyond them. To bring the tour down to the level of the elementary school kids, the Hayden turned to poet and children's book writer Frances Frost. If a space book written by a women in 1953 seems odd, consider that for years the shows had been written and often delivered by Catherine E. Barry, Associate Curator and Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, the first women to learn to run the Zeiss projector.
We can presume that Barry worked with Frost on the text. Forst penned a yarn about David and Jean Hunter being taken by their dad, named Dad, to the Hayden. Paul Galdone did the illustrations, the choice undoubtedly influenced by his recent work on two science fiction children's classics, Space Cat and Miss Pickerell Goes to Mars.
Frost tells of a fabulous day out with their Dad. At the Hayden they gawk at the scale model rocket ship, the original designed by Wernher von Braun, find out their weight on the Moon from that ubiquitous Interplanetary Weight Chart, truncated at 100 pounds because obesity wasn't much of an issue with kids in 1953, and are dwarfed by a giant meteorite...
... and the Dome inside the Hayden, which apparently seats as many people as Yankee Stadium.
"Where's the Rocket Ship?" Jean asks. "We're in it now," replies David.
True. Thanks to the magic of a child's imagination, the kids are taking a trip to the Moon, where they get out and gambol, even picking up huge rocks that are lightweight there, before they are called back to the Rocket Ship as if Mother called them in for dinner.
If you're wondering where Mother, named Mother, went, the Hayden had that covered. Frost and Galdone, along with Hayden Chairman Robert R. Coles, sent David and Jean back to the Hayden, this time with Mother, for their Christmas 1953 show, Star of Wonder. Dad gets the space trip, Mother the religious epic - in verse. The 1950s were so infernally consistent that it's little wonder people think of the era as an age of stability.
Both books appeared in 1953 and both were announced together well ahead of release, so they were certainly conceived of as a pair by the Hayden's indefatigable and canny publicity division. Star of Wonder is a hard to find afterthought, but Rocket Away! went through at least eight printings.
Too good a promotion not to milk the last drop out of, the Hayden upped their game in 1954, adding two new gimmicks that kept crowds flocking to the show. The United Press spread the news nationwide, making the Hayden a prime tourist destination.
An inter-planetary travel bureau has been set up in New York, and it’s doing an astronomical business. …
Men, women and children dreaming of vacations among the shooting stars are investigating the possibilities of traveling on rockets operated by a number of “space lines.” They include Planetways, Inc., Galactic Central Lines, Trans Solar and Western, the Milky Way or the Elecomet Route. …
The “Brains” behind the service is one of the latest electronic computers, a mass of flashing tubes, whirring disks and humming boxes called Elecom.
Visitors to the travel bureau fill out applications, known as “Interplanetary Form 23-AQZ-14” giving their names, weights, where they want to go and the space lines of their choice. They get their answers in less time than it takes to say “by Jupiter!”
The Associated Press syndicated its own article, noting that the Hayden had added another 8,000 forms to their storehouse of reservations. It teased readers with the annotations that the computer added to their triptiks. A boy traveling to Mars was told "Vaccination against Martian measles strongly recommended." A girl who chose Saturn got a much more fun notice: "Excursion spaceboats to view the wonders of the rings leave twice daily."
The problem of housing more than 32,000 reservations (among them Holywood stars like Bob Hope and Sammy Kaye) must finally have penetrated the bureaucracy because a 1955 "Trip to the Moon" program kept the scale to weigh youngsters and show them how their weight would decrease on the satellite but eliminated the travel bureaus.
As with the best science fiction, the Hayden kept slightly ahead of reality. While the show was running Pres. Eisenhower announced as part of the International Geophysical Year that the U.S. would be launching an artificial satellite of its own.
The USSR also made an announcement that they were planned a satellite launch. No one believed them.
Two years later, the Space Race was no longer for kids.
June 19, 2020