Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Retro Space part 1 - For Sci Fi Readers and Gamers

Radio Punk

I grew up with the kind of spacemen that inspired the old Archer and Ajax figures. Prior to the Mercury flights, we thought spacemen would look like the toys. Reality trumps fiction. Toy spacemen made ever since have usually been in the mold of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo type astronauts. That is, except for a few fictional types such as Star Trek and Star Wars. Even then, modern characters in space suits were more like conventional astronauts.

Along with toy spacemen were old movie posters featuring futuristic astronauts in various adventures. The Buck Rogers serials and others like them gave us an idea of space that would be very cool with a touch of Art Deco and Streamline artistic flair. Thinking of them made me wonder where such spacemen might represent real astronauts. Just as they were suited for space operas in the 1950s, might they be appropriate if we had gotten into space by the middle of that decade?

What with Steampunk trying to create an alternate history with the technology of the late 1800s, I wondered. Could we not do the same with technology developed in the decade after World War II?  Perhaps...perhaps, if we can come up with a means to go into space without overstepping the limits of plausible deniability.

The following is based on some random speculation I did about ten or twelve years ago.

I call it “radio-punk”.

A thought experiment from a few years ago based itself on an unusual premise. What if some kind of unfinished secret Nazi technology was found at the War’s end that could make space travel possible? I have heard old conspiracy theories about everything from flying saucers to levitating occult devices. For sake of science fiction, let us suppose that one of them was viable. Though it would not have been ready by the end of the War, it could be developed further afterward. Remember Space 1999? How about Space 1955? It would be an alternate history kind of thing.

Getting to space would be one thing. What about dealing with the vacuum and the intense cold of Space? How about shielding from solar radiation and cosmic rays?  How about the Van Allen Radiation Belt?  Our astronauts did not have to deal with the Van Allen Belt until the Apollo Missions to the Moon. The Belt was only discovered in 1958. That I think of it, in Space 1955, dealing with the Van Allen Belt could be an episode all in itself.

In real time, a lot of advances in technology were accomplished between 1955 and 1969. Several of them were crucial to making the Moon landing a success. I do not know all of them. One necessity was a pressurized suit that shielded the wearer from extreme temperatures and radiation. Look at the evolution of Space Suits from the Mercury crew, whose gear was not very different from a high-altitude military pilot, to the Moon suits worn by the Apollo crew. Not being expert, I do not know how many of the materials used were even a thought in 1955.

If these things could be handled with the secret Nazi technology and 1950s ingenuity, what might they be? The first Laser was made in 1960. That pretty much precludes laser communications, laser navigation, laser rangefinders and energy weapons for our 1955 space crew. I do not know how advanced we were with transistors in 1955, or how much of a radio or video would still require vacuum tubes. Video cameras were large and awkward at the time. Broadcasting television signals was a much bigger operation. It took years to miniaturize many of these things. Communication would require more equipment and space in 1955.

As for armaments, things would be quite different without ray guns and other energy weapons. I imagine for close range, spring-loaded weapons might be useful for no or low gravity. A spear gun or even small crossbow type gadget may be the thing, especially since there is no atmosphere to slow the projectile. Rockets would be ideal, from larger missiles fired from a space ship to man-carried rockets like those fired from a bazooka. Rockets would have to carry their own oxygen if used in a vacuum or an atmosphere lacking it. Weapons used inside a spacecraft would have to be low-velocity projectile weapons with ammo that does not penetrate the hull. They would rely on the air in the craft for ignition. For ground combat with gravity, but low or no atmosphere, or an atmosphere lacking oxygen, there could be projectile weapons. A powerful air gun, working along the lines of CO2 pellet guns, might work. It would have to carry its own propellent. Firearms would have to be adapted for the purpose. First, they would need to have an oxygen supply to provide ignition. Second, the projectile’s powder would have to be formulated to give plenty of power with less oxygen. Firearms would likely have their own small oxygen tank, either external, internal, or both. A soldier would be in trouble if he ran out of ammo or air.

Of course. there is always a chance of getting alien technology. One might discover it left behind  on a moon or planet in our solar system. We may capture some in a skirmish with aliens. Suppose an alien culture developed energy weapons, but never had the transistor or solid-state electronics? Even on Earth, all cultures did not develop evenly. That would allow for the ray guns carried by old style toy spacemen.

Speaking of space, a lot of things might trickle down from the secret technology into the everyday world. It may affect air travel and the future development of aircraft, for instance. In the series inspired by Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, the Nazis developed a supersonic passenger jet akin to the Concorde SST called “the Rocket.” Might a different technology lead to different aircraft with capabilities superior to those in real time?

Would the new technology affect ground vehicles? How might that work?

Suppose the new technology only applied to air and space travel. What kind of vehicles could be made to explore other planets? The Lunar Rover used batteries, but its technology was far in advance of what was available in 1955. Back then, batteries did not last as long and needed to be handled with more care. Leaking was a big problem for dry cell batteries in the 1950s. The electric motors of the day tended to be large and needed a large power source. Battery operation would have been ponderous because of all the batteries that were needed. Steam and internal combustion engines would be impractical because they need oxygen for the fuel that provides heat. As with powering electric motors, a lot of batteries would have to be used to provide enough heat for just a little steam. There is also the problem of water. Transporting water for a steam-powered vehicle would use up valuable space. A space rover powered like a bicycle might work on smooth terrain. It would have to be small and light, and could not carry much more than the passengers pushing the pedals.

Solar panels and similar technology were nowhere in sight in the 1950s. Energy sources would have to be brought.

As you can see, Space 1955 is more difficult, requires more time, more space, heavier and bigger objects that what could be made in 1969. Just as modern technology is well advanced of that used for the Apollo missions, so the Apollo technology was a quantum leap ahead of 1955. Look at what we had in our everyday lives back then. Radios, televisions, appliances and the like were bigger and heavier. Very few had electronics. Tube technology was at its height. Most things were heavier because most were made of metal and wood. The plastics were heavier and thicker.

How would we reconcile that with the idea of space travel and interplanetary adventurers?  How might the technology be explained?  To devise technology from that era taking the place of its modern counterpart, you would have to go back to 1950s tech and then bring it forward by another route. This route would be limited to the materials and know-how of the time. For instance, there would be a lot of wires and tubes. Transistors and solid state were relatively new and rather primitive as compared to what was available a decade later.

Keep in mind that this is all wildly speculative. I do not have the background in science history to know enough 1950s “state of the art”. Likewise, I do not have the kind of specialized knowledge about space travel and astronomy to know all of the  conditions to be overcome for the safety of astronauts. With Space 1955, I was having fun stretching a few ideas. Frankly, I do not know if it would have been remotely possible, even by stretching the limits of plausible deniability. Still and all, it was fun to consider.

Besides, the old fictional space suits and the old style rocket ships with fins look a darn sight better than the real things that emerged since 1960. NASA does amazing things, but compared to the Buck Rogers serials, it looks bland. And while Buzz Aldrin could probably out-think, out-shoot, out-fight and out-smart Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and the rest of them, their stuff still looked better.


Aliens 1955

During the original Star Trek series, Aliens began to change. Most of Star Trek’s alien encounters involved humans or creatures very close to human. Things were not so in the 1950s. A look at the covers of science fiction novels and magazines shows a very weird variety of creatures. While green was the most popular color for aliens, the shape of them was truly bizarre. There were tall ones, short ones, thick ones and skinny ones. Most had pointy ears and big buggy eyes., A nickname for standard sci-fi aliens was “Bemmies”, a take on the acronym for Bug Eyed Monster. One thing that is notable is that many looked like mythical beings as described in old folktales from around the world. Sci-fi had given a scientific update to the general run of trolls, ogres, demons, imps, gnomes and hobgoblins. There were also assorted clunky robots, from sinister cylinders to boxy metal men to “Robbie” of forbidden planet. One funny example was a robot who opened the door to the underground world in Gene Autry’s “The Phantom Empire”. The top of the robot’s head was shaped like a cowboy hat.

Keeping a 1950s sci-fi flavor to Space 1955 would be enhanced by aliens like those of the 1950s. For toy soldier buffs, plastic makers Lido and Marx both produced their own ranges of alien spacemen.  They are a bit hard to find these days. Lido’s aliens and robots were quite bizarre. Marx’s “Moonbase Alpha” aliens were just a little less so. If you cannot find the ones you like, sculpt your own or look at fantasy figures. Many of them can be converted to 1950s-style alien spacemen.

One of the more bizarre alien space things was a series of cards from the early 1960s called “Mars Attacks.” They were about an alien invasion of Earth and the depravity of the invaders. Some of the cards were quite gruesome, too. A movie of the same name was made in 1996, including some retro elements. One could get some ideas about aliens of the 1950s from the movie and cards. If anything the movie was a lot of fun.

Alien space ships, vehicles and other equipment was often illustrated on the covers of science fiction.  They can be used to devise your own alien airdromes and motor pools.


Game Adjustments

There would not need to be many game adjustments made to incorporate Space 1955 / Radiopunk. Most alterations would be to work at a level of lower technology. Many things accepted in current futuristic sci-fi would not even be on the drawing boards in the 1950s. A problem might be in finding suitably large alien figures if you use the old Ajax and Archer type figures.

Part II will be posted tomorrow


  1. A VERY imaginative scenario and a wonderful use for our old space men! I am thinking the MARX 45mm rubbery spacemen should be the earthmen, and the Archer, Ajax, etc. the Offworlders. too, consider those waxy large 1950s ALIENS from the J.H. Miller Company. There are some white metal repros on ebay now. http://www.ebay.com/itm/RARE-White-Metal-Reproduction-of-the-MILLER-ALIEN-SATURN-/201490126197?hash=item2ee9bf5575:g:pnIAAOSwFnFWAK~O ... Too, any old piece of junk robot toy from those days could be employed as an alien weapon, a'la Moguera in THE MYSTERIANS (1957).

  2. Playtex made our space suits. http://www.wheretowatch.com/2013/09/bras-in-space-the-incredible-true-story-behind-upcoming-film-spacesuit Rockets don't need air, they carry oxygen as part of their fuel. That is what makes them different from jets. Great ideas.

    1. I wonder how they would add an oxygen supply to smaller rockets, such as those fired from "bazooka" type launchers and other small missiles. That article on Playtex is fascinating. It illustrates the practical issues of dealing with the human body itself. I think the modern term is "ergonomics." This is why comments to articles are so important. My knowledge is not enough. Keep the comments coming! We need insight from people with expertise and knowledge in many fields. Comments are corrections and new information that keep the missile on course.