There are certain things when growing up which linger subconsciously and influence your perception and decision-making throughout your adult life – it might be a piece of music, a person or experience, a book, a game or a toy. It may well have been one, two, or all of these things which have combined to make us who we are. The distance of time and the accumulation of experience have obscured the exact source of many of our ingrained likes and dislikes, it is the same for all of us and goes some way in creating the individuals we are.
One of the few influences I do remember from my childhood was a particular Ladybird book – the very copy of Exploring Space that I owned as a child is pictured on the left (minus its dust jacket, which disintegrated long before it was relegated to the attic from where I recovered it a few years ago). I did have other ladybird books, but what they were I cannot now remember – it is this book which held words and images (particularly the images) which have stuck with me ever since.
Essentially it is the history, pre-history and the hope filled visions of future space flight and exploration from the perspective of 1964. It not only relates the factual and theoretical, but also the dream-like and fantastical – I think that is why it had such a profound effect on my imagination.
It begins with Storybook Space-flight and one of the book’s strongest images – a man in a chair being taken to the moon by ten wild swans. It was drawn by B. Knight and based on Francis Godwin’s book The Man In The Moone (probably written sometime in the 1620’s). Other fantastical flights are also mentioned by Kepler and Jules Verne, but it is the image of the swans in flight which I remembered long after I could recall exactly where I’d seen it.
The book covers the evolution from fireworks to weaponry and mentions the destruction and loss of life, particularly in London, caused by Wernher von Braun’s ‘experimental work in Europe‘ with the V2, but also that he now helps the American’s plans to explore space. The usefulness of satellites is also mentioned for weather watching and relaying radio waves around the globe and even television pictures.
A date which will go down in history books for a long time to come is October 4th 1957. This was when the Russian scientists launched the first earth satellite. it since been followed by many others, some carrying the first men into space.
This is quoted from the page called Round the Earth, yet nowhere in the book is Yuri Gagarin mentioned. I can only assume it was a cold war influenced decision in 1964 not to trumpet the Soviet Union’s dominance of space exploration during the early years and America’s faltering start with the repeated failures associated with the Vanguard project. In an attempt to balance the achievements between the two superpowers the first astronaut mentioned is John Glenn and his orbit of the Earth. How strange it seems to us now that political sensibilities should impact on a child book, yet reminds us just how tense the situation used to be. Back then the opposition was clear and well-defined, is was a physical place that we placed behind a wall, but knew it could destroy all of us. Now our terror is everywhere and nowhere, as yet not so finite a threat, but sporadic and insidious, hiding in the shadows and waiting.
Among the many speculations were moon bases, stations in space, telescopes in orbit and finding life on Mars. It wasn’t until 1976 and the Viking programme that a successful Mars landing was achieved and many of the Mars based fantasies were finally scuppered. From the perspective of a mid 60’s Ladybird book the ‘patches and streaks of a blue-green colour‘ were probably not ‘some kind of vegetation‘ and that the famous ‘canals’ were an ‘interesting idea [that] is unlikely to be true‘ and probably not dug by some industrious Martian civilisation – what a shame.
After the moon landing in 1969 Ladybird re-issued the Exploring Space book as a Revised Edition by updating the ‘Journey to the Moon’ page and replacing ‘Target – the Moon’ with ‘Exploring the Moon’. Some of the original drawing were also updated (by B. H. Robinson) to look more like Apollo style rockets rather than those found in science fiction magazines.
I may be over extrapolating – but was it due to this book that I had a fascination with space exploration as a child and did its influence guide me towards the wild imaginings of H. G. Wells – I had read all of his short stories before I left school. Was it the source of my obsession with 50’s science fiction (Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet, Invaders from Mars) let alone the earlier film series like Flash Gordon, The Phantom Empire and King of The Rocket Men (they just don’t show those things any more, do they!). If so, it is probably responsible for my continuing interest in the wilder side of speculative fiction – and for that I have a lot to thank Ladybird Books and in particular, Exploring Space.