(originally published in Redwood Coast Review, Fall 2011)
My Dream Book
As a child, I was entranced by a book with an unwieldy title: ROCKETS, JETS, Guided Missiles and Space Ships, by Jack Coggins and Fletcher Pratt. Even now, pulling books down from a shelf where they have sat for thirty years, packing for a move, a thrill goes through me when I see the cover. The first words, ROCKETS, JETS are all caps and in red against a yellow field, followed by the black, more demure, Guided Missiles and Space Ships. The rest of the laminated cardboard cover is given over to a vivid scene of outer space commerce as a rocket looking like a thin version of the space shuttles zooms by the Earth while another ship, on a nearby orbital station, is being fueled.
ROCKETS, JETS... was published in 1951, so I must have been given it when I was nine or ten years old. It is only sixty pages long, but I spent endless hours reading it, studying it, on my bed and in the shade of the weeping willow tree in our backyard. At my little desk, I traced the diagrams of rocket motors and ship designs.
Without opening it, more than half a century later, I can envision just about all of its often dramatic illustrations. The one heading the first chapter depicts terrified Mongol horseman fleeing toward the reader as defensive rockets whiz past them, fired from the Great Wall of China.
The book’s opening pages trace the history of rocketry but, not surprisingly given when it was written, much of it is about World War II. Indeed, this first Chapter, despite the illustration of Mongol horsemen, begins baldly with, “The best known method of stopping an enemy tank is by means of rockets.” This is the stuff that kids, boys at least, of that age in that era devoured. The use of rockets on land, sea and in the air in that great conflict takes up pages, including fairly detailed sketches of the innards of devices ranging from the hand held bazooka to the formidable V-2, the prototype ICBM developed by the Nazis.
But what really anchored the book was something that had not happened, a dream -- that some day humans would travel through space, land on the Moon, then push on to Mars. There is that cover with rockets coming and going, and end papers which depict astronauts working on one of the moons of Mars with the great red planet hovering huge above them.
The obstacles to be overcome, and the ways this might be done, are laid out with the same respect for a child’s intelligence as the earlier pages on warfare, but, particularly in the illustrations, there is also acknowledgement of a child’s capacity for wonder.
Just when would all this happen, when would humans manage to get off the planet? For all its flamboyance, ROCKETS, JETS, Guided Missiles and Space Ships makes no promises. “What are the next twenty years going to bring?” it asks rhetorically, and answers by suggesting the possibility of small, unmanned orbital rockets as something that might be reality by then. Remember, this was in 1951. In fact, only six years passed – not twenty -- before the Soviets put their Sputnik into orbit. Four years after that, in 1961, they sent the first man into space. And then, in 1969, less that twenty years after the appearance of ROCKETS, JETS, Guided Missiles and Space Ships, it was done, a key component of the dream fulfilled. Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon.
There is one glaring omission in the book’s predictions – no mention whatsoever of computers. Because of the need to process an enormous stream of data very quickly, space travel and the Moon landings would have been impossible without computers. And although the space program has given us immensely valuable spin-off technology (including developments which, in turn, vastly improved the computer), it is computers, not space travel which have most obviously shaped the way we live today.
Which brings me back to that little boy dreaming of a trip to the Moon. In 1951, radio was an established feature of everyday life and television was just beginning to penetrate. The coming impact of the computer -- including video games and the internet -- was far distant. Kids then had more time for dreaming than they seem to have today. Do they still lose themselves in books through long summer afternoons and muse on great adventures awaiting them? Do they still look forward to the future? If there is current equivalent to ROCKETS, JETS, Guided Missiles and Space Ships, I’d really love to be directed to it.