The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Galaxy magazine cover
The cover of the August 1957 issue of Galaxy magazine, featuring Willy Ley’s column about missiles. (courtesy D. Day)

The Sputnik singularity

If you were a rocket-obsessed kid in the fifties and sixties (a bit before my time), there were a few popular non-fiction writers who practically became household names. There was Erik Berghaust, whose books aimed for the younger market. Then there was Martin Caidin, a frequently atrocious writer (read The Cape, especially p. 39). Caidin wrote aviation and space non-fiction books, but it was his fiction, like the book that inspired The Six Million Dollar Man television series, that made him rich. Caidin was more colorful than his fictional characters, however—a hard-drinking, daredevil pilot who haunted astronaut bars in Cocoa Beach. Caidin’s private life, unlike his books, was not suitable for kids.

But towering above them both was Willy Ley. Ley was truly in the big leagues. His books were illustrated by Chesley Bonestell and often featured introductions by Wernher von Braun—that is, when he was not co-writing them with von Braun himself. Ley was nearly as prolific as a newspaper beat reporter, with articles appearing almost on a monthly basis in magazines, and books published every year or so. His prose was straightforward and easy to read.

It is hard not to envy Ley’s success writing about spaceflight in the days when spaceflight was first taking off.

Ley was born in Germany in 1906 and was one of the first members of Germany’s amateur rocket society, writing extensively for the group’s journal, Die Rakete. But unlike some other Germans in the rocket field, he decided he did not want to work for or live under the Nazis and fled to Britain in 1935 and then the United States, becoming an American citizen in 1944. By the early 1950s he began collaborating with Wernher von Braun and Bonestell, working on the famous series of Collier’s magazine articles about spaceflight and a number of books that are considered classics of 1950s spaceflight non-fiction such as The Conquest of Space, The Conquest of the Moon, and Rockets, Missiles, and Space Travel. Ley even had a line of model rockets, complete with his name and face on the boxes. It is hard not to envy his success writing about spaceflight in the days when spaceflight was first taking off. His papers are now stored at the Smithsonian.

From 1952 until his death in 1969, Ley wrote a regular science column for Galaxy. Galaxy was a science fiction pulp magazine started in 1950 with a peak circulation over 100,000 in its early years. Ley wrote about rockets, robots, and satellites. He was interested in zoology, too, and occasionally wrote about that. In August 1957 Ley wrote one of his regular For Your Information columns titled “Our Missile Arsenal.” Galaxy’s editor chose a bolder way to promote it on the cover with the large headline “How Do We Stand In The Space Race?” In retrospect, it seems rather timely. In reality, it wasn’t.

The article had nothing to do with the space race. Instead, it was an overview of the American missile arsenal. Ley took a very conservative approach to the subject—too conservative in many ways. He acknowledged that the Air Force’s Atlas ICBM and Thor intermediate range ballistic missile had received a lot of attention in the press recently. So had the Navy’s planned Polaris submarine launched ballistic missile. He chose not to write about them, however. Instead he focused on the missiles that were at that very moment already in the American arsenal. Because up to four months elapsed between Ley writing his column and its appearance on the newsstand, he acknowledged that much of what he was writing could be out of date by the time his readers had the magazine in their hands. But he doubted it.

Reading an old magazine article is naturally a step back in time in many ways. One of the most subtle and yet obvious differences is the writing style. Magazines of the thirties and even the forties often seem slightly alien. You stumble over the words and phrases at times. It’s not just the obsolescent slang, but the sentence composition that slows things down. By the fifties and sixties, however, the style became more muscular, more macho, and more fun. Then gonzo journalism appeared, along with writers trying to be hip, and often magazine writing from the latter sixties and into the seventies—especially in the hands of talentless hacks—can today seem as impenetrable as olde English.

But there are other differences as well. Ley was not simply writing in the pre-Internet days, he was writing at a time when most of the progenitors of the Information Age were not available to the common man. The fax machine and the photocopier existed in some form, but were expensive and not accessible beyond the upper stratosphere of the corporate and government worlds. Newspapers were prolific, but local. Long distance phone calls were relatively expensive. In his August 1957 article, Ley discussed various short and medium range missiles—cribbing a lot of data from his rockets and missiles book—but conceded that much information was secret. That was certainly true; when guided missiles were in their infancy a lot of basic information about them was secret. But it was also the case that much information was not really secret, simply unknown. Information simply was not as prolific back then because of the limits of communications technology.

Ley was writing about missiles and rockets for a science fiction magazine because his readership was interested in spaceflight and wanted to know how humans would, eventually, someday, maybe, fly into space.

Ley obtained his information via correspondence and also by talking to people, and a significant part of the article was based upon his fall 1956 visit to Ordnance Day at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. He described several missile demonstrations and provided an overview of numerous Army, Navy, and Air Force rockets and missiles then in service. He wrote about the Redstone, the Corporal, the Honest John, Nike-Hercules, Nike-Ajax, Regulus, Matador, Bomarc, and even the X-17 research missile. He concluded the article with a brief—very brief—discussion of missiles and rockets then in development. These included the Atlas, Thor, and Polaris. Of the Army’s Jupiter missile he wrote: “it is known that it is big. Period.” He also wrote that “it has been officially said that the Air Force has handed out several study contracts dealing with an unmanned rocket to the Moon.”

As far as information on American missiles and rockets in 1957 is concerned, you will learn nothing from Ley’s article that you cannot find in better sources today. As a cultural piece, however, the article still holds some value. Ley, despite his extensive contacts, was not able to read the future. His article in Galaxy’s October 1957 issue was titled “Hunting Down the Dodo.”

Ley was writing about missiles and rockets for a science fiction magazine because his readership was interested in spaceflight and wanted to know how humans would, eventually, someday, maybe, fly into space. His editor spun Ley’s story even more than he did, hence the bold cover headline “How Do We Stand In The Space Race?” Galaxy’s readers did not have access to more specialized publications, and certainly not national security or intelligence data. They were unaware of U-2 spyplanes flying over Baikonur, or radar tracking sites in Turkey, or Soviet R-7 ICBMs in their ballistic arcs over the Kazakh desert. A 14-year-old boy, sitting in his bedroom in the last days of summer 1957, might have read Ley’s column fantasizing about rockets. He might have experienced that little tinge of regret and dread that all children feel as the sun goes down during their last days of freedom before the start of another school year. And he might have taken some comfort in Ley’s description of a robust American missile arsenal.

…And he would have had no idea, none whatsoever, that in only a couple of months the world would change completely. Sputnik would fly, Americans would panic under a red moon soaring overhead, Vanguard would blow up on the launch pad—on the television! And only a few months beyond that, a Jupiter-C missile—“of which it is known that it is big. Period.”—would put the United States firmly into the Space Race that was mentioned on Galaxy’s cover but not in Ley’s column.

And nothing would ever be the same again.