Space World remembered
by Thomas J. Frieling
|Space World was an independent magazine initially, and it somehow survived for years with a low subscription base and a practically non-existent advertiser base to continue publishing during some very, very lean years in the ’60s and ’70s.
Space World magazine was founded in 1960 and later purchased by the colorful and eccentric publisher Ray Palmer in 1963, and it continued until its demise in December 1988, a run lasting over a quarter century. The common confusion that it was a predecessor to Ad Astra arises from Space World’s relationship with the National Space Institute (NSI) during the last years of its publication.
The NSI, founded by Wernher von Braun in 1975, originally published its own little slick-papered newsletter (called Insight for many years). Later, in the ’80s, NSI members also received a subscription to Omni magazine with their membership, a short-lived arrangement of perhaps one year (Omni ceased publication in 1995).
Space World itself was an independent magazine initially, and it somehow survived for years with a low subscription base and a practically non-existent advertiser base to continue publishing during some very, very lean years in the ’60s and ’70s. Following Palmer’s death, his widow and an assistant continued to publish it on a shoestring basis. Perhaps it was only the original material that space writer James Oberg, early in his long, distinguished career, was contributing to the magazine that enabled it to survive those difficult times.
In addition to Oberg’s contributions (some of which he later published in his seminal book Red Star in Orbit), Space World was indexed in the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature, the standard periodical index of the day, so an inordinate number of libraries subscribed to Space World, despite its nearly content-free years. By the late ’70s, the magazine’s editor was so desperate for copy—any copy—that he reprinted brochures from aerospace companies and similar public domain items simply to fill the magazine’s pages.
Space World soldiered on in the post-Oberg years, rebounding somewhat in the early ’80s as more and more freelance writers contributed original articles. Then the NSI made an agreement with Palmer Publications to add a Space World subscription to its membership. So for most of the ’80s, NSI members received Space World, still technically owned and published by Palmer Publications, but the editorial staff was the NSI staff: Leonard David, John Rhea, and Tony Reichardt, among others, along with a stable of freelancers. The magazine certainly was at its creative peak during this period, and the NSI substituted their slick newsletter for a similar insert stapled to the center of Space World issues.
Then in 1987 came the L-5/NSI merger and, afterward, the successor organization, the National Space Society (NSS), wanted its own independent house organ. This new magazine was in the planning stages for a couple of years following the merger, and it was common knowledge among the Space World writers that the NSS-Space World connection would not long endure.
By this time a magazine publisher from Chicago, Chuck Spanbauer, had bought Space World from Mrs. Palmer and was publishing it with the NSI connection. When the NSS began to make noises about ending their relation with him and Palmer Publications, Spanbauer originally intended to keep publishing Space World, once again as the independent, unaffiliated magazine it was before it hooked up with NSI.
John Rhea, the editor after Tony Reichardt left, was the lead man in assembling an editorial staff for the once again independent Space World. I was to be the political editor, contributing a monthly column and feature articles on the Washington scene and space policy in general.
|Space World did survive its lean years, and demonstrated that it was capable of improving over time, a combination that suggests that the venerable magazine was put down before its time.
Rhea actually put together the January 1989 issue that progressed as far as page proofs. But at that time Spanbauer learned that he was obligated to fulfill the balance of the subscriptions to NSS members under the terms of their arrangement. Not having the money and perhaps the interest in doing so, he simply folded Space World. The last issue was December 1988. John Rhea doggedly fought to get all of the shafted writers a kill fee for the work they had contributed to the spiked issue (wryly referred to by Rhea as the “Phantom Issue” and available now as a PDF file). He finally succeeded, and those checks that I and the rest of the staff received from Chuck Spanbauer represented the last money spent by Space World magazine.
Ad Astra launched at the same time—January 1989—and to NSS members it must have appeared that it was indeed the successor to Space World. NSS members could be forgiven this misunderstanding considering that in December 1988 they received, as usual, their issue of Space World, and the next month they received their first issue of Ad Astra in its place.
But as described above, Ad Astra did not technically succeed Space World: if Spanbauer had supported its continuation monetarily, the magazine would have continued to publish. At the time of its demise, Space World still had several things going for it: a stable complement of freelance writers, some of whom still contribute to the literature two decades later; a small but stable base of library subscriptions; and not the least, a good reputation in the space field.
While it’s impossible to say how Space World might have fared in on its own once again, the fate of Final Frontier, a similar magazine that launched about the same time that Space World folded and that itself did not last even ten years suggests perhaps Space World too might not have survived another decade.
On the other hand, Space World in fact did survive its lean years, and demonstrated that it was capable of improving over time, a combination that suggests that the venerable magazine was put down before its time. One thing is certain: It was gratifying to be part of the team that produced Space World in its glory days.