The Conquest of Space - Willy Ley, Chesley Bonestell
Saturn seen from Mimas. Bonestell painting.

Around the time when I was captivated by the movie "Destination Moon" at age 11 or 12 (1951-1952), my father brought home a fascinating book from the local public library. It was filled with pictures of the Solar System with its planets and moons. The pictures seemed so real that it was hard to believe that they were just the products of the artist's imagination.

If my father had intended to persuade me to make the exploration of space my profession, he could not have been more successful. I was hooked.

The book was published in 1949. It was a collaborative effort between Willy Ley, one of the early members of the illustrious "Verein für Raumschiffahrt" (Spaceflight Society) founded in Berlin in 1927, who emigrated to the United States in 1935, and Chesley Bonestell, the celebrated painter.

Both of them were to have an enormous influence on the general public's perception of spaceflight through their contributions to the Colliers magazine's series on that subject in 1952, and to Disney's television series in 1955. Together with Wernher von Braun, they managed to convince the American public that spaceflight was a realistic possibility within the near future.

Otto Willi Gail book cover.In my own country, the idea of spaceflight was being ridiculed at the time. I remember vividly that when Arthur C. Clarke's "The Exploration of Space" was published in Swedish in 1954, Swedish "experts" assured their readers that manned spaceflight would remain impossible for at least the next 50 years.

I knew better. At age 10 I had devoured Otto Willi Gail's "Physik der Weltraumfahrt" (in its Swedish translation). It imprinted the number 11180 m/sec on my mind: the escape velocity from Earth's field of gravity. It also taught me to discount overly pessimistic predictions. Right at the start it quoted an English quarterly from 1825: What can be more palpably absurd and ridiculous than the prospect held out of locomotives traveling twice as fast as horses? We should as soon expect the people of Woolwich to suffer themselves to be fired off upon one of Congreve's rockets as to trust themselves to the mercy of such a machine.

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    Last edited or checked July 30, 2011.  

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