In the early 1950s, with powerful rockets developed in the war effort, space travel was a tantalizing possibility. Naturally, PM reported on how it might work. We got pretty close.
In 1952, the article “” highlighted what were, at the time, the most promising ideas about how mankind might explore the universe beyond Earth’s atmosphere. This was five years before the first Soviet satellite, Sputnik 1, would reach orbit; 17 years before Americans would reach the moon; and 59 years before the NASA space shuttle program would be shuttered. The article included predictions of the space shuttle and the International Space Station, and more outlandish ideas, like that we might use nuclear-fusion-powered jets to move other planets closer to the sun and modify their sizes to be more Earth-like for colonization.
We asked astronaut Scott Kelly, who has logged 520 days in space over four missions, to read the original 1952 feature and tell us how actual space travel compares. (Kelly’s book , about his year in space, is available now.)
I thought the story was entertaining. That headline makes it sound like something you could just do right then, over the weekend.
My first comment is that the future is a long period of time. So for me to say all of this or some of this is just complete B.S.—I don’t think I would ever go as far as to say something will never happen. But with current understandings of physics and technology, moving a planet, or taking a planet and stripping off some of its mass so its gravity is more Earth-like, seems a little bit far-fetched.
As far as space travel goes, there’s a line in the story that says astronauts in zero gravity will have the sensation of falling all the time, which they seemed very concerned about. Yeah, initially you feel like you’re falling, so their concern is warranted, but in reality people get used to the feeling pretty quickly. I got used to it in a few minutes. I have heard of people on the shuttle flights who felt like they were falling for the whole week or two they’re up there, though.
There’s also talk in the story about how ventilation will be an issue. In reality it is a big concern. We have procedures where, if we’re going behind a panel or a rack on the space station, we’re supposed to have an oxygen sensor to make sure there’s enough oxygen, because the ventilation isn’t good. So they definitely had that figured out.
At the end, there’s a great line that talks about how it took 100 million years for aquatic animals to transition to land, and it only took 1 million years for man to make it to space. I’d say you can take it one step further: For us to venture away from Earth, to live off Earth or out of our solar system permanently, it might take 100 million years. I like the idea that it took us a long time to get to where we are now, and it might take just as long for us to get to another planet.
More Feedback From Scott About the 1952 Article
This diagram (left) shows a rocket with two boosters falling off. That’s like the space shuttle. In real life, rockets don’t go straight up like that, but the concept is correct. And transport rockets 200 feet tall, and carrying a 30-ton payload—those are space-shuttle-like numbers.
There’s a lot of concern about keeping the spacecraft warm, but a much larger issue is how you reject heat, from both your electronics and the sun.
I think it’s pretty cool they were thinking about this before we had all the space junk we have to worry about today. In the story they’re more worried about meteoroids, but we have shields now that protect from the man-made objects left up in space. The space station gets hit all the time with stuff.
The story posits an orbital station at 350 miles altitude that would have to move 16,200 miles per hour to maintain its position—those numbers are pretty close to reality, from what I understand. As for inflatable portions of spacecraft that could be collapsed in transport and inflated once in space: On the ISS, we have the BEAM, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, which creates an inflatable habitat.
Scott Kelly’s book , about his year in space, is available now. This story appears in the January/February 2018 issue.