Men Into Space was a television show that (unfortunately) aired for a single season between September 1959 and September, 1960. It was a show dedicated to treating the exploration and exploitation of space in a serious, realistic manner, serving as foreshadow of what seemed to be a not-too-distant future, presenting itself more as preview than science fiction. Its run ended just before airing an episode chronicling the first manned flight to Mars, televised prognostication that presaged reality far too closely for comfort.
The show, while dated in some ways, remains an entertaining watch, especially for those baby-boomers who grew up on the promise of space, reading the books written by the very men who were making it all happen – Werner von Braun, Willy Ley and illustrated by Chesley Bonestell in his hyper-realistic style, watching white-knuckled through the Mercury and Gemini programs, thrilling to the new future presented in living color by none other than Walt Disney.
John C. Frederiksen’s Men Into Space may initially present itself as an academic tome – which in some respects it is – as some time is taken to set the background and chronicle all of the pre-history that led to the airing of this special and unique show; Frederiksen admits from the very beginning that his involvement with the subject is a very personal one and his passion for it is forefront and center – as it would be for any youngster growing up during the days when many of us were bitten by the space bug and believed that the Moon, Mars and the Stars were but a few dangerous yet exciting stepping stones away.
Frederiksen takes time to enumerate the passions we felt (while lamenting the lack of that same passion today – perhaps now is the time for an up-dated version of the show?); of how we knew it to be a risky venture, one that would undoubtedly be marked by injury and even death in space, but pressed on because of man’s inherent nature to explore, to expand and to place his mark on the heavens.
He also spends some time reviewing the major differences between Men Into Space and the science fiction television shows that had gone before – the so-called Kiddie shows such as Captain Video, Tom Corbett, Rocky Jones, Space Patrol and the anthology shows such as Science Fiction Theater and carefully delineates the difference(s) between science fiction as pure fantasy and science fiction as near-future prediction; the differences are reinforced as we are taken through the unusual preparations that went into the production of the show.
Frederiksen’s chronicle of the production company’s (ZIV) research, engagement with various branches of the military and Federal government (giving the show access to actual missile sites, hardware and personnel – even to the extent of supplying real pressure suits for the actors to wear) is an interesting look behind the scenes of early television; his coverage of the key personnel brings to light interesting careers and personalities that most are unfamiliar with.
Where Men Into Space really shines though is John’s presentation of all 38 episodes. With loving detail and an evident encyclopedic familiarity with each one, Frederiksen lays out the action, the conflict, the personalities and the emotion in a page-turning, exciting and completely engaging manner; the closest comparison I can find to his semi-fictional presentation are James Blish’s Star Trek (TOS) episode novelizations.
Of particular interest to those who enjoy science fiction literature are the writing credits accompanying each episode: Ib Melchior, William Templeton, James Clavell, and many other familiar names.
Reading the episodes is akin to watching the show, perhaps even a tad better than watching as John is able to lend a modern perspective to the presentation in a manner that helps diminish any disconnects we might experience from out-dated social norms.
Men Into Space is a quick, enjoyable must-read, but it does come with two warnings: One: Reading Men Into Space WILL rekindle your interest in getting out there – it may even make you angry all over again with our failure to live up to the promise of space. (If it does, visit Fight For Space.) Two: You WILL want to rush out and purchase the DVD of the show. Despite those warnings, Men Into Space is highly recommended to SF television show buffs, space fans, history buffs and science fiction fans of all stripes.