Book review: “Rocket Ship Galileo” By Robert A. Heinlein

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Book review: “Rocket Ship Galileo” By Robert A. Heinlein

It happened that, a week or so after the death of Neil Armstrong, I picked up this 1947 novel, and to say it’s quaint is an understatement.

It’s sort of a lunar version of a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show” story.

Here, Doc Cargraves enlists his nephew Art and two of Art’s friends, Ross and Morrie, and employs these three college-age teenagers as his crew for slapping together an atom-powered rocket and flying it to the Moon.

What’s quaint, and also interesting, about this novel isn’t how wrong it is about the science, engineering, cost and dangers of going to the Moon, but how it captures an instant in American cultural thinking.

Here’s an example: Doc Cargraves and his crew land on the moon. Doc and Art go out to reconnoiter, and the first words said upon stepping onto the lunar surface are:

“Okay, kid?”

“Swell.”

Not quite “A small step for (a) man, a giant leap for mankind.”

First words

Armstrong knew that his words would be transmitted back to earth to be heard by billions of people and saw himself at an important moment in human history.

When they step out of their rocket, Doc and Art are out of radio contact with earth. They (and Heinlein) give no thought to what the first words should be.

(As it turns out, they aren’t the First Men on the Moon. The Nazis have gotten there first, about three months earlier — and there were “people” there eons before that. This is, let’s be clear, an adventure story for red-blooded American boys and men.)

It’s easy to see why Heinlein and his characters don’t make a big deal about first words. What were Columbus’s first words on landing in the New World? What were the first words said by Orville Wright when, on Dec. 17, 1903, he made the first successful controlled, powered and sustained airplane flight?

That flight and the aeronautical breakthroughs that Orville and his brother Wilbur made were very much a seat-of-the-pants, Mickey-and-Judy kind of effort.

So, in 1947, is it any wonder that Heinlein thought a rocket to the Moon might be developed in the same way? Especially given the discoveries about atomic power that had occurred during World War II. If that power could be used with such destructive force at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, couldn’t it also be harnessed for the more positive task of going to the Moon?

Innovators and dreamers

Although “Rocket Ship Galileo” is framed as an adventure story, much of the book is taken up with explanations of how space travel might work and how humans could survive and thrive in space and on the Moon’s face. Heinlein is basically talking out loud and teaching his readers about how things might fit together to permit space travel. (Which, I guess, is one of the major roles of science fiction.)

I’m no expert on the science of space travel, but I know enough to know that Heinlein gets some things right and a lot of others wrong. Still, the fun of reading his speculations is to see how Heinlein (and others of his day) were energized by the unlocking of the atom’s secrets and were getting into the down-and-dirty details of how the new knowledge could be adapted to the longtime human dream of leaving this planet.

Perhaps his novel inspired a scientist or two to get into researching this question and to add a bit to the solutions.

More significant, though, I think, is that Heinlein’s novel is an indication of the drive that tens of thousands of innovators and dreamers of that era displayed. It was a drive that, like the Manhattan Project, found the answers to put men onto the Moon and men and women into space. And it was sparked by the new scientific discoveries about the atom.

Making errors and looking silly

What happens next?

Sending humans deep into space isn’t feasible at the moment, but another new insight into the laws of nature, like the atomic revelations, will spark another drive to get the nitty-gritty answers to enable further space travel. Come another breakthrough, and innovators and dreams will get into high gear. And maybe one or two will write an adventure book.

Their first speculations may prove silly — as silly as a flimsy aircraft that crashed upon landing at Kitty Hawk. But making errors, and looking silly (and quaint), is all part of the process.

Hey, kids, let’s send some people to Mars!

Patrick T. Reardon
9.5.12

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