Martian canals, mysterious planets, and other NFB wonders of 1950s space

At an antique store, I picked up an informative documentary called “The Planets”, produced by The National Film Board of Canada in 1955. I learned ever so much from it:

The moon looks a lot like the Rockies, but with a bunch of swirling stars behind the peaks. If, in the far distant future, man ever goes there, he’d better bring an atmosphere, for without it, he’d surely die in 120 seconds–no more, no less.

And, judging from the title, yes, apparently the moon is a planet.

Did you know that absolutely shit-all is known about Venus except that it’s shrouded in what could be smoke or mist or clouds or something else mysterious and mind-boggling and ooh-isn’t-it-fascinating?

Mars, it seems, is covered by a complex network of rivers that feed into lakes surrounded by forests that turn from green to red with the seasons. Chances are very good that sentient life exists on Mars, but the Martians must be very different from us, since there’s no oxygen there.

And apparently, there is no Neptune. That, or all they could find to say about it was so dull they decided it best to skip right to Pluto after Uranus. Or maybe their count was thrown off, what with the inclusion of the moon and all.

I think another error of that era (an era error, you could say) was the belief that Mercury is tidally locked with the Sun. Thus one side is always in blazing heat, and the other is always in icy darkness. So they thought.

And although people knew nothing about Venus’s surface, it was often assumed to be thick jungle, like the Brazilian rainforest or something. You know, there’s all that thick cloud cover, and the planet’s closer to the Sun, so it must be really really humid and lush down there. Ray Bradbury wrote a short story whose premise was that Venus has constant rainfall everywhere, all the time. The heros, who are trudging home after crashing far away from base, nearly go mad from being rained on for weeks (months?) on end. Can’t remember the story title just now, I’m afraid.

I also loved the spaceships as they were drawn in that period: basically giant fountain pens tapered at both ends, with car fins attached at the bottom. Except the alien spaceships, which were flying saucers. Our technology of course wasn’t that advanced yet.

The prologue to the 1950’s version of War of the Worlds takes us on a tour of the solar system; and they presume that the gas giants have nice solid ground surfaces, from which one can admire Saturn’s rings.

Assuming you are reporting correctly, that was not the state of scientific knowledge of Jupiter in the 1950s.

There’s no air or water on the Moon, so no erosion-right? Ah, those razor-sharp peaks and ridges. And of course there’s probably something REALLY nifty hidden on the far side of the moon.

And all the moons of the outer planets are basically rocky. Maybe covered in snow and ice but made largely of rock. What, an entire moon made mostly of water ice? That’s ridiculous!

I found a 1950s textbook once that explained how animals go distributed to isolated places like Australia via land bridges which had since been inundated. Some of them were quite lengthy. No mention of continental drift, of course.

Well, that’s not entirely off base. If you were stranded on Venus, the pressure would get to you pretty quick.

Oh man. But hey, if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the greenhouse.

Did a little searching since my earlier post, and actually found two Bradbury stories set on a tropical, rainy Venus. There’s The Long Rain (the one I was thinking of), and then there’s All Summer in a Day, which I hadn’t heard of till now.

And wouldn’t you know it, they were both published in the 1950s.

Here’s a standard science fiction trope of the time: Venus is young, Earth is in the middle, and Mars is old. Venus is like early Earth: hot, tropical, primitive life. Mars, on the other hand, is an old dying planet, with canals being the vestiges of a once-vibrant civilization that has become an old, almost-gone civilization eaking out a bare existence (but still very smart, powerful, etc).

Heinlein used that in his Future History - the Martians were the ‘old ones’ - an ancient race. Venus had sentient dragons but was mostly swamp and foul creatures.

And little was known about the dangerous environment the Gallilean moons lived in around Jupiter, so there were lots of stories centered around colonies on Jupiter’s moons. My favorite was ‘Farmer in the Sky’, which was about terraforming Ganymede. To do it, they had an ‘atmosphere project’ which created a greenhouse which raised the temperature to tolerable levels. The soil was dead, so Earth soil was imported and farmers would ‘seed’ the soil by raking the Earth soil in with native Ganymede dirt, then waiting for it all to migrate together.

All Summer in a Day remains the most depressing thing I ever read as a child. Just thinking about it again makes me go funny all over. Not funny like a clown though. I forgot it was set on Venus though.

Yeah, I once won an essay contest on that story, in seventh or eighth grade. The prize was a copy of The Martian Chronicles, which I never was able to finish. Damned depressing.

And Heinlein’s dragons weren’t from the Future History. The Venusians in the Future History were humanoid amphibian things, as seen in “Logic of Empire” and Space Cadet. The dragons were from Between Planets.

Not quite accurate. In that short story, Earth was in the process of terraforming Venus and one of the consequences of the process was that all the water vapor locked into the incredibly thick cloud layer (which we know now is not water vapor, but didn’t then) was coming down in a rain that would last months and months.

You’re right. I even knew they were from **Between Planets, because I just re-read it a few weeks ago. I had just forgotten that it wasn’t part of the Future History. It’s got roughly the Martians of the Future History, though, and I think the Patrol is roughly the same, isn’t it?

What format was it in?

This thread alone is enough to remind me what a good deal spending all that money on space exploration was.


Yes, many astronomers consider the Earth & Moon to be closer to a double planet system than a planet with a satellite.

Mainly because of the large size of the moon (1/4 the diameter of the earth) and because the moon does not actually revolve around the earth; they both revolve around the sun in concert.

But there aren’t really specific rules defining a double planet system, so it can be argued either way.

Can’t help you much, there. I know the Future History pretty well, but I’ve only read Between Planets once. I seem to recall the Between Planets Patrol being a bit more clandestine than the FH one, though (though that may just have been a product of the times they found themselves in).

Thanks for the correction.

The Earth and the Moon revolve around a common point. However, because of the differences in their masses and densities, that comon point happens to be *inside * the Earth. So, for all practical purposes, the Moon *does * revolve around the Earth.