These days, we take advantage of the fact that human beings are routinely blasted into outer space. I was born nearly two decades after the moon landing, so I grew up in a world where the miracle of people leaving Earth’s atmosphere was no longer celebrated as the monumental achievement that it is. But it wasn’t so long ago when such a feat was pure science fiction. Back in the 1950s, space travel was still something that people only dreamed about. We were living in the nuclear age and technology was progressing quickly, yet manned space travel was still out of reach. But one television show in the decade helped sell the public on the idea of space travel as something that was not only possible, but plausible. That show was Men into Space.
The show aired just 38 episodes, running from September 1959 to September 1960, but in that brief span, the so-called “science fiction” series accurately predicted much of what actual manned space travel would look like over the next decade; as the Space Race officially kicked off in 1961 when Yuri Gagarin of the U.S.S.R. became the first man in outer space. The show didn’t feature the crew encountering aliens, or humans traveling light years away to strange planets, or anything else you might have seen on its sci-fi contemporaries like The Twilight Zone. It instead largely focused on what scientists were actually expecting of space travel at that time, with the series’ narrator explaining what life in space would be like, and it got a surprising number of things right.
The series’ main protagonist was astronaut Edward McCauley (William Lundigan), and each episode focused on a new adventure that he would have in space — with the drama coming from how he would solve problems encountered in space that might actually happen. The show was also notable for not glamorizing space travel. Two attempts were made in the series’ run to reach Mars, and both of them failed before men set foot on the red planet. The series also featured the deaths of astronauts while on missions, something that would, unfortunately, happen numerous times over the next several decades of actual space travel.
Episodes depicted the building of a space station, which would first be done by the Soviets in 1971 with Salyut; moon landings, the first of which would occur ten years later; the construction of a space telescope similar to the Hubble Telescope; a reusable spacecraft making a powerless landing back on Earth, a feat not achieved until decades later with the space shuttle program; female astronauts, an idea that was not accepted at the time by those running the space program and a barrier that remained unbroken until 1983 when Sally Ride became the first woman in space; Americans and Russians cooperating in space, an idea even more foreign than female astronauts in the ’50s; and some episodes even depicted space disasters that future ill-fated missions like Apollo 13 and Gemini 8 would come to resemble years later.
Men into Space is a largely forgotten relic in modern times, but in mid-century America, it briefly served as an inspiration to a population who was longing to believe that man could reach the heavens — and I like to think it did its small part in helping us get there.
You can watch Men into Space every weekend on COMET, with episodes airing Saturday and Sunday morning at 7:30/6:30C.