The SF Utensil: Rocket Ship Galileo

I don’t plan to write about every book I read here, only those which I think are interesting or prompt interesting thoughts about science fiction. I’m not entirely sure Rocket Ship Galileo (1947, USA) by Robert A Heinlein falls into either group. It’s very much an historical document, a fictional description of the first US Moon landing written more than two decades before Apollo 11 took place (and more than a decade before NASA was even established, in fact). Further, its Moon shot is not only commercial but launched from, effectively, a backyard. And three of the rocket’s four crew are teenage boys.

Rocket Ship Galileo, 1971 NEL paperback cover art

Ross, Art and Morrie are science geeks in post-war middle America. Their latest project, a small rocket engine, explodes during testing, and shortly afterwards they find a man, knocked out cold it seems by flying debris, at the entrance to the waste ground where they conduct their experiments. He is Art’s uncle, Dr Don Cargraves, a nuclear physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project. Cargraves intends to be the first man on the Moon, and he plans to adapt a mail rocket to use an atomic rocket engine he has invented. He wants the three boys to help him build the rocket, and then crew it with him.

For safety’s sake, they move their “shipyard” out to a piece of desert land miles from anywhere. But someone seems to be snooping around, committing small acts of sabotage, and it turns out the flying debris which laid out Cargraves back in the beginning wasn’t wreckage from the boys’ rocket engine after all…

Rocket Ship Galileo is the first of Heinlein’s juveniles, and teenage protagonists go with the form. But teenage astronauts is stretching it. Not just given what we know post-Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, and Vostok, Voskhod and Soyuz, but even in the late 1940s it must have seemed somewhat implausible. Especially since these high-schoolers are building their own nuclear reactor to power their atomic rocket engine.

It should hardly be a surprise that Heinlein’s depiction of a flight to the Moon bears little resemblance to the reality. Everything is far too easy — obviously: or four guys, three of them just out of high school, wouldn’t have been able to accomplish it. Things take an interesting turn when they reach the lunar surface, and discover they’ve been beaten to it… by Nazis. Is this the first appearance of the Nazis on the Moon trope? I’m not sure when all the Nazi UFO mythology began to appear — and my books on the subject are in storage, so I can’t check — but I didn’t think it was until the 1970s, at the very least. (Stories of “foo fighters” during WWII, notwithstanding.)

As if that weren’t enough, Heinlein has his astronauts discover ancient ruins on the Moon. They’re actually tunnels underneath the Nazi Moon base, and the teenagers speculate they’re possibly millions of years old. They also wonder if some of the craters on the far side of the Moon, near their landing area, were actually created by nuclear bombs, not meteors. Yeah, right.

Yes, Rocket Ship Galileo is a seventy-four year old science fiction novel written for teenage American boys. It’s not an autobiography by, say, Buzz Aldrin. (For the record, Michael Collins’s autobiography, Carrying the Fire (1974, USA), is the best of the Apollo astronauts’ autobiographies.) I’ve no way of knowing how the book was received on publication. Most comments I’ve seen on it date from much later, when Heinlein was a well-established name and the real facts of space travel known. As a boys’ adventure, I suspect it was a little more grounded in reality than was typical for the time, and that was likely appealing to a particular type of young white male American reader. Read nearly three-quarters of a century later, its appeal is a mystery. Admittedly, Heinlein’s name these days carries a lot of baggage, little of it good in terms of present-day sensibilities — and justifiably so. Yet Rocket Ship Galileo was reprinted by a major US sf imprint as recently as 2005.

True, books far older are still in print and enjoyed by millions, even children’s books. Perhaps they’re easier to accept as historical documents because they’re set during periods known to be historical — Victorian England, Regency England, 11th century Japan, 14th century China, Tsarist Russia, 19th century France, and so on… Is post-war USA considered too recent to be considered historical? I would say not. After all, the world before 9/11 seems like a different country, so to speak, to millennials, and Rocket Ship Galileo is a Young Adult novel…

In an earlier post, I wrote about a Heinlein collection from 1967, and stated it should really only be read by those “well steeped in genre and genre history”. That’s equally true for Rocket Ship Galileo. There are no female characters with agency in it — and remarkably few female characters — and everyone is white. Science fiction has moved on, and is in a very different place now.

Books like Rocket Ship Galileo are no longer representative or emblematic of the genre. Nor should they be.