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Believing in 'Buck Rogers'
Buck Rogers
Buck Rogers
Bill Gerken's memoir of a 'space cadet' of an earlier generation...

© Bill Gerken

In his autobiography, Failure Is Not an Option, Apollo mission director Gene Krantz wrote of another NASA engineer: "Hal Beck . . . grew up, as many of us did, believing in Buck Rogers." So true; at least two of the 'many' grew up in New Jersey during the 1940s and '50s. Paul Lowman was one of them. I was another.

I have long wondered whether the openness to new possibilities that youngsters gained through reading speculative fiction led them to careers in new sciences and technologies. Did Werner von Braun, Robert Goddard and their contemporaries read H. G. Welles and Jules Verne's novels? Certainly, it was true of the generation that included Paul Lowman and me.

When we met at Goddard Space Flight Center in 2002, I asked him how a geologist had come to work for NASA in 1959, before there was any definite plant to go to the moon. The first words out of Lowman's mouth were, "I hate to mention Buck Rogers. . ." He went on to tell me that, like me, he had grown up reading Astounding Science Fiction magazine and the novels of Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov (my own list included The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and stories by Arthur C. Clarke and Zenna Henderson).

I was introduced to Buck Rogers in 1940 or '41 when I was four years old, just before the United States entered the Second World War. In those days few parents thought to begin teaching their children to read before they started school. My father, by reading to me almost every evening, was the one responsible for fostering in me a love of the printed word. It seemed only natural for me to be out in front of our house, waiting for his bus from New York City in the early evening. As soon as he stepped off the bus, I would be off, running down the block to accompany him the rest of his way home. I knew that, two hours later, I would be snug in bed as he transported me to magical kingdoms via a seemingly endless supply of books.

My father worked five-and-a-half to six days a week as chauffeur and secretary to an elderly lady in Manhattan. Saturday evenings were a special treat, as he often arrived home earlier than on weekdays, and always brought with him a copy of that day's New York Journal American newspaper. Late every Saturday afternoon, I would position myself on our front stoop, watching for him to alight from the bus at the far end of the block. I have to admit that my haste to meet him was in part due to the newspaper he carried on Saturdays. In those days, the Journal American printed color comic pages on Saturday and Sunday, which made it, to my young mind, the best newspaper imaginable.

At some point during the evening probably when my pestering became unendurable he would let me scramble up onto his lap and read the Saturday comic pages to me. The high point of those times together always came when we got to what I much later would learn was a science fiction comic strip titled Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, written and drawn by Rick Yeager. In that wonderful time five hundred years distant from my childhood, the spaceships were all sleek, brightly colored and finned, the moon's mountains were as jagged as the Rockies, and all the villains came from Mars.

I knew little of the war that was beginning to consume Europe. Within a year, my Uncle Frank, who lived with us, would leave home to join the Army Air Corps to help fight in the war. For most of the four or five years my father read Buck Rogers to me, the U.S. was engaged in the Second World War. It was only natural that Buck Rogers, Wilma Deering and Doctor Huer also fought for the human way of life against the evil, sneak-attacking Martians and the human turncoat, Killer Kane. (Those were not subtle times in comic strips.) But for me, the thrills of space flight, other intelligences and adventures beyond our skies transcended the fighting.

I have always been much more a dreamer than a practical person. That aspect of my personality was definitely nurtured on those Saturday evenings, as I stared in wonder at rocket powered space ships landing on and zooming away from the moon's cratered surface. Rocket power was unknown except to Dr. Robert Goddard and a cadre of dedicated German scientists and technologists working in secret at Peneemunde. The moon was so far beyond human reach that it might as well have been Heaven itself. And extraterrestrial intelligence was surely the most outlandish idea of the lot.

They all fueled my adventurous dreams and wishes that such wonders could, against all impossibility, someday come to be beyond the pages of four color newspaper comics and Saturday afternoon Flash Gordon serials at our local movie theater. What more could a boy possibly ask for?

So my father read and my imagination soared. Neither of us had any inkling that the improbable future was rushing toward us, no further away than 1943. It was in that year that the fruits of the German rocketry experiments at Peneemunde added a new dimension to warfare. Tall, sleek, finned V2 rocket bombs rose from launch pads in The Netherlands, kissed the very edge of space, and hurtled screaming down onto London.

Only one year later, winged rocket powered interceptors streaked into the sky over Germany in a last-ditch attempt to disrupt the daylight bombing raids of the U.S. Army Air Force that were destroying the underpinnings of Hitler's war machine. The stubby Messerschmitt ME-163 was almost as dangerous to its pilots as was the Japanese kamikaze piloted bombs used against our navy in the Pacific Theater. Much faster than other aircraft then in combat use, the ME-163 entered service too late, and in insufficient numbers to affect the war's outcome.

The Messerschmitt interceptor, its jet fighter cousin the ME-262, the V2 and the Japanese kamikaze planes were not things adults mentioned to children, if they had even heard about such amazing weapons themselves. During the war I contented myself with building models of the fighters and bombers with stirring names, about which everyone knew, the Mustang, Thunderbolt, Lightning, Flying Fortress, Liberator, Hellcat, Corsair, and Spitfire.

Although the news was apparently a military secret for some time, three weeks after my eleventh birthday, another rocket powered aircraft made history. A young U.S. Air Force captain named Chuck Yeager became the first person to travel faster than the speed of sound in October, 1947, piloting the Bell Aircraft experimental research XS-1 rocket plane and destroying the myth of the 'sound barrier.' The news did not remain secret for long and, what had been until then glorious fantasies about rockets and space travel were suddenly no longer impossibilities. (I very likely had not yet heard of Germany's super weapons.)

The same month, only ten years later, my dreams would take another step closer to reality. In October 1957, the Soviet Union shocked a complacent United States by launching Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite. Three years later, in April 1961, they rubbed our still out-of-joint technological noses in the dirt again, when Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth.

* * *

I was living in Buffalo, New York, in the autumn of 1961. I moved there after graduating from Stevens Institute of Technology in 1959 (more to pursue the wooing of the young woman who eventually agreed to marry me than to pursue the production of wire and cable). When Western Electric let me go, the New York State Employment service sent me to interview for a structural engineering position at Bell Aircraft, whose plant was located at the Niagara Falls Airport, about fifteen miles away. The engineering supervisor I was to meet did not show up; an engineering manager from the Rocket Test Department appeared in his stead.

'Rocket Test'? I thought to myself. 'They build rockets here? Wow!'

They did indeed, and within two weeks I was beginning to learn the art and science of testing small rocket motors, including the thrusters that were part of the reaction control system for the Mercury spacecraft. It was about twenty-one years after I had listened to my father read Buck Rogers, and I was working on the rockets of a manned spacecraft.

And, eight years after that, having worked in the interim on a very special rocket engine, I would have the great good fortune to work daily with two men who would that year land on and explore the once distant Moon. I sometimes wonder whether my path as an adult would have led to those endeavors had I not grown up believing in Buck Rogers.

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