Sunday, June 13, 2010


First H-Bomb on Venus

Skunked! Skunked! Skunked! Not that I was surprised. Last Saturday dawned to thunderstorms, and while the Clear Sky Clock showed a row of pale blue squares for the coming evening, at Sundown there was drizzle punctuated by passing boomers. Out the window went what I’d planned for y'all this week, “Amateur Astronomy the Old Fashioned Way.” Unk shouldn't bellyache, though; looking back over the blog, it’s been three whole weeks of observing articles, which must be some kind of record given my typical late spring – early summer skies.

So…here I sit. It’s still cloudy. The heat index for today is predicted to go to 105. When the wind is right (or wrong), we can for sure smell the oncoming oil slick out in our formerly beautiful Gulf of Mexico. Where can I take y’all this week, then?

When I began this here blog and settled on a strict schedule of weekly entries, I wondered how long I could keep going before I ran out of things to talk about; needless to say, that ain’t happened and I guess it never will. As soon as I realized observing articles were gonna be at All Stop for a while, several ideas suggested themselves. The one that came out on top concerns the third in my triumvirate of fave 1950s – 1960s science fiction flicks. I’ve already done The Angry Red Planet and Journey to the Seventh Planet; now it’s time for First Spaceship on Venus.

As you know if you’ve read the other two installments, my Old Man (a.k.a. “The Chief Op”) was an engineer at a local TV station. He often worked the night shift on weekends, and wouldn’t make it home from the studio till well after the station signed off at midnight. Mama was not one to cheerfully endure the scary hours of darkness alone in a house with a little kid (me), so when there was something playing at the motion pictures that she thought she would like and I would endure without too much squirming—if bribed with an Orange Crush and an Almond Joy—off we went to the cheapest of Possum Swamp’s theaters, the good, ol’ Roxy.

I don’t believe Mama ever looked through any of my telescopes. Well, maybe once, the time she and Daddy and me watched Comet Ikeya-Seki rise with the Sun, but that was it. Despite not being overly astronomically minded, she just loved science-fiction books and movies. Her favorite books were those that tended to the light and sentimental like John Boyd’s The Last Starship from Earth, her all-time favorite. The SF movies she favored tended to the spectacular and/or frightening, especially ones that touched on that most deliciously scary of topics for her, ATOMIC WAR. ‘Twas, no wonder, then, that she was all excited about the evening’s entertainment, 1962’s First Spaceship on Venus.

I loved SF movies, too, but, being a slightly timid little feller, even when I was seven or eight—at least by the standards of the recent precocious younguns—I was always wary of the scary parts. If the flick were good enough, though, like Angry Red or Journey, I would sit enthralled all the way through the picture, not hiding my eyes once nor worrying about nightmares that might follow.

Unfortunately, all too many of the movies Mama and me saw left my pore little psyche a shambles. Sometimes for weeks. What was she thinking, for example, when she dragged a 6-year-old to On the Beach? Not to mention Horrors of the Black Museum.

At least I was a little older by the time First Spaceship hit the Roxy. Though it had had its U.S. release in '62, it didn't show up at our neighborhood theatre till a a year later, par for the course for a second run Possum Swamp house. Heck, they were still playing Abbot and Costello and The Bowery Boys as the 60s dawned. And at least it wasn’t another a horror movie. That was the other genre Mama adored, despite the fact that her beloved B-bloodfests were probably the main reason she was so nervous about staying home without the O.M. As my Aunt Lulu used to say, “Jackie Boy (her and Granpa’s pet name for me), God broke the mold after he made your Mama.”

I was neither scared nor squirmy this particular Saturday afternoon. First Spaceship was a thing of Wonders. From the very beginning. Most of the SF films I’d seen had their share of boring mumbo-jumbo before they got to the good parts, the launch and the landing. First Spaceship on Venus was different. The premise was actually interesting: scientists dig up a funny looking meteorite in the Gobi Desert that apparently fell at the time of the Tunguska blast in Siberia. Cracking it open, they discover a magnetically encoded “spool” containing a message from the inhabitants of the planet Venus they are able to partially decipher.

Despite a lack of response to messages (including Morse code) sent from Earthly transmitters as well as those on the Moonbase—it was the far distant year 1985, surely there would be a Moonbase—a crew, an international crew, is soon assembled to pay a visit on them Venusians. This crew is headed by an American, “Harringway,” ably assisted by scientists Tchen Yu and Sikarna. They are joined by ship’s doctor Sumiko (the film’s glamour girl), an African communications officer, Talua, and a second American astronaut, Brinkman. Tagging along as well is a (we're told he's French, but he looks Russian) Cybernetics expert, Dr. Durand, and “Omega,” a little smiling robot head on a tracked-tank body.

Before you can fly to Venus, you gotta have wheels—err…rockets—and that is accomplished in spectacular fashion by what must surely be the most beautiful spacecraft ever to star in a movie, the oddly named Cosmostrator. If not quite as wonderful as the outside, the inside of the ship is impressive, too, then and now (I jus’ made my daughter Lizbeth sit through the DVD with me). One notable thing for the time is that the ship prominently features a computer. The crew (well, mainly Sikarna) even use it like a computer rather than, in usual B-movie fashion, as an electronic Magic 8-Ball: “Computer, tell me ever’thing you know about this here planet.

Sikarna's hard work at the computer pays off when, just before journey's end, he's able to produce a final translation of the alien "spool.” The Venusians, it seems, were planning to sterilize Earth's surface with hard radiation as a prelude to invasion. Our friends are both horrified and puzzled.  The Venusians have had plenty of time to carry through their nefarious plot; why has the Earth remained unmolested all those years since Tunguska?

Anyhow, back to the beginning...  After a voyage that is punctuated (naturally) by a swarm of rogue “meteorites,” the crew approaches Venus. What did I expect? Science, real science, had learned enough by 1962 to begin, at least, to suspect Venus was not the water-world or prehistoric swamp planet science fiction writers—and some astronomers—guessed it to be. Still, nobody really knew what lay beneath the planet’s obscuring clouds. The rotation period of Venus had just been determined the year before, and it would be a few years yet before the Soviets’ Venera probes revealed the world as the true hell it is. Me, I liked the idea of a Venus inhabited by dinosaurs, and that’s what I hoped to see.

Imagine my surprise when the world revealed to Brinkman and Omega when they make a quick reconnaissance with an LM-like lander is oh-so-different from the accustomed romantic fantasies. It’s not as bad as we know Venus to be now, but it is purty bad: deadly poisonous atmosphere, tremendous storms, and a bleak landscape. The surface of the planet is about as far from the comparatively cozy angry red Mars of Sid Pink’s Cinemagic as it’s possible to be. Venus looks real and frighteningly strange e’en fifty years later. It’s a fog and mist enshrouded Salvador Dali nightmare punctuated by the all too obvious artifacts of a thermonuclear holocaust.

A weird landscape is not all there is to this Venus. As Brinkman finds out when he falls into a cave filled with odd metallic “insects.” Having lost contact with the astronaut, the Comostrator lands and searches for the missing American among the weird remains of trees in a “vitrified forest.” When Brinkman reappears and shows the crew one of the bugs he’s managed to corral, it doesn’t take long for the mission’s big brains to determine the metal bugs are actually recording devices. Our friends marvel that they are hearing the voices of the apparently long dead Venusians when they hook Mr. Bug to their computer.

On the Beach...
It’s downhill from there for our heroes, alas. More exploring reveals the burned remains of cities with craters at their centers. This, coupled with high radiation readings the crew picks up, especially when storms blow fallout their way, tells the tale: the Venusians exterminated themselves with H-Bombs. The final proof comes when Japanese crew member Sumiko, to her horror, discovers the weird, spindly shadows of bipedal Venusians burned into the side of a building—just like at Hiroshima. The reason the Venusians have left Earth alone becomes obvious: There are no Venusians. Their planet was sterilized when their H-bombs were detonated en masse by some unexplained accident.

Think it can’t get worse? It does. While exploring, Sumiko and Brinkman are chased up the ramp of a tower-like structure by a something that looks a lot like Steve McQueen’s Blob. Just before it Gets Them, Brinkman gives the slime-thing a blast from his deuteron raygun, and it retreats. That’s, it turns out shortly, not necessarily a good thing. In some way that’s never fully explained, the blob is connected with a huge round building/machine that contains a Venusian weapon that can increase or reverse gravity. Brinkman’s ray gun blast has reactivated the machines and local gravity is now increasing, preventing Comostrator from taking off.

Talua and Tchien Yu volunteer to descend into the underground Venusian command center and try to deactivate the badly behaving gadgets. Tchien Yu soon dies, the victim of a punctured spacesuit, but not before he calls for help. Brinkman tries to reach him via Cosmostrator’s small rocket plane, but, just after he launches, Talua manages to reverse the gravity field. Cosmostrator is thrust from the planet, and brave astronaut Brinkman is flung into the void and lost. Poor Talua is left stumbling around on Venus begging the ship not to leave him. Our saddened crew returns home with at least the consolation that their story may help ensure H-bombs never turn Earth into the real sister planet of Venus.

Whoa! To say I was gobsmacked by what I’d seen would be putting it mildly. So impressed was I with First Spaceship on Venus, that I begged Mama to sit through it a second time when they ran the film again, which you were permitted to do back in the dark ages. Mama demurred, reminding me my Cub Scout Pack was due at Springhill College’s Observatory in just a little while for a promised peep through the school’s big telescope. I grumbled mightily, but it sure turned out it was a good thing I let myself be led out of the theatre. That, muchachos, is a tale for another time, howsomeever.

The Cosmostrator...
As the weeks and months passed, I found I couldn’t forget First Spaceship on Venus; it was so, well, so futuristic. Exotic, even. The Comostrator’s crew was far more international and multiethnic than the Enterprise’s would be four years later on the “daring” (well, for the Deep South) Star Trek. I liked First Spaceship so much that every detail was locked away in my little noggin. I was easily able to provide a detailed synopsis of the film for the boy next door, whose mama had not seen fit to dispense the fifty cents he needed for an evening show. I was asked to recite “the parts about the robot” several times by Bubba, who found mechanical men fascinating, if frightening.

Fascinating, yeah, but That was Then and This is Now. What was my unvarnished opinion of the film when Lizbeth and I watched it the udder night? It holds up remarkably well, considerably better than either The Angry Red Planet or Journey to the Seventh Planet, I reckon. Part of that is the effects and sets and costumes. I loved Sid Pink’s “masterpieces,” but you had to squint so as not to notice the wires holding up the rockets (or the stock footage of Atlases or V2s). In contrast, First Spaceship on Venus is pretty much bang-on. The Cosmostrator is, yeah, I’ll say it once more, beautiful and looks as “real” as real can be.

If there’s one thing that drags the movie down, it is the extremely stilted dialogue. That is likely in part due to the dubbing of the actors’ voices from the film’s original language—German. One of the things that no doubt made the film seem exotic to li’l Rod was it was about as exotic in origin as a flick could be back in The Day—it came from the mysterious and scary Eastern Bloc; specifically East Germany and Poland. It was produced by East Germany’s Deutsche Film (DEFA), and directed by Kurt Maetzig.

I didn’t know nuttin’ about that as a kid, of course, and completely missed a big clue to First Spaceship’s origin: the fact that “American” commander Harringway sports a hairdo straight out of a Moscow barbershop. You would never see a Hollywood actor—or any other western actor—with a do like that. Maybe I just thought that was the way folks would wear their hair in 1985. But I was aware something was a little “off” even if I couldn’t identify exactly what that was. Mainly, I guess, it was the actors’ weird pronunciations of common, simple words. That alone should have made clear First Spaceship didn’t come from beautiful downtown Burbank.

Folks who’ve just seen the film for the first time always comment on the strange name of the lovely spaceship, the Cosmostrator. That’s what it sounds like, anyhow. Given the odd mangling of other words, it could just as easily be “Cosmos Strata,” “Cosmos Trader,” “Cosmos Traitor,” “Kosmo Krator” or, heck, even “Cosmo Kramer.” It’s probably “Cosmostrator,” but I’m not sure that makes a whole lot of sense whether in English or German or Polish.

The weirdest weird thing is that the purportedly American crewmembers have reasonable American accents, but spit-out everyday words like nothing you have ever heard before. The Greek letters “beta” and “omega” (the robot’s name) are “beeeeta” and “ah-mee-gah.” What really sucks, though, is, again, the awkward dialog, which would be perfectly at home on a real bad episode of Leave it to Beaver, “Ward, I’m worried about the Ahmeegah!”

Yeah, there is foolishness, but there are also saving graces that keep the film interesting half a century down the road: an outstanding story by Polish science fiction giant Stanislaus Lem (adapted from his novel Astronauci), the abovementioned fantastic sets (there’s a huge and beautiful Zeiss refractor in the ground tracking station), far-out costumes (well, with the exception of the funny-looking canary yellow flightsuits), and heart. That comes through in spades despite the mangled translation and dubbing and utterly wacked-out Soviet Bloc music (accompanied by stolen tunes from various Hollywood horror and sci-fi films).

My only regret? I haven’t yet been able to find a (subtitled) copy of the slightly longer original release, in which, I’ve been told, it’s clear Brinkman is not an American Astronaut but a Soviet Cosmonaut and was the first man to land on the Moon. Obviously that wouldn’t have played well with U.S. audiences in 1962. I suppose whoever adapted the film thought we wouldn’t notice that Brinkman arrives at the launch site in a Soviet Mig 19! The only other Warsaw Pact relic left in the English version is that the news reporters in the prologue and epilogue work for “Intervision,” the Eastern Bloc film and TV distribution network.

This admittedly slightly silly movie had quite an impact on me beyond just an evening’s distraction. There are two threads running through my post-First Spaceship story. One concerns me and the real Venus, which we shall get to directly. The other has to do with something my generation lived through for the balance of our childhoods, atomic fear. Some people choose to refer to that as “nuclear anxiety,” but, believe me, if you lived through it you knew it as stark, staring, and very real FEAR.

We, the children of the 60s, lived with the knowledge that we might be killed, horribly wounded, or fatally sickened at almost any moment. That, if you were lucky enough to have any warning at all, in 8-hours (in the bomber age) or 30-minutes (after the rise of the ICBM) you and your family and your friends, your entire world, would be turned into a rising column of radioactive smoke and ash. I believe that’s a subject more of us who experienced the worst days of the Cold War as kids should talk about. And I will some Sunday. But not this Sunday. Let us instead move on to my more happy experiences with that deceiving temptress, the planet Venus.

Naturally, I wanted to see the real Venus as soon as I got a telescope. Not only because I remembered First Spaceship on Venus fondly, but because, well, when Venus is in her evening garb she is incredible and inescapable. There she is yonder in the gloaming, a beacon for anyone who looks up at the sky. Is it any wonder the ignorant and gullible often mistake her beaming loveliness for a UFO? Anyhoo, I am not quite sure whether I looked at Venus with my first telescope, my 3-inch Tasco. Surely I must have; she’s so bright and beautiful and promises such wonders for a scope. If I did, though, I don’t remember it. Probably she looked about as good as Jupiter did in the Tasco. Like a malformed custard pie, that is.

I did view the planet many, many times in my second telescope, my 4-inch Edmund Palomar Junior. But no matter how often I looked, the feeling was always one of letdown: this tease of a world promises so much more than she delivers. I usually feel that way now, too, I reckon. In a telescope, any telescope, Venus is just a small Moon-phase or a large Moon-phase, tiny when she’s gibbous, satisfyingly large when she is a slim crescent. Once I got over enjoying the fact that Venus shows phases and must, therefore, be closer to the Sun than Earth, just as ol’ Galileo figgered, I stopped looking at the planet as much. I mean, what’s to see? Aphrodite’s bland and featureless face is about all, muchachos. Still, I came and still come back to Venus at least a time or two every (evening) apparition. I conveniently forget all those times she’s broke my heart and hope for mercy “this time.”

Actually, the phases are not the only features Venus can give up. Not for the skilled or lucky. I have never been able to see even a hint of the cloud features some observers detect with the aid of yellow, blue, or violet filters. It is quite possible, however, to “see” cloud patterns in the Venusian atmosphere using a webcam coupled to the image stacking and processing program Registax. I’ve even done a little of that myself and have been gratified to finally make out something other than just milady’s obscuring veil. I’ve been told you can bring back some pretty amazing images if’n you pony-up the bucks for a special UV filter, one that passes UV and blocks everything else, and which works much better than the simple deep-violet color filter cheapskate me uses.

There is at least one more thing it’s possible to see of Venus from Earth. A very controversial thing, the Ashen Light. Wut’s they-at? It’s easy to describe if not explain. Undoubtedly, you’ve often gazed up at a partial Lunar phase and noticed the Earthshine effect. The dark part of the disk is really not dark. It’s gray rather than black and is bright enough that it’s easy to pick out the Mare with the naked eye. It’s caused, of course, by a fat ol’ Earth in the Moon’s sky illuminating the terrain just as a big Moon illuminates the Earthly landscape. Occasionally, observers of Venus note the same thing. The dark portion of Venus’ disk is glowing faintly. But there’s a CATCH: Venus has no natural satellite to illuminate the dark part of her globe…so what causes the Ashen Light?

Nobody knows. Even Patrick Moore, who’s normally pretty definite about Solar System myths and realities, refers (in his venerable The Amateur Astronomer) to this phenomenon as “The vexed question of the Ashen Light.” Numerous explanations have been proffered over the years, from the bizarre “A Venusian festival with torches,” to the mundane “It’s all an optical illusion.” Me? I always favored the optical illusion answer. Till I saw the Ashen Light for myself for the first and only time 15 years ago.

As is usually the case when I see something truly incredible, I wasn’t expecting anything out of the ordinary when, one night about a decade-and-a-half ago, I turned my 8-inch f/7 Coulter Newtonian toward Cytheria. The old Coulter, which long ago went to live with my scopeless brother-in-law, was a surprisingly good telescope. I had it with me this evening at our old PSAS observing site because the hazy, muggy, light-polluted conditions at the public school facility we were using at the time didn’t seem to warrant anything fancier. With air you could almost swim in enhancing the stark glow of Possum Swamp’s streetlights, none of my fellow club members had seen fit to accompany me out for a quick observing run. It was just me and my girl, Aphrodite.

The funniest thing about the whole affair? As soon as I put my eye to the eyepiece I saw the Ashen Light. There was no squinting. No wondering. No doubt. With Sol having gone to bed some time before, Venus was set in a fairly dark sky, and the effect was both startling and unmistakable. A miniature Moon. As Sir Patrick advises, I got the illuminated portion of the crescent out of the picture by means of pumping up the power with a good Orthoscopic ocular and putting the bright part just off the field edge. Still there. In went an 80A filter. Still there. I tried various other filters and eyepieces with varying effects but always with the result that the dark part of the disk was still obviously glowing.

I watched until Venus disappeared behind a tree not long after, all the time cursing the fact that my fellow PSASers had stayed home. NOBODY WAS GONNA BELIEVE THIS ONE: “Oh, hell, just another one of Unk’s FISH STORIES! Like the time M42 was stoplight green—from his front yard with that gull-derned Coulter Odyssey! That mus’ be some MAGIC TELESCOPE!” But…I didn’t plan on writing a scientific paper about the Ashen Light, anyhow. I didn’t need affirmation; I knew very well what I had seen. That would have to be enough.

What do I think now? I am still not sure. I will swear on a stack of Bibles that the Ashen Light is a real effect. If you ever get to see it like I did, you’ll be there swearing with me. HOWSOMEEVER, just because it’s “real” don’t mean it’s a real phenomenon of the planet itself. It could be nothing other than a very real optical illusion brought on by certain contrast effects under certain observing conditions at certain magnifications.

Who am I kidding? I do not believe that is what I saw. I think…believe…know it’s an actual something on the planet, whether caused by weird aurora or some yet to be divined mechanism peculiar to Lady Bug. Whatever the Ashen Light is, I feel awfully privileged to have seen it, even just once. Mysterious Venus finally let her veil slip just a wee bit for an admirer who’d been waiting for that for the 40 long years since the vaunted Comostrator first dared her secrets.

Next Time: yeah, yeah, I've probably had a surfeit of Herchels, but you gotta make hay while the...the...Sun's down...and the Herschel Project waits for no man. I got the chance to complete another cupla constellations at the PSAS dark site last night, that's what I did, and that's what's on the agenda for next time.

“ah-mee-gah” Isn't that one of those fancy Commodore 64s? ;-)

I love it when you tie an observing topic into a bit of pop culture rolled up in world events of yore.

Growing up in the 70s and 80s mine was not the first generation to live with the fear of nuclear destruction, but it weighed heavily on my young impressionable mind to be sure.

Thanks for another good one!

--Robert Harris
Thanks for your blog about First Spaceship On Venus. I love this movie and you did it justice! My mom also went to the movies often, almost every day. The matinees... She took me with her from when I was a baby and when I was 5 and in kindergarten, she would go to the movies and wait for me to come to the movie theater after school, and I would get to watch what was left of the movie. It worked out well. What I remember most is the horror and science fiction! The Fly... I felt so bad for that man. What was the movie called where a bunch of people were on the beach somewhere and the giant lobsters were after them? I grew up loving those kind of movies and still love them today. I also remember the ever present fear of a nuclear bomb falling on us. It was REAL and it could happen at any time. In fact, it probably WOULD happen... I just waited for it and prayed every night to prevent it from happening. I thought about it a lot. Nowadays we have something even better than the fear of nuclear bombs... nuclear power plants! Fukushima might just do us all in some day. So, Robert Harris, you might have had the fear of nuclear disaster growing up, but we had it built in us as a given, it was going to happen. For sure. They basically gave us no hope for the future... Ok, the threat is always there, but to have it pounded into your head when you are a little kid... We feared and waited. I think back to those days and I can still feel the bleakness.
Ha ha, haven't ever seen The First Spaceship on Venus- but I've heard that the name Cosmostrator literally means "something that does space travel" in Polish. Can't vouch for that myself, but it would make sense.

Haven't spent altogether that much time observing Venus... generally she doesn't show us much more than a shiny disc. I probably will, though, after reading this. I'd like to see the phases, and the Ashen Light is intriguing. I won't stand much chance of knowing if there really is any Ashen Light if I don't take a look at Venus every now and then. :D
I seem to remember reading many moons ago (in James Muirden's Pan Book of Astronomy I think) that the Ashen Light phenomenon might be caused by phosphorescence or maybe a Venusian version of electrostatically active noctilucent clouds seen looking from on high rather than skywards.
With that lethal mix of gases I guess just about any weird and wonderful effects could be on the cards with a planet-sized chemistry set like that found on Venus. :CM
That's as good as any of the explanations I've heard. Though I still like the one about Venusians with torches. LOL...
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