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About A Week: Journey Into Space

Peter Hinchliffe recalls those exciting early days of journies into space.

I think it’s time that I pleaded guilty. I borrowed books from Dewsbury Library’s adult lending department while I was still a junior.

The official age to begin using the adult library was 14. I was 11 when I started to regularly take out books, using my Dad’s ticket.

For a boy addicted to adventure and detective stories, that adult library offered a lifetime of entertainment - and all for free!

I raced through everything I could get of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Peter Cheney, Edgar Wallace, Arthur Conan Doyle. If I couldn’t find a favourite I selected books at random from the crowded shelves.

Chance one day led me to take down a book from the Ws in a far corner of the library. Leaning against a window ledge, I started to read.

“No-one would have believed in the last years of the 19th Century that human affairs were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own.

But as men busied themselves about their affairs they were scrutinised and studied perhaps as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.’’

I read on, oblivious to time. When I finally left the library I had to sprint to catch my bus home.

I downed my tea in a dozen gulps, then hurried back to H G Wells’s War Of The Worlds, the classic story of a Martian raid on planet Earth.

That was the day I became a science fiction fan. During my teens and twenties I spent many a day in alien worlds.

In the late 1950s fiction started to become fact. Real-life space exploration fired my imagination into an even higher orbit.

On October 4, 1957, radio receivers around the world picked up a unique bleep-bleep. The Russians had launched an object into space.

Sputnik!

A sub-editor on The Journal, a morning newspaper published in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was less than overwhelmed. When he saw the Press Association’s wire story about Sputnik, he stuck it on the rejected copy spike, dismissing it as Red propaganda.

The Journal was possibly the only newspaper in the world not to carry immediate news of the historic event.

That unfortunate sub-editor spent the rest of his career unsuccessfully trying to live down his blunder. Years later, I was a colleague of his in Newcastle - but don’t ask me to reveal his name.

The Russians had an even more dramatic trick up their sleeves to follow on from Sputnik. On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin circled the world in a spacecraft.

The Americans responded less than a month later, when Alan Sheppard made a sub-orbital flight.

The following February CapCom told the world that John Glenn had been authorised to go for three orbits. My right ear was inches from a radio, following every moment of that drama.

For ominous minutes it was thought that the heat shield on Glenn’s spacecraft had broken away. His survival was in doubt up to the moment when his craft splashed into the sea.

In 1965 I interviewed one of America’s famous seven original astronauts while I was working in Indianapolis, USA. Not long after that interview Virgil Grissom became the first American space adventurer to lose his life. His space capsule caught fire in a launch rehearsal.

In July, 1969, I was at a party with journalistic colleagues in a roof garden in the centre of Nairobi.

There wasn’t much conversation that evening. We were listening to the Voice Of America on an expensive radio.

“Houston. Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.’’

Man was on the Moon!

In Nairobi, with the Moon golden-high above us, we stood and cheered, then toasted the event in Tusker beer.

We were cheering astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin.

But we were also cheering ourselves. Humankind. That clever biped, capable of boundless achievements.

Next stop Mars! The Galaxy! The Universe!

The dream lived on through the Seventies and Eighties. Then, in one terrible second, on January 28, 1986, it was extinguished.

The Challenger shuttle exploded shortly after take-off. The seven-member crew died instantly.

So too did the glamour of space travel.

Manned journeys into space now seem increasingly irrelevant. Why risk human lives when we can use intelligent robots? Why not spend all that money right here on Earth?

I began with one confession. I’ll end with another.

I haven’t read a sci fi novel in the past 25 years. No desire to ever read another - except perhaps War Of The Worlds, lto remind me of my youth.

I am now much more interested in accounts of journeys on our own planet, rather than flights of fancy.


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