On Such a Timeless Flight

Blast Off at Woomera — Hugh Walters
Chris Godfrey of U.N.E.X.A, book 1

Blast Off

This week’s Tears review is of an old classic I never planned to review because I never expected to find a copy. When I stumbled across one, how could I resist?

1957’s Blast Off at Woomera (also known as Blast Off at 0300) is the first novel in Hugh Walter’s Chris Godfrey of U.N.E.X.A.1 juvenile SF series.

A chance encounter between seventeen-year-old Chris Godfrey and Sir George Benson convinces Sir George that the college hopeful has just the qualifications required for a joint British-Australian space program.

Chris is bright, educated, and interested in rockets. Of greatest importance, Chris is only four foot, ten inches tall.

[spoiler alert]



A crewed orbital flight by September 30th is of paramount importance to the program. Unfortunately, the largest rocket available for launch from Woomera is too small to accommodate an adult male. There are only ten weeks until launch — not enough time to design and build a larger rocket. They need a qualified candidate who can be crammed into a crew compartment only 52 inches long.

Why the hurry? Mysterious domes have been seen at Pico crater on the Moon. The domes appear to be artificial. Officials are certain that if there is any life elsewhere in the Solar System, it must be simple. Interstellar visitors seem unlikely. That means some terrestrial nation has to have built the domes. Probably the Soviets, which would be bad2.

The plan is send Chris and a spiffy hi-tech camera into low orbit. There is no atmosphere, so the photographs should be crystal clear. It is hoped they will give some clues to the dome builders.

The dastardly left-wing press somehow learns about the launch. So do the Russians. The authorities can only conclude that one of twelve people — Sir George, Deputy Director Gillanders, and ten senior technicians, the only folks how know about the launch — is a Russian mole!

And … if the mole is one of the technicians, they can ensure that even if Chris makes it to orbit, he will never return alive.

 ~oOo~

Alert readers may notice that Sir George’s decision to settle for Chris is driven in large part by the fact it never occurs to him to consider the idea of women astronauts.


While it is not clear exactly when Blast Off is set, it is clear it’s the early 1960s. The US had some Lady Astronaut Trainees, but the British (and their colonial partners) do not seem to have even considered that a woman might be able to do the job. Pity, because St. Trinian’s IN SPAAACE! almost writes itself.

On the other hand, there are a few women in the book, which is something rare in juvenile SF novels of the period. Two of the female characters seem to be there to give Chris a chance to show how well he deals with height-related prejudice. But Chris’ Aunt Mary and the young woman intelligence officer placed with her to protect her from Red agents are both intelligent and competent.

Chris has another qualifications besides his height and his wedding tackle, Chris is an orphan, raised by his Aunt Mary. It’s best for space programs if the people they send up in risky vehicles are not oversupplied with relatives who might A) grieve and/or B) make a fuss. Chris is also a proper British hero-in-prospect, a straitlaced young man who is embarrassed by public accolades and would never ever consider profiting from his adventure. Which is why the authorities don’t consider him a possible leak or mole. He isn’t, but …

Hugh Walters was inspired to start writing his own SF novels by his dissatisfaction with the state of the art in the late fifties. He had a clear idea of the purposes of SF, one of which was to educate young people. As a result, quite a few of the characters explain space travel to Chris (even basic stuff one would expect Chris to already know). Ah well … everyone must consume some intellectual roughage.

The novel spends much of its plot positioning the reader to expect a conventional Reds Versus the West conflict. In addition to the leaks (and the inconsiderate behavior of the excitable left wing press, no doubt taking its orders right from the Kremlin), Soviet intelligence agents take an unseemly interest in Chris’ aunt. And it soon becomes obvious that Sir George’s fears of a mole at Woomera are not misguided paranoia.

But … as I recall, Hughes took his series in a very different direction (not a simple West versus East space race). He has planted some red herrings in the first book, but by the end, it is clear that it was Sir George’s own security measures that triggered the Soviet interest in Chris. The communist trying to sabotage the rocket turns out to be a earnest true believer who never bothered to ask the Russians if sabotage would be convenient.

Having not read a U.N.E.X.A. book for decades, I have only the vaguest of memories of the series. Blast Off ends on something of a cliffhanger and I am curious how Walters developed his long-term arc. My curiousity may be partially assuaged. I misspoke when I said I stumbled across one U.N.E.X.A. book. In fact, I stumbled across three… But it would be nice to have more.

The U.N.E.X.A. books have been out of print for decades, and are so obscure that even TV Tropes lacks an entry for them. Yet the series still has its fans. I am surprised no nostalgia-focused ebook publisher has brought them back into print. Consider this a suggestion.

1: Although the series as a whole is named after the United Nations Exploration Agency, the agency does not come into being until book four, Moon Base One.

2: Walters (through Sir George) makes it clear he doesn’t think space war is a very likely development, as long as the sides are even matched: 

The belief that a satellite would be harmless has been based on the assumption of near parity of the opposing powers. This takes it for granted that if one side had the technique to construct a satellite, the other would have the means to shoot it like a sitting duck. If, however, there’s a great disparity between the opponents — as there would be if the Russians have reached the moon — then there may be an entirely different story. We can hazard a guess at several possibilities that such a completely unopposed achievement might open for a power bent on aggression.”


Comments

  • Joseph Major

    "The US had some Lady Astronaut Trainees,"

    Nope. It had a comparison study which some people (a lot more now) thought was a Women's Astronaut Trainee course. The NASA program wanted test pilots, of which there was a definite dearth in the female category. I don't think they would have sent up Hanna Reitsch, for example.

    On the other hand, the Soviet Women Cosmonaut Group was formed in 1962 and the cosmonauts whose names weren't Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova weren't dismissed until 1969.

  • Simon Bradshaw

    The original UK publication of this was 1957, rather than 1967, and so it was pre-Sputnik, let alone pre-Gagarin. I didn't actually get to read it until well after I'd read most of the later ones, as back in the 1970s my local library lacked a copy; it was odd to see how the series started. Most of the later books feature Chris as an experienced astronaut, with a new teenage character for young readers to identify with.

    But yes, Walters should have thought of the other solution to the plot dilemma.

    • James Nicoll

      Sorry, the 1967 was a typo.

  • Steve Wright

    These were a mainstay of my childhood SF reading - mostly, I got them from the local library, and I only own two of the series (this one, and "Expedition Venus", which I got when the library liquidated its stock....) Even by "Expedition Venus", which was comparatively early in the series, the team had gone international, with Chris being joined by American and Russian astronauts. (Women, IIRC, didn't get a look in until "Spaceship to Saturn", and even then it was a pair of twins with weird psychic abilities.)

    Annoyingly, a couple of the series were never available through the library, and one of them was the follow-up, "The Domes of Pico", so I never really got to find out what the mysterious Domes were, I had to infer what had happened from passing references in later volumes. (It involved nuclear weapons, and not in a good way, I know that much.)

    I'd be delighted to see these again, even though I suspect they haven't worn well - both technology and attitudes have Moved On rather in the intervening years. Part of the problem, I suspect, is that there wasn't much connection between Hugh Walters (really mild-mannered bank manager Walter Hughes) and the SF community as a whole; he used to appear on lists of "SF writers over 100" simply because the list compilers hadn't noticed his obituary.... If any enterprising ebook publisher were to get hold of his literary executors, well, I'd be happy.

    • Marcus Rowland

      I'd forgotten the psychic telephone girls. Of course Heinlein used the idea first in Time for the Stars, but it wasn't a bad effort even if it did use most of the twin tropes.

  • Marcus Rowland

    I think most Brits of my generation (born in the 1950s) with an interest in SF read this series. It does have some fun features, and rarely underestimates the sheer size of the solar system, though it does make surviving space travel rather too easy - I don't think anyone dies slowly and horribly from radiation sickness, for example. There are occasional bits of wrong-headedness and bad science, of course, but it hangs together considerably better than say the Captain W.E. Johns or Patrick Moore versions of exploring the solar system, which is odd considering Moore was an astronomer. and as for E.C. Elliot and the Kemlo books... well, the less said about them the better.

    • Marcus Rowland

      Sorry, E.C. Eliott, not Elliot.

    • James Nicoll

      I think natural radiation turns up in the Mercury book.

  • Steve Wright

    Well, Kemlo is back in e-print... dare we hope? (I don't know what happened to my copy of "Kemlo and the Space Lanes", but even in my tender and impressionable youth, it didn't inspire me to chase down the rest of the series.)

  • Roy

    I’m a child of the mid-60s but Hugh Walters was a staple of my children’s library too. It is indeed a mystery as to why he’s fallen so far into obscurity when such a huge chunk of non-Usonian Anglosphere fandom must have bedn exposed to him.

  • Rick Ellrod

    Yes -- I was fond of the U.N.E.X.A. books as a child, though I never found more than the first three or four at the library. Especially the all-nations (well, more-than-one-nation) crew in the later books. As an American child, I found even the British references exotic.

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