On Being a Space Cadet, or: Why It is Never Too Late to Join the Academy

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RG Cameron Oct 17 Illo #1 'Crash'

I named my personal Fanzine SPACE CADET after Robert Heinlein’s juvenile SPACE CADET first published in 1948, right? No. Though I read another of his juveniles in Grade school, RED PLANET MARS, and loved every page, along with Lester Del Rey’s MAROONED ON MARS, and Arthur C. Clarke’s SANDS OF MARS, I didn’t get around to reading SPACE CADET till my late teenage years. So my obsession with TOM CORBETT, SPACE CADET which originated in my childhood in the 1950s was not brought about by Heinlein’s book.

Must be the TV show then? It tumbled from network to network (CBS, ABC, Dumont, NBC) from October 1950 through to 1956, always broadcast live, sometimes 4 times a week, usually only 15 minutes long but with Saturday broadcasts often 30 minutes long. However, we didn’t get our huge B&W TV till 1955 or thereabouts, and I don’t recall CBC (the only channel) carrying the show. Indeed, highly unlikely, since the CBC had its own space adventure show SPACE COMMAND whose miniscule cast included James Doohan as a crusty, overworked space engineer. So I never saw the TV series.

In Canada that is. My brother informs me that while our family briefly lived in a rented house in Dayton, Ohio (my RCAF Dad taking a course at Wright Patterson Airbase) we watched SPACE CADET religiously. However I was a mere toddler at the time and remember nothing, at least consciously.

RG Cameron Oct 17 Illo #2 'Bridge'

I always assumed the TV show was based on Heinlein’s book. In fact Rockhill studios originally put it together with the aid of Joseph Greene, who prior to Heinlein’s book had written a number of radio scripts with titles like SPACE CADETS, SPACE ACADEMY and TOM RANGER OF THE SPACE CADETS. Then, just prior to the series going on air, Rockhill purchased the rights to Heinlein’s book and all their publicity concentrated on promoting Heinlein since he was far better known than Greene. Heinlein had no direct input into the show, whereas Greene continued to shape its direction and characters, though I’m not sure if this was by virtue of his scripts or acting as a story consultant.

Could it be the SPACE CADET comic books? There were 14 in all, published from 1952 through to 1955. I own a couple now, but I never saw them when I was a kid, for I didn’t start collecting comic books till I was eight or nine, beginning in 1959. If any older kid in the neighbourhood had any SPACE CADET comics they certainly didn’t let me get my grubby little hands on them.

Likewise I doubt I ever saw the daily and Sunday newspaper strip written by Paul S. Newman and illustrated by Ray Bailey. It only ran from September 1950 to September 1953, and considering I was born in 1951 I was a tad too young to be reading the funnies in the newspaper. Besides, I would be greatly surprised if it was ever syndicated in Canada.

RG Cameron Oct 17 Illo #3 'Over shoulder'

How about the eight hardcover books written by Cary Rockwell which were published by Grosset & Dunlop from 1952 to 1956? As a matter of fact, I own 6 of the 8, and they were given to me when I was quite young. I was reading them while I was reading the SEE JANE JUMP SPOT books in grade school and I must say I consider the latter a tad lacking in action and suspense. Indeed, considering what I was reading at home, I rather resented the level I was expected to read in school. If I was precocious in anything, it was in the ability to read.

There’s no doubt the SPACE CADET books were a huge hit with me. The adventures of Tom Corbett (Earthman), Roger Manning (Human colonist from Mars) and Astro (Human colonist from Venus) as they fought both Space Pirates and Cadet rivals in their bid to graduate with high marks from the Space Academy (a worthy goal, though it didn’t inspire me to make any effort at school, perhaps because Vincent Massey Grade School was decidedly lacking in spaceships and field trips to other planets) made a huge impact on my imagination. I identified with those guys. My only criticism was that there were no aliens, unless you included the dinosaurs living in the swamps on Venus. Still, dinosaurs were cool.

An interesting aside, Cary Rockwell, author of the SPACE CADET novels, was actually the same Joseph Greene who created the TV series. Consequently the question of whether the book series influenced the TV series or vice versa is completely irrelevant. In any case, though I loved the books, and am still very fond of them, they are not the origin of my fixation on SPACE CADET.

What then? Could it have been the TOM CORBETT SPACE ACADEMY PLAYSET released by Marx in 1953? It featured lithoed metal walls surrounding the academy tower, over 30 plastic figures of Space Cadets and aliens (!), possibly including robots, plus a rocket car, rocket ships, observatory, futuristic storage tanks and equipment, even furniture for the classroom.

RG Cameron Oct 17 Illo #4 'Blaster'

I actually saw this thing, or rather, used to play with the sad remnants of one owned by a friend of mine (probably ‘inherited’ from an older brother). Only a few figures remained, but I remember the fun of popping their plastic bubble space helmets off and on as I pretended they were floating in the vacuum of space (seems they had a bit of a pressure problem). The Academy Fortress was usually implanted firmly in the sands of Mars (my sandbox) and frequently under assault by both plastic dinosaurs and metal Dinky Toys. Odd that the Martians had got a hold of Centurion tanks, Saracen armoured cars and other surplus British war material. Evidently the British Empire in its waning days had concluded some dastardly deal with the Martians! Be that as it may, this playset experience merely added to my obsession with SPACE CADET

I would love to own a perfectly preserved Academy Playset but one approaching that condition goes for hundreds of dollars on Ebay. Even individual figures can go for as much as $20. To make matters worse, clever sellers tend to break the set into lots, which must be very frustrating for bidders. You might outbid everyone else to win the plastic furniture, but lose out to a higher bidder on the aliens. In short, if you’re life’s dream is to own a perfect Space Cadet Academy Playset, be prepared to spend a heck of a lot of money.

So, what DID trigger my life-long love affair with Space Cadet? The 3d View Master set titled TOM CORBETT SPACE CADET with 3 reels of vivid, wonderfully evocative colour stereoscopic pictures of three dimensional dioramas created by one Florence Thomas circa 1952. They belonged to my brother, and I used to spend hours looking at them while still a toddler. Don’t think I was able to read yet, but I was certainly entranced by the glowing colours and exciting scenes. Fell in love with Mars. Fell in love with fifties style rocket ships. Fell in love with ruins. Fell in love with archaeology. Fell in love with museums. Fell in love with meteorites. All this from one View Master set!

RG Cameron Oct 17 Illo #5 'Collision''

In the first reel, titled THE MOON PYRAMID, the discovery of a tiny anti-gravity pyramid tip (or ‘Ben Ben’ as the ancient Egyptians used to call it, not that that has anything to do with this article) in the asteroid belt results in an expedition to the moon by our intrepid Space Cadets in their good ship Polaris. There they place the tip atop a truncated (rather small) pyramid, which promptly becomes transparent and reveals a globe of the planet Mars.

The second reel is appropriately titled THE RED PLANET. On Mars Tom Corbett teams up with Joan Dale, chief scientist of the Solarguard. They meet in “the native room of the Mars Institute Museum” which is devoted to artifacts of the long extinct Martian civilization. Their conversation – once I was able to read the booklet accompanying the reels – had the power to send shivers up and down my spine.

Tom Corbett: “We want to search the junction area of canals 7 and 19. We’re looking for clues to an ancient race who may have had the secret of anti-gravity. Perhaps they are the same race who built the great canals to lead the waters from Mars melting icecaps to the farm regions.”

Dr. Joan Dale, gesturing at an ancient model landscape: “This map fragment may narrow the search for us. Notice the pyramid. Once over 1000 feet high, it no longer exists. We know its former site quite accurately. We will hunt there first.”

They take a nifty flying scooter into the desert and eventually dig up a six-legged monolith with a depiction of the asteroid belt. A 100,000 vacuum tube computer named Mastermind figures out the exact asteroid to search for. At this point criminal masterminds (with fewer vacuum tubes no doubt) kidnap Dr. Joan and zip off to the Asteroid belt. The race is on!

RG Cameron Oct 17 Illo #6 'Viewmaster cover'

In the final reel, titled MYSTERY OF THE ASTEROIDS, the Polaris chases the ‘pirate’ ship through the asteroid belt till both land on the asteroid they are seeking. The ‘pirates’ drag Joan into the first Alien ‘Time Tomb’ they find, only to get the crap beaten out of them by Tom, Roger and Astro. The Space Cadets are then thrilled to discover a cache of magnetic tape recordings preserving the history of the planet Varth, out of which the asteroid belt formed when the planet broke up. The Cadets trigger a ‘movie’ and watch pretty six-legged cat-like aliens floating about on anti-gravity gizmos. All the loot gets hauled back to Earth, and the secret of anti-gravity AND faster than light travel is revealed, along with the fact the Varthians (Varthites?), who at first fled to Mars, later went on to the stars and might still exist.

Dr. Joan has the last word: “I hope that someday, some distant tomorrow, we’ll meet them there out among the stars. Then we can say, ‘Thank you’!”

Recently I was able to purchase the Space Cadet View Master set through E-Bay. The images are every bit as good as I remember. Florence Thomas did an incredible job. The quality of modeling, the artful composition, the set design, the brilliant colours, all evocative of the bright, exciting future the fifties promised. So vividly did these scenes imprint themselves on my impressionable pre-school child’s mind’s eye back then that I still remember them as if they were scenes from movies, complete with motion and sound effects. My habit of watching movies as if I were actually present in the events taking place derives from the hours I spent devouring these View Master reels with all my heart and soul.

RG Cameron Oct 17 Illo #7 '3D adventure''

Surely modern CGI could bring these scenes to life in an animated short? In fact, I’d love to see a modern retro-style Tom Corbett Space Cadet TV series! And while I’m at it, I’d be quite keen to see some billionaire pay to have a replica pyramid placed on the moon, and a duplicate of the Martian sculpture implanted in the sands of Mars, both for far-future generations to puzzle over.

But climbing down the ladder of imagination to reality, at the very least I can credit this wonderful View Master set for kick starting my second childhood before my first childhood was fairly underway. Working on my third childhood now. Hope to reach my fourth eventually. How to stay young (and immature) your whole life long.

10 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Steve!

    There is a picture of Robby the Robot & the vintage collectibles posted online. If I can find it I’ll download it and send it to you.

    The complete viewmaster set can be seen at the link below. Oddly, the Solarguard site reversed some of the images. I know, cause I just compared them to my Viewmaster set, but no matter. Still rather splendid to look at. Especially in the Viewmaster where everything is brilliantly luminous in glorious 3D.

    http://www.solarguard.com/tcreel1.htm

  2. Hi Steve! The complete set can be viewed at

    http://www.solarguard.com/tcreel1.htm

    Oddly, most of the pictures are reversed from what you see in the viewmaster. I can confirm this because I just now hauled out my viewmaster & the 3 Space Cadet reels and compared them to the solarguard pics frame by frame. But no matter.

    The virtue of seeing them in the viewmaster is the fantastic 3D effect which really brings the images to life.

    I did see the Robby the Robot replica, and the vintage collectibles. Paul Fitzgerald took a good picture of it (or maybe it was Kirk Lee?), one of the two, which was posted online. I believe it shows the collectibles as well if memory serves. If I find it again I must remember to download it.

    • Thanks for the input Roger. Many people are under the impression Heinlein is the sole source of inspiration for the Space Cadet TV series and books. Certainly he came onboard for the TV series for publicity purposes, and no doubt as part of the deal, Greene sprinkled ‘Space Cadetisms’ throughout the books. But Heinlein did not originate the concept of “Space Cadets.” It was a concept very much in the air during the 1940s.

      For instance, Space Cadet was published in 1948. Joseph Greene wrote “Space Cadets”, a radio script, starring “Tom Ranger of the Space Cadets,” and submitted it to a script placement service (Orbit Feature Services Inc) on January 16th, 1946!

      Or as another page on the Solarguard site puts it: “The development of Tom Corbett evolved from at least TWO major sources, Joseph Greene’s early radio, comic and TV scripting and Heinlein’s influence on the Grosset and Dunlap juvenile series books.”

      I’d say Heinlein’s influence on the TV show was minimal, cosmetic at best, but significant in the book series, though still subservient to Greene’s influence. Tom, Roger and Astro (the latter two with different names to begin with) first appeared in “Tom Ranger of the Space Cadets” which predates Heinlein’s book.

      But none of this matters. Nitpicky stuff. What counts is the TV show and the books, best appreciated in the context of the times, but even better appreciated with the mind of a juvenile. Hard to believe now, but back in the fifties the books were fresh, exciting, and wonderfully optimistic. Of course there were going to be Space Cadets! Of course we were going to explore the jungles of Venus! I was looking forward to it, believe me. Now that I’m in the 21st century I must admit to being a tad disappointed. Not what I was promised. (Thought I would have had a summer cottage on Mars by now. Oh well.)

  3. I love Space Cadet! I have every one of the comics (not just the Dell, there were a few Prize Comics issues too), every one of the Carey Rockwell books (most are available on kindle now, but not the last one). I do believe it was more or less based on Heinlein’s novel though, same universe and IIRC one officer had the same name, and Heinlein’s friend Willy Ley was technical adviser. Greene, by the way, wrote another series about Dig Allen, Trappers or Venus, Captive in Space etc. — I have all of those too! One more comment: I got some of the plastic space cadet rings on eBay a few years ago, and tried to have one launched into space for a large fee. Unfortunately that rocket crashed and the merchandise wasn’t all retrieved — the ring probably melted. So I was out a collectible Space Cadet ring and some cash, but at least I know one Space Cadet ring was launched.

  4. I really enjoyed this essay. I’m about your age and I also vividly recall that particular View Master set. Young as I was, it communicated to me a wonderful sense of strangeness. The cat aliens were…well, not awesome, or cool…I think our word at the time was “neat!” And the 3-D really accentuated the depictions of floating in space.

    I’m sure a good special effects version could be done today but I suspect that being six years old beats CGI!

  5. Nice column, well written and researched! I wish you’d posted a couple of the ViewMaster images; I’d like to see those myself.

    Don’t know if you noticed, but in the Art Show at VCON, behind and to the right (if you’re facing the same way) of the life-size B9 replica robot (from Lost in Space) there was a display of Space Cadet/Space Ranger-type stuff from that era; most of it looked vintage rather than reproduced. Rose would probably have the name of the guy who collected it all. I took photos of B9, but not of the stuff (except peripherally, behind B9), for which I’m sorry.

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