Where have you gone, Chesley Bonestell?


Now this is what these here internets were invented for: Walt Disney's wonderful 1957 science reel Mars and Beyond, preserved for the ages, or until youtube gets bought up by Google or somebody. Say what you will about Walt—he was a friend of science, and this documentary features the state of the art in Martian technology, from the golden age of Wernher von Braun's Marsprojekt. When these kinds of movies work well, they remain fascinating equally for what was right, what was wrong, and what was wrong but still seems kinda right. All of it narrated by the great Paul Frees, whom you will recognize immediately as That Guy Who Narrated All That Stuff.

In six parts: A survey of the post-Ptolemaic universe. A mocking roundup of pop-culture views of Mars that seemed as absurd in 1957 as this movie now seems to us. A primer on evolution that hopefully claims Venus, Earth, and Mars exist in a "temperate zone favorable to life: this golden zone" where "man could survive on Mars with some kind of moderate protection." A history of Mars observations, modern enough to dismiss the canal theory but not modern enough to avoid trumpeting an illusory and now-forgotten "green area the size of Texas;" also featuring some vaguely accurate comments by Dr. E.C. Slipher, who looks exactly like what a scientist should look like. A zoology of potential life on Mars—from silicon-based life forms to sonic and optical hunters who kill their prey with sound waves and concentrated sunlight, respectively. And von Braun's chef d'oeuvre, a fleet of Earth-based supersaucers that settle Mars by shooting rockets into its atmosphere.

It all came to nothing, and while it's tempting to blame NASA or the end of the space race, it's really the Red Planet itself that let us down. Even the conservative Professor Slipher underestimated how unpromising our nearest neighbor would turn out to be. The idea of colonizing space in any imaginable future looks more and more like the last vestige of the geocentric universe, with its assumption that earth-normal conditions are a default or somehow reproducible on a large scale through hard work and ingenuity. (I caught the really shady libertarian fave Serenity recently, and had to chuckle at that movie's reference to "terraforming, a decades-long process.") In fifty years they'll be laughing at NASA's hopes for establishing a base on Mars.

On a more positive note, I found that picture of Carl Sagan's farting balloon creatures on Jupiter. Who wouldn't breathe a little methane and ammonia for the chance to meet one of these babies (check out the "hunter" making a meal of one of the "floaters" in the lower right corner):


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  1. These here internets make me wish my acid days weren’t behing me. The flashbacks are cool, though. Except when I’m driving.

  2. The entire Mars & Beyond is on DVD, along with several other Disney space exploration pieces.

  3. Awesome. Thanks, Tim.

    It’s really amazing that the animators at Disney were able to produce such wonderful imagery with such primitive techniques. Great find.

  4. And the other guy who always narrated stuff for Disney was the beloved Thurl Ravenscroft. Disney stuff from the 60’s and 70’s constitutes some of my best childhood memories. What an interesting person Walt Disney was.

    And it was also fun to grow up in SoCal and hang at Disneyland all the time. I miss that old Mission to Mars “ride” with the farting seats. And, of course, Inner Space with those giant molecules and the huge staring human eye looking down the microscope at you as if you were a germ or something.

    Inventive, fun, and at least an attempt at scientific accuracy. I know I sound like an old fart for saying this, but where’s the fun, imaginative mass popularization of science these days? And don’t tell me it’s the Crocodile Hunter, for god’s sake. Maybe it’s out there and I’m missing it because I don’t have kids.

  5. Cool. If I recall correctly, some of the lifeforms featured in Mars and Beyond were based on or inspired by the artwork of biology illustrator Ernst Haeckel, who did some pretty cool artwork (as well as important biological taxonomical work) himself.

  6. Bonestell rocks. When I was a little shaver I had one one of those Life Magazine-published books about earth and space chock full of trippy Bonestell illustrations. If you’re not familiar with his work, do yourself a favor and go here

  7. * orgasms *

  8. check out the “hunter” making a meal of one of the “floaters” in the lower right corner

    Looked for it, can’t find it.

  9. Looked for it, can’t find it.

    I thought it only my eyes that weren’t working.

  10. It’s this thing.

    It doesn’t look like much, but it’s supposed to be a hunter attacking a floater. It says so in the book.

  11. Tim,
    Maybe in the original, but there’s not enough resolution to make that smear into anything definitive.

    No worries, I have cherished memories of watching the entire Cosmos series when it first aired. When I heard the Discovery Channel was upgrading the CGI I was shilled titless. That was until they cut it up with commercials. Un-fucking-watchable, the bastards, maybe it will come out on DVD.

  12. Tim, are you positioning yourself to be the next person slugged by Buzz Aldrin? Just curious 🙂

  13. Thanks for bringing this up Tim. I saw the end of this years ago on some cable channel and have been wondering what it was ever since.

  14. I don’t know, but even before the punchup, Buzz Aldrin was in the winner’s circle just for being the luniest of the whole lunar crew. Communion on the moon, UFO sightings, a psychedelic head trip… In a field crowded with boring and laconic cyphers, Buzz has always stood out as the only man capable of greeting outer space with the madness it deserves.

  15. Oh, Tim, you are so getting slugged. Why all the space-colonization hate? I’ve got a bet that says that you were abducted by aliens 😉

    A few astronauts have had some rather, ahem, interesting views, as I recall. I give Aldrin points for beating the drum for space exploration, but I’d have handled it like Armstrong. Except that my secret lair wouldn’t be in Ohio. Also, I seem to remember hearing that Aldrin just said he saw something odd, not “I saw a Vulcan Deathgrip Cruiser”.

  16. “Inventive, fun, and at least an attempt at scientific accuracy. I know I sound like an old fart for saying this, but where’s the fun, imaginative mass popularization of science these days?”

    Don’t forget the cigar-smoking aliens, and the martini-swilling, electric-rifle toting babe.

    And all that jabber about evolution with no equal time given to Intelligent Design.

    My God, that entire show is utterly subversive!

  17. Good call on “Mars letting us down.” For the True Believers, the intensity of desire remained the same while the goal down-shifted from possible macro-critters to possible lichen to possible micro-organisms to possible fossils thereof… with space colonies and terraforming taking up the slack.

    To bend over backward in fairness to Serenity and other SF… if we had the scope and scale of technology required to get to another planetary system in the first place, terraforming might not be out of the question. And if biotechnology were comparably advanced, the process might be a matter of centuries rather than millennia.

    But decades? Pass the magic nano, please…

  18. Monte, when is your book coming out? I was just thinking that I haven’t seen a big-picture space program-at-the-crossroads book and was wondering if anybody was working on one.

  19. The colonization of space will not take place until it is profitable to do so – at least for the colonizers, if not for the society sending them out.

    NADA, ESA & their Russian & Chinese counterparts are bureaucratic dinosaurs who will never get the job done. This does not mean that they won’t invent key technologies, it just means they will be too wrapped up in their bureaucratic processes to make it profitable.

  20. “Serenity” is not the least bit shady. It’s Shiny!

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