Atomic Space Age Juvenile Science Fiction

Published November 16, 2018

Despite some minor caveats, predictions foreshadowed by the science fiction of the atomic space age have held up quite well. Even though we do not yet have fleets of nuclear-powered space cruisers like those depicted in the Tom Corbett, Space Cadet series of 1951-1956 and the Dig Allen, Space Explorer series of 1956-1962 it is important to keep in mind that those novels were depicting the future of the year 2300. There is still time for that world to emerge. The NERVA (Nuclear Energy for Rocket Vehicles Applications) engines ground tested at the Nevada Test Site between 1959-1972 nonetheless came amazingly close to giving us that technology. If the NERVA program had not been canceled by President Nixon in 1973 NASA intended to use those solid core nuclear thermal engines to send the first human expedition to Mars by 1981.

As I look back at the Tom Swift, Jr. series for the period 1954-1965 I am struck by how much of the technology depicted in those early juvenile novels has come to fruition. There are several types of flying laboratories including the NASA DC-8 version for example. Tom Swift and his Jetmarine was published in the same year that America’s first nuclear-powered submarine was launched. Manned rocket ships to low earth orbit have been common for decades. A number of private companies are now marketing a wide range of humanoid robots for commercial uses. In addition to the current International Space Station we have also witnessed a number of outposts in space from Skylab to the first Chinese space station. Let us not forget that we really did succeed in sending men to the moon nine times between 1968 and 1972.

Today, real private space entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos embody the spirit of the Tom Corbett novels in their audacious push to privatize space travel. It was a theme that resonated even in the adult science fiction novels of the first atomic space age that were authored by Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke. It is a tradition sustained by a younger generation of science fiction writers from around the world including Cixin Liu, Andy Wier, Kim Stanley Robinson, Vernor Vinge, Stanislaw Lem, and Frank Schatzing.