A Life in a Year – 20th February, Space Travel is no longer Science Fiction

The astronaut John Glen became the first American to orbit the Earth, aboard Friendship 7 on February 20, 1962, on the “Mercury Atlas 6” mission, circling the globe three times during a flight lasting 4 hours, 55 minutes, and 23 seconds.

These days orbiting the earth, going into space and walking on the moon are just things people do but when I was a boy this was a really exciting thing and everyone was talking about it.

We used to be enthralled by the idea of going into space, meeting martians and fighting evil aliens and playing at being spacemen was right up there with cowboys and indians and second world war commandos.

As heroes we had men like Flash Gordon and Dan Dare but my favourite space programme in the early 1960s was Fireball XL5.  Set 100 years in the future the series featured the missions of a spaceship commanded by square jawed and impossibly handsome Colonel Steve Zodiac of the World Space Patrol. The crew included the glamorous Doctor Venus, a doctor of space medicine; middle-aged navigator, engineer and all-round clever-dick, Professor Matthew Matic and co-pilot Robert, a transparent anthropomorphic robot with an irritating metallic voice.

The World Space Patrol was based at Space City, located on an unnamed island in the South Pacific, and headed by Commander Zero who was assisted by Lieutenant Ninety.  For unspecified reasons, the 25-storey T-shaped control tower at Space City rotated; in one episode a character inadvertently made it rotate fast enough for those inside to suffer from vertigo.

Fireball XL5 patrolled Sector 25 of charted interstellar space (although there only appeared to be three sectors marked on the space chart seen in the Space City control room). The patrols were missions of three months duration, but the ship was also on call when at base.

The World Space Patrol included a fleet of at least 30 ‘Fireball XL’ ships (an XL30 was referred to in The Firefighters episode). The ship itself was made up of two detachable sections. The winged nose cone was known as Fireball Junior and contained the cockpit and separated from the main body to land on other planets. The rest of the ship contained a navigation bay, laboratory, huge lounge, workshops and separate crew quarters, along with fuel and main nutomic rocket motors for interstellar travel. It would generally remain stationed in orbit after arriving at an alien planet. When Fireball XL5 returned to Space City, the whole ship would land vertically.

Fireball XL5 managed to travel around the galaxy without going faster than light (until the episode Faster than Light). The series observed few of the limitations of rocketry and only informed viewers that the ship’s rocket motors were powered by a Nutomic reactor and that XL5 could safely travel at speeds of up to Space Velocity 7, which enabled her to reach the outlying planets of charted space within a few months. Furthermore the crew never wore space suits; instead they took “oxygen pills” to survive in the vacuum of space, where they manoeuvred in zero gravity with the aid of thruster packs or jet mobiles. They used neutroni radio communication, which appear virtually instantaneous within the sectors of charted space.

Dr Venus had a pet alien which was a monkey like creature called a Lazoon from the planet Colevio, in a star system many light years from Earth. Venus loved the lazy creature at first sight and took him as her pet naming him Zoonie.  She soon convinced Steve Zodiac to allow the lazoon to accompany her aboard XL5 and Zoonie’s powers of mimicry and semi-telepathic abilities helped save the day on more than one occasion.

In the 1960s, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson made a series of commercials for Britain’s Lyons Maid ice cream treats featuring characters from their various puppetronic series including one for a three-stage ice lolly called Zoom and featured Steve Zodiac and Doctor Venus of Fireball XL5.

The programme had a natty little theme tune which sort of suggested a relationship between Steve Zodiac and Doctor Venus:

I wish I was a spaceman
The fastest guy alive
I’d fly you ’round the universe
In Fireball XL5
Way out in space together
Conquerors of the sky
My heart would be a fireball, a fireball
Every time I gazed into your starry eyes

We’d take the path to Jupiter
And maybe very soon
We’d cruise along the Milky Way
And land upon the Moon
To a wonderland of star dust
We’d zoom our way to Mars
My heart would be a fireball, a fireball
Cause you’d be my Venus of the stars

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