The Moon Tube: 1969 televisions, lunar science-fiction, and dreams of a future there…

Now that we had visited, surely we were going back to stay?

What better to watch the Moon landing on than your brand-new 1969 television set?

RCA, Magnavox and Zenith all debuted new TV lines that year, each with their own unique selling point. Televisions themselves were no longer novel by 1969 (not even colour ones), and so manufacturers were forced to develop new features that could potentially entice people to part with even more of their hard-earned cash.

Luckily, they didn’t have to look too far. Televisions of the day were utilitarian, with simple channel dials and volume knobs. The youngest child in the family usually served as the remote control! The TV repairman was a not-infrequent visitor. And colour was kind of meh.

But there were new TVs with solutions for all these problems –for $$$.

The RCA Two-Thousand

RCA’s Two Thousand was a high-end vision of what it was imagined televisions might look like in the year 2000. It was manufactured in a limited run of 2000, and cost US$2000 (or about US$14000 in today’s terms). That bought you a 23-inch (58cm) screen that had such a “vivid, detailed picture” you could “even watch it in a brightly-lit room”.  It had an electronic tuner that could remember and recall your favourite channels, and you could change brightness, tint and other settings using the remote control – ooh la la.

The advertisement proudly declared that “computers” made it all possible, and concluded: “Imagine. Once for $2000 all you could get was a trip around the world. Now you can travel to a whole new century.” Not quite.

Zenith Chromacolor

Happily to get a better colour picture you didn’t need to re-mortgage your house and buy a Two Thousand. Zenith’s Chromacolor system reduced the size of the red, green and blue phosphor dots that were arrayed behind the front of the picture tube, surrounding them with a black pigment which soaked up ambient room light. This allowed them to in turn reduce the strength of the anti-reflective glass filter that sat in front of the picture tube,  and resulted in a brighter, clearer image.

The new design was also easier to view in more brightly-lit environments (including outdoors), making portable television sets more practical. Not to be outdone, competitor Sony would introduce its Trinitron tube to the US market in 1970 – but we’re talking ‘69.

Magnavox Quasar

Magnavox, meanwhile, was attempting to relieve a common customer complaint – the need for, complexity and cost of television adjustment and repair. Early TVs could be quite fussy: valves (vacuum tubes) were fragile and became quite hot, repeated heat expansion and subsequent contraction caused them to frequently ‘burn out’, necessitating replacement. While this was a relatively straightforward procedure, it meant navigating wires and components potentially containing lethal high-voltages, leading owners to leave it to TV repairmen. Also, over time component aging could lead to variations in voltages that affected the image and required adjustment.

American families and many other families from across the globe gathered in their lounge rooms to watch the wall-to-wall television coverage of the Apollo 11 Moon landing and subsequent walk, which saturated the airwaves for several days from launch until splashdown.

By housing many of the more serviceable components in a separate ‘drawer’ behind of and including the control knobs and speaker, owners could perform simple repairs and adjustments themselves, forgoing the need to call out a repairman.

However, the benefits of Magnavox’s ‘innovation’ were short-lived, as more reliable transistor-based ‘solid-state’ televisions would soon become prevalent.

Owing to an increase in the import of Japanese electronics made by companies such as JVC and Sony, these TVs were also typically smaller and lighter, with cabinets made of molded plastic instead of wood, allowing consumers to more easily carry their sets into repair centres – which they needed to do less often. But don’t worry, the rise of the temperamental VCR would keep electronics repair-people and their shops busy for many more years to come.

Soon, the era of the console TV would come to an end entirely – which was a good thing because wooden cabinets were heavy!

The event highlighted the public’s newfound ability to engage visually with moments of historic importance in real-time, unlike in the past when one would only hear about them on the radio or read about them in the paper, often hours or days after the events had actually occurred.

But while the adventures of the Apollo program captivated viewers at home, the Moon also inspired the imagination of novelists, filmmakers and television producers.

For example, 2001: A Space Odyssey [spoilers!] is a 1968 motion picture written by director Stanley Kubrick and science-fiction novelist Arthur C. Clarke. In the film, a featureless black monolith is uncovered near Clavius Base, an American outpost on the Moon. Once the monolith is exposed to sunlight, it emits a powerful radio signal in the direction of Jupiter. The US sends spacecraft Discovery One to investigate, but along the way its artificially-intelligent computer, HAL-9000, appears to malfunction, and in response to the possibility he might be shut down, attempts to kill the crew.

The protagonist (and remaining survivor) Dr. David Bowman manages to deactivate Hal, and the ship arrives at Jupiter, discovering another monolith in orbit around the planet. When Bowman leaves the ship in a pod and approaches the monolith, a vortex appears and the pod is sucked into it, traveling across vast distances of space where Bowman observes strange cosmological phenomena and oddly-coloured landscapes.

Eventually, he finds himself in a bedroom where he sees and becomes progressively older versions of himself, eventually being reborn as a new space-native being.

In the British science-fiction television program Space: 1999 (1974-77), nuclear waste stored on the far side of the Moon explodes, knocking it out of Earth’s orbit and sending it off into space – along with the 311 inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha, a scientific base four kilometres wide and one kilometre deep.

Located in the Moon crater Plato, Moonbase Alpha is the setting for much of the program. Built between 1983 and 1997, the complex extends outward from the central ‘main mission’ tower similarly to 2001’s Clauvius Base. It is completely self-sustaining, powered by a combination of nuclear reactors and solar energy. Water is obtained from ice deposits under the lunar surface.

High-speed ‘travel tubes’ connect each part of the base, including buildings devoted to astronomy, geology, chemistry, biology and astrophysics; residence and recreation sections; and spacecraft hangers.

Two series of the program, each comprised of 24 episodes, were produced, chronicling the experiences of Moonbase Alpha’s residents as the Moon hurtled through space. During their adventures, they visit a number of exoplanets, travel to other star systems via wormholes, and meet (and come into conflict with) various alien species and spacecraft.

The program explores a number of typical science-fiction themes including the possible extraterrestrial origin of humanity, the nature of God, time travel and plots involving astronomical phenomena. And aliens!

Plenty of aliens.

Five Space: 1999 ‘Annuals’ were published between 1975 and 1979, each edition containing a fan-friendly mixture of comics, text stories and features on the show’s production and cast.

The series was criticised for its lack of realism, with science-fiction author Isaac Asimov noting that any explosion capable of knocking the Moon out of orbit would almost certainly blow it apart, and even if it survived it would take thousands of years for it to reach the nearest star. He did, however, praise it for its portrayal of movement in the low-gravity environment of the Moon.

Creators Gerry and Sylvia Anderson were surprised at the criticism, disappointed that the show was not granted the same suspension of disbelief given to other science-fiction programs such as Doctor Who or Star Trek. Despite the criticism, the show was popular, and currently has a 7.4/10 rating on the Internet Movie Database.

The September 1962 edition of Britain’s Meccano Magazine speculated on colonising the Moon, suggesting that it should have a large water supply (an idea previously dismissed but recently determined to likely be correct). However, the author also thought a lunar base would likely be impractrical without the invention of nuclear-powered rocketry, which never happened.

The writers of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Space: 1999 weren’t intentionally being fantastical. In the 1960s and 70s the idea of a moon colony wasn’t just science-fiction – it was widely predicted as an eventual certainty!

You can’t blame them of course. From their perspective, why wouldn’t we colonise the Moon? We ‘d managed to survive virtually everywhere on Earth: in deserts, the deep-sea – even in the Antarctic (people in the 1960s thought we’d establish large colonies in all of those places in short order as well).

Surely it was just a simple matter of technology catching up with the desire, and there wouldn’t be long to wait. After all, publicly-available electricity wasn’t even a thing a hundred years earlier, and prior to 1903 human flight had only been achieved by hot-air balloon! The people of the 1960s had jet planes, long-distance telephones, colour televisions and electronic calculators – many people alive then had been born before any of these had been invented. And the rocket-age meant that not even the sky was the limit anymore – first the Moon, then Mars, then the moons of Jupiter and Saturn… humanity was going all kinds of places, and fast! Of course there were going to be Moon colonies – lots of them.

Obviously not like this comic though. That would be silly. Grass on the Moon? Please. If you wanted vegetation (as a species weren’t we over plants, anyway?) you would have to visit the flora dome. Your house would have a rock garden. Like in Coober Pedy or Arizona.

Seriously though, people have been proposing lunar colonies for a while. In 1638, Bishop John Wilkins wrote A Discourse Concerning a New World and Another Planet, in which he predicted a human colony on the Moon. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857–1935), among others, also suggested such a step. But things would really heat up in the 1950s when just about everyone got a bit of Moon dust in their eyes.

In 1954 science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke proposed a lunar base made up of inflatable igloo-like modules that would then be covered with actual – rather than metaphorical – Moon dust for insulation! Subsequent steps would include the establishment of a larger, permanent dome; a nuclear reactor for the provision of power; an algae-based air purifier; and electromagnetic cannons to launch cargo and fuel to interplanetary vessels in space.

Clarke wasn’t the only one. In 1959, John S. Rinehart suggested that the safest design would be a structure that could “[float] in a stationary ocean of dust”, since there were, at the time this idea was…erm…floated, theories that there could be mile-deep dust oceans on the Moon (a concern that was shared by some at Project Apollo but allayed by the Ranger probes. But it wasn’t just science-fiction authors that had these ideas – the US government had them as well.

Project Horizon was the US Army’s plan to establish a fort on the Moon by 1967. Led by Heinz-Hermann Koelle, a German rocket engineer of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA), it proposed that the first landing would be carried out by two ‘soldier-astronauts’ in 1965 and that more construction workers would soon follow. It was posited that 140 rocket launches would then transport 245 tons of cargo to the lunar outpost by 1966 – that’s a lot of rockets! Since it turned out you needed a Saturn V to get anything of substance away from Earth’s gravity, obviously this wasn’t feasible.

But the Army wasn’t alone in its ambitions. The US Air Force had it’s own plans – the Lunex Project wanted to have one of their own on the Moon by 1961, and envisioned a 21-airman underground base on-line by 1968 at an estimated cost of US$7.5 billion (in 1958 dollars!) But those visionaries were wrong, regardless of how much money you could throw at them, their proposals just weren’t viable.

At least yet. In 2017 the Moon Village Association was created to promote the implentation of an international human settlement near the lunar south pole. Will it happen? Perhaps. Someday…