When I was little, my father told me he had a spaceship of his own, hidden back in the woods. As an ardent space fan, I was wildly enthusiastic. It was when he told me it was propelled by a hamster running in a wheel that I began to suspect he was putting me on.
But I wanted to believe it.
There’s a certain SF tradition of spacecraft built, more or less, in one’s backyard. Of course, “backyard” may not be literal. I’m thinking of spaceships constructed on an amateur basis, privately, and usually—though not always—by young people.
This was the appeal of a childhood favorite of mine, Eleanor Cameron’s The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet (1954). Two boys (“between the ages of eight and eleven”) are recruited by a newspaper ad to put together a small rocket ship for the mysterious Mr. Tyco Bass, a small wispy man who turns out to be a “spore person.” They fly the ship to a previously unknown miniature moon, “Basidium,” inhabited by other spore-based mushroom people.
Cameron is pretty good with her scientific facts—which means she lampshades the impossibilities carefully. A rocket built by two kids isn’t going to get off the ground without plentiful helpings of what TV Tropes calls “Applied Phlebotinum,” the unexplained stuff or device(s) necessary to make the plot work. A classic example is the faster-than-light space drive needed by a Star Trek or Star Wars story. If the authors could explain how it worked, they wouldn’t be writing a story; they’d be off to the patent office and rake in billions. Instead, the author and reader tacitly agree to postulate the necessary gizmo or substance for purposes of the tale. It might as well be magic, in the sense of Clarke’s Third Law—“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Here, Mr. Bass supplies several crucial “inventions” needed to make the boys’ ship spaceworthy. He provides the rocket motor, the special fuel, the clear sealant that makes the hull airtight, and the “oxygen urn” that provides breathable air—not to mention the “Stroboscopic Polaroid Filter” that allows a telescope to detect the otherwise-invisible Mushroom Planet. These “phlebotinum” features make the boys’ vessel a little more plausible than my dad’s Hamster Drive.
A more believable example (once you’re out of the middle grades) is Robert A. Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Galileo (1947). The project here is a private enterprise, with the spacecraft modified from an existing transcontinental “freighter-rocket” by four teenage boys. They are, however, accompanied by one adult, Dr. Donald Cargraves, an uncle of one of the boys. Cargraves provides the engineering expertise and the atomic drive he’s just invented, which (to paraphrase Doc Brown) “makes space travel possible.”
Starting with an existing well-equipped vessel, and kids who are already experienced amateur rocket-builders, makes the setup immediately more plausible. Realistically, it takes months of elbow grease to do the conversion. The Galileo isn’t actually built in a backyard, but out in the desert. Still, the idea that kids like you or me could help build the first rocket to the moon is front and center in this story, which formed part of the basis for the early SF movie “Destination Moon.”
The notion of private-sector spaceflight was a favorite of Heinlein’s. That theme reappears in his novella The Man Who Sold the Moon (1951), which also contributed elements to “Destination Moon.” In that tale, however, the participants were all adults, and the project was a large and highly-publicized corporate endeavor more like the work of today’s SpaceX or Blue Origin.
A fully grown-up version of the backyard spaceship can be found in the widely influential first novel by E.E. “Doc” Smith, The Skylark of Space (1928, originally written about a decade earlier). When scientist Dick Seaton stumbles upon an unknown substance that can be used to produce immense energy, his wealthy friend Martin Crane underwrites the construction of a spherical spacecraft to harness that power. The work is started on Crane’s extensive property—not exactly a backyard, but close—and continues secretly in an independent steel plant after skulduggery enters the picture. No kids are involved, but the private, secret, and essentially amateur operation makes Skylark an ancestor of this space opera trope.
We might consider this theme an artifact of the naïve early days of SF, but for its reappearance in John Varley’s 2003 novel Red Thunder. The passage of time has made some differences. The protagonists are young adults, though they compose a motley group that still reads like “kids” to me (or perhaps it’s just that I’m that much older myself). Their goal is Mars, rather than the Moon. The requisite adult supervision, or phlebotinum contribution, is supplied by Travis Broussard, a cashiered former astronaut, and his quasi-autistic genius brother Jubal, who has invented a “squeezer” force field that turns out to be a fabulous rocket drive (among other uses). Varley’s methodical development of the funding, engineering, and planning for the homegrown spacecraft (built out of a railroad tank car) makes the amateur project believable even for a contemporary audience. Wikipedia describes the resulting adventure as an homage to Heinlein’s juveniles—since it’s essentially a Rocket Ship Galileo for the 21st century.
Why are we so fond of the backyard spaceship?
This kind of plot enshrines the long American tradition of inspired tinkering, from the Wright brothers and Edison, to Tom Swift, to 1950s kids with hot rods, to space kids with hotter rods (Luke Skywalker asking to go into town for parts to soup up his landspeeder). The clever gadgeteer is a permanent part of our mythology, right down to Bill Gates and Paul Allen in their garage.
More than that, the idea that ingenious amateurs could conquer space has a democratic, underdog quality that appeals to our mythmaking imaginations. We love the idea that spaceflight could be easy and accessible to the ordinary person. It’s a natural evolution of the way we root for the underdog in politics or war (the Ewoks in “Return of the Jedi”). We cheer for the underdog just as much in personal life—for Cinderella, whose story exhibits, as Chesterton says, the lesson exaltavit humiles—“he shall lift up the humble.”
The backyard spaceship promises to lift the humble right off the earth, in the ancient dream of flight. It makes for great inspiration, if dubious engineering. And after all, the most sophisticated aeronautical engineer starts out as a wondering child and an aspiring teenager. Our dreams rest among the stars; but the journey begins in our own backyard.