In the Museum: Buck Rogers in the 21st Century | History | Air & Space Magazine

In the Museum: Buck Rogers in the 21st Century

The reality of spaceflight is tangible; a spacecraft or flight spare enables us to preserve the technology involved in a Mars landing so that future generations can understand how it was done. But how do you preserve a "sensation" so that future generations will appreciate its impact on society?

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Philip Frances Nowlan may not be one of the biggest names in science fiction, but he is the creator of one of the biggest science fiction cartoon characters—Buck Rogers, a figure synonymous with spaceflight. Rogers has found a permanent home at the National Air and Space Museum; in 1996, the Museum acquired a wide-ranging collection of memorabilia that documents this pop culture icon.

In an article entitled “Armageddon—2419 A.D.,” which he wrote for the August 1927 issue of Amazing Stories, Nowlan introduced Anthony “Buck” Rogers, an ordinary man whose job is to inspect abandoned coal mines for radioactive gases. On one inspection the mine collapses, and Rogers is trapped in a chamber full of the gases. Eventually he loses consciousness, but the gases keep him alive, and he awakes nearly 500 years later. After adjusting to the shock of his situation, Rogers discovers that the United States has been conquered by Mongolians, who rule the country from floating cities while forcing Americans to hide in the forests below. Unknown to the Mongolians, however, the Americans have become organized, secretly making technological advances. Now, along with Rogers, they are about to launch the Second War of Independence.

The editor of Amazing Stories, Hugo Gernsback, prophesied that many of the devices described by Nowlan, such as the jet airplane and the walkie-talkie, would “no doubt come true,” and that the tale would become more popular over time. He was right on all predictions. On January 7, 1929, “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” debuted as the first syndicated science fiction comic strip, and it quickly became a huge hit. By 1932, a Buck Rogers radio program was airing four times a week. Commercial spinoffs, including toy ray guns, games, uniforms, tin spaceships, and trading cards, were sold everywhere. And Buck’s success also inspired several cartoon copycats, including Flash Gordon and Captain Midnight. When the Buck Rogers film series debuted in 1939, both young and old stood in lines for hours to buy tickets.

Buck Rogers mania foreshadowed the fan worship of such science fiction favorites as Star Trek and Star Wars, and it no doubt encouraged the dreams of the generation of Americans who would ultimately make spaceflight a reality. All of this creates an interesting problem for the Museum. The reality of spaceflight is tangible; a spacecraft or flight spare enables us to preserve the technology involved in a Mars landing so that future generations can understand how it was done. But how do you preserve a “sensation” so that future generations will appreciate its impact on society? That task has fallen to Frank Winter, a Museum curator of space history.

As a boy in New York, Winter grew up watching “Captain Video and His Video Rangers” (1949–55) on television. Each week Captain Video would climb on board the Galaxy II and rocket to another planet in a never-ending battle against “crime, tyranny, injustice and the unreasoning fury of nature!” Winter remembers that once the show’s actors came to a theater in his neighborhood, where they performed a skit and talked to the kids afterward. To this day, Winter remains a Captain Video fan.

It’s an interest that serves him well in his job at the Museum, where he is curator of rocketry and popular culture. He is responsible for thousands of artifacts, ranging from Star Wars trading cards to Apollo Saturn V rockets. Winter had long felt that Buck Rogers and other early space heroes were a part of American spaceflight history worth examining, and he wanted to acquire some memorabilia. Unfortunately, because of their rarity and price, many important objects remained in the hands of private collectors. That situation changed in 1996 when the Museum was approached by Michael O’Harro, a successful restaurateur who had collected more than 2,200 space toys. Would the Museum be interested?

“I was astounded, “ recalls Winter, after he had inspected the collection. “It was like walking into Tut’s Tomb!” Over the years, O’Harro had collected many rare items, including original comic strips, a Buck Rogers watch, tin spaceships, lead figures, games, trading cards, and a prototype ray gun that was used to create a production toy. Although most centered on Buck Rogers, there were also items based on Flash Gordon and even Captain Video. O’Harro’s collection spanned the entire history of space toys, from Buck Rogers in the 1920s to Star Wars in the 1980s. Winter felt that every bit of it belonged in the Museum. Then the work began. Each object in the Museum’s collection must be entered into a database that contains information about the physical characteristics of the object and as much historical information as possible. A simple Buck Rogers trading card, for example, requires as much basic paperwork as a flight-qualified Saturn V.

As a result of O’Harro’s generosity, the Museum now has an excellent core collection that will give future generations an opportunity to learn about Buck Rogers’ appeal. Winter points out, however, that the collection is not complete. “It would be nice to find a Buck Rogers bike and some flying suits,” he muses. Then he smiles and says, “A few more Captain Video objects would also be nice.”

—Bob Craddock is a planetary geologist at the National Air and Space Museum’s Center for Earth and Planetary Studies.

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