Supermarket Spaceships

These 1950s life-sized mock-ups helped prepare Americans for the real Space Age.

airspacemag.com

Before the era of true space exploration, some major retailers built full-scale mock-ups of rocketships and took them on tours around the country. Not yet the NASA-inspired exhibits of later World’s Fairs, these 1950s predecessors were often based on popular TV space adventures, mostly aimed at children. Still, their arrival at state fairs and supermarket openings drew enormous crowds in pre-Sputnik America, then in the grip of rocket mania.

Silvercup Rocket at Kroger

This early U.S. “spacecraft” wasn’t built by NASA or the U.S. Air Force. Long Island-based Silvercup Bread baked up the rocket, inspired by the 1954-56 series, Rocky Jones, Space Ranger. It’s shown here parked in front of a Kroger grocery store, circa 1954.

Silvercup Rocket at State Fair

The Silvercup Rocket attracted more than 100,000 visitors at Michigan’s 1954 State Fair. Once aboard the streamlined ship, junior cadets (and patient parents) could try out the spacecraft’s interplanetary radio and other gadgetry, guided by a uniformed Space Ranger. Upon “returning to Earth,” each traveller received a mini-loaf of Silvercup bread.

Ricky Walker Day

None
(Press photo for Name the Planet Contest, Mike Moser Productions)

Built for the television series Space Patrol, the Ralston Rocket had a christening ceremony befitting a real spacecraft in 1952. In the parking lot of ABC Television Center in Hollywood, Victory Through Air Power author Alexander de Seversky declared (preceding President John F. Kennedy’s sentiments by almost a decade) that the new generation “is not earthbound -- they are born with wings.” Fellow aviation legends Walter Brookins and Roy Knabenshue also attended.

In 1953, a contest raffling off the Ralston Rocket drew thousands of hopeful entries. Ten-year-old Ricky Walker of Washington, Illinois, won the “Rocket Clubhouse on Wheels.” On a cold January morning, in a scene reminiscent of the film The Day the Earth Stood Still, the five-ton, trailer-mounted spaceship rolled past throngs of space-helmeted children and up the driveway of Ricky’s home.

Luer Space Ship on Parade

The Luer Packing Company, which sold packaged meats, had its own rocket to attract audiences around 1955. Likely based on the Terra IV spaceship from Space Patrol (there’s still debate as to whether Luer’s rocket is actually the lost Ralston Rocket given to Ricky Walker), the rocket had a 16mm projector inside to show space adventures. Peter Kleeman, co-director of the Space Age Museum, has one of the Luer promotional pamphlets that the young astronauts were given, titled “Frankie Luer’s Space Adventures with Davey Rocket.” On the back is a “Flight Certificate” stating “This is to certify that ________ has traveled to Venus, Mars, Saturn and the Moon aboard the Luer Space Ship.”  

Spaceship Boneyards

Childhood dreams fade. When he was a teenager, Ricky Walker’s parents sold the Ralston Rocket he won to a carnival. It nearly became a traveling museum for real space artifacts, but was finally thought to be scrapped. Meanwhile, the Michigan State Fair continued using the Silvercup Rocket until 1962, when organizers replaced it with a replica of John Glenn’s Mercury capsule. Rechristened Space Ship Mars, the battered spacecraft later amused travelers as a roadside attraction in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.

Rescuing the Luer Space Ship

At some point the Luer Space Ship was abandoned atop a large hill along Highway 69, near Prescott, Arizona. John and Peter Kleeman, the father-son team that run the Space Age Museum, hired a trucking company to rescue it, which involved some disassembly before it could make the cross-country journey to Connecticut. The mission of the museum is to preserve cultural artifacts of the early Space Age. While they do have some historical NASA objects in their collection, says John, “our focus is upon artifacts and images derived from science fiction, space adventure, Space Age design and the experience of everyday Americans.”

Preserving Rocket History

After the 40-foot-long Luer Space Ship arrived at the Space Age Museum in Connecticut, John and Peter Kleeman had to figure out how to get it inside. “We hired building contractors to reconstruct one whole side of our barn,” says John. They repaired the automotive undercarriage so they could legally drive the rocket trailer again. Then came the hard part. “Peter and I have spent many fun-filled hours in respirators removing rotted interior panels, vermin-infested insulation, and assorted nasty souvenirs of 50 years in the elements.” Now that the space ship is preserved, they’re looking for financial assistance to do a museum-quality restoration. “It’s a way of understanding the spirit and optimism of that day,” says Peter. “Rockets like these helped make spaceflight tangible, taking it from the pulp magazines and TV screens to life-sized. For the first time, you could actually climb aboard. That made a huge impression, especially on young audiences.”

Salvaging the Silvercup

“This is not a prank call,” Greg Ward once telephoned state police. “My boss ordered me to go search for a 40-foot-long, 1950s vintage science fiction rocket, buy it, and bring it home.” Immediately the trooper replied, “Oh, the Silvercup Rocket!” Ward, senior conservator at the Air Zoo Aerospace & Science museum in Portage, Michigan, knew about the rocket because staff member Thom Sherman had informed Bob Ellis, chief executive and president of the museum, that he had seen it on a road trip somewhere between Benton Harbor and Kalamazoo, 10 years earlier. Ward rented an airplane to search for it, with no luck. So he called the police. They got him in touch with the owner, Wayne Huddleston, who had been refusing to sell it for years. Huddleston greeted Ward with homemade pie and queued-up episodes of the Silvercup Rocket’s inspiration, Rocky Jones, Space Ranger. After showing the owner the museum’s detailed plans for the rocket’s restoration, he finally agreed to sell.  

Restoring the Silvercup

“It’s how we once thought space travel would look,” says Air Zoo marketing and communication manager Patrick Brent about the 1950s-era rockets. The museum’s plans for the Silvercup Rocket include restoring the exterior and outfitting the inside as a traveling science education center. They want to return the rocket to its original mission: getting kids excited about science and space. Air Zoo is currently seeking a partner to sponsor or participate in the restoration. As news of the restoration spread, letters began pouring into the museum with memories from people who saw the rocket as a child, many of whom went on to become pilots and engineers. “A million kids toured this rocket on its original run,” Brent says. “Maybe it inspired a future astronaut or two?”

Tags

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus