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Dan Dare at Herstmonceux

Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future is an enduring icon of mid-twentieth century futurism. Dare was envisaged as a wholesome and moral role-model for young boys in the mould of World War II fighter pilots. Appearing from 1950 as the lead serial in the Eagle comic, Dan Dare soon enthralled a wide audience of (primarily) boys through a combination of striking visuals and complex, exciting story-telling. The majority of the early stories involved exploration of the Solar System, with the protagonists encountering a number of alien sentient species, including the Arch-Scientist of Venus, the villainous Mekon.

In both the Dan Dare serials and the associated Eagle Comic, care was taken to prioritise accuracy (where possible within the context of the science fiction setting). Dan Dare’s lead writer and artist, Frank Hampson, was known to work from photographs, models and technical drawings to ensure accuracy in his work. More generally, Eagle became known for its factual articles on scientific or technical topics, and in particular for “exploded diagrams” which showcased the inner workings of both genuine and in-universe fictional technical innovations.

This emphasis on factual accuracy, combined with an interest in space science, makes Dan Dare and the Eagle an important record of perceptions and representations of professional astronomy and its facilities in the 1950s and 60s.

The Royal Greenwich Observatory at Herstmonceux and The Red Moon Mystery

The Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO) was founded in 1675 to improve navigation through astronomical observations. Originally located at Greenwich, the observatory was soon engulfed by the expansion of London and the combination of light pollution and poor weather compromised observations. As a result, the scientific research institution of professional astronomers which carried the name relocated to Herstmonceux in Sussex in a gradual process between 1948 and 1957, leaving behind their historical buildings as the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. A purpose built observatory was located in the grounds of a largely-intact medieval castle, which was itself used as a working space. The RGO later relocated to Cambridge in 1990, in order to maximise scientific interactions, after recognising that most professional observing needed to be moved out of the United Kingdom. The academic institution was shut down in 1998, with its personnel and resources consolidated with other institutions.

In the early 1950s then, the RGO was facing the challenge of a move to custom-built, state of the art facilities in the grounds of Herstmonceux Castle. This novelty attracted the interest of the Dan Dare team which provides at least two views of the new observatory.

A comic panel showing an aerial view of Herstmonceux observatoryIn 1952, Dan Dare faced “The Red Moon Mystery” (Hampson 1952). Faced with a swarm of “space bees” which threatened human settlements on Mars (and eventually Earth), Dare and his colleagues sought advice from the most qualified scientists available: the researchers at Herstmonceux. Explicitly naming the site in the comic panels (as the observatory at Mount Palomar had been earlier in the story), Hampson produced photo-realistic views of the new observatory buildings. These included a view from the air and a second of the main entrance, in both of which the building is contrasted by Dare's futuristic vehicles (see images).

Comic panel showing the main entrance at Herstmonceux

The images illustrate both the domes of the working observatory and the new office buildings. While the classic observatory domes might belong to any era, the fact that the offices are also shown without any artistic modification is testament to the blend of apparently-timeless and futuristic architecture adopted by the RGO construction, which was clearly seen as fitting in to the (then) far future setting of the late 1990s. Given that the buildings do, in fact, continue to exist largely unmodified suggests that this prediction was rather more robust than some others in the Eagle's Dan Dare universe!

The Eagle reports... A Visit to Herstmonceux

An artist's impression of the work of Herstmonceux observatory

Just two years later, Eagle Annual Number 4 (Eagle, 1954) presented a more direct insight into the operations of the transplanted observatory with an article written by John May and illustrated by Derek Sawyer. Across five pages, including several illustrations, "The Royal Observatory: The story of the move from Greenwich to a medieval castle" was a factual article described a reporter’s visit to the still-new site. this included a meeting with the Astronomer Royal, a description of the work of calibrating and assessing navigation time-pieces (which is accompanied by an illustration showing lab-coated, male scientists at work, see left), and a discussion of the meridional and equatorial telescopes and their domes including the Yapp telescope (also illustrated, from a ground-level viewpoint that emphasises its size, see image).

Artist's impression of the Yapp telescope at HerstmonceuxThere is a clear and emphatic emphasis on Herstmonceux as an observing site; when a solar telescope is discussed, the author’s guide notes that “There’s half as much sunshine here again as we used to get at Greenwich…. The atmosphere is much steadier too”.

Perhaps of most interest to today’s professional astronomers, the reporter describes "several mysterious metal models. Painted a light grey, and about two feet high, they looked like designs for an atomic gun or some new death-ray machine".

These are the design models for the then-under-construction Isaac Newton Telescope (INT) which is described in superlative terms: “outside of California, the largest and most powerful telescope in the world! The Isaac Newton telescope was to be fifty feet long, and would have a reflecting mirror more than eight feet across, weighting 5 1/2 tons. This model was the ‘baby’ which would grow in a few years into a giant sky-probing eye through which Britain’s astronomers would peer further into the mysteries of the vast universe than ever before!”

Sir Harold Spencer Jones

Literary theorists might legitimately comment on the “great men of science” narrative in this text, its gender bias (everyone referred to in the article is male and male pronouns are used to describe scientists throughout), and the colonialist narrative (the story of longitude is couched in terms of British naval prowess and exploration, and the leading position of British astronomy is extolled as demonstrated in the quote above). All of these occur commonly through the Dan Dare and Eagle corpus and similar arguments can be made regarding other science fiction franchises (e.g. see Erickson in “The Science of Doctor Who”). This does not detract from the insights the piece provides into the role of science communication in the 1950s.

It’s notable that the Astronomer Royal and the Secretary of the Observatory both took time to engage with a reporter for a children’s comic, suggesting a recognition of the importance of science communication by professional astronomers earlier than I might have expected. While both individuals are referred to by their roles rather than names (once again reinforcing the men-standing-apart narrative), the Astronomer Royal at this time was Harold Spencer Jones (soon to be Sir Harold), who was a known science communicator, having written popular astronomy texts aimed at a genuine audience including “Life on Other Worlds” (1940, revised 1952).

In fact, in researching this blog post, I can't help noticing that the lab-coated scientist Dan Dare visits at Herstmonceux in The Red Moon Mystery, a "mathematician, stellar physicist" Isaac Bronstein, possesses more than a passing resemblance to Harold Spencer Jones himself - surely no coincidence given Hampson's preference for working from photographic models!

A comic panel showing Professor Isaac BronsteinA photograph of Sir Harold Spencer Jones

(Left): Professor Issac Bronstein inspects a captured space bee in Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future - "The Red Moon Mystery".

(Right): Sir Harold Spencer Jones (Credit: UIG via Getty Images/Universal History Archive)

Lessons from Dan Dare

As an astronomer I am interested in the manner and level of detail in which scientific processes and results are reported to a juvenile audience. My notice is drawn to the simple explanations of navigational chronometry and stellar colours, as well as the emphasis on observational astronomy and of astronomers as a group set apart in their exotic new location. More worrying is the description of telescope models looking like a "death ray". Given the implicit audience of (primarily) male children of this epoch, it's possible that this reference was intended to add excitement and interest to the article. Unfortunately from a 2021 perspective, the association of generic, white-coated "scientists" with death rays and atomic guns reads as a less than positive stereotype.

My eye is also drawn with interest to the rapturous description of the INT and its imminent commissioning at Herstmonceux. The text makes clear the excitement that surrounded this development, and the perception that it would help secure Britain's future as a nation of observers. Unfortunately, the British climate was never going to justify the construction of a telescope so large in this country. Its commissioning (optimistically predicted for “1956 or 1957” by the Eagle), was in fact delayed until 1967 (with first light in 1965). While it made cutting edge observations for the time, cloud cover and atmospheric instability both hampered its performance. In 1979 the original INT was decommissioned and elements of it were transported to the dark skies and more stable atmosphere of a mountain top on La Palma, in the Canary Islands, where the INT was reconstructed in 1984. It remains in use by professional astronomers (including University of Warwick astronomers!) to the current day, now as one of the smaller facilities on the island.

Like the RGO's original Greenwich site, the Herstmonceux observatory, including the buildings depicted by Hampson in Dan Dare, also survives to the present as a centre for outreach and science communication, known as The Observatory Science Centre.

"Dan Dare at Herstmonceux", Elizabeth Stanway, Cosmic Stories blog, 4th April 2021