…the reason for the Reed Richards’ Rocketship?

fantastic_four_cosmic-rays-112Today’s guest post comes from Justin Zyduck, who used to write about superhero comics at the Adventures of Wyatt Earp in 2999 and was a semiregular guest contributor to Mightygodking dot com from 2009-2010. Since then he’s had two children and has retired from active blogging, but he still thinks about comics all the dang time even if he’s not writing about them. These days he writes and performs music as half of Madison, Wisconsin-based indie pop duo Evening Afternoon. He’s also published some short horror fiction under the name Justin Pollock and still works at prose in fits and starts.

“If Reed Richards is so smart, why did he take his girlfriend and her kid brother on the first test of his experimental rocket?”

Everyone from J. Jonah Jameson to Jay Leno has posed that question, or some variant of it, over the years.  Professional and amateur pundits alike have long debated the reason behind Susan and Johnny Storm’s presence on the historic flight that created the Fantastic Four. Feature films and other fictionalized versions of their exploits tend to portray the Storms as fellow scientists or astronauts to Reed Richards and Ben Grimm.  But, in reality, they had little, if any, training in those fields.  Sue Storm (now Richards) holds a bachelor’s degree in theatre, and Johnny Storm was, by all reports, an average-to-bright but underachieving high school student at that time.

When faced with the question himself, Richards plays it off charmingly.  “Even before we were the Fantastic Four, we were a team,” he said at a press conference shortly after their public debut.  It’s a sentiment he’s repeated many times since. “Every risk we took, every success we celebrated, we shared equally. Sue and Johnny are two of the bravest individuals I’ve ever known and – with no disrespect intended to the highly trained and dedicated astronauts in the international space-exploration community – there’s no one I’d have rather had with me.”

Beyond this seeming non-explanation, we can only speculate. Frustratingly, due to the nature of the U.S. government’s funding and involvement, official explanations and documentation on the Richards rocket project have been largely classified. In most cases we must depend on the licensed Fantastic Four comic books as primary sources.  However, whether through deliberate or accidental miscommunication between the Fantastic Four and the creative teams behind the comic – or perhaps even for matters of simple artistic license – details are often inconsistent.

Indeed, the very nature of the rocket itself has been inconsistently portrayed over the years. The flight was described as a mission “to the stars” in the debut issue of the Fantastic Four comic book (Vol. 1, #1.)  Later retellings frequently speak only of a nebulous “spaceflight” that may or may not have involved a “hyperdrive” or “star drive.” Furthermore, the first issue presented Richards’ decision to launch the rocket without official clearance as a spur-of-the-moment impulse because “conditions are right tonight.”  Only later did Vol. 3, #11 reveal that Richards effectively stole his own ship after the government withdrew funding from the project. When we don’t even know why Richards himself undertook that flight, is it any wonder that researchers and journalists have had difficulty reading between the lines to figure out what exactly the Storms were doing there?

But what if, instead of trying to determine what Richards is not saying about his friends’ involvement, we were to focus on what he is saying? Perhaps it’s a dead end to read such statements as the one quoted above as merely some kind of media-friendly deflection. What if we take him at his word? A man goes into space with his three closest friends. What would it suggest about the mission?

In following that question to its logical conclusion, we may discover not only why the Storms were on that rocket, but the purpose of the flight itself. And, quite unexpectedly, it may also lead us to the secret behind one of the other great and terrible marvels of the modern age: the so-called “Incredible Hulk.”

*

Let’s begin with one of the few details that remains consistent in almost every account: the Fantastic Four gained their powers because the Richards rocket was insufficiently shielded from cosmic radiation.  What was the nature of that radiation? “Cosmic rays” are not in fact unusual in outer space.  Their effects have been known, studied, and guarded against in the shielding of conventional spacecraft for years. Why, then, was the Richards rocket not so protected? Critics of Richards cite this seeming negligence on his part – negligence paid for by Ben Grimm in his transformation into “The Thing.”

Others, however, rush to defend Richards. On a special edition of the TV news magazine Lateline, Dr. Henry Pym – a leading biochemist and founding member of the Avengers under identities such as Giant Man and Yellowjacket – stated the incident was “a freak accident. No one could have predicted it. A cosmic ray storm on the surface of the sun produced particles that reacted with the star drive” (Vol. 3, #543.) This statement suggests a singular, anomalous incident that Richards was not and could not have been prepared for, which would seem to absolve Richards at least partially of blame.

The “freak accident” theory, however, while occasionally repeated elsewhere, can’t be entirely accepted because the effects of the cosmic rays have been reproduced. Specifically, rogue scientist Ivan Kragoff – alias the Red Ghost – exposed himself and his trained “Super-Apes” to what would appear to be the same type of cosmic rays, as did the terrorist group known as the U-Foes. Both teams traveled in spacecraft even less shielded than the Richards rocket for the deliberate purpose of gaining cosmic ray-derived superhuman powers. The Fantastic Four themselves have re-encountered the same or similar cosmic rays on subsequent flights.  During the account of their first battle with the extraterrestrial Skrull race, a spacecraft containing the Fantastic Four passes through a “radiation belt” that temporarily cures Grimm of his condition.  It is suggested that this same belt gave them their powers in the first place (Vol. 1, #2.)  Today, it is commonly held that this radiation belt was the Van Allen belt, two bands of trapped particles held in place by the Earth’s magnetic field.  At least one account of the Fantastic Four’s origin, in Vol. 3, #60, explicitly names the Van Allen belt as the source of their powers.

We can even resolve the Van Allen belt explanation with some of Pym’s comments.  As recently as 2013, space probes detected a third radiation belt, presumably created by unusual solar activity and apparently destroyed by a subsequent shock wave from the sun.  A “cosmic ray storm on the surface of the sun” as Pym describes might indeed have created an additional, temporary radiation belt with unexplained properties – a “fantastic belt,” if you will – that interacted with the Richards party to alter their genetic structure.  A reaction with a “star drive,” however, seems unlikely given that Kragoff and the U-Foes’ ships would almost certainly not have had the same hyperdrive on board.

In any event, we can likely pinpoint the cause of the mutation as abnormal, but by no means unique, activity in the Van Allen belt.  Such fantastic belts may be created and destroyed all the time.  The ones that affected Kragoff and the U-Foes might have been different belts that shared a common origin with the one that empowered the Fantastic Four. At the time of Richards’ flight, however, the existence and effects of these fantastic belts would have been unknown.  So, it is quite possible that the “insufficient shielding” of the rocket might have been perfectly sufficient if not for the unusual Van Allen belt activity.

*

Still, there is the detail, again unusually consistent among accounts, that Ben Grimm warned Reed Richards about the shielding on the rocket. Many underestimate Grimm due to his gruff layman’s persona, often portrayed referring to Richards’ inventions as “doohickeys” and “whoziwhatzis.”  But, his credentials in the aerospace field are not to be sniffed at.  It does seem unusual that he would have been so incredibly right and Richards so incredibly wrong about the shielding. In fact, why would anyone build a rocket with anything less than the standard amount of shielding?

But perhaps the shielding not being “standard” was precisely the point. Radiation shielding is bulky and expensive, and any spaceship traveling to interstellar space would require even more than conventional spacecraft. Seeking to get around this, Richards may well have used unconventional shielding. Scientists today have proposed spaceships that generate magnetic fields to block cosmic radiation; Richards may have beaten them to this notion several years ago.  Therefore, Grimm’s concern in Vol. 1, #1 that “[they] haven’t done enough research into the effect of cosmic rays” may not have been referring to the cosmic rays themselves, but rather the ability of this unconventional shielding to successfully block it.

*

Because we tend to focus on the failings of Richards’ rocket and the seeming impracticality of bringing largely untrained astronauts aboard, we tend to overlook the true marvel of its engineering: the very fact that it could be successfully operated by civilians.

It was eventually revealed that Richards and Grimm were originally intended to pair with two trained astronauts identified as Burroughs and Hennessey, although those might be pseudonyms employed by Marvel Comics for legal reasons.  Vol. 3, #11 shows that these two were pulled from the mission, along with the government’s funding. Yet, on short notice, Richards, Grimm, and the Storm siblings launched the rocket without clearance, without ground support, fast enough to take off “before the guard can stop them” (Vol. 1, #1.)  Then, in the worst possible conditions, they navigated the rocket safely back to Earth.  They achieved all this despite half their number having effectively zero astronautics training.

We can attribute their takeoff and survival to luck, or we can ask a more compelling question: what if the Richards rocket was designed to be operated by untrained astronauts? Richards’ decision to include the Storms on the mission would no longer be a massive mistake, but instead a test of the rocket’s intended function.

This question, however, seems to muddle the purpose of the mission at first glance. By itself, a spacecraft that can be launched and operated by a mix of professional and amateur astronauts with no outside support is a lofty goal.  Faster-than-light travel is even more wildly ambitious. Combining these two parameters makes the job exponentially more difficult. Why would Richards need to build an interstellar spaceship that requires minimal training?

*

On the same edition of Lateline where Pym described the incident in space, Dr. Herbert Eagle, former Dean of Men at Eastern State University, is quoted as saying, “When [Richards] proposed a practical hyperdrive… financial backers fought for the opportunity to invest in his prototype.” Yet, ultimately, the project was funded and pulled at the discretion of the U.S. government. With the private sector champing at the bit to fund Richards’ project, why was the government interested enough to foot the bill themselves, and again, why was a hyperdrive and the ability to be operated with minimal training a necessity?

It was only after Reed Richards’ encounter with the extraterrestrial creature known as Gormuu, self-proclaimed “Warrior of Kraalo,” was declassified and published in comic book form (Vol. 1, #271) that we could begin connecting these dots. The account revealed how, some time before making his flight with the future Fantastic Four, Richards helped defeat this would-be conqueror through ingenuity and quick thinking. The incident strengthened his resolve to complete his in-progress “experimental star-drive rocket” because “this experience with Gormuu has shown [the] universe to be more dangerous than anyone ever suspected.”  It seems probable, even likely, that the U.S. government agreed with Richards’ assessment, and that they agreed to finance the rocket not for research or exploration, as Richards intended, but for defense purposes: as a prototype for the next generation of military vehicle, one that could engage extraterrestrial threats.

Here, the unusual requirements of the rocket start to make sense. It would be prohibitively expensive to create a military fleet of conventional spacecraft with heavy radiation shielding, each of which would require massive, highly trained crews on the ground and in the air just to take off and land. But, what about a spaceship, with cost-effective magnetic shields, operated by one or two experienced astronauts that would allow additional, minimally-trained personnel to perform other functions, perhaps even combat?  Whatever Richards’ original goals for faster-than-light travel, such a ship creates compelling military implications.

Why, then, would the government abandon this idea? In fact, they might not have, at least not completely. Shortly after the Richards’ flight, a lower-profile but still very unusual space launch was undertaken by Col. John Jameson – not from NASA’s usual launch site at the John F. Kennedy Space Center, but just outside New York City.  This launch could take place close to a major metropolitan center, with relatively little preparation time.  Jameson was not even in the rocket fifteen minutes before launch! Perhaps this unique launch received so little attention because it was overshadowed by a malfunction with the rocket and its subsequent rescue by the burgeoning vigilante Spider-Man, then known largely for his television appearances and live stunt shows. But might that rocket have been a derivative of Richards’ technology? Did the government steal Richards’ designs and then shut down his program in favor of a homegrown one? Richards might have been uncomfortable with his work being used for explicit military purposes.  His own subsequent work, after all, has largely been focused on exploration, with superhuman combat used only when needed and as a last resort.

*

We can make an even wilder speculation here, an intriguing speculation which has never been proposed before now. Consider the other unusual major military project undertaken at around the same time as the Richards project.  Just what was Dr. Robert Bruce Banner working on in the New Mexico desert before the accident that transformed him into the Hulk?

If the Richards rocket was top secret, Banner’s project was doubly so. The official story, as it was originally disseminated, was that Banner was studying gamma radiation for medical or genetic research.  Some sources or adaptations continue to use that explanation, undoubtedly because it makes Banner a more sympathetic figure. But today, we know that Banner was actually working on a gamma-powered weapon, although its purpose has never been made clear.

A “gamma bomb” would likely be considerably more powerful and considerably more deadly than any conventional nuclear weapon in history. The utility of such a weapon seems limited: most nuclear weapons research focuses on variable yield rather than just a bigger payload.  Whatever your political and ethical feelings about weapons of mass destruction, harnessing this highly unusual radiation for a bomb that could only sanely be conceived of as a “use only in case of Armageddon” deterrent would seem to be an egregious waste of a potentially world-changing form of energy.

But what if the gamma bomb was never meant to be used in defense or offense against another nation on Earth? What if it was a weapon designed to be used against Kraalo, or the other hostile civilizations of the universe we were only just beginning to encounter? What kind of deployment system would such a weapon require?  In light of the Fantastic Four’s reputation as peaceful ambassadors representing humankind at its finest and most high-minded, it is chilling to consider that in other circumstances, the Richards rocket might have been used as an interplanetary Enola Gay carrying a gamma-powered Little Boy.

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One Response

  1. Captain America also had an origin story giving him powers from Vita-Rays. The MCU did a (brilliant IMO) combination of showing a modern attempt to replicate the Vita-Ray Capt. America idea plus the radiation origin via the Bill Bixby Hulk TV show as featured in the Ed Norton Hulk film. Meaning, that there was a plan to create Super Soldiers via radiation, which is kind of what happened with the Fantastic Four. The the Cold War was present at this time with nuclear threats of course, but IMO there was perhaps the idea to have Super Soldiers created via radiation also.

    Peace,

    – DN

    ________________________________

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