John Ball: Flying-Boats In Space!

Covers of Operation Springboard and Spacemaster 1, by John Ball

“Suppose now you were to build a more or less conventional airplane to fly in space. What I mean is, suppose you built a space ship in the shape of an airplane. The actual shape wouldn’t mean a thing as far as flying goes outside of the earth’s atmosphere. There’s no friction and therefore no need for streamlining.”
I observed that Ted Malone and Dr. Havensson were interested in what I was saying.
“Suppose, then,” I went on, “that you get your space ship into the air and then, at a good high altitude, build up your speed horizontally. Now you would not have to work directly against the gravity of the earth. And you could build up gradually without excessive acceleration. When you get high enough and fast enough, then you could lift the nose and take off for space. Doing it this way would solve all acceleration problems and would cut the cost of fuel and engines enormously. And it would be a lot safer.”

John Ball, Operation Springboard (1958)

I picked up Spacemaster 1 ( (1960) in a second-hand bookshop recently, because the name John Ball, Jr. seemed to ring a bit of a bell from my childhood, and the cover suggested the sort of juvenile aviation adventure I used to favour. And, leafing through it, I identified a uniquely recognizable plot element—this was a novel about a gigantic spacecraft in the form of a flying-boat.

But a bit more leafing revealed that this was not the novel that I recalled borrowing from my local public library, which I was certain had involved a flying-boat cum spacecraft that travelled to Venus. Curiouser and curiouser. So I looked up John Ball, Jr. on-line and discovered that it was the form of his name used by novelist John Ball when writing for juvenile readers. What I recalled reading was Operation Space (1960) which was the UK edition of the novel originally entitled Operation Springboard (1958) when first published in the USA. What I was holding in my hand was a later novel that had never been published in the UK—quite how it found its way on to the shelves of a Scottish bookshop is unfortunately a mystery.

I also discovered that both novels had been reissued as Kindle e-books and trade paperbacks by Thunderchild Publishing—but the e-book of Spacemaster 1 could only be downloaded by Amazon’s US customers, strangely. Hence the curiously mismatched covers at the head of this post—I bought the fortuitously discovered first edition of Spacemaster 1, and downloaded what I now need to call Operation Springboard. (Note added, December 2023: Thunderchild has recently been sold to Wildside Press, and their Kindle catalogue seems to have disappeared from Amazon—hopefully pending reissue by Wildside.)

John Ball had an interesting life. He started off as a science journalist, and at various times was an assistant curator of the Hayden Planetarium and director of public relations for the Institute of the Aerospace Sciences. He had a black belt in aikido, a commercial pilot’s licence, and enough knowledge of music to write sleeve notes for Columbia Records and to work as a music critic for the Brooklyn Eagle and the New York World-Telegram. During the Second World War, he flew military transport aircraft across “The Hump”—which is to say, he crossed and recrossed the eastern end of the Himalayas between India and China.

Ball started out writing juvenile novels—the two reviewed here, which drew on his aviation experience, and Judo Boy (1964), based on his knowledge of martial arts.* Then followed his first mystery novel, and it was a doozy—In The Heat Of The Night (1965), made into the film of the same name in 1967. It was Ball, then, who gave us the line “They call me Mister Tibbs!” which Sidney Poitier delivered with such barely contained outrage. Ball went on to write more Virgil Tibbs mysteries, and several tense aviation thrillers, among other things. In The Heat Of The Night is still well worth reading—Ball’s insights into the cognitive dissonance experienced by white racists when confronted by a calm, smart, capable Black man are by turns amusing and enraging.

But I suppose I should actually write something about the two books pictured at the head of this post.

Operation Springboard is narrated by Chester Pawling, a young man who walks with the aid of crutches after an injury sustained at the age of ten. (In a reminder that Ball was writing half a century ago, Pawling consistently refers to himself as a “cripple”.) After asking a pointed question during a public lecture on space travel, Pawling is invited to meet the speaker, Dr Thor Havensson. Having delivered himself of the dissertation I excerpted at the head of this post, Pawling is astonished to be informed that Havensson has built just such a hybrid aeroplane / spaceship at a secret base in the South Pacific. As is the way of these things in science-fiction juveniles of this era, Pawling is invited to visit, a series of unexpected events occur, and young Chester is soon on his way to the planet Venus.

Several things about this blew my childhood brain when I first encountered the book—the fact that the protagonist was disabled; Ball’s arguments in support of using aeroplanes as spaceships; and, building on that, the idea of taking a giant flying boat to Venus because, of course, in the 1950s Venus was supposed to be covered with tropical oceans.

Now, of course, Ball’s idea of achieving escape velocity in horizontal flight introduces all sorts of complications and inefficiencies; and Venus isn’t actually covered in oceans. But the disabled protagonist whose disability becomes irrelevant in free-fall? That’s still quite striking for a novel written in the 1950s, I think.

Venus is a bit of a disappointment, it must be said—we’re treated to a bit of unexceptional ocean and jungle, and then the American party become enmeshed in conflict with stereotypical Bad Guys from an unnamed foreign power, which is competing for space supremacy with America. After which Pawling and some young friends save the day. Interestingly, however, his two friends are a Native American and an Australian Aborigine, something else I found quite startling when I first read it, and which again seems atypical for the time of writing. (Now that I’m all grown up, however, it seems unlikely to me that these cultural backgrounds would have provided all the skills necessary for survival in the tropical jungle of another planet, as Ball blithely suggests.)

Spacemaster 1 follows a very similar trajectory, but is an altogether less satisfying affair, which may account for the fact it was never taken up by a UK publisher. The protagonist this time is Dick Simmons, a lacklustre high-school student who ups his academic game in order to be considered for enrolment in the Spacemaster Project—a programme to establish a space station in Earth orbit. But spies from a foreign power may have infiltrated the project:

The engineer stood looking at the floor, his brow furrowed. “The thing that gets me is the possibility that it is known somewhere else exactly what it is we are building.”
One of the two security investigators present looked at him questioningly. “The fact that a space station is under construction has been widely publicized for months,” he pointed out.
“I know that,” the chief security engineer snapped. “I haven’t been living on another planet. What hasn’t been made public is the fact that we are building it in the shape of a flying boat!”

Simmons succeeds against the odds (“one chance in a million”, it says on the dustcover) to become part of the Project. There are numerous setbacks, but hard work, honesty and a fair amount of luck get him to where he wants to be. Along the way, he and his assorted young friends foil a dastardly plot by the foreign agents, and the story ends (as was often the case in those days), when the spaceship eventually launches. Notably, however, Ball gives a realistic depiction of spaceflight as being a highly complex affair, requiring input from large numbers of people working in numerous specialities—a significant change from the “lone genius” model used by writers in the early 1950s, like Angus MacVicar and W.E. Johns, whose science-fiction juveniles I’ve previously reviewed.

If we’re looking for messages, I guess the message from Operation Springboard is that everyone in society matters and should be given a chance to contribute; from Spacemaster 1, that any young person who wants to get into the nascent space programme is going to have to work really hard and get lucky. Both made interesting reads, but Operation Springboard is, in my view, by far the more engaging story.

Now, a note about the covers. As you’ll see, above, the Thunderchild edition of Operation Springboard features a giant, gleaming flying boat departing from Earth (the classic Apollo 17 “Blue Marble” rearward view, in fact). At first I thought this was some sort of CGI concoction, but then I discovered that it’s a rather splendid physical model, built by Dan Thompson of Thunderchild Publishing. Dan tells me it’s a modified Boeing Clipper kit—which is almost ideal, being a large flying boat equipped with sponsons, which featured prominently in the Operation Springboard narrative. However, the Clipper was driven by propellers and piston engines, which are not particularly useful in the vacuum of space, so Dan replaced them with the turbofan engines from a B-1B Lancer, representing the “atomic engines” of the fictional aircraft. (The cover illustration for the Thunderchild edition of Spacemaster 1 features the same model from a different angle, but with a bit of Photoshop work on the engines which produces a noticeably different appearance.)

* Dan Thompson has informed me that Ball’s novel Arctic Showdown (1966) is also for a juvenile readership, featuring an aircraft forced down by an Alaskan blizzard, and a sixteen-year-old hero who has the knowledge to keep the rest of the passengers alive.

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