Nebo zovyot and Battle Beyond the Sun; or, Why, oh why did Americans trash a very good Soviet science fiction movie? Part 1

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A poster of the Soviet science fiction movie Nebo Zovyot.

Do you have an answer to the question at the heart of this week’s topic of our blog / bulletin / thingee, my reading friend? Never mind. We will examine this matter soon enough. Yours truly has another question, however. Did Soviet movie theatres sell popcorn in September 1959, the very month during which the science fiction movie Nebo Zovyot, a Soviet take on the space race of the 1950s and early 1960s, an admirable, breathtaking, grand and visually impressive motion picture, dare one say (type?) an unheralded masterpiece, was shown for the first time, 60 years ago? Never mind, and no, I am not a Soviet / Russian deep cover agent. I don’t even like vodka.

2019 being a year of space, given the 203 day and 15 hour long stay of Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques, in 2018-19, in the International Space Station (ISS), and the 21 hour and 46 minutes stay of Apollo 11 crew members Edwin Eugene “Buzz” Aldrin, Junior, and Neil Alden Armstrong on the Moon, in July 1969, yours truly thought you might be interested in reading a few words, about 6 010 words actually, sorry about that, on one of the most accomplished Soviet science fiction movies of the 1950s and 1960s, the aforementioned Nebo Zovyot.

Incidentally, the title of this feature film can be translated as the sky calls / the sky beckons / the heavens call / the heavens beckons.

And call / beckon they did. It was / is / will be hard to convey in words or speech the feeling of exultation felt by countless citizens of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) as a result of the succession of space firsts their country accomplished in the late 1950s and early 1960s, from the first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, launched in October 1957, to the first human being in space, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, launched in April 1961. Both were mentioned in several issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since July 2018.

We, the curatorial / royal we of course, shall answer this call / beckoning by reviewing the storyline of Nebo Zovyot. We will not have popcorn but there will be spoilers.

One upon a time, presumably in 1959, a young writer visited a rocket institute to gather information for a book on space travel. He met an engineer / scientist, Yevgeny Peterovich Kornev, and an engineer / astronaut, Andrei Vasilivich Gordienko. The former talked about the future of piloted space travel while the latter showed him detailed models of the first artificial satellites, including one of Sputnik II, a spacecraft mentioned in July and September 2018 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee, as well as a detailed model of a future space station, not to mention a fashionable spacesuit. And yes, there was, of course, a model of Sputnik I. Fascinated by what he saw, the young man began to write as soon as he got back home.

The film’s action then moved to another venue, space, the final frontier. A large space station, a revolving wheel with a long cylinder containing an observatory, numerous laboratories, one or more greenhouses, a departure deck and a great many comfortable cabins, orbited the Earth. Kornev and Gordienko were on board after a trip aboard a rocket launched from Earth. A super modern spacecraft, the Rodina (Motherland in Russian), would leave for Mars within a few days, at the most favourable time possible. Kornev and an engineer / astronaut, Grigory Vasilivich (?) Somov, would be on board for this first ever journey to the red planet.

By the way, did you know that the revolving wheel type space station was imagined for the first time in… the 1920s? Yes, the 1920s. The brilliant and sadly forgotten mind behind the first detailed description of a space station, of any type of space machine in fact, was Herman Potočnik. This Austrian citizen of Slovenian descent published a heavily illustrated book on space travel, in German, his only publication, using the pseudonym Hermann Noordung, in late 1928. Yes, 1928. The year mentioned in the book, 1929, was / is inaccurate.

The members of a very important German group of rocket enthusiasts mentioned in a February 2019 issue of our you know what, the Verein für Raumschiffahrt, were very impressed by Potočnik’s book. Would you believe that one of the young members of this group was Wernher Magnus Maximilian von Braun, an individual but not necessarily a gentleman mentioned in January and February 2019 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee?

It has been suggested that the Russian translation of Potočnik’s book, published in 1935, also impressed members of the Gruppa po Izucheniyu Reaktivnogo Dvizhenia, an important Soviet group of rocket enthusiasts mentioned in the same issue of our you know what. Would you believe that one of the young members of this Moscow-based group was Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, the anonymous chief designer of the USSR’s first intercontinental ballistic missile, the R-7 Semyorka, in the 1950s? And yes, a barely modified Semyorka did carry Sputnik I into orbit in October 1957. Very good, my reading friend. Grab yourself a gold star. Not a red one.

This being said (typed?), the revolving wheel type space station design was made famous by von Braun, a somewhat opportunistic and arrogant giant of the American space programme whose involvement with the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeitpartei, in National Socialist Germany, was / is / will be a matter of controversy. You will also remember that a wheel type space station was the stepping stone of the tragic heroes of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. And yes, this magnificent 1968 production was mentioned a few times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since July 2018. But I digress.

Now that we are on a digressing roll, I wish to point out that a revolving wheel type space station played a prominent role in one of the many graphic novel albums that depicted the adventures of Dan Cooper, a Canadian fighter pilot imagined by Belgian cartoonist and script writer Albert Weinberg. Said album, entitled Le Maître du Soleil, came out in 1958. Both Cooper and Weinberg were mentioned in September 2018 issues of yadda, yadda, yadda.

Sadly, Potočnik died in August 1929. He was not yet 37 years old. In the late 1990s, some people suggested that the space habitat now known as the ISS be named after Potočnik. The idea had merit, but no important promoter. Please do not force me to tell you that the ISS was mentioned in several issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since July 2018. Please. So, back to our story and the space station of Nebo Zovyot.

An unexpected visitor reached said station before long. It was allowed to dock as a matter of course. Two foreigners, an engineer / scientist and an important correspondent for a media corporation, stepped out of this spacecraft, the Tayfun. They were welcomed with open arms. Indeed, Robert Klark and Herman Verst were invited to dinner.

As the visitors and their hosts traded small talk, and drank champagne / bubbly, Verst announced that he and Klark would leave for Mars within a few days, at the most favourable time possible. Kornev’s matter of fact statement that he and Somov would also leave within a few days, at the most favourable time possible, left Klark and Verst all but speechless. His matter of fact offer of a radio connection between Earth and Mars, to make their journey easier, also left them all but speechless. Kornev added that the departure time of the Rodina would not be hastened by as much as 1 nanosecond. He did not care who got to Mars first and deplored the fact that the 2 main spacefaring countries had not pooled their resources together to increase their chances of success.

Klark and Verst immediately contacted their superiors, the so-called Mars syndicate, which ordered them to begin the journey to Mars immediately, before the most favourable time possible. Their hasty and reckless departure left Somov injured by the blast of the engines. Gordienko immediately offered to take the place of his comrade.

As you may have guessed by now, my reading friend, Kornev, Gordienko and Somov, calm, compassionate, confident, cooperative, fearless, friendly, gentle, helpful, honest, humble, noble, open, patient, professional, reasonable, selfless, wise, ever willing to help a rival and working under a system unwilling to take chances, were Soviet citizens. Obviously.

Klark and Verst, arrogant, competitive, deceitful, dishonest, foolish, glory seeking, ignoble, impetuous, misguided, reckless, selfish, sneaky, unhelpful, unprofessional, unsure, unwise, unwilling to help a rival and working under a system all too willing to take chances, were American. Obviously. And this even though the countries the 2 cosmonaut / astronaut teams came from were not actually identified in the film’s dialogue.

Mind you, said dialogue, in Russian, combined with the use of the Cyrillic alphabet, probably helped viewers figure out who wore the white hats, and the black ones. That was a Western movie reference, by the way.

Soon after the departure of the Tayfun, people walking on the sidewalks of the busy streets of a metropolis adorned with garish neon signs saw messages announcing this sensational piece of news. Other messages urging them to buy land on Mars, and some sort of space cocktail, confirmed that said metropolis was located in a land dominated by ruthless and greedy capitalists and profiteers – in other words, typical Americans, and… Why the anger? I’m not the one saying that. I’m merely mentioning what was / is on the silver screen.

Later on, Klark and Verst sent messages to Earth. Said transmissions did not contain information. They were… commercials. Klark for one damned the wiseguy who had come up with that idea.

At an early stage of its journey to Mars, the navigation system of the Tayfun went cuckoo. The spacecraft went off course, toward the Sun, and its crew did not have enough fuel to make the necessary corrections. Worse still, Klark and Verst were faced with the risk of one or more collisions with a meteor storm – or an asteroid belt. Faced with certain death, the 2 men sent a distress signal.

Kornev heard their plea and immediately altered the course of the Rodina. You see, he and Gordienko had left the space station as planned, at the most favourable time possible, under the gaze of a small movie camera held by a cosmonaut – a visually striking and majestic scene if I may say so. At an early stage of their journey to Mars, their path actually crossed that a satellite that looked a lot like Sputnik I.

As Kornev confidently kept the Rodina very close to the Tayfun, Gordienko helped Klark and Verst leave their wayward spacecraft. All was well, but wait. All was not well. Kornev realised that there was not enough fuel aboard the Rodina to return to the space station. He quickly decided to land on an asteroid, the one named Icarus if you must know. Once there, Kornev and the others set up equipment on its surface to guide an unpiloted rocket loaded with fuel that would be sent from the space station.

Seeing Mars up in the sky, so close and yet so far, Klark, or was it Verst, felt pretty dejected. Kornev countered his bitter words about Earth and its people by stating that their situation was a cruel but useful lesson about useless competition. The crash of the unpiloted rocket on Icarus left Klark and Verst even more dejected. Kornev, Gordienko, Klark and Verst seemed doomed to die on Icarus.

Although distressed by the crash of their rocket, the personnel of the space station refused to give up. A now recovered Somov came up with a plan.

Back on Icarus, Verst dreamt that someone had come to rescue the stranded cosmonauts / astronauts. He woke up to see Somov, on the surface of the asteroid, moments before the selfless rescuer collapsed. You see, the latter had made the trip to Icarus in a rocket identical to the one which had crashed. Something had gone wrong, however, and Somov was either fatally injured or exposed to lethal doses of radiation.

Although devastated by the death of Somov, Kornev and the others refuelled the Rodina and began their journey home. The spacecraft landed vertically on a platform near the shore of the Black Sea. Kornev, Gordienko, Klark and Verst reached dry land aboard a motorboat. Their wives / girlfriends and / or mothers greeted them tearfully. There were young people waving their hats or branches of lilac. Kornev and the others said a few words. Verst indicated that Kornev had shown him that people were not as bad as he thought. One of the latter’s compatriots chimed in that Kornev had made everyone believe in the power of friendship. Unfazed by it all, Kornev stated that life had more value than any goal mankind could strive for. Even so, he would go to Mars before long.

The film’s action then moved to another venue, an office where Kornev was looking at blueprints. The space station, the Rodina, the Tayfun, and the tragic flights to Mars were but a dream. Kornev underlined this point by saying that human beings were still only peering at space. At some point soon, they would take possession of it. Looking straight at the viewer, Kornev avuncularly wished a safe journey to the younger generation which would be faced with this task. The End.

I don’t know about you, my reading friend, but this feels like a good time to call it a day. Part 2 of this article should go online next week, Flying Spaghetti Monster willing.

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Rénald Fortier