Evoking the romance of space travel, 1940s style

The "Raygun Gothic Rocketship" is a retro space ship "built" in 1944. In reality, it is one of the biggest art projects for the forthcoming Burning Man festival.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read
The Raygun Gothic Rocketship is a 1940s-era rococo rocket that Burning Man attendees will have a chance to climb through. They may even get to see it launch. Raygun Gothic Rocketship

OAKLAND, Calif.--Want a trip back to the romanticism and innocence with which space travel was associated in the 1940s? Then get yourself to Burning Man, starting August 31 in Nevada's Black Rock Desert.

That's where the Raygun Gothic Rocketship, a retro rocket "made" in 1944, will be on display for the thousands of participants at the annual countercultural arts festival to play in and around.

In reality, of course, the rocket wasn't made in the 1940s; It's being made as we speak in a warehouse in a run-down part of Oakland, just across the bay from San Francisco. But don't bother telling the more than 60 artists, scientists, engineers, and others who are putting countless hours of their time and energy into creating the rocket ship that their narrative is fiction: they're having too much fun crafting that narrative as they go to listen to any naysayers.

The project, which is led by artists Sean Orlando, David Shulman, and Nathaniel Taylor, is one of 25 that received funding from the Burning Man organization. It is almost certainly the only one that will take visitors back in time to a place where space travel wasn't beset by some of the real-life failures and inefficiencies of NASA and other space agencies, and the disappointments that can come from mixing politics with science.

Rather, the Raygun Gothic Rocketship is pure whimsy, mixed, of course, with some serious research into what a rocket of this era and style would be like.

Photos: The Raygun Gothic Rocketship

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For the most part, the rocket and many of its components were designed using a CAD program called SolidWorks, Orlando explained when I visited the warehouse Friday.

In the real world, though, it will be a 40-foot-tall retro masterpiece, complete with 17-foot-tall legs and three main compartments rising another 23 feet in the air. Once installed in the desert, it will be attached to an adjacent 25-foot-tall gantry by a 10-foot bridge. Visitors will be able to climb up through the three compartments and then go down via the gantry.

The plan, Orlando said, is to have a launch event on the evening of Friday, September 4. Prior to the event, a very, very loud siren will be set off to announce to the thousands of Burning Man participants that fueling is about to start, and then those participants will begin to gather outside a 500-foot safety perimeter. Come launch time, be prepared for some special surprises, Orlando suggested.

Making the rocket

Featuring a solid steel frame, the rocket will be skinned entirely in brushed aluminum. And befitting a Burning Man ethos of "do-it-yourself," every bit of that aluminum is being made in the warehouse in Oakland on a set of what are known as English wheels, contraptions that can shape the metal into pieces with the rounded edges necessary for making a rocket.

It will feature 42 aluminum panels, as well as the three legs, and it will all be held together by thousands of rivets. All in all, complete with its rococo shape, the rocket will very much like look like what it's supposed to be: a spacecraft built 55 years ago that has traveled through time and found its way to 2009.

Asked where it was built, Orlando and Shulman laughed and admitted they needed a little more work on their back story.

Just above the legs will be a main compartment serving as the engine room, armory, and life and biosciences lab. Participants will be able to look down through the floor at the rocket's engine (see video below), which will feature six power cells, each of which will display a high-voltage lighting effect. That effect, courtesy of 12,000 volts of electricity, was crafted in conjunction with a professor from the department of engineering at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.

Participants will be invited to climb through each of the three compartments and to explore the many displays they'll come across. The idea is to give visitors a sense of what such a rocket would be like inside. The second compartment will feature crew quarters, navigational and observational tools, and audio and video communications and scientific instruments. All of these things will be available for participants to play with.

There will also be a telescope that participants will be able to look through for "deep scanning" of space. The idea there, said Shulman, is that crew members would need to look out into space to determine approach trajectories for when the rocket docks when it lands.

Similarly, there will also be a probe launcher, which will fire off small rockets. Sticking with the narrative, the rockets are intended to travel one-to-two parsecs. Practically, they may fly three or four hundred feet, where they can be picked up by passersby, who, hopefully, will return them to the main rocket ship in exchange for small gifts.

The rocket features a telescope that crew members used to peer into space for docking. Raygun Gothic Rocketship

At the top of the rocket is the cockpit, where a lovely pilot's chair will be installed. The chair will be made to rotate around, and allow the pilot to engage with the ship's flight controls. The pilot will have access to communications so that he (or she) can talk to those in the compartments below. For that, the team is utilizing 1930s and 1940s-era hand-cranked telephones.

How the idea began

I asked Orlando and Shulman how the idea for the Raygun Gothic Rocket ship began, and Orlando said that, from the beginning, they wanted to work on a retro rocket based on a romantic 1940s aesthetic.

A big part of that, said Orlando, whose father was a NASA contractor, was building up a sense of the excitement and innocence around space travel that still existed in the 1930s and 1940s, when science fiction was "still very positive and wide-eyed" and people saw nearly unlimited potential for space.

Added Shulman, the idea was to bring out that sense of wonder that perhaps went away a bit when the Cold War kicked in and politicians took the space program into another direction.

And for participants who visit the rocket, Shulman said, the hope is that they will walk away with the feeling that they got to take part in a "real rocket from the 1940s."

"We want it to be disorienting," Shulman said, "and create doubt: is it real, or is it not."