When you hear about the concept of missile defence in space, your first thought might be Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, more commonly called Star Wars. But ideas for an invisible missile shield in the sky are much older than the 1980s. As just one example, we have this Sunday comic strip from 1959, which imagined the missile defences of the future.
We’ve looked at countless comics from the Sunday strip “Closer Than We Think,” illustrated by Arthur Radebaugh. The strip ran from 1958 until 1963 and it’s one of the coolest artefacts showing how people of that era imagined the future. Radebaugh drew about the jetpacks, the videophones, the climate-controlled domes, the computerised desks, and the space farming that was just around the corner.
But the 6 December 1959 edition of the strip was focused on something a little less wholesome. This time it was about missile defence. The text from this edition of “Closer Than We Think” said that a special magic wall might be coming to a town near you:
The same research that will ultimately produce interstellar rocket ships will also make possible a kind of protective “wall” in the sky for keeping enemy aircraft away from a defensive position. At least that’s what jet propulsion expert Eugen Sanger of the University of Stuttgart (Germany) testified before a Congressional committee.
Photon rays would flow from ultraviolet searchlights and create a belt of high energy in the sky. Any flying object passing across the belt—or even a couple of hundred miles away—would be destroyed in a fraction of a second.
Thus technical aviation progress itself might finally eliminate aviation as an instrument of war.
The comic strip was primarily about the shiny and happy futures that were supposed to be on the horizon. But it would sometimes slip into the dystopian elements of society, often accidentally, which seems only natural when you consider the strip’s origins. Closer Than We Think was launched in 1958 in the wake of the Soviet launch of Sputnik. The entire mission of the strip was to educate kids about science and technology, not because they were going to build the futuristic kitchens of tomorrow—though that seemed like a nice accidental byproduct. The goal was to beat the Soviets to the moon, and by extension dominate space for military purposes.
Closer Than We Think showed kids how Americans were going to weaponise the weather through sophisticated weather control programmes. It showed kids how space stations would allow America to dominate the world. And it showed how entire cities might be evacuated after a catastrophe. While nuclear war wasn’t explicitly mentioned, it was always bubbling underneath the surface of the comic.
We can look back at this Sunday comic as a piece of Cold War hysteria in some respects, but with the New Cold War in full swing, it doesn’t seem quite as ridiculous as it might have even five years ago. This generation seems overdue for an educational and futuristic comic strip. But if Closer Than We Think does get a reboot, we could probably do without panels that show how we’d defend against North Korean missiles.