Rocket Ship Galileo
by Robert A. Heinlein

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Scribner's: New York, 1947
212 pages

collected in —
Four Frontiers

October 2001

The Moon is not fickle

Rocket Ship Galileo is the first book-length expression of Robert A. Heinlein's love affair with the Moon. If the Moon were the tantalizing goddess Diana hunting naked through Grecian forests, rather than the airless satellite of Earth keeping her constant stony face turned to her gravitic master, Heinlein hardly could have given her better attention. For Luna, "inconstant Moon" though she has been called, is fickle only in appearance, as seen in the dressings of sunlight; and these Lunar phases are not due to moody weather of her own but simply to her position relative to the Earth and Sun.

The Moon is not fickle, she simply is distant. What makes this hard to bear is that she is often in clear sight, an obvious disk, unlike the much more distant Solar planets and moons. And, unlike the Sun's disk, Luna visibly is a little world, a more or less reasonable place to think about visiting — at least in science fiction.

Living in the world

Rocket Ship Galileo was originally published as the first of a dozen Scribner's science fiction juvenile or young-adult novels by Heinlein. Like Have Space Suit — Will Travel, it tells the story of a first trip to the Moon. Other Heinlein novels such as The Rolling Stones and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, as well as shorter works, involve people living full-time on the Moon. Heinlein's characters live quite matter-of-factly in their world no matter which world it is, taking their place and time so clearly for granted that the reader does too. When they set out to travel, however wonderful and adventurous the journey, it's also a business of putting one foot in front of the other — just as though you were doing it yourself.

This clean, clear, natural realism — or conveyed sense of realism — is one of Heinlein's great strengths in science fiction. Rocket Ship Galileo is a fun adventure, simply plotted but very nicely detailed. It is the most consistently underrated of all the Heinlein juveniles.

Open with a bang!

It's not often that one can open a novel with a bang, quite legitimately and naturally! Three boys just out of high school are active experimenters in back-yard rocketry; substantial back-yard rocketry, with a test-stand and instrumentation. The young engineers' experiments and projects are on a minimal budget, but undertaken seriously. This is the Galileo Club.

When the boys hook up with the uncle of one of them, an atomic physicist, the man sees the potential help they could give to his own blue-sky project, an atomic-engine drive to propel a true spaceship — really, it's just a mature extension of the boys' own ambitions. Although youthful, they're on the right track:

As a matter of fact he was impressed. It is common enough in the United States for boys to build and take apart almost anything mechanical, from alarm clocks to hiked-up jaloppies. It is not so common for them to understand the sort of controlled and recorded experimentation on which science is based. Their equipment was crude and their facilities limited, but the approach was correct and the scientist recognized it.

The physicist and the three boys of the Galileo Club team up, shift operations to the New Mexico desert, and begin converting a commercial freight rocket to make the first trip to the Moon. The plot, with its human challenges as well as the science and engineering ones, rolls along.

The inspiration of Galileo

By now we begin to see why the title Rocket Ship Galileo is not casually chosen. Galileo Galilei drew some of the earliest telescopic views of the Moon, but Galileo's life story is itself important in the history of scientific inquiry. The astronomical curiosity of Galileo really needs to be matched by Galileo's scientific integrity and courage. There always are foes to science and progress. Heinlein considers all these Galilean aspects interrelated, and makes the reader feel this in the natural course of events.

The unapproachable goddess, and the way to her

The Moon's distance gives it one analogue to the unapproachable goddess Diana. A rocket is a controlled explosive, and is inherently dangerous. There's a quarter-million miles of emptiness to cross, via rocket.

And there's also her own sterile emptiness. The Moon has an unwelcoming nature, once we catch up with her out in the dark void; her picturesque hospitality is basically that of an airless rock. Surviving upon the Moon seems as risky as trying to woo Diana.

A balance of subtle characterization

Heinlein's empathy with his adventurous, experimenting, can-do characters puts the right kind of people in the inhospitable void and satellite. How do they cope? They're equipped more than anything else with sharp minds. They think their way through problems, even crises. When they make mistakes, they figure it out, talk it out, and fix the situation. There is quite a lot to figure out, and at quite a pace. The plot grips the reader from the very beginning.

The three teenagers and the scientist are nicely characterized. What may not be evident on a first reading is the extraordinary degree of balance that Heinlein achieves with the boys. The variety of backgrounds of these high-school chums is subtly delineated. Rich, poor; American pioneer family, refugee family; relaxed parents, strait parents, orphaned. This never is pushed in the reader's face, it's just there. Guys you know from school, the ones with the rocketry experiments.

The interaction between the adult scientist and the teenagers also is balanced. The man takes them seriously, admits mistakes, and shares important responsibilities with the boys. Heinlein respects his characters, and they respect each other. This is a likeable team on an adventure told so matter-of-factly that you seem to be standing among them in the New Mexico desert as they ready their rocket — and later among them on the Moon, where that distant but quite natural landscape is made to feel fully natural to the reader. But there are surprises all the way, even on the Moon... A fine story.

A project for the venturesome

Heinlein compressed the moon-rocket enterprise in Rocket Ship Galileo, as he admitted elsewhere: what should have been the work of forty men is done here by four. As developing history showed, it probably took more than forty thousand in all sorts of specialties to get our first Apollo crew on the Moon in 1969. Could we have done it with forty men, or even four, if Heinlein-minded folks had controlled the right combination of resources, and without government management? On this particular venture, we'll never know; but there will be other ventures not yet foreseen. NASA's Galileo spacecraft was sent voyaging with some of this Galilean spirit, albeit via remote control.

Heinlein wants there always to be young people of the right mind and character to seize such opportunities. His novels went a long way toward educating such a class of people, and still are doing so.


© 2001 Robert Wilfred Franson

I am pleased that my sense of balanced characterizations
is verified by contemporary correspondence.
Rocket Ship Galileo is a thoughtfully precise work. — RWF, August 2010

see —
William H. Patterson, Jr.
Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century
  Volume 1, 1907-1948: Learning Curve


Rocket Ship Galileo is quoted in
R.W. Franson's speculation on
Heinlein's Missed Bestsellers

Museo Galileo
Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza
Institute and Museum of the History of Science
Florence, Italy

Anne Cox's
NASA Schooldays

Aerospace at Troynovant
air and space travel and development

Luna at Troynovant
the Moon & Lunar exploration

Robert A. Heinlein at Troynovant

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