Thunderbirds principal characters

5, 4, 3, 2, 1 – NASA is Go!


5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Thunderbirds are GO!! Along with millions of others – both adults and kids alike – I was expectantly ‘glued’ to the family television on a Thursday evening in September 1965, when the first ever episode of Thunderbirds was shown.

The creators of what was to become an iconic television series, were Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, who would later find more success with their ‘Supermarionation’ puppet format, with series such as ‘Captain Scarlet’, ‘Jo 90’ and a hybrid venture incorporating both real life actors and model machines – ‘UFO’, which I personally felt was a very underrated TV series.

Thunderbird 2 in flight.
Thunderbird 2 in flight, piloted by Virgil Tracy.

Before Thunderbirds, the Anderson’s had enjoyed much success with their puppet based, children’s action-adventure TV shows. All of them had been well received, not least because of their high production values and that they were so very different to what else was on offer at the time. The use of marionettes – rather than human actors – enabled these series to be set in the future and the central characters to use science-fiction based craft and technologies, with which they could do battle with whatever foe they were pitted against.

This of course immediately ‘hooked’ us children straight away as fans of the series, because nothing like these series had ever been seen on television before. Also a few adults and parents were swept up by these programmes, for the same reason as their offspring. So both Gerry and his wife Sylvia, had a proven track record when it came to Thunderbirds and its release on our television screens in September 1965. However, what was going to single-out this particular series from that of its illustrious predecessors, was the length of each episode and the level of sophistication of the sets, machines and the technologies that they were to depict. All of the previous TV series that they had produced, had been 30 minutes in duration and contained one commercial break for advertising. They had also been geared predominantly for children’s television viewing. The length of each Thunderbird episode was 50 minutes and carried two slots for commercial breaks. Thunderbirds was also being ‘aired’ at a later viewing time, thus aiming for prime time viewing, usually reserved for families. This was a big gamble for the television companies, but one that paid off handsomely for the television executives and would reward the partnership of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson handsomely in the years to come.

Thunderbird 1 in flight
Thunderbird 1 in flight piloted by Scott Tracy.

Thunderbirds was to become a huge success, resulting in it being shown throughout the world for many, many years to come. It would enthrall many generations of youngsters because of its magnificent machines and its solid story lines. The characters were engaging and the fact that these plots involved the noble aim of rescuing people from certain death, made it compulsive viewing for an impressionable generation of viewers. Thunderbirds and its moral story lines would survive the computer age and the youngsters who enjoyed these more advanced entertainments, would still enjoy these action packed episodes with the same enthusiasm as the earlier generations, because they were so entertaining. Apart from the episodes themselves, their would be all the toys and models that would be eagerly sought, purchased, enjoyed and later coveted by those children when they got older and become collectors items.

So you may ask, what on earth has this got to do with NASA?

Quite a bit actually. Not least the era in which this series was going to début on British television.

Saturn V inside of VAB.
Saturn V encased by work platforms inside of the Vehicle Assembly Building at Launch Complex 39, Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Can you see a similarity here with Thunderbird’s 1 and 3 inside there launch complexes on Tracy Island. Could the NASA facilities been the inspiration for all of those incredible Thunderbird machines? Here we see a Saturn V encased by work platforms inside of the Vehicle Assembly Building at Launch Complex 39, Kennedy Space Center, Florida. CA you see a similarity here with Thunderbird’s 1 and 3 inside there launch complexes on Tracy Island? Could the NASA facilities been the inspiration for all of those incredible launch facilities that Thunderbirds had in the TV series? Image Courtesy of NASA.

What an amazing time this was. Science fiction was rapidly becoming science fact, right in front of our very eyes. Space – that last frontier – was now being explored for the first time by men, who were now becoming household names and as such, heroes to us all. And to cap it all in these ‘Cold War’ years, the United States of America and the Soviet Union were in a race to put either a Soviet or American man on the Moon first. Two years before, President Kennedy had set the United States the national goal of putting an American astronaut on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth, before the decade of the sixties was over.

So it was against this background that Thunderbirds was ‘launched’ upon our television screens. And its timing was perfect, tapping into the excitement of the ‘Space Race’ and the interest that surrounded it.

Tracy Island Villa.
Tracy Island Villa. Exotic tropical island location and launch complex for International Rescue and its incredible machines. Is their a similarity here when you think of the fantastic space vehicles and facilities that NASA was creating in the exotic location of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida?

So Thunderbirds hit the screens at the right time. Speaking as a nine-year old, I saw these machines and brave, brave men boldly flying their amazing craft with the noble intention of saving people from impossible situations. They flew from a secret island in some far away place, from a luxury home which contained from within it, all of these futuristic craft. The Tracy brothers carried out these rescue missions at the behest of their father – Jeff Tracy. Jeff was in the American Air Force, rising to the rank of Colonel before leaving to join the space programme and becoming one of the first astronauts to land on the Moon. Upon retiring, Jeff bought Tracy Island and recruiting ‘Brains’ to help him develop the mighty and incredible machines that would form the basis of International Rescue.

Thunderbird 3 Launches
Thunderbird 3 departs through the Tracy Island roundhouse for space.

His sons were Scot, pilot of International Rescue’s command and control vehicle – Thunderbird 1. Thunderbird 2 was the heavy lift vehicle which carried ‘pods’ that could be selected for different types of missions. This craft was piloted by Virgil. Their brother Alan flew Thunderbird 3, which was a space vehicle, and as such could be flown for those rescues which were outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. It was also the vehicle that was used to rendezvous and dock with Thunderbird 5, International Rescue’s orbiting, geo-stationary space station, manned alternately by Alan and his brother John. Thunderbird 5’s primary aim was to pick up global emergency distress calls, which were then relayed back down to Tracy Island. Thunderbird 4 was a submarine manned by aquanaut brother Gordon Tracy. When the emergency required water or sub-aqua capability, Thunderbird 4 would be delivered to the required place in one of Thunderbird 2’s pods.

So now we have all the information about International Rescue. Its geographical location, the people and the era in which it was set, 2065 – a hundred years in the future from when they first appeared upon our television screens.

Thunderbird 2 leaves hanger.
Thunderbird 2 leaves emerges from its rock cavern hanger.

The similarities were there for all to see. Thunderbirds home base was a secret island in a far away exotic place. NASA were launching their incredible space machines from an equally exotic location in Florida, USA. Thunderbirds was full of incredible, futuristic machines all designed to carry out almost impossible rescues, using cutting edge technology and all deployed from futuristic hangers and launch pads, carved into the islands mountain, beneath the home of Jeff Tracy and his sons.

Launch Complex 39.
Launch Complex 39 with the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and Saturn V being transported to the launch pad. Image and Caption courtesy of NASA.

As we were watching all of this technology and adventure being shown weekly on our television screens, NASA had built an equally futuristic set of launch and support facilities for their spacecraft and astronauts at the Kennedy Space Center and at other centres throughout the United States. One only has to look at the enormous and iconic Vehicle Assembly Building at Launch Complex 39, which was built exclusively for assembling and transporting the huge 365ft Saturn V spacecraft to the launch pads. And that huge ‘Crawler Transporter’, used to transport the Saturn 5 from the Vehicle Assembly Building out two the launch pads could easily have come directly from one of the Thunderbirds episodes.

Crawler Transporter
NASA’s Crawler Transporter with the Mobile Launch Platform on top. These stalwart machines have been transporting Saturn V and latterly the Space Shuttle from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the two launch pads of Launch Complex 39. The two Crawlers are currently being upgraded to take the next generation of NASA’s SLS and Orion manned space vehicles which will be departing from LC 39. This machine could have come straight out of an episode of Thunderbirds. Or could it have been an inspiration for Gerry Anderson for some of those machines which we saw on our TV screens?

When you saw all of this – especially through the eyes of a nine-year old boy in 1965 – you were seeing technologies and engineering that seemed every bit as futuristic as that which appeared upon our television screens when we were watching Thunderbirds.

It was not just the vehicles and the technology that seemed similar, but it was also the names of the characters. Jeff Tracy’s boys names were the same as five of the original ‘Mercury 7’ astronauts. As we have already found out, the names of the Thunderbird pilots were Alan, Gordon, John, Scot and Virgil.

The 'Original' Mercury 7.
The ‘Original’ Mercury 7. From left to right back row: Alan Shepard, Virgil Grissom, Gordon Cooper. Front row: Walter Schirra, Deke Slayton, John Glen, Scott Carpenter. Notice the similarities with the names? Image Courtesy of NASA.

Five of the Mercury 7 astronauts had the same name as the Thunderbird’s pilots; Alan Shephard, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Scot Carpenter and Virgil Grissom. If you think about that and the fact that their father Jeff, was a former Air Force Colonel and pioneering lunar astronaut, the timing of the launch of Thunderbirds on our television screens could not have been more lucky and apt.

I think that it was more than good fortune and luck that Gerry and Sylvia Anderson developed the idea of Thunderbirds and launched it in September 1965. I think that they were bang on the money with regard to all of those ideas and the technologies that they displayed. That and that their timing was perfect not only for them, but also for the generation of young people who were watching Thunderbirds in 1965. Not only were we watching great television but we were also seeing this technology becoming fact through what NASA was doing in its quest to land a man on the Moon and safely returning him to Earth within that decade.

Incredible times indeed.

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