Blast Off at Woomera and other novels by Hugh Walters

Woomera Woomera Woomera When I was a young child (around 9 or 10 years old I think) my favourite series of books was about a young astronaut from the UK who becomes the first human in space. That's the plot of book one. In subsequent books, this boy (a precursor of Alex Rider?) joins up with friends from other nations in a combined space programme. They go to the Moon and, in each subsequent book, the other planets of the Solar System, having numerous adventures on the way. 

I have long since forgotten the details of these books, but remember how much I enjoyed them and what an impression they made on me. I made a half-hearted attempt to search for them (after combing the shelves of many bookshops in vain) when my own children were the age I was when I read them, but could not find them. I recalled the names "Chris" and "Hugh", and that the rockets always blasted off from Woomera, Australia – but that was not sufficient for me to track down the novels. Nobody else I knew among various science-fiction fans could recall these books either.

The other day, I mentioned this story to Karen of Euro Crime and, lo and behold, based on my skimpy description she rapidly uncovered the books' identities! Brilliant. (And one up for librarians, of course.) The books are by Hugh Walters, and are listed here at Fantastic Fiction. Although they are not available apart from expensive collectors' or second-hand editions (and not in all cases), they can all be found at Amazon. The (UK) Amazon page of the first novel, Blast Off at Woomera, has a customer review by I. J. Parnham providing a synopsis of all the books, which brings back such fond, happy memories of a fantastic scientific adventure series. As an aside, Hugh Walters was from the Midlands of the UK, so his novels are often set around Dudley, where he went to school. Here's an ordered list of the series, with some brief descriptions (links go to entries on the author's website):

1. Blast off at Woomera: "Mysterious domes have been sighted in a crater on the Moon. Suspecting that they may be the work of Communists, the British Government must launch a man into space in order to photograph them from outside the atmosphere. Unfortunately their rocket was not designed to carry a man, and so someone unusually short is required. Enter Chris Godfrey, a four foot ten and a half sixth-former at Wolverton Grammar School. Will he survive the trip? The less than reliable rocket is to be launched from Australia – but there may be a Soviet traitor among the ground crew!" 

2. The Domes of Pico : "The alien domes on the Moon are radiating a strange form of energy, which is neutralising all the nuclear power stations on the Earth. Chris Godfrey's task is to pilot a rocket and plant a homing beacon next to the domes, which will be used to target a nuclear missile strike. The commander of the mission, Sir Leo Frayling, is determined that the mission will succeed – even though the cost may be Chris' life!" 

3. Operation Columbus : The Soviets and the Americans hate losing out to the Brits on being the first to do everything in space. Both nations are determined to plant their flag on the moon. Serge Smyslov and Morrison Kant are the respective astronauts who team up with Chris….

4. Moon Base One : There is now a united world space programme. Chris commands a mission to the moon to find a cure for the radiation sickness mentioned earlier with Serge, Morrison and new addition Tony Hale.

5. Expedition Venus : An unmanned probe descends into Venus's lush jungles and brings back a slime sample which becomes a danger to Earth. The astronauts aim to go to Venus to find an antidote.

6. Destination Mars : Mars is outside the Van Allen belt and anyone straying beyond it goes mad. Chris leads a mission to Mars to find out why. 

7. Journey to Jupiter : Chris and his friends are in trouble when it turns out that scientists have miscalculated Jupiter's gravitational pull on their space ship.

8. Mission to Mercury. Girl astronauts! Telepathic twins!

9. Spaceship to Saturn. Computers!

10. Mohole Mystery : An Earth-bound adventure for the astronauts.

11 Nearly Neptune : Cryogenics!

12. First Contact? : Mysterious radiation and friendly (?) aliens on Uranus.

13. Passage to Pluto :  Chris is too old to fly so is now head of the united world space programme. His friends go without him to find out why Pluto has a weird orbit. What they discover signals danger for the whole Solar System.

Apparently the novels did continue after book 13 with Tony Hale as the main character, but I did not discover these – I was happy to leave them at the stage I did, whereupon I probably graduated immediately to John Wyndham, whose books I rapidly devoured. I then graduated to reading every science-fiction book in the local library at the age of 14 or 15, whereupon I stopped reading this genre in its entirety, and have not returned to it since, apart from a very occasional reversion (First Contact by Carl Sagan, for example). 

More information: Hugh Walters (the author) at Wikipedia. 

Hugh Walters's website, which states "Unfortunately the books have been out of print for many years, and many libraries have now disposed of their copies." The website has a page for each novel, with a brief description, commentary, bibliographic information,  and pictures of the covers of various editions of each. Obviously, from the descriptions, these novels are considerably dated now in attitude as well as in scientific, political and other ways, but I bet they would still be considered very good reads by the target age-group, even so.

11 thoughts on “Blast Off at Woomera and other novels by Hugh Walters

  1. No science fiction for me, but I also loved adventurous children. Enid Blyton was one of my favorites when I was 9-10, and I wish I had discovered Elizabeth Enright earlier than I did (The Melendy children and the gone-away-lake books). I have bought them in English for my daughter Elisabeth, though, and of course I took the opportunity to reread them myself.

  2. For me science fiction palled quite rapidly as I realised most of it is formulaic AND the author simply changed the rules as he (usually) or she went along. This is one reason why I never can manage with fantasy fiction (except a true talent like J K Rowling who has a clear fictional universe that works).
    After my discovery and mining of science fiction, read in parallel with classical literature, I stuck mainly to classical and general fiction for many, many years. Although I liked Sherlock Holmes as a young girl I was scared by my first Agatha Christie (I was a precocious reader so read her far too young) and so only read the occasional Chesterton, Rendell, Hammett, Chandler for some years. In the 1980s when I started working for my current employer, a friend loaned me books that were on internal sale (as the same publisher who owned the magazine I worked for also is a book publisher). This is what started me on Grafton, Muller, Vachhs etc. I alternated crime with regular novels for quite some time; it was not until the late 1990s that I began reading almost exclusively crime fiction, for reasons too long to go into here.

  3. Wow! And to think I was reading Nancy Drew books over here and biographies of Florence Nightingale, et al. pre high school, nothing so adventurous as reported here. Then, later, in high school, read lots of general fiction and began my foray into crime fiction with Sherlock Holmes, Perry Mason, Nero Wolfe and Hercule Poirot, perhaps a few Dorothy Sayers and Josephine Tey thrown in.

  4. I never discovered Nancy Drew, thankfully, until I was too old for them – one of my younger sisters read some, I think. (I write thankfully as I believe there are about 300 of them so I would never have read anything else!). I read Dorothy Sayers and Josephine Tey along with everything else, but when I was young these books weren’t marketed as “crime” fiction, so one just read one’s way through the library and encountered all sorts of novel (that’s how I stumbled across novelists like Rendell and Celia Fremlin as well as E M Forster, Zola and all the rest). I did read some Perry Masons when I was about 17 or 18 I think – I liked them but they did follow a rigid formula, from memory, so probably did not read all of them!

  5. What a great story and yet more proof (as if we needed it) that librarians are under valued human beings who should be given the kind of treatment currently reserved for footballers.
    I too had a time when I read lots of sci-fi. Though not these particular books. I can recall my older brother bringing the “Blast Off From Woomera” one home from the library and my mother going into a tizzy and telling him he wasn’t allowed to read it (an unheard of thing from my mother who puts reading somewhere above shelter and food on hierarchy of human needs). We found out later that one of her uncles had worked at Woomera (after WW2 it was used by the Australian and British armies for testing of anti nuclear devices before our government virtually handed the entire area over to the Americans in the 60’s) and he committed suicide. In those days I gather there wasn’t a lot of information coming from the Army about what happened and all my mum knew was “Woomera killed her uncle”. My brother decided that he’d better not read any of the books by that author ‘just in case’. It’s funny you should post this now as we were only talking about this long forgotten incident during his recent visit home to Oz. Small world.

  6. What an incredibly sad story, Bernadette. Although the details are a bit hazy in my mind, the books were definitely not militaristic, though certainly pro-British! (There wasn’t an Australian astronaut so far as I recall, though there should have been if Woomera was the launch site.) According to the “tribute website” I link in the post, the author was a committed Christian and he explored themes such as “aliens are our friends” and so on, rather than the more usual “shoot ’em up” philosophy of the time (bought to an abrupt end by Spielberg in “Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind” I think.) I remember that the dangers of radiation featured heavily, perhaps reflecting then-contemporary (cold war) concerns, but not that there was any gung-ho aspect of any of this.

  7. Brian:
    Thanks for your postings and thanks to Maxine for the research. I too am a fan and I am going to collect all of the titles.
    I remember them well and enjoyed them when I was growing up.
    Regards,
    JL Smith (Minneapolis, MN)

  8. Wow. Thanks ever so much for putting this review up, Maxine! I too read some of this series as a kid (in the first couple of years of secondary school, so 11-13yrs old), and wanted to re-visit it, but sadly couldn’t remember much at all in the way of titles or author. I remembered it was about a British space programme featuring a character who was small (and just out of school?), and Woomera was the blast-off point. Finally, after much on-line searching, found this website! I am very sad that the books are basically not available anymore – would dearly have loved to get a set. Good to know I’m not alone, though. They were a wonderful read and gave me great pleasure. Fond memories!

  9. ps: did anyone manage to get a set since this thread went up? I reckon I’d be happy to pay someone’s photocopying costs..!!

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