Artist Jack Coggins illustrated several books about rockets and spaceflight, but his reputation rests largely on two books: Rockets, Jets, Guided Missiles and Spaceships (1951) and By Spaceship to the Moon (1952). Written by SciFi author Fletcher Pratt, they were the first serious books about space travel ever published for young people.
Coggins was born in London in 1911. His father was a member of the elite cavalry of the British army—which no doubt played a part in Coggins’ life-long interest in military history. Following World War I, Coggins’ father suffered a setback in his career and finances. Accepting the position of secretary to an American steel heiress, he moved his family to Long Island in 1923.
Jack had always had an interest in drawing, which his family encouraged. After graduating high school, he attended the Grand Central Art School in New York. There he attained a strong foundation in traditional painting before moving on to the Art Students League. He painted signs to support himself.
He got his first commercial sale in 1939 when Life magazine commissioned an illustration depicting an imaginary German invasion of England. As hostilities in Europe grew, he began producing military illustrations for other magazines. Having specialized in naval subjects, he was teamed up with Fletcher Pratt—better known at the time as a military historian than science fiction and fantasy author—to create a children’s guide to the US Navy.
Coggins found himself drafted in 1942, but his skills as an illustrator of military subjects got him assigned to the London staff of Yank magazine, where he covered stories all over Europe.
After the war, Coggins found work in the pulps that were flourishing at the time. All the talk about rockets he had heard while in London had interested him. That, combined with his work for the sci-fi pulps started him thinking.
He had already illustrated a few articles about rockets for Yank and before long he and Pratt found themselves planning a book for children. Rockets, Jets, Guided Missiles and Spaceships was published in 1951, followed the next year by By Spaceship to the Moon. The first book focused on the history of rocketry, how rockets worked and how they are used. The second book picked up the story of space travel where the first book left off.
By Spaceship to the Moon begins with the question: "Who will pay for it?" Pointing out that a trip to the moon would cost billions of dollars, Pratt comes to the conclusion that only the defense department of a nation could afford it. The remainder of the book details the step-by-step process of getting to the moon, from the launch of the first satellites and construction of a space station, to the first lunar landing and the establishment of a permanent base.
Although Coggins’ art does not have the photorealism of Bonestell’s, his paintings have a solid, nuts and bolts, matter-of-fact realism that make them look as though they had been painted by an eye witness. His spaceships have a massive solidity about them that is utterly convincing. When he illustrated a scene depicting a pair of astronauts about to leave the airlock of their spaceship on their way to work on the construction of a space station, one can almost sense their weariness. Even 60 years later, his illustrations for these books look more like historic documents than imaginary visualizations.
Pratt's and Coggin's vision of a future space program also broke with SciFi tradition in favor of hard-core realism. For example, their space station was a cylindrical zero-G structure and the moon lander they came up with was an unstreamlined vehicle with folding, spider-like legs.
Although Coggins gradually phased out his commercial work in order to focus on his fine art, and on writing his own books on military history, he still managed to illustrate several other books about space for young readers. Among these were The Science Book of Space Travel and Pratt’s All About Rockets and Jets.
Coggins spent his final years at his home and studio in rural Pennsylvania, working on his paintings of marine subjects and teaching watercolor painting at the Institute of Fine Arts in Wyomissing. One of his classic paintings from Rockets, Jets, Guided Missiles and Spaceships depicting the landing of a rocket on the rugged surface of moon now hangs in the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum.
Shortly before he passed away in 2006, Coggins expressed astonishment that his books were so well-remembered. “I had no idea that the space books were still popular...I am delighted that our little ‘dollar flats,’ as they were known to the trade, have gained some fame. And a little surprised!”
See a Jack Coggins gallery here.