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John Glenn orbits spurred space travel connection to Yorkers

The McDevitt family of York in 1962

A friend who now lives out of the area responded to my recent post that included the iron arched entrance to a lane that leads off Haines Road to several houses, including Mahlon Haines’s former home. She remembered playing with a childhood friend, Diane McDevitt, who lived on one of those houses and thought the family was connected to a comic strip, perhaps Buck Rogers.

Sure enough, the York County History Center Library/Archives, has a McDevitt family file. It is a slim file, since that is not a common name in the area, but there was a nice article in it that made the connection. It appeared in the February 26, 1962 York Dispatch and reads:                    

  Glenn’s Space Trip Stirs Memories of Yorker

“Buck Rogers” really lived.

Not the interplanetary space traveler, to be sure, but the man who authored the famed serial and whom the kids of a Philadelphia suburban neighborhood visited, and addressed as “Buck Rogers.”

A daughter of science fiction writer Philip F. Nowlan has been discovered living in York.

One of 10 Nowlan children, she is Helen Nowlan McDevitt, wife of Robert J. McDevitt who is a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and classmate of Astronaut Alan Shepard. The McDevitts and their five children live at 105 Haines Road.

Rockets and space suite are a relatively recent addition to dinner table topics in the average home. And actual space travel just received its biggest boost with the historical three-orbital flight of Astronaut John H. Glenn, Jr.

In the Nowlan home, however, space subjects were common talk in the 1930s as the children and their friends followed the exploits of the hero in their father’s nationally syndicated newspaper feature.

Did Philip F. Nowlan ever dream that the space travel he wrote about might one day come true?

Reflecting a bit, Mrs. McDevitt answered: “He was convinced that the things he wrote about would someday come about.”

With the space feats already accomplished and the rocket plans still on NASA drawing boards, who can positively say they won’t?

Mrs. McDevitt said her father created the “Buck Rogers” serial in 1928. She recalls he drew the original character and rockets, then supplied the ideas for his collaborator Dick Calkins, who did the art work.

Nowlan died in 1940 at the age of 52.

“Buck Rogers” Subsequently passed into other hands. According to a report several years ago, “Buck Rogers” was the property of National Newspaper Syndicate and continuing his adventures in over 150 daily newspapers.

“Buck Rogers” not only zoomed to national popularity in newspapers, but won fame in books, on radio and on television.

The McDevitt children—Robert, 15; Thomas, 12: Brian, 10: Lynne, eight and Diane, seven—are proud of their grandfather’s work. And they are proud of their father, a Westinghouse engineer serving as marketing manager in the field of radiation testing of nuclear fuels, which scientists say will power future rockets through space.

Who knows—as space science advances one of the McDevitt children might one day be making a space flight that their grandfather—34 years ago—was convinced “would someday come about.”

The Buck Rogers comic strip, which came out of Nowlan’s 1928 “Armageddon – 2419 A.D.” science fiction story, ran from 1929 to 1967.

The 1962 article sounds as if nuclear power in space is in the future, but according to this U.S. Energy department history the Navy had already launched a nuclear powered satellite in 1961.