Revisiting the Eagle Starships of Space: 1999

Source: Space: 1999

We flash back to the cult sci-fi TV show Space: 1999 to examine how the Eagle multipurpose starships helped Moonbase Alpha survive its trip across the galaxy.

September 13th, 1999. Not a particularly significant date for most people. Unless you were one of the inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha, a scientific research station on Earth's moon. On that date, Alpha's fate was apparently sealed when an accumulation of nuclear waste that was being stored on the moon exploded through irradiation, sending the moon out of orbit and into the far reaches of space. A terrible accident to be sure, but also the fascinating setup for Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's 1975 British television show, Space: 1999.

Transporter Eagle under attack. Source: Space: 1999
Transporter Eagle under attack. Source: Space: 1999

After success with “Supermarionation” shows such as Thunderbirds, Stingray, and Captain Scarlet, the Andersons began working with actors and produced UFO, which was about secretly defending the Earth from alien life forms. The show only made it through one season and was canceled during pre-production on its second. But this material, which was to be set mainly on a base on the moon, was transformed into Space: 1999.

The inspiration for the visual design of the show was straight from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and began with a certain cerebral tone. While everyone on Moonbase Alpha was far away from Earth, they still had to visit nearby worlds to investigate possible solutions for their problem. For that, they used the Eagles.

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Space: 1999 Eagles Take Flight

Instantly part of the iconography of the show, the Eagles are much like our own modern rockets and space shuttles in that they have modular adaptions that are mission-specific. The Eagles are shaped somewhat like a ferret, with four legs and feet connected by an elongated main superstructure. At the head is the famous conical shape of the command module, or “beak” as it has sometimes been called by enthusiasts. Underneath the superstructure is where the required service pod is fitted, allowing direct access to the materials needed for the mission.

Rescue Eagle on the launchpad. Source: Space: 1999
Rescue Eagle on the launchpad. Source: Space: 1999

The mission pod defines the name for the Eagle itself, and there are four general types that are in regular use. The Transporter Eagle uses the passenger pod for standard transportation, fitting up to twelve passengers. Reconnaissance Eagles have pods that contain specialized sensory equipment linked to Moonbase Alpha's main computer and are used for exploring. The Rescue Eagles are essentially ambulances, their pods painted white with red stripes denoting that they contain equipment and space for any injuries or illnesses that may have been picked up during a mission. Freighter Eagles carry standard cargo pods, which can be used for transporting equipment to mission sites as well as acting as a fuel tanker, carrying reserves for Eagles that may be low on fuel.

Lesser-used equipment includes a winch pod for carrying heavy objects and a laboratory pod which allows an Eagle to become a remote science lab. A VIP version of the Eagle was briefly seen, carrying Commissioner Simmonds, and several were fitted with a laser cannon and missiles for defending Alpha from any threats, these were later designated “Combat Eagles”. The Eagles launch from five launch pads that lift the craft up from the underground hangers using a giant elevator.

Designing the Eagle Ships

The Eagles were designed by visual effects artist Brian Johnson, who had previously worked on the Andersons' Thunderbirds as well as 2001.

“I had this thing about vehicles having a kind of insect look,” Johnson said in a 2001 interview. “The head or beak of the Eagle was the beginning of that sort of shape and then it went down into a body with legs and so on. I think it was very futuristic and not run-of-the-mill. I was still pleased that we captured a real NASA sort of look to it as well because the lunar landing vehicles were not unlike the beaks of the Eagles with those dark windows set back into the main structure.”

When building the Eagle ship miniatures themselves, Johnson drew up blueprints and four different-sized models were created: a 44”, a 22”, an 11”, and a 6” version. To attain the perfect level of detail, Johnson used a technique now known as “greebling,” where parts of off-the-shelf model kits and objects are used to add a busier and more realistic look for the model. He also utilized a “used” look for the spaceships, by making the ships look like they had dirt, grime, and rust on them. This gave them much more of an impression that they had been traveling in space. Johnson would further use these techniques on two films that he would win visual effects Oscars for, Alien (1979) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980).

Close-up of an Eagle's unique command module. Source: Space: 1999
Close-up of an Eagle's unique command module. Source: Space: 1999

The Eagles Fly On

While Space: 1999 remains a cult favorite among science fiction fans, its place in genre history has been firmly ensconced due to the look of the show and certainly the memorable Eagles. Plastic scale model kits of Eagles are plentiful, and an original Mattel Eagle toy from the era of the show can command prices of several hundred dollars. When you think of Space: 1999, it’s unlikely that you'll be conjuring up the mental image of Martin Landau's John Koenig or Nick Tate's Alan Carter. It'll be those amazing Eagles, all down to a superb combination of imagination, design work, and model building, be it 1999 or 2019.

Contributing Editor

Charlie Brigden has been obsessed with spaceships, horror films, and film music since a young age and can usually be found across the internet writing about one of those three. He lives in South Wales UK with his family, cats, dogs, and tarantulas.