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In the early movie serials of Flash Gordon why do all the space ships circle to land and take off?

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Most probably because aircraft commonly did so, and scriptwriters were consciously or unconsciously influenced by this.

Similarly, a lot of sf of pre-Sputnik days used to show astronauts as young men in their 20s or even teens, like WW2 fighter pilots, rather than the 40-somethings who were to get chosen in real life. Many people, consciously or not, probably thought of spaceflight as an extension of aviation, and were influenced by how things were done there.

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