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NASA poster of the Apollo moon missions

Apollo 11 and the past of space travel

Fifty years ago this month, men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon. They came in peace for all mankind.

The fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11 has gotten a lot of publicity, more than I remember the thirtieth and fortieth anniversaries getting. There seem to be two dominant ways that companies and institutions are commemorating the fiftieth anniversary. One is marketing collectibles. Estes, the model rocket manufacturer, has reissued classic kits of rockets from Mercury to Apollo. LEGO has released large and detailed sets of the Saturn V and Lunar Module.

The other dominant way to commemorate Apollo 11 has been to use the anniversary as an occasion to discuss the future of space travel. The cover of National Geographic this month declares, “A new era of space travel is here,” and USA Today last week carried the headline: “Fifty years ago, Apollo 11 made the world a bigger place. NASA is ready to go back.”

In some respects, this preoccupation with the future is understandable because space travel has long been imagined as futuristic. Spaceflight was envisioned in science fiction long before it became a reality. Even after people had begun to fly into space, true believers in space travel continued to dream big and kept claiming that the next big thing was just around the corner: inexpensive access to low Earth orbit with reusable spaceplanes, permanent moon bases, and nuclear rockets flying to Mars and beyond.

None of these things have come to pass. The Space Shuttle, though reusable, proved to be expensive to maintain and risky to fly. Moon bases have never been built, and nuclear rocket propulsion remains science fiction. (In a May 25, 1961 speech, just after famously calling for the United States to commit to a moon landing by the end of the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy exhorted Congress to appropriate funds to accelerate the development of the ROVER nuclear rocket—but who remembers that?)

There is a real irony about the future-looking coverage of the moon landing anniversary: space travel belongs to the past as much as to the future. Both National Geographic and USA Today put photos of the Apollo program on their covers, to introduce their articles about the future of space travel. The graphic designers at National Geographic even went so far as to frame the Apollo 8 earthrise photo they used with film sprocket holes—further emphasizing Apollo program’s belonging to the past, because the vast majority of photography in the 2010s is shot digitally rather than on film.

It was literally a half-century ago that men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. We can certainly look forward to further human exploits in space (although considering that we still have no moonbases and nuclear rockets, I won’t hold my breath). But an imaginary future in space should not distract us from the real past. Apollo 11 flew a long time ago, taking off from and landing on a world that was very different than it is today.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin training for their moonwalk on Apollo 11. (NASA)

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin training for their moonwalk on Apollo 11. (NASA)

Quick thought: Alternate history and historical contingency

In Philip K. Dick’s alternate history novel The Man in the High Castle, the Axis powers have lost World War II and the former United States is occupied by Nazi Germany (in the east) and Imperial Japan (in the west), with a demilitarized zone in the middle. In this alternate-reality 1962, the Japanese have established their Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere, while the Nazis have committed genocide in Russia and Africa and are sending space missions to the moon and Mars.

The Man in the High Castle is a story of historical contingency. Although it is often tempting to think of historical events as inevitable, they usually are not. It was not inevitable that the Allies would win World War II, or that they would win in the way that they did. There were many possible outcomes.

Dick shows this by introducing an alternate history novel within his alternate history novel. The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, written by an author in the demilitarized Rocky Mountain States, narrates an Axis defeat, but not what actually happened in our world. President Roosevelt does not seek reelection for an unprecedented third term in 1940 (as he did in real life), but instead he is succeeded by Rexford Tugwell, who cunningly saves the US fleet from destruction in Pearl Harbor and leads the country to victory against the Axis. At the end of the war, Adolf Hitler Is tried and executed (rather than committing suicide in his Berlin bunker).

Some of Dick’s characters doubt the possibility of an Allied victory in World War II, but we the readers know that it was not only possible, it happened in real life.

Citizen of the cold-war galaxy

Warning! This post contains plot spoilers for Robert A. Heinlein’s novel Citizen of the Galaxy (1957).

I recently read the classic science fiction novel Citizen of the Galaxy, by Robert Heinlein. The book is an engaging space-opera tale of a young man who is a slave turned fugitive turned trader turned military recruit turned industrialist. The book is a good read, and it provided a welcome diversion from teaching and dissertation work.

As a child and teenager, I would read science fiction to learn about the future. Of course I knew that the future portrayed was imaginary, but I liked partaking of the author’s imaginings of what the future had to bring. Heinlein in Citizen of the Galaxy has plenty to say about the future, as his characters cross the galaxy on faster-than-light starships. Nowadays, though, when I read a sci-fi book, I am more interested in what it can tell me about the past. And that is why I found Citizen of the Galaxy particularly interesting.

Heinlein wrote the book in the early years of the Cold War. Even though he imagined the future, his book belongs to the period in which he wrote it, the 1950s. Here are three ways that the book reflects and responds to the world in which Heinlein was writing:

1. Planet Jubbul

The story begins on planet Jubbul, where the main character Thorby is purchased at a slave auction by Baslim the Cripple, an undercover abolitionist. To portray Jubbul, Heinlein drew on western perceptions of the East, which could either represent the Soviet bloc or nonaligned nations such as Egypt and India. The ruler of the planet is known as the Sargon, a name that Heinlein adopted from an ancient Mesopotamian emperor. The capital city of Jubbul is Jubbulpore; “-pore” is an old-fashioned transliteration of the Sanskrit suffix –pur, which means town or city (as in Jaipur, the city of Jai Singh II).1 The inhabitants of Jubbulpore practice real-life traditions that Heinlein’s American readers would have found exotic. One of these is a purdah, the seclusion of (mainly upper-class) women. (Parda is a Persian word meaning “curtain,” as women in purdah would stay behind curtains when in the presence of men who were not members of their family.)

2. Area studies in space

The next phase of Thorby’s journey is as a member of the free traders, who trade from one end of the galaxy to the other but are not subject to any government. The free traders, like the inhabitants of Jubbul, also have strange customs, but rather than letting them remain mysterious and exotic, Heinlein explains them. Most of the explaining is done by a character who is an anthropologist studying free trader culture on Thorby’s ship. The fictional anthropologist represents the factual period of area studies. After World War II, the United States began to pursue a global foreign policy, and a component of this policy was studying foreign cultures and societies so that Americans could interact with them appropriately. Funding for anthropological research spiked in the early Cold War. The anthropologist’s studying the free trader culture is a logical extension of US government-funded area studies of Asia and Africa from the early Cold War.

3. Galactic capitalism

The last act of Citizen of the Galaxy takes place on Earth, where Thorby struggles to regain the fortune that is his rightful inheritance. It turns out that Thorby’s family controls one of the galaxy’s major starship manufacturers. The industrial operation is capitalistic, and Heinlein uses the fictional company to comment on capitalism in America. The Cold War was a period of a great ideological dispute between capitalism and socialism. The United States promoted capitalism; Heinlein the narrator, true to his nation’s ideology, accepts capitalism. He does not accept it wholesale, though; he highlights its potential pitfalls. As the book ends, Thorby has just regained control of his fortune and is beginning to investigate the family business’s complicity in supplying ships to the slavers. To Heinlein, American capitalism is not value-free, either in the distant future or the 1950s. Capitalists must be held responsible for their actions, both domestically and abroad.

  1. Jubbulpore is the name of an actual city in central India, although it is now spelled Jabalpur. []

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