Looking back on the Space Age

The near future of crewed spaceflight brings a lot of promise with it, but it's worth looking back on the Apollo missions to understand where we've come from

Looking back on the Space Age

Happy Friday!

I hope that you've been doing well in the last week. The last couple of days have been the good sorts of productive on a couple of fronts:

  • The cosplay book is chugging along. I've turned in some edits and I'm awaiting notes, which will help refine it and get it one step closer to publication. I've been working on hunting down pictures to use, and that's probably going to consume me for the next couple of weeks. If you happen to have been a con-going fan in the 1950s - 1980s, and have pictures of masquerades or anything like that that you'd like to let me use, get in touch!
  • The Dune podcast is also moving along. I've been working on episode treatments, and finding this to be a fun effort: trying to isolate the individual stories for each episode, rather than a series of "and this happened, and then this happened" has been a good challenge.
  • I spent part of Monday playing bodyguard to a bounty hunter — Dominic Pace, who played a character called Gekko in The Mandalorian. He's been on a tour of the country trying to promote the character, and is a pretty nice guy. I might have some more on that in the coming weeks.

This week, I've been thinking about the legacy of the space race, which has a couple of anniversaries in the month of July: Apollo 11 was from July 16th-24th 1969 and Apollo 15 was from July 26th to August 7th 1971. It's a good time to look back on the legacy of that space program.

Image: Andrew Liptak

The week in SF/F

Over the last couple of weeks, space has been in the news quite a bit because of Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos — both were the first to take up their own hardware up to the edge of space, another step forward in what'll probably be known as the Second Space Race, or something like that, depending on how you want to split hairs.

The private space industry is something of a misnomer — Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic have all earned some amount of federal funding or contracts, and I think it's safe to say that while these companies are funded by billionaires who've been dumping their own wealth into these projects, they likely wouldn't happen without that promise of some sort of revenue stream down the road.

The optics aren't exactly the best — Bezos thanking his customers for his joyride is a bit cringeworthy — but I do think what they're doing is important. They've helped shift the cost of getting into orbit lower, have made some useful improvements (like recovering lower stages), and by and large, they're moving much faster than NASA seems to be on its own heavy rockets.

Looking back over the history of spaceflight, it's sort of a wonder at how quickly it came together: the first satellite, Soviet Union's Sputnik-1, went up in 1957, and a decade later, the US was sending uncrewed test flights of the Saturn V, and two years later, we were boots down on the Moon. A decade ago, the last of NASA's space shuttles, Atlantis touched down one final time.

All of this is to say that space is hard, but it's clear that there's no replacement for having the drive and motivation to get something like a space program up and running. There's certainly plenty of books about all of the ins and outs of the space program, but one that crossed my desk was a new edition of Andrew Chaikin's classic history of the space race, A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts. The book is from The Folio Society, and they sent me a copy to take a look over it. I've written a lot about the publisher in the past, and I'm a fan of their work, so I was happy to give this a read. Like a lot of their releases, it's a very pretty edition: lots of great illustrations that drive home the missions that Chaikin is writing about.

Image: Andrew Liptak

Chaikin told me that in the years since his book came out, he's come to appreciate the difficulties of the missions, and how unique the Apollo program was. "In the last couple of decades, I’ve come to the conclusion that what’s really remarkable is not that we haven’t been back to the moon since Apollo ended in 1972," he explained, "but that we went there when we did. Apollo truly was born of a unique set of conditions in which achievement in space became a national priority, in the context of the Cold War. Those conditions are very unlikely to happen again."

The space race had some pretty sinister overtones to it, because of its roots in the post-World War II arms race between the United States and Soviet Union, both of which were vying for nuclear supremacy in order to keep the other in check. The underlying technology that powered the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo missions were developed by the military industrial complex, designed to carry nuclear warheads into space. One reason why Sputnik went up first? The USSR had trouble miniaturizing its nuclear weapons, and had to develop some slightly more powerful rockets to compensate for the larger warhead. Sputnik wasn't so much a radio beacon as it was a demonstration: It was a 'we can fly nukes right up over your suburbs, and there isn't much you can do about it' message to the US.

That's a powerful motivation, especially for an incoming presidential candidate who made the discrepancy in missiles a campaign priority. The threat of nuclear destruction and the perceived need to counter it helped fund everything that came after, and NASA's efforts to put men — and only men — into orbit for peaceful purposes are a bit of handy whitewashing to make it acceptable to the American public.

Because of the various milestones that Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic have been accomplishing in the last couple of years, the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo missions are starting to get looked at with new eyes, with new takes looking at the narratives that have driven our collective memory of the space race.

Some of that has been laid in by NASA going back to when those rockets were going up: the agency famously courted reporters and had a tight grip on the image that it was projecting of the astronauts and its goals in space — something that likely wouldn't fly today. That era was an inspirational one, to be sure, but there was some real harm caused by the pressure put on the astronauts and their families, but also in the people that weren't included in that story, like mathematician Katherine Johnson, one of the subjects of the book and film, Hidden Figures. It also helped guide the narrative that we were doing this in the service of science and exploration — a bit odd, considering that only a single scientist, Harrison Schmitt, has stepped foot on the lunar surface.

Chaikin noted that he couldn't speak to Hidden Figures, but he applauded the research that went into the book — "it’s great that new information continues to come to light that deepens our understanding of the past," he says. Equally important, he notes, is to be "absolutely meticulous in conducting research, to find high-quality documentation to support whatever you write." Following the data no matter where it leads, it will "strengthen your case and makes for a more solid interpretation of history."

As someone who studied history (the military roots of spaceflight was the topic of my Master's capstone), I can't agree with this harder enough: understanding history is a critical thing for any organization, system, or movement to move forward, because by understanding the past, one can better prepare for the future. Understanding the complicated legacy of Apollo and its predecessors — not only the failures, but what went into the successes — will be critical as we attempt to go back to space and to the Moon in the coming years.

That's something that Chaikin has been focused on for a while now. "For the last 10 years," he says, "I have been researching and teaching about success and failure in spaceflight projects, at the request of NASA." His main focus is on the human element, "the 'mindset' that people need to bring to an endeavor as unforgiving as spaceflight and be successful."

A key lesson from Apollo is that we "can never afford to become overconfident. You can never afford to underestimate how difficult the job really is. When you’re trying to carry out a spaceflight project with thousands of people—or in the case of Apollo, hundreds of thousands—you have to instill in everyone that they are all on the same team, and that everyone is responsible on an individual level for the team’s success."

We've heard from politicians and NASA that we're only a decade away from the Moon... for decades. But a lot of the pieces seem to be falling into place — the hardware is coming along, companies like SpaceX are providing critical components like the lunar lander for Artemis, and NASA has been reckoning with its exclusionary past, committing that it won't be just man returning — NASA is putting the right people into the pipeline so that that happens.

Hopefully, when we do return to the Moon, we'll be building upon Apollo's legacy, rather than just replicating it. If that happens, we might actually be able to stay in space for a lot longer.

Image: Andrew Liptak

Currently reading

Still working on Brian Staveley's The Empire's Ruin. I'm still enjoying it, but it's a long book.

I did finish two books though. The first is one that was a random arrival that came in the mail: Campaigns & Companions, by Andi Ewington, Rhianna Prachett, edited by Alexi de Campi, and illustrated by Calum Alexander Watt.  

It's a book that came out of a hilarious tweet thread from Andi, which imagined various pets playing D&D, with some hilarious results:

Cat: "I cast animate dead on the mouse."
GM: "The mouse rises, albeit now undead."
Cat: "I kill the mouse."

And repeat. The whole book is filled with this, and it was an utter delight to read through with Bram last night. He nearly died laughing on a couple of pages.

I usually cast a bit of side-eye on these sorts of Twitter-famous projects — look no further than something like Shit My Dad Says — but this one's genuinely delightful, especially if you play D&D and have pets.

The other is Jordan Morris and Sarah Morgan's Bubble, a graphic novel adaptation of Morris' podcast by the same name. I enjoyed the podcast when it came out — you can read my piece about it here — and I have to say, I enjoyed the graphic novel a bit more. The art is fantastic, and I felt like the story worked out a bit better as a comic — the art really helped drive home some of the characters, and it makes for a fun read.

Further reading

Battening down the hatches

Nieman Lab has a grim overview of what it's like to be a woman writing about video games, and the precautions that they often are forced to take in order to exist on social media — stepping back, filtering, blocking, etc. This lines up with what some friends and colleagues have told me about their experiences in the field, how they feel that sometimes, they're only moments away from having the wrath of the internet pointed in their direction.


A couple of people forwarded me a piece in The Conversation about military science fiction in the last week, in which some of my writing was cited. But I was annoyed at the piece itself: the author tries to make a connection between the rise of military-generated fiction and some of the more out-there technology ideas, with the conclusion that the military is essentially just stripping science fiction for parts while ignoring the underlying ethical points. That's a bad, ill-informed read on the situation, and I wrote about it for the paid subscribers.

Heinlein retrospective

Back in 1984, The Washington Post profiled Robert Heinlein ahead of the release of his book Job. For some reason, Hacker News surfaced the profile, and I found it to be a pretty interesting look at his life, looking at some of his quirks and contradictions, and I found this profile to be one of the better ones about him — I felt like I've gotten a much better sense of who he was. He sounds like he'd be both parts interesting and tedious to speak with. It's a solid bit of writing.

Octavia Butler's getting her due

This week brought some excellent news for Octavia Butler fans: Parable of the Sower and Fledgling are being adapted for a film and TV series, respectively. I wrote about both for Tor.com, and had some additional thoughts in another post for the paid subscribers.  

On book fairs

Over on Refinery29, Angela Lashbrook has a fun look at the state of the elementary school book sale, and how that particular institution fared during the pandemic. She points out a really interesting thing: these fairs can be pivotal moments in getting kids to read by helping to foster a love of books early on. I have plenty of fond memories of the ones that my schools held, as well as those tissue paper-thin order forms.

Wayward Children to be adapted

Here's some cool news for fans of Seanan McGuire's Wayward Children novellas: Paramount has picked up the rights to the series, which Deadline reports will be the basis for a new franchise. I've yet to dig into these stories, but I've heard good things about all of them. The various novellas follow the stories of children who've returned from fantastical lands by way of portals, and the obsession they have with returning. They deconstruct a number of tropes in fantasy literature, and they certainly seem like they'll make for excellent material for a series.

As McGuire noted on Twitter, it's not a sure thing that it'll happen, but it's a step in the right direction, and streaming services (like Paramount+) are hungry for content. If it does get made, it'll hopefully drive people to check out her books, which is good for the rest of the Tordotcom ecosystem.

That's all for this week. As always — thank you so much for reading, and let me know what you're reading / writing / enjoying. Next week: look for the August book list! There are some excellent titles on it.  

Have a good weekend,