Classic science fiction authors including Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke were among the first interviewed when Apollo 11 landed on the moon July 20, 1969. Zola collected their thoughts and also asked modern SF authors such as Greg Bear and Nancy Kress to discuss how writing about space has changed 44 years later.
That’s what the whole thing is about. This is an effort on the part of mankind to relate himself to the total universe and to live together. This is an endeavor—to live forever, to become immortal. At the center of all of our religions, at all of our sciences, all of our thinking over a good period of years has been the question of death and if we stay here on earth we are all of us doomed because someday the sun will either explode or go out. So in order to ensure the entire race existing a million years from today, a billion years from today we’re going to take our seed out into space, we’re going to plant it on other worlds and then we won’t have to ask ourselves the question of death ever again. We won’t have to say why existence, why life, why anything. We will stop questioning in those fields.
All of the universe doesn’t care whether we exist or not but we care whether we exist. Now we name the universe as enemy and go out to do battle with it. That’s the big enemy and this is the proper war to fight. [Conquer the universe?] Absolutely! Peacefully and with these fabulous tools we’ve been watching tonight on TV.
—1969 interview with Walter Cronkite
The first day of Apollo Year One, Ray Bradbury declared.
Ever since childhood, I had arisen early in the morning in San Diego to watch astronauts launch from Cape Canaveral, to track the progress of one of my greatest passions—the human quest for a life in space and on other worlds.
And now it was here.
Everything wonderful and tragic and heroic had been prologue to this beautiful, agonizing, drawn-out moment.
Night fell over our apartment building. The television stayed on. I hardly dared move, kneeling before the antenna-sketched lines drawing black and white images—faces, recaps, impatient opinions.
My mother and father and grandmother and I all watched, stunned, quiet. In a trance, we listened to the pundits—including my heroes, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein. We were waiting for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to finish their first lunar rest, and emerge on the ladder leading to the lunar surface.
We had no idea what would happen.
But deep inside, I did know what would happen. And in my very cells, I felt the miraculous and insane importance of what we were watching. I have spent the rest of my life trying to convey just a part of that wondrous truth.
For the first time in four billion years, a living thing from Earth had traveled to another world, our closest neighbor in space.
Neil Armstrong, in crude but amazing video, served as surrogate for every moon child locked before those hundreds of millions of flickering screens.
He also served as surrogate for every insect, every fish, every mouse, every giraffe, every petrel and crow and tiger, every chimpanzee and gorilla, every one of our ancestors back to the wide-eyed lemurs—every bit of cell plasm blebbing through the seas of this old world.
Animals unknowing…but humans united in awe and made young again.
He stepped down on another world. Soon he was followed by Buzz Aldrin, and they became true equals in geological history, where minutes and hours are insignificant.
They left their boot prints in the soft, vacuum-tender dust.
There will never in human time be another moment like that one.
Until the next.
ARTHUR C. CLARKE
It’s as if we’re at Kitty Hawk now in 1900 and, say about November 1903, and the Wrights are just playing around with the airplane and we’re trying to anticipate what importance this is going to be and—except this is more important..In the long run the conquest of space is going to be much more important than conquest of the air because after all the airplane only took us to places we’ve already been to but what’s happening now is we’re going to go to new worlds…This is the way space travel has got to develop to make it a regular routine thing and we have to develop space craft which, in turn, can land anywhere and particularly can land on land. This business of landing in the sea is such a constraint…
[In the next 30 years,] we’re going to see the moon be opened up in the way the Antarctic has been opened up in this century. We’ll establish the first of unmanned bases, instruments being set up that can radio back to Earth and then I hope within this decade, say within the 1970s, I hope we’ll see the establishment of permanent bases with men there on the moon all the time and relieved from time to time by flights from Earth and then I think that towards the end of the century we’ll be considering major permanent operations, in other words the setting up of quite large bases which eventually will grow into full scale colonies. But, of course, this depends, the rate at which this happens, depends on how fast we locate lunar resources which can be exploited when we get there…Laboratories in space and observatories are going to enable us to exploit near space for many terrestrial uses: for meteorology, for communications, and above all for discovering new resources on this planet-resources of land and sea.
—1969 interview with Walter Cronkite
When the Apollo program achieved its bullseye in July 1969, the kind of bright, clean, technological utopias depicted on the covers of the old SF pulp magazines seemed to be just around the corner. NASA had plans for moon bases and expeditions to Mars; we were promised unlimited clean nuclear power, hypersonic jets, Pan-Am space planes commuting to the big wheels of space stations, an end to hunger thanks to the green revolution, and so on and so forth. Space aliens sold us instant mash potatoes in TV commercials; the covers of science fiction paperbacks were emblazoned with spaceships the size of skyscrapers.
And then Apollo was truncated, the missions to Mars were cancelled, and America lost its way in Vietnam. The future acquired a jagged orbit; science fiction novels and stories, all too often looking backwards to the days of futures long past, were overshadowed by Star Wars and the vigorous growth of fantasy. But just as the landscapes of the planets and moons of the solar system have turned out to be far more dynamic and various than we first believed, science fiction has became more interesting, more complicated, more human. It has spread out into the wider literary canon; as the future becomes more fragmented, ever weirder, it threatens to become relevant again.
This is the great day. This is the greatest event in all the history of the human race, up to this time. That is—today is New Year’s Day of the Year One. If we don’t change the calendar, historians will do so. The human race—this is our change, our puberty rite, bar mitzvah, confirmation, from the change of our infancy into adulthood for the human race. And we’re going to go on out, not only to the Moon, to the stars; we’re going to spread. I don’t know that the United States is going to do it; I hope so. I have—I’m an American myself; I want it to be done by us. But in any case, the human race is going to do it, it’s utterly inevitable: we’re going to spread through the entire universe.
—Robert A. Heinlein by William H. Patterson Jr.
Right after the moon landing, the science fiction world was elated. It’s started! We’re going to put a colony on the moon, on Mars, on asteroids. Everybody was confident we were going to colonize everything. Science fiction stories assumed that as a right. Then, as decades rolled by and the space program became smaller and smaller, SF went in two different directions. Some writers confined their SF to Earth. The rest spread out into the stars. After all, if we’re not going into space, then let imagination soar, unfettered by reality. Then: the Martian rovers. Suddenly Mars looked good again, and we have Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars trilogy, Geoff Landis’s Mars Crossing, and other (mostly) realistic science fiction set in the solar system. Starship Century, an anthology edited by Gregory and James Benford, contains SF stories about realistic space colonization, plus articles by eminent scientists. SF has not given up on space colonization, even if NASA seems to. The moon landing may have been a first step with no follow-through, but follow-through will come.
Well one of the things I’ve made use of a great deal has been the manlike robot with manlike intelligence. Now this is still in the future and on the other hand it’s still something we’re likely to accomplish…I shall continue writing robot stories. I think that for my lifetime anyway they’ll remain science fiction. —1969 interview with Rod Serling
Science fiction always explored both the brighter and darker possibilities. Happy plot endings mixed with dour or dystopic or even apocalyptic back-stories that helped writers (and Hollywood) to propel an action plot—the one essential thing needed, in order to make money.
[See Brin’s article for Locus Mag, Our Favorite Cliche—A World Filled with Idiots…,Or Why Films and Novels Routinely Depict Society and its Citizens as Fools]
There’s nothing wrong with that! Our most chilling warnings have so moved the public that they act to prevent the warned disaster! This makes a tale into a “self-preventing prophecy.” Fine. I write ’em myself. Only nowadays, there is no longer a balance between gosh-wow optimistic tales and downer warnings. The conversion to all-downers started after Apollo and then accelerated in this century. The dire warnings have long passed becoming cliches and are now quasi-religious dogma, that thou shalt never ever depict a human civilization whose institutions actually function. Ever. Nor shall common citizens be portrayed as anything but sheep.
It’s sad. Neal Stephenson’s Hieroglyph project aims—with authors like Nancy Kress, Vernor Vinge, Greg Bear and myself aboard—to start talking about confidence again. Or, as Kim Stanley Robinson put it: “How might our world be different, if our literature, to say nothing of our politics, behaved more like a rational, intrepid adult than a hand-wringing adolescent?”
I didn’t predict the landing at any particular time. It was inevitable. It’s just one of those things that had to happen and I expected it to happen in my lifetime and I’m glad to see that I made it.
—1969 Sci-Fi Writer’s Round Table
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.