Last week, NASA revealed the four astronauts who will fly on Artemis II, the first crewed moon mission since Apollo flights ended fifty years ago.
U.S. astronauts Reid Wiseman, Victor Glover, and Christina Hammock Koch, and Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen, posed in their spiffy orange spacesuits, offering visual proof they are diverse as well as handsome. Their resumés show that three of the four also come densely packed with traditional test pilot skills.
Exciting as this news is, I had to stifle a yawn.
We have stood on this threshold before. The first astronauts, the Mercury Seven, were Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton. When they were introduced in a Washington, D.C., press conference on April 9, 1959—sixty-four years ago—America stood enthralled.
I was thirteen. It was an electrifying moment. These seven would be the world’s first spacemen. They would transform science fiction into history.
The Pre-Space Era
I can’t say how the moment seemed to adults. For us kids, the Mercury space-flight program was both exciting and satisfying. It was the due fulfillment of a long-held dream. We had been reared and nurtured on science fiction.
On radio and TV, we had ventured into space with Commander Buzz Corry and his sidekick, Cadet Happy, on Space Patrol; with Tom Corbett, Space Cadet; with Captain Video, Commando Cody, and Flash Gordon. These shows had wildly fluctuating production values, but some of their writers would appear in the enduring pantheon of the science fiction genre—Damon Knight, James Blish, Jack Vance, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Cyril M. Kornbluth, among others.
Meanwhile, at the Streator Public Library, we checked out books like Step to the Stars and Mission to the Moon, by Lester Del Rey; Rocket Ship Galileo and Citizen of the Galaxy, by Robert A. Heinlein; Islands in the Sky and Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke; and I, Robot and Foundation, by Isaac Asimov. These writers and others informed us of scientific facts and expanded our horizons beyond comic-strip space operas.
While all this fiction intoxicated us, we were well aware of the real-life space heroes who were making science fiction come true. Men like Robert Goddard, Wernher von Braun, Colonel John Stapp, and Chuck Yeager. How could we not know about key developments when they were chronicled by such hardy publicists as Willy Ley?
The Leap Into Space
A significant subtext of all these books, stories, and articles was the blithe assumption that Americans—who else?—would pave the way to the stars. Which is why, on October 5, 1957, we kids were so well-prepared to be keenly disappointed by the news that Russia, not the United States, had launched the first man-made satellite, a healthy 184-pound baby named Sputnik.
It shocked us to learn that the much-maligned Soviet Union had the physical and intellectual wherewithal to beat the United States into space. Our whole nation had egg on its face.
There ensued a furious campaign to raise up more scientists and engineers, on the quick. By the time rocketry had been developed to the point where humans could ride on the front ends of the darned things, we had almost caught up.
Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin rode into space on a Soviet rocket less than a month before American astronaut Alan Shepard did the same. Still, the Russians were ahead.
Later that spring, on May 25, 1961, our new president, John F. Kennedy, laid down a marker he thought America stood a good chance of redeeming: Set foot on the moon, and return safely, before the end of the decade—and, incidentally, before the Russians.
The Mercury and Gemini manned space programs laid the groundwork for this achievement, and the Apollo program did it, with months to spare, by landing Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon July 20, 1969.
The Big Letdown
Once science fiction had become fact, the wind went out of NASA’s sails.
Five subsequent Apollo missions landed people on the moon, for a total of twelve men. Further programs like Skylab, the Space Shuttle program, and the International Space Station have kept us in space almost continuously. But these programs have the feel of a turning inward. Since reaching the moon, we have not ventured beyond.
This has come as a bit of a surprise to us children of the Fifties. Most of the science fiction we read plotted space flight as a continuous progression from the moon to Mars, and from Mars on to interstellar space. Certainly latter-day science fiction vehicles like Star Trek and Star Wars have taken that long line of development as a given.
Human affairs, however, are always a start-and-stop thing. There are wars. There are recessions. There are hesitancies and second thoughts. Funding is re-allocated. Things happen.
Now, NASA has its sights set on Mars. Establishing a permanent continuous presence on the moon will be a big first step. The Artemis Four will have their work cut out for them.
Time will tell.
Larry F. Sommers
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