When Science Fiction Became Reality

Twenty-seven human beings have travelled beyond Earth orbit, all of them during those glory years of the Apollo programme between 1968 and 1972.  To those of us who followed their exploits at the time, it seemed as though science fiction was indeed eventually becoming a reality.

In the latest edition of Odyssey, we follow through some of the inspirations which led to those great achievements, and consider how using the imagination played an important part in getting there.

Enthusiasm unbounded. This edition published by New English Library 1971

The tone of the period was expressed well by Andrew Smith in his 2005 book Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth.  He was told that, prior to his flight in Apollo 14, astronaut Edgar Mitchell briefly shared a house with Wernher von Braun and Arthur C Clarke, “who was by then regarded as one of the most influential futurist thinkers on the planet, because for that brief period sci-fi was seen as something more than escapism.”  He also quotes BBC aviation correspondent Reg Turnill observing Clarke declaring, as Apollo 11 was launched, that “this is the last day of the old world.”

Clarke’s own fiction from the 1960s provided plenty of examples of what we might have expected to find on the Moon.  However, one story that may have stood out as an inspiration on the subject of actually travelling there was Robert Heinlein’s Rocketship Galileo, first published in 1947.  As one of his juvenile novels aimed at younger readers, it seemed to follow the idea of HG Wells’ 1901 story The First Men in the Moon, in that ordinary people (well, fairly ordinary) could find the means to go into space, rather than rely on vast government-funded projects to achieve that objective.  That, of course, was never the case in reality, but what mattered to us was the fervour to travel out there.

Heinlein’s novel, set not long after the end of the Second World War, shows three American teenage boys getting involved in a project led by the uncle of one of them to build a spacecraft powered by an atomic engine in order to go to the Moon.  Their optimism and enthusiasm knows no bounds, and would have been highly infectious to those of us growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, though the fact that all of them were blessed with intelligence and technical competence verging on genius level  took the context somewhat beyond the reality of most of us.  But we could still hope.

For the first two-thirds of the book, before it develops into a fairly standard adventure story, Heinlein’s descriptions of the science and technology which might have led to the first journey beyond the Earth are quite entrancing even today.  Some aspects of the tale were used in the 1950 film Destination Moon, which had a similar impact at the time, but the key point is that excitement about what might be possible was a driving force for all of us.

And when Apollo was under way in the early 1970s, the publisher’s blurb on a paperback edition of Rocketship Galileo at the time summed up our attitude – it was proclaimed to be a “tale that will prove irresistible to those already nostalgic for the days when science fiction was not yet fact.”  For it was indeed fact by then, though it was only the imaginative vision of earlier writers that made it so.

The BIS itself had carried out its own studies of rockets to travel to the Moon, as seen in HE Ross’s classic paper The BIS Space Ship (JBIS, January 1939, fortunately reprinted in Space Chronicle Suppl 1, 2003, for those of us who weren’t around at the time).  A staged rocket would allow a lunar lander to descend to the Moon’s surface and then return to Earth.  It may not have been entirely feasible when it was originally published, but the concept was valid and would inspire the imagination.  Speculations on advances in science and technology are by no means restricted to the pages of science fiction and, whatever the source might be, the day may arrive when they become reality.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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