Along with several others in the Sequart family, I’m going to be attending San Diego Comic-Con this week. One of the panels I’m excited to see is hosted by Seth Green and called “NASA’s Next Giant Leap”, featuring Dr. Buzz Aldrin, who landed on the moon 45 years ago this week on Apollo 11. As a longtime space nerd, I was still taken by surprise to see Aldrin on the SDCC schedule, but it really shouldn’t be that surprising. In honour of that anniversary, let’s have a quick look at the deep connections between the real space program and popular culture.
As Apollo 8 approached the moon at Christmas, 1968, the view out the window was “2001-type stuff”, according to Command Module Pilot and avid science fiction fan Jim Lovell. He wasn’t alone in liking science fiction. Most of the astronauts, even back in the 1960s, had seen and admired 2001: A Space Odyssey and many were fans of Star Trek, enjoying its original run at the time. Their fandom reached the point that, in the early 1970s when missions at NASA were being cancelled, they referred to the lowest-ranking astronauts most likely to lose their missions as the “Red Shirts”.
Over in the Soviet Union, there was also a great love of science fiction, albeit of the state-censored variety. Still, the cosmonauts always marked Jules Verne’s birthday in space, and enjoyed the more romantic and European forms of science fiction. They even played the first games in space, competing in a chess match against ground crews on very early missions.
This brings up the interesting point that science fiction and fantasy fiction has always influenced the “real thing”. We speak today in hushed tones about how the Star Trek communicator inspired the cell phone, but frankly the originals were also influenced by a sense of what it would be like to travel in space, evoked by classic science fiction. Very early science fiction had already postulated rockets to the moon, multi-stage rockets, bullet-shaped capsules, zero gravity and even splashdowns, all before any of the technology was possible. Inspiration was there to be had. Science Fiction was in a very advanced state before the first Apollo mission even reached the launch pad. By the late 1960s when astronauts were getting ready to visit the moon, most of the major sci fi canon had already been established. Asimov’s Foundation trilogy was complete, as were many of his classic Robots books such as The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. Dune was published in 1965, but still before the moon landing itself, Heinlein’s major works, including Stranger in a Strange Land, were already classics, and many more classics such as Bester’s The Stars My Destination were widely read and available. Any curious, intelligent person, especially one who was engaged in high technology, obviously took an interest in the serious science fiction of the day. There was, of course, also the other strand of pulp science fiction, more directed towards children but no less effective with that audience.
The Apollo program may have felt, to those who participated in it, as if it were carried out in a cultural vacuum, since the hours they worked left little time for them to appreciate what was happening in American culture at the time. Astronaut Michael Collins remembers being, “…not really in tune with the rest of the country” in those years. But Jim Lovell sure remembered the 1969 film Marooned, rarely seen today, when he was going through his challenges in Apollo 13.
Marooned is the kind of film where the sticklers for scientific detail get their way. The result is a very flat, surprisingly saggy “thriller”, in which Richard Crenna, Gene Hackman and James Franciscus are trapped in their Apollo spacecraft after a long space station mission due to a thruster malfunction. Their oxygen running out, they are finally saved by a dramatic rescue mission in an experimental “lifting body” spacecraft and by a passing Russian. Produced with the full participation of NASA, the film is less interesting dramatically (even Gregory Peck, as the chief astronaut, can’t salvage the terrible dialogue) than as a showcase for NASA’s new technologies. I suspect part of the motivation was to demonstrate that going to the moon was only one thing NASA could do with all the expensive toys the taxpayers had bought them. Thus, we see a space station made out of a converted Saturn rocket, not yet named “Skylab”, as it would later be, and the Air Force’s optimistic “X-20” or “Dyna-Soar” vehicle, which never itself flew but the technology was used on the Space Shuttle and is still used today on small military spacecraft. But the focus on technology and procedure (at one point, Peck literally does math on a chalkboard, and this is about as exciting as it sounds, despite all the actor’s desperate desk-pounding) make the film interesting only as an historical curiosity.
But it does illustrate how the space program in the 1960s was intimately intertwined with popular culture, or at least it was attempting that. Today, possibly by not trying so hard, the astronauts and cosmonauts on the International Space Station are unashamed to be seen as geeks. Even aboard the Russian MIR station, astronaut Mike Foale showed his Russian colleagues the Apollo 13 film, translating the dialogue “on the fly” as the movie played. (The Russians loved it.) But on the ISS, there is reportedly a copy of the Firefly DVD box set, as well as a healthy library of science fiction books.
Probably the best example of NASA and culture intersecting with popular culture today is the infamous “Mohawk Guy” (aka engineer Bobak Ferdowsi) who achieved his 15 minutes of national fame just for doing his job while the Mars Curiosity rover was performing its complex landing procedure. Even President Obama called him out on his hair, saying, “You guys are a little cooler than you used to be!” With all due respect, Mr President, they were always pretty cool.