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How science fiction helped inspire the modern space movement



(Video: Illustration by Elizabeth von Oehsen/The Washington Post; Mario Suriani/AP; Mary Evans/AF Archive/Cinetext Bildarchiv/Everett Collection; Baen Books; Ballentine/iStock)

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On a Monday evening last September, a NASA spacecraft intentionally blasted into an asteroid in deep space. The goal was planetary defense — protecting our planet from the kind of wayward rock that could end civilization as we know it. The unprecedented moment seemed surreal, with a camera from the craft sending footage back to Earth of a large asteroid getting bigger and bigger until — pow! — impact. It was both incredible and credible — equal parts jaw-dropping and successful in its proof of concept.

Who could have imagined such a thing?

Well, science fiction writers did.

“Crashing big things into celestial objects goes all the way back to the 1930s stories of Edmond ‘World Wrecker’ Hamilton,” Lisa Yaszek, regents professor of science fiction studies at Georgia Tech, wrote in a text message. “In ‘Thundering Worlds,’ we throw Mercury at an invading alien army to save the rest of the solar system.”

Space exploration is in a renaissance, as the private space industry takes on a growing presence in the United States, and as the space agencies of several countries have joined NASA in setting their sights on the moon and other deep-space goals. But like stars that sent their light long before Earth could see it, science fiction creators helped inspire this wave of interest decades ago.

“We may envision the outcome we want to achieve through the imagination and inspiration of our team members, or we may be inspired by concepts found in the art,” said NASA’s Barbara Brown, director of exploration research and technology programs. “And then science, engineering and math drive the rest.”

Space moguls like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Paul Allen have credited their interest in the final frontier to several written and filmed works. And that doesn’t include the NASA visionaries who love sci-fi.

“I’ve got a wall of autographs from Star Wars actors and actresses, and this year I got an autograph from William Shatner,” said Tracy Gill, deputy manager for lander ground operations in NASA’s Human Landing System Program. “I go to Comic-Con. I’m down in deep.”

Mark Wiese, manager for NASA’s Deep Space Logistics project, grew up with “The Jetsons” and now spends his mornings watching “The Expanse” while working out on his rowing machine.

“Beyond creating a climate where innovative thinking is acceptable,” said Chris McKitterick, who directs the Ad Astra Center for Science Fiction and the Speculative Imagination at the University of Kansas, “science fiction has influenced countless scientists, engineers and technologists to make real the things depicted in science fiction narratives.”

Based on a canvassing of experts ranging from the Kennedy Space Center to academia, here is a brief tour of the sci-fi works that were most influential in helping to pave a real-life path to the stars:

It’s hard to imagine space — or even the future itself — without thinking of “Star Trek.” The original 1960s series inspired early designs for everything from desktop computers to cellphones to Zoom. Bezos even fashioned Amazon’s Alexa based on the shipboard computer of the Starship Enterprise and named one of his holding companies “Zefram LLC” after the “Star Trek” character who invented the warp drive.

Ronald D. Moore, a screenwriter and producer who worked on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” beginning in 1988, took a tour of the SpaceX craft and couldn’t help but see the influence of the iconic series. “You get used to certain ideas for what a spaceship looks like, and it’s hard not to be impressed by the things you’ve seen,” said Moore, who is the creator of the Apple space series “For All Mankind.” “There are a lot of ways you can lay out controls, but they had chosen a black and white, high contrast, sleek design that could have been on any Hollywood set in the last 40 years.”

But there are more layers of influence. Moore, who said he watched the original “Star Trek” series five days a week growing up in the 1970s, was moved by the noble optimism of the series. “It was one of the very few scientific shows that says the future is going to turn out okay,” he said. “We are going to solve poverty and racism and disease. I’m inspired by the hope these problems are temporary setbacks.”

Robert Heinlein’s writings

Heinlein was a revolution unto himself. He relied on science and engineering to imagine brave new worlds, he overlaid timeless human traits into a futuristic setting, and he came up with protagonists Yaszek refers to as “creative capitalists,” who leveraged private industry and navigated government oversight to chase space glory. Sound familiar?

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In “The Man Who Sold the Moon,” central character D.D. Harriman “creates a coalition of corporations, governments, and media to create the first viable space company,” Yaszek wrote in an email, “and, not coincidentally, to secure the moon as his own private resource, free of government interference.” Heinlein also contributed to the screenplay of the 1950 film “Destination Moon,” which imagined a manned trip to the lunar surface — less than 20 years before the real thing happened.

Heinlein’s attention to not only space travel, but also the cooperation between the public and private sectors, lived on long after him. He devoted a portion of his estate to creating the Heinlein Prize for accomplishments in commercial space — won by Musk and Bezos.

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series

Asimov’s famous Foundation trilogy, written in the 1940s, centers on a mathematician who figures out a way to stave off the fall of a decaying empire. Part of Asimov’s legacy — and the genre’s legacy — is not just imagining a landscape somewhere out there, but also putting humans in a setting where they can potentially solve future problems. It’s a call to action that spoke to Musk and Bezos. Asimov had so much impact on Musk that he put a copy of the series into a Tesla roadster that was sent into orbit.

Asimov and Heinlein are considered by many to be among the “Big Three” of science fiction writing, along with Sir Arthur C. Clarke, who co-wrote the screenplay for “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which was based on Clarke’s novel.

Andy Weir’s tale of an astronaut stranded on Mars, which he first published on his own website, takes a unique place in sci-fi history. “The Martian” not only spawned a movie starring Matt Damon, it also boosted interest in NASA and ignited a new wonder about visiting the Red Planet. It was a new twist on an old story: A daring sci-fi plotline nourishes ideas about what we can do in real life. NASA’s Gill said he is asked about the film whenever he visits schools.

“They tried to grow their own food, which is something we’re working on,” Gill said. “It would be considered sci-fi, but it’s really something that we’re going for.”

The connection between science fiction and real-life spaceflight has cut both ways. Moore fondly recalls when he was working on the “Battlestar Galactica” series and NASA reached out. One of their astronauts wanted to call … from the space station. He was a fan of the show. “It blew my mind,” Moore said. “He was watching fake space on his laptop while real space is outside his window.” That astronaut, Garrett Reisman, became a key contributor to “For All Mankind,” which imagines an alternate space history in which the Soviet Union beats the United States to the moon.

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As space exploration has found new reverence, so has sci-fi itself. Fighting orbital threats is now a real-life exercise, and eye-rolling has given way to respect. “It’s always been viewed as kid stuff or not taken seriously,” Moore said. “It’s always had a second-class status. Sci-fi and fantasy always get pushed to the margins. I’ve seen in the last 20 years they’ve gotten more acclaim, more critical response.”

They’ve also become more diverse. Voices like those of Mary Robinette Kowal — author of the award-winning alt-history novel “Calculating Stars” — and Ted Chiang have grown the sci-fi oeuvre over the past several years. And just as space travel ambitions have spread to other countries, a number of international authors have emerged among science fiction’s elite. For example, Chinese novelist Liu Cixin’s “The Three-Body Problem” has sold more than 8 million copies, is being adapted into a Netflix series and drew President Barack Obama’s praise after he read it during his time in the White House. “The scope of it was immense,” Obama said in 2017.

Indeed, it seems the possibilities for space and sci-fi are now as limitless as ever. As Asimov himself said, “Science fiction writers and readers didn’t put a man on the moon all by themselves, but they created a climate of opinion in which the goal of putting a man on the moon became acceptable.”

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