(The following editorial first appeared in the March 1996 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Thirty-five others, on a wide range of topics, are collected in the 2002 Tor book Which Way to the Future? A different one (usually one not available in the book) will be posted here a few times a year. And, of course, brand-new ones appear in each issue of Analog.)
A rocket the size of a skyscraper stands on its pad, glowing white against the black of the sky. The searchlight beams that illuminate it seem to radiate from its hull, given visible form by the predawn mists. . . . At the moment of ignition, dazzlingly bright clouds billow forth from its base and quickly, silently fill half the sky. Slowly, then faster and faster, it begins to riseand then the sound comes. It thunders into the sky, fading in minutes to a faint dot fleeing the planet of its birth. . . . Seen from a catwalk high in the single cavernous room of the VAB, another like it seems impossibly huge as it waits its turn. . . . Then it, too, begins the long, slow procession out to the launch pad, riding the huge caterpillar treads of the crawler-transporter. . . .
As I watched these images in the movie Apollo 13, they evoked powerful memories of one of the two most spectacular events I've ever witnessed. I've never ridden a moon rocket, and I wasn't at the launch of Apollo 13. But I was at that of Apollo 17the lastwith press credentials that let me watch the spectacle from as close as anyone except the astronauts themselves. I was able to stand close to the waiting rocket spotlighted in wispy fog before dawn, and visit parts of the Vehicle Assembly Building that were off limits to the general public. So watching those parts of the movie, 23 years later, reawakened the whole sensation of a reality that had burned itself deeply into my memory.
What I got from the movie was far more than the picture on the screen and the sound from the speakers, because for me, that was real. My memory conjured up, automatically and with equal vividness, all the other components that the film couldn't provide directly. I could feel the dankness of the humid air that morning out at the launch pad, and see the beginnings of a red glow chipping away at the blackness in the east. I remembered the heaviness of my eyelids from having been up most of the night, and the inability to close them because of sheer fascination.
Apollo 17 left at night, and I remembered thinking that the billowing orange clouds that followed ignition were like the most spectacular sunrise I had ever seen, compressed into a few seconds. I remembered the silhouette and wing flaps of a startled heron flying frantically across the glow, just a few feet above my head. And I remembered my astonishment when the sound began to arrive some 17 seconds later, because I was so absorbed in the visual spectacle that I'd literally forgotten there would be sound, too.
I remembered how at that distance, the cracks and pops of the rocket that you hear on television quickly merged into a solid, steady drone of unbelievable powerreaching me as much through the soles of my feet as through my ears. I remembered the incongruous image of a little cattle egret walking placidly along behind the crawler-transporter, eating insects stirred up by the passage of something so huge that it sank five feet into the first road built for it. I remembered the exhilaration, at a time in my life when I had actually met almost no one who worked in science fiction or space research, of spending most of the week in the company of people whose names I had known since childhood, gathered here to watch a dream we had all long shared become real.
At least, in a very limited way.
Along with the exhilaration, there was a strong undertone of sadness and doubt at the Apollo 17 launch. 17 was the last Apollo, and what other future the space program had was quite uncertain. I remember seeing a group of spectators holding up a sign that said, "Apollo 17: The beginning, not the end," but their view was far from unanimous. Many people, some of them in highly influential positions, shared the extremely short-sighted view voiced by a politician in the Apollo 13 movie:"Why should we keep funding this program now that we've beaten the Russians to the Moon?"
At the moment, it often seems that that faction has had its way. Most readers of Analog, I suspect, view beating Russians to the Moon as the pettiest of motives for something like the Apollo program. If that's all it was, maybe it was a waste of money. It is perhaps one of history's best examples of doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. Its real importance should have been as the beginning of something much larger and of far wider importanceas Neil Armstrong so succinctly observed when he first set foot on the Moon.
That may still turn out to be the caseit had better, if we really care about humanity's long-range futurebut at the moment we seem to be in a time when hardly anybody is capable of striving to realize a big vision, or willing to take the risks necessary to do so. Apollo 13 reminded some of us of a time when some people did share big visions and weren't afraid to take risksand suggested the possibility of such attitudes to people too young to remember them.
But I found myself wondering as I watched it:how many of those younger peoplesay, under 30 or sosee them as real possibilities? For me, the movie was a powerful reminderbecause I've been there. But how many of those too young to remember could get anything like what I got from its images? How many of them really grasped the fact that this was not science fiction, but something that actually happened?
If they could, such a movie, seen by many people young enough to have their imaginations fired and young enough to do something about it, could contribute a lot to the renaissance of a real space movement. We might even see a new generation emerge that could dream big dreams, accept the need for big risks to achieve them, and respect people willing to take those risks.
But only if they could see such things as real possibilities in the real world, not "just another story." People in general find that notoriously difficult. It's far easier to care deeply about something when it touches you personally than when you've thought about it only in the abstract. I've seen the same people park without a thought in a handicapped space for which they had no needand go far out of their way to help a handicapped individual with whom they came face to face. I remember people devoting vast amounts of time and energy to opposing the Viet Nam War on philosophical groundsbut becoming a good deal less vocal in their opposition when they themselves ceased to be draft-prone.
A character in a novel of mine (and I with him) once agonized long and hard over the question of how to make people care enough to try to solve a big, long-range problem that would take a long time to solve, but whose solution wouldn't be urgently needed very soon. The only answer either of us could come up with was to convert it to an immediate, short-range, personal problem.
Humanity's need for space is that kind of a problem. You won't get many people to care about it until they perceive it, at a very deep level, as personal and real . The story of Apollo 13 is realbut may be difficult to perceive as such for anyone with no personal memories of that project and the excitement people felt about it.
On the other hand, writers and moviemakers are in the business of creating the feeling of reality, whether they're writing about real events or made-up ones. As well as I can tell, from my admittedly somewhat biased viewpoint, the makers of Apollo 13 did a good job of that. So maybe it doesn't really matter that much whether viewers perceive it as something that did happen, or just something that could. Either way, such a movieand perhaps others like itjust may play a significant part in stimulating a new generation who can dream big, and won't be afraid to be heroes.