Reconstructing 1966 by Watching Star Trek

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 8, 2016

[Soundtrack for this essay. Listen while you read if you were around in 1966, it may trigger some 1966 memories.]

I am obsessed with memory. Are memories lost or erased? Why do long forgotten memories return at odd moments? Are there keys to unlocking the hidden treasures of our minds?

I want to channel my fourteen-year-old self from 1966 using television as my crystal ball. “The Man Trap,” the first episode of Star Trek, which premiered fifty years ago today, will be my wormhole to the past. From there, I hope to follow links to lost memory segments – like defragging my mind. I’d love to own a time machine, and visit my younger self, but the best I can do is become a medium of memory. Generally we struggle to recall a few facts from the past – I want to strike the memory mother lode. That’s a difficult quest, because the ghosts of memory are chimeras of self-deceptions.

I rewatched “The Man Trap” to trick my brain into remembering 1966. And like panning for gold, it’s hard work for a few flecks of recollections. The internet offers a wealth of tools for triggering memories, revealing just another way 1966 is different from 2016. That’s one of the big revelations of this expedition. My assumption was 1966 would be much like 2016, with the same problems, and the same desires, but with different toys. That’s probably wrong. It seems our toys alter who we are.

1966-2016-Jim-Harris

The me on the left, is what I looked like when I first watched Star Trek in 1966. The 2016 me on the right is trying to imagine how the me on the left thought about the future in 1966. The 1966 me never imagined becoming the me on the right. Some of this essay will be about watching Star Trek, but most of it will be about remembering 1966. I can watch “The Man Trap” on a 56” HDTD today, and its 100% of what I saw on a 25” RCA color TV then, probably 200% considering high resolution. The trouble is, we’re watching with our 2016 minds. What I want to remember is how I thought about science fiction with my 1966 brain.

What I’ve learned by dwelling on this past, is reality was just as complex in 1966, but both my younger mind, and our culture in general, were much simpler. I was was able to find a larger sense of wonder, but discovered my science fiction universe was smaller. When I look at the original episodes of Star Trek today, they seem quaint, even primitive, but in their day, they were adult, and even sophisticated, compared to the television I had been watching from 1955-1965. Star Trek was mostly allegories about problems folks faced in 1966. Because I was a kid with adolescent dreams about the future, I saw those shows much different then. My hopes for my future were unrealistic. Star Trek fueled those impractical desires for millions of people. Why did we all see so much we wanted in a TV show?

As with my previous essay on “The Cage,” what I viewed at fourteen and sixty-four are two different shows. The show we view doesn’t change, but how we interpret it does. No one steps in the same river twice.

All during the summer of 1966 I had been seeing ads for Star Trek on NBC. Those previews were more exciting to me than memories of Christmas morning when I was a kid. That summer I was living in Miami, but by September, my mother left my father and took me and my sister to live in Charleston, Mississippi – a very small town. That was a cultural shock. When I tuned in that Thursday evening, I was needing escape, and wanted that show to be everything the previews promised.

But watching that first episode, with my high expectations, and seeing a story about a monster sucking salt out of people, was like getting a nice school shirt under the tree. Something I could use, but not exciting. For the previous two years, I had been gorging myself on Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Norton, Wells, Verne, and that science fictional knowledge made the first episode of Star Trek feel silly in comparison. Yet, everything else about the show, promised so much. The Enterprise, interstellar travel, transporter, lost alien civilizations, Mr. Spock were marvels to me in 1966. But aren’t they the same marvels today? After fifty years, we still haven’t achieved any of those things we long for in Star Trek. Sure, cell phones are great, but I wanted to go to the stars. I wanted a razor sharp analytical mind, free of pesky emotions, like Mr. Spock. I’m now an old man, with failing memory and health, illogical and emotional, who has never left Earth. Did I really believe anything in Star Trek would come true for me? For a short while, during the 1966-1967 television season, I had hope.

But my science fiction fantasies were no more realistic than my sex fantasies. Be honest if you’re a science fiction fan. As a kid, didn’t you want to live science fiction instead of watching or reading it? Think about this. If your 1966 self could time travel to September 8, 2016, wouldn’t she think you were living in a science fiction story?

Most people can’t remember everyday life before the science fiction boom in the 1970s. It’s like asking a college freshman today to write about daily life before the Internet. And remembering 1966 is exactly that. If the science fiction world had a calendar, we should mark BST (Before Star Trek) and AST (After Star Trek), with the year 1966 becoming year zero. By 1969, the year Star Trek ended, and Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, everything was radically different. I often tell people that 1964-1969 were the longest five years of my life because so much happened.

There had been plenty of science fiction on television before Star Trek, including The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, but the world still felt like the 1950s in their stories. Those shows were in black and white. The 1960s didn’t really get going until 1965-67. It needed the space race, civil rights, psychedelic drugs, a rock and roll revolution, color television, anti-war protests, and the counter culture. Living in rural Mississippi for nine months in 1966 was Leave It To Beaver , not Dangerous Visions.

I was a weird kid in 1966. I had realized I was an atheist in 1964, while I was living in Miami. Strange, but not too strange for the times. But being a atheist in the heart of the Bible Belt was something else. I had to constantly listen the people talk about God and Jesus. It felt like I was living in The Twilight Zone. I was also frightened by their racism, but that’s another 5o,000 words. I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut, but I always felt like a stranger in a strange land. I was a liberal, but lacked the intellectual education to understand why. Science fiction was my substitute for religion. I was ready for a different world, a different reality, a revolution. The 1960s, science fiction, Star Trek, NASA, psychedelic rock, the counter culture, was the perfect storm for transformation.

I wasn’t the only one waiting for the future, but I didn’t know that at the time. I thought I was singularly weird. You know how some kids like to believe they’re adopted because they can’t relate to their parents? I secretly fantasized that Martians had impregnated my mother. My dad was stationed at Wright-Patterson AFB where I was born in 1951, and if you remember your UFO lore, that’s not too far fetch for a X-Files daydream, at least for 1966. I didn’t believe that fantasy – I just wanted to believe.

Seeing the Future from 1966

By September, 1966, all but two of the Project Gemini flights had flown. We knew Americans were going to the Moon, and hoped before the end of the decade. The Gemini capsule is my all-time favorite space ship. I was crazy about the space program and would talk my parents into letting me stay home from school when there were launches. Back then, the space program would preempt television, sometimes for days. I was starting the 10th grade that September, my first year in high school. Back in Florida, in the 9th grade, at my junior high school, my friends and I had built a series of Estes rockets. But even those guys didn’t read science fiction.

People were thinking about bright futures. The 1964 New York World’s Fair (4/22/64-10/17/65) was fresh in our memories. It was futuristic, forward looking, and even featured a Space Park. The space race thrilled Americans in the 1960s. NASA only validated our science fiction dreams. The country was ready for Star Trek. I wish I knew how many closeted science fiction fans existed then.

At this time in 1966, I assumed for the duration of my life, the nightly news would feature stories of humans going further and further into space. I expected manned missions to Mars in the 1970s. I assumed the complete manned exploration of the solar system before I died. I dreamed of being an astronaut, or working for NASA, even though I didn’t apply myself in school like the young protagonists of Heinlein stories.

Star Trek premiered as the space race was blasting off. But so much that would unfold in the future was unexpected in 1966. No glimmer of personal computers, or the Internet, much less data mining, AI, or Deep Learning. We didn’t even have pocket calculators or cell phones. I did have cable TV in 1966, only because I lived in a rural town. Cable TV was invented to bring TV to rural communities. We still only had three channels: ABC, CBS and NBS. I don’t even remember seeing public TV until 1968 or 1969. We had lots of war, poverty, terrorism, riots, crime, injustice, inequality, disease, back then, but there was plenty of hope. We have less of all those horrible things today, but we have less hope. Why?

1966-Science-Club026-700

Back then I was the only person I knew that read science fiction. I’d tell everyone about what I was reading, but they just thought I was a strange. I joined the science club that year. That’s me on the right with the sweater with vertical stripes. Most of the other boys were also in the 4-H club. I remember giving a talk about cryogenics at one of the meetings. I had recently read The Door Into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein and had started researching suspended hibernation with frogs and liquid nitrogen. My classmates just stared at me blankly. I think even the science teacher thought I was over the galactic rim. I pitched him the idea for a science fair project of buying a weather balloon to launch around town to see if any of the residents of Charleston would call in a UFO report. I eventually settled on building a controlled environment with my friend Mack Peters, to show that plants could provide oxygen in space. We built a very large plywood box with a picture window, and sealed in two mice, some plants, and a florescent light. The mice survived for weeks until they escaped by gnawing a hole through the plywood. We did win a prize at the science fair.

And even though I loved science fiction, finding it was hard. In Florida, I had discovered a large cache at the Homestead Air Force Base library in 1964. Evidently, servicemen loved science fiction. But East Tallahassee High School had little. Charleston had a tiny library on the main square, in an old storefront. It was a rental library. Most of the books were ancient. I found a couple old books about UFOs written by George Adamski – thus the science fair project. And a copy of Worlds in Collision by Immanuel Velikovsky. Other than Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, I don’t remember finding any science fiction in Charleston. I never found a paperback SF book on a twirling rack at the drugstore where I bought my copies of Popular Science and MAD Magazine. To claim the nine months I spent living in Charleston, Mississippi was living in the science fiction wilderness is not an exaggeration.

Stranger in a Strange Land AvonThe Worlds of Robert A. HeinleinThe Mysterious Island

I brought only a few paperbacks to Charleston in late August. On September 8, 1966, Star Trek was born, and for a few months it was my main source of science fiction. I had no income. My mom had brought us to Charleston, where one of her sisters lived. I had mown lawns, babysat, and had a paper route in Florida before I moved to Mississippi. I’d eventually get a paper route in Charleston, and would join the Science Fiction Book Club. That would be a major transformation, because up until then I only stumbled on old science fiction in libraries, and had little knowledge of current science fiction. The SFBC would bring me up to date, and open a much larger world of science fiction. Probably 80% of what I had read was by Heinlein. From 1964-1966 I had searched out every Heinlein book I could find, and I believe I had read nearly all that he had published. My schools had the juveniles, and the Air Base library had all the rest. I was also a fan of Arthur C. Clarke. It was at this time I read most of the Winston Science Fiction series.

Rocket landed on fins

In 1966, my image of rockets of the future were those that landed on their tail fins, as someone once said, “the way God and Bob Heinlein intended.” Most of the science fiction I had read up until then was about exploring and colonizing the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Most of the black and white science fiction movies from the 1950s I saw on TV were either about the Moon or Mars, with a few invaders from the stars. Only some of Heinlein’s books were about traveling beyond the solar system. Thus a television series dedicated to exploring the galaxy was a big deal. Star Trek was a leap of faith, telling Americans the final frontier went way beyond landing on the Moon. The U.S.S. Enterprise was a breakthrough in space ship design, taking science fiction out of the 1950s.

Where I Got My News in 1966

My sources of news in 1966 were extremely limited. I believe I can name them all: the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite on some nights, The Today Show on rare occasions when I stayed home from school, Life Magazine and The Reader’s Digest when I visited other homes, Popular Science and Popular Mechanics which I bought myself at the drugstore, TV Guide, the only family magazine we all read, and National Geographic at school (but not to read, but for finding pictures of naked women – boys today have no idea how obscure porn was in 1966). Even though I’d eventually deliver the paper, I didn’t read it. Not much news to live on. But one good story in Popular Science and I’d have something exciting to think about for days. We have too many sources of news today.

My only news of music came from AM disc jockeys. I wouldn’t have The Rolling Stone or Crawdaddy for a few years. Documentaries were almost never shown. I read nothing about movies. In November, my cousin Robert brought me to his house in Memphis, and he and his wife Charlotte took me to see Fantastic Voyage at the drive-in for my 15th birthday. One movie in nine months. Which also explains why Star Trek was so compelling. However, the 1966/67 television season was probably the most exciting in my whole life. Besides Star Trek, and old favorites, I watched several new shows: The Monkees, The Time Tunnel, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., The Smothers Brothers, Tarzan, The Rat Patrol, The Invaders, ABC Stage 67, That Girl, and The Dating Game. Most of my knowledge about the world came from fictional TV shows. Life without the internet gave us lots of time for TV. The following year, after I had moved back to Miami, I got a job in a grocery store after school, working from 4-10, and lost my TV habit.

Star Trek:TOS “The Man Trap”

“The Man Trap” is described in extensive detail at Wikipedia, so I won’t repeat what it does so well. While I thought the salt vampire of the first show was stupid, I was totally seduced by the U.S.S. Enterprise. I had not yet seen Forbidden Planet in 1966, that wouldn’t happen until my first science fiction convention in 1972, so I didn’t know about the precedent of a spaceship on a peaceful mission of galactic exploration. The diverse crew of the Enterprise was a revelation. I wanted to believe in such a future, one where humans would routinely travel between the stars. I had no idea how Star Trek would play out, or how each episode would be a story about something different. Nor did this first episode give us a sense of the crew, and who they would become.

The Man Trap 1

In terms of sense of wonder science fiction, the salt vampire had little to offer. Even in 1966 I didn’t believe aliens could shape shift, or create such illusions. That seemed like something out of mythology, and I didn’t like fantasy stories. Ever since reading After Worlds Collide by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie, I’ve always been thrilled by stories about discovering the remains of lost alien civilizations. I was sorry “The Man Trap” didn’t go into that.

Because this was the first show, I wouldn’t learn until later, that the series focused in on certain kinds of incidents to build around plots, and it never spent too much time explaining life aboard the Enterprise, or go into details about how things existed on the planets they were visiting. The idea that two humans were left on a planet for years to do alien archeology didn’t seem practical. Where did they get their food? They only wanted salt? Realistically, they’d ask for tons of food and supplies, and hundreds of pounds of salt, just to fit the existing plot. To be realistic, it should have been about a large team of scientists and their support. But Star Trek didn’t go into such realism.

I wouldn’t learn until much later the limitations of production budgets on plots. Star Trek had to paint in extremely limited impressionistic strokes. We never see many of the Enterprise’s 400+ crew. For this first story, having the captain and doctor go down to see an old friend seemed like a logical away crew. We wouldn’t learn until later that Kirk gets most of the air time, although having the captain always lead the missions planet-side is sort of like having a general take point when a squad goes penetrating enemy lines.

The Allegorical View

In 2016 “The Man Trap” was actually a more appealing show than what my younger self saw in 1966. The plot was still broken, and actually seemed to be two plots welded together. I could easily imagine an unhappy writer using the monster as a metaphor for his spouse, maybe written during the middle of a divorce, with salt standing in for money. The idea that a woman appearing different to everyone who sees her is quite interesting. At this phase of the story the salt vampire is not a shape shifter, but puts illusions in every mind that sees her. At one point three men are looking at the salt vampire and see three different women. That’s not shape shifting. It’s revealing the same ability as the Talosians, but fans of the show wouldn’t know that until “The Menagerie.”

The Man Trap 2

In the second part of the story, which takes place on the Enterprise, the monster appears to each person in the same disguise, and thus could be a shape shifter. This is more akin to The Thing. That presents a different kind of allegorical theme, of living with people who look normal but are something else. That was a popular theme during the era of fearing communist infiltration. From what Wikipedia says, this screenplay was written and rewritten several times. Roddenberry was notorious for doctoring stories. Thus, there’s no consistent allegory like we had in “The Cage.” I assume from too many cooks in the kitchen.

“The Man Trap” has always been one of my least favorite Star Trek episodes. It’s nowhere near as bad as some to come, but it hangs in my memory as a bad first impression. It’s a shame the story didn’t stick with the first allegory, of a woman who appears different to each man who sees her. Especially if they had jettison the salt vampire idea, and just had her as the last of a race of alien sirens. “The Man Trap” has gotten better with extra viewings, because I see elements the writers intended for adults, things that would have bored my younger self.

Star Trek provided one hour of science fiction escape each week, but it was 1966 music that continues to define that year for me. I still regularly listen to songs from 1966.

The Soundtrack for 1966

The popular music for 1966 is rather funky, but not in a Bootsy Collins way, but more like this food seems kind of funky. At least for some hits like “Winchester Cathedral,” “Lil’ Red Riding Hood,” “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” “Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35,” “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!,” “Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron,” and many more. They were not the kind of songs you wanted stuck on continuous rotation.   I considered 1965 to be the pinnacle of pop music, even today. 1964 had been a tremendous year with The Beatles and the British invasion, but 1965 had been even more astounding with the arrival of folk rock and Bob Dylan’s transformation. For some reason, 1966 was a transition year to the psychedelic 1967.

If you look at the Cash Box Top 100 for 9/3/66 you’ll see what I mean, or look at the Cash Box Year-End Chart: 1966.

While I was in Charlestown I didn’t have access to a record store, but I may have joined the Columbia Record Club during that year. I just can’t remember. I had just started buying albums in 1966 when I lived in Miami, and the first album I bought was the soundtrack to Our Man Flint. The next album I remember getting is If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears by The Mamas and the Papas. There were many great 1966 albums that I eventually got, but I don’t think I got them before 9/8/66.

Our-Man-FlintThe_Mamas_&_The_Papas_-_If_You_Can_Believe_Your_Eyes_And_Ears

I lived musically by AM radio that year. My all-time favorite album comes from 1966, Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan, but I didn’t own a copy until 1968. My bedroom was a small attic room with slanted ceilings. I played my radio from the time I got home from school, while I slept, and until I left for school the next day. These are some of the songs that are burned into my memory bank that come from 1966.

  • “I Am a Rock” – Simon & Garfunkel
  • “California Dreamin’” – The Mamas and the Papas
  • “Lightnin’ Strikes” – Lou Christie
  • “Time Won’t Let Me” – The Outsiders
  • “Lady Godiva” – Peter and Gordon
  • “Shapes of Things” – The Yardbirds
  • “Cherish” – The Association
  • “96 Tears” – ? & the Mysterians
  • “Monday, Monday” – The Mamas and the Papas”
  • “You Can’t Hurry Love” – The Supremes
  • “Reach Out I’ll Be There” – The Four Tops
  • “Summer in the City” – Lovin’ Spoonful
  • “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” – Jimmy Ruffin
  • “Paint It, Black” – The Rolling Stones
  • “When a Man Loves a Woman” – Percy Sledge
  • “Paperback Writer” – The Beatles
  • “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” – The Supremes
  • “Kicks” – Paul Revere & the Raiders
  • “Walk Away Renée” – The Left Banke
  • “Daydream” – The Lovin’ Spoonful
  • “Sounds of Silence” – Simon and Garfunkle
  • “Secret Agent Man” – Johnny Rivers
  • “Barbara Ann” – The Beach Boys
  • “You Baby” – The Turtles
  • “These Boots are Made for Walking” – Nancy Sinatra
  • “Strangers in the Night” – Frank Sinatra
  • “Last Train to Clarksville” – The Monkees
  • “Bus Stop” – The Hollies
  • “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” – Cher
  • “Nowhere Man” – The Beatles
  • “(You’re My) Soul & Inspiration” – The Righteous Brothers
  • “God Only Knows” – The Beach Boys
  • “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” – James Brown
  • “Homeward Bound” – Simon & Garfunke“
  • “River Deep Mount High” – Ike & Tina Turner
  • “Land of 1000 Dances” – Wilson Pickett
  • “Poor Side of Town” – Johnny Rivers
  • “As Tears Go By” – The Rolling Stones
  • “Eight Miles High” – The Byrds
  • “Devil With the Blue Dress” – Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels
  • “Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?” – Lovin’ Spoonful
  • “Psychotic Reaction” – The Count Five
  • “Rain” – The Beatles

Cars of 1966

In Mississippi at the time, kids could get their license at 15. Because I was 14 until November, I daydreamed a lot about cars.  Not as much as I fantasized about girls, but almost as much. My parents were on the opposite end of the well-to-do spectrum, so the family car wasn’t much. Living in a small town is weird, because class distinctions are sharper. I envied my classmates whose parents could afford stylish cars. 1966 was the year of the swept back design, which was very futuristic. There was a cute blonde girl in my class whose dad owned a Oldsmobile Toronado. I sat behind this girl, who had the habit of twirling a lock of her long hair in one spot, which made small bald patch. She was still cute though, and I lusted after her, and her dad’s Toronado.

For some reason that year, I loved the way cars looked from going away.

1966-Toronado-front1966-Toronado
1966-Charger-rear1966-Charger
1966-Marlin
1966-Mustang

What Remembering 1966 Is Teaching Me

Time travel is probably absolutely impossible, but a fun concept in science fiction. In the first season of Star Trek, Kirk and crew return to 1969 via a dubious method in D. C. Fontana’s “Tomorrow is Yesterday.” The Enterprise made several visits to the past throughout the series and in a later movie. I wonder what it would really be like to return to 1966 and walk the streets of Charleston, Mississippi again, and maybe talk to my younger self. It’s a fun idea to entertain, but I truly don’t believe time travel is possible.

To me, my favorite songs, books, television shows and movies from 1966, as well as certain news events, and all my memories of what happened to me personally, define the year. I could go watch, read and listen to a completely different selection of books, songs, movies and television shows from 1966, and my concept of that year would be different. Or would it? Planet Earth had about three billion human residents back then, with each of them experiencing 1966 in a different way. Time is a funny thing. We perceive time as change, but if we can find things from 1966 that haven’t changed, say an old house that hasn’t changed much, or a place in the woods that looks the same, does it now feel like we’re returned to the past? Some physicists have claimed that time is an illusion and doesn’t exist, but that can’t possible be true. 2016 is not 1966.

1966-Charleston-House2016-Charleston-House

Top=1966, Bottom=2016. My house was the yellow one.

I got on Google Maps and did a Street View trip to where I used to live in 1966. That house is still there. I suppose if I could walk inside that house it would trigger many more memories. Ditto for walking the streets of Charleston, or the halls of my old school. It’s extremely science fictional that I can visit Charleston via Street View. Did anyone predict that? Our brains process our experiences unconsciously, and delete memories. Can you imagine being a robot that could perfectly record all it’s input from its digital senses. They could VR the past by playing those recordings, and the past should feel identical. I think many of us wish we could do that trick – but we can’t. Our brains retain only tiny bits of the past. We can supplement our ghostly memories with solid artifacts from back then, like books, albums, movies and television shows. But I’m not sure how much time we should spend in the long ago – why reject the now for the when?

My friend Annie and I are going through all the episodes of the original Star Trek series in order. It’s a fun trip down memory lane, but I’m not sure how rewarding such travels are for our souls. Remembering old hopes and dreams can be inspiring, and even regenerate new hopes. But were those hopes just another kind of opium dream? Science fiction has always been a coping tool for me, but it’s never been a cure. I’ll never travel to the Moon, Mars or worlds beyond in other solar systems. Ultimately, it might not be the dream of the final frontier that makes Star Trek worthy, but its allegories for living here and now, that is its true legacy.

I could keep writing for thousands of words. Writing this essay has proved that memories lie dormant, and can be found. The more I write, the more that well up. Before I started this experiment I didn’t think my dad had lived with us during our nine months in Charleston, but I unearthed a memory of him, of the two of us staying in a downtown hotel in Memphis. I assume he came to visit to talk my mother into returning to Miami, because we did in March of 1967. I also remember how little my father and mother told me and my sister about what was going on with them. I remember observing their fights, but not what was said. I wish I could remember if either of my parents, or my sister, had watched Star Trek with me, and what they had said.

I realize these memories I recall here were just for the Fall of 1966. Memories of Winter, Spring and Summer also came flooding back. I also remembered my time with science fiction was solitary, and I had a much larger social life then. I made two friends while I was in Charleston, Ben White and Mack Peters, plus my sister and I spent a lot of time with our cousins Gary and Liz, who were our age. And we also spent a lot of time with my aunts and uncles. My mother was one of five sisters, and her grandmother had been married to a guy who outlived several wives, making me related to about half of north Mississippi.

I hadn’t realized until now how isolated science fiction made me. Reading science fiction in 1966 was about as solitary as masturbation. Hell, my buddies and I probably spent more time joking about jacking off than talking about Star Trek. Science fiction just wasn’t on the map then. It’s strange how science fiction has become so damn popular these last fifty years. Why? Countless books have been written about the enduring success of Star Trek. Has any television show ever had such an impact? The only competition Star Trek has had for its kind of story has been Star Wars.

And I think we need to ask how science fiction appeals to us. Is it a literature that prepares us for the future because we all hope to travel to the stars? Or is science fiction like the stories the ancient Greeks told each other, the ones we now call Greek Mythology. Is science fiction just allegories for our times? Maybe literal interpretation of allegories is a product of our times, because we have the technology to make things real. Maybe the Greeks, Romans, and Hebrews of the B.C.E., all knew their stories were only stories, and just used them as entertainment and metaphor. We marvel that Star Trek communicators became flip-phones, but wasn’t that an accident? The creators of Star Trek weren’t trying to predict the future, or even inspire it. They were out to make a buck, and the writers, actors, producers, and all the other people that worked on the show, merely wanted a steady paying gig.

The more I watch Star Trek in 2016, the more I see it was about 1966. But why in 1966, did we hope Star Trek would become our future? It hasn’t. I’m sure there are young people in 2016 that hope Star Trek unfolds in their lifetime, and when they look back from 2076, lament their future didn’t turn out as expected either.

The irony of all this, is 2016 is a science fiction world, at least compared to the world of 1966. And it’s getting more science fictional every day. Soon we’ll have driverless cars, practical personal robots, and probably intelligent machines. Astronomy and SETI may make breakthroughs in the next 50 years that was astound us. But what we don’t remember is how science fictional 1966 was to people who could remember 1916. That was the year my mother was born. My mother’s mother was born in 1881. She came to Memphis to work as a secretary before the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk. I remember in 1966 my grandmother telling me God wouldn’t let astronauts land on the Moon, that it was too unnatural. She was born before radio, cars, television and airplanes.

I didn’t become an astronaut, but in 1971 I started studying computers at a tech school. That turned out to be my science fictional destiny. Along the way, I learned that Earth is a much better planet to live on than Mars. 2016 is a far more exciting time to live in than 1966. I can’t imagine living without the internet or smartphones. And we know so much more now. I can remember the astronomy books I read in 1966, with muddled black and white photos that amazed us. I can buy an amateur telescope and CCD camera that surpasses the photographs Mt. Palomar was taking back then. Even my toy Raspberry Pi is more powerful than the best mainframes of 1966.

We should be asking why we even bother thinking about Star Trek in 2016. What does it offer us that we can’t get in real life.

Happy 50th Birthday, Star Trek!

classic-star-trek-montage

JWH

Rethinking Star Trek: “The Cage”

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 22, 2016

“The Cage” was the first pilot for Star Trek, made in 1964-65. Wikipedia has an excellent history and plot summary, so I won’t repeat it. I’m sure most fans remember this proto Star Trek with Mr. Spock as the only main character from the regular series. The sets, special effects, costumes, models, gadgets, were are all much more primitive than what we see in later episodes. However, the story is exactly the kind of story Star Trek was known for, and was later recycled into the two-part episode “The Menagerie.”

spock smiles the-cage

What I discovered watching “The Cage” a half-century after seeing “The Man Trap” on 9/8/66, is a different impression of Star Trek. I was never a fanatical fan, but I loved the original series, and watched all the later series as they came out. To be honest, I’ve always thought of Star Trek as Sci-Fi Lite. Quite often television and movies make science fictional ideas look silly, and all too often I criticized Star Trek for not being scientific. In recent decades I found it almost impossible to sit through the old shows because I lost the patience for 20th century television. But something in me changed recently, when I began watching the old shows as a way of understanding myself as I was fifty years ago.

For some reason, I got into a headspace where Star Trek worked again. I was able to forget the limitations of 1960s television production, my skepticism about scientific plausibility, the silliness of plotting, and enjoyed the show as its creators intended. This time around I discovered Roddenberry was less into science fiction than I remembered.

As I watch each episode with my friend Annie, I’m actually looking forward to seeing Star Trek again. We’re playing the series in order the episodes were broadcast in 1966-69 using Netflix streaming. Annie and I were both born in 1951, and we watched the show when it first came out, me in Mississippi and Florida, and she in New Mexico. This time traveling is bringing back memories of discovering science fiction, first in television and movies in the 1950s, and then in books in the early 1960s. Star Trek actually repackages all the common science fictional ideas of the times. We like to think of Star Trek as being an original television series, and it was, but sometimes it was The Beatles, but quite often it was The Monkees. Don’t get me wrong, The Monkees had some great tunes, but they were manufactured hits. What fascinates me now is how Roddenberry repacked 1950s science fiction for his 1960s philosophy.

Gene Roddenberry never had the science fiction originality of science fiction writers of the 1950s. I don’t think he was even a big fan of the genre before discovering Star Trek fans in the 1970s. Except for a few episodes written by science fiction writers, Star Trek wasn’t contemporary with 1960s written science fiction. The New Wave in science fiction hit just before the series premiered. Watching these old shows again in the 21st century lets me see them differently from how they appeared in 1966. This time around, I’m focusing on the history of science fiction, and the ideas science fiction were exploring at that time.

Watching these shows again, I realized that Star Trek was less about science fiction, and more about allegory. Roddenberry was using science fiction to express his political beliefs. For those who didn’t live through 1964-1966, these were exciting years intellectually. Science fiction is the main ingredient in Star Trek, but there’s many other ingredients as well, including 1950s television, Civil Rights, feminism, anti-war, Pop Art, the Counter Culture, and so on. Each screenwriter brought something different, and Roddenberry squeezed all of it into allegories.

The Allegorical View

cage-talosian

The words Talos and Talosians sound close to theology and theologians. In “The Cage” the Talosians have god-like powers. Gene Roddenberry was an atheist, and “The Cage” seems less about aliens from outer space, and more about beings from heaven. The show is about how theologians keep us imprisoned by our thoughts and the promise of heaven. Throughout the episode, the Talosians struggle to convince Captain Pike (Jeffrey Hunter) to accept their fantasies for reality, tempting him with a beautiful woman, Vina (Susan Oliver). They want Pike and Vina to play Adam and Eve, and repopulate their planet. To be their servants, their hands in the physical world. It’s very Biblical.

The symbolism of this first show is rather striking. Humans reject god, leaving a rundown Eden to escape into space. Vina stays home, trapped in god’s delusion, disfigured by god’s image of what she should be. Rewatch “The Cage” and think allegory rather than science fiction. Think about the last temptation of Christ.

The Science Fiction

Pike-holding-Phaser

The warp drive was one of Star Trek’s most famous science fictional ideas, and it evolved over time. Science fiction has come up with many ideas about traveling faster than light. Ultimately, they’re all gimmicks to further the plot. In Star Trek, interstellar travel takes about as much time to get between the stars as ocean liners traveling between the continents did in the 1960s. In Star Wars, interstellar travel is faster than jet travel between countries in the 1970s. Science fiction seldom deals with the reality that interstellar travel, which will probably take centuries, if we’re lucky.

The transporter was another “invention” of Star Trek,  even though matter transporters had existed in science fiction before 1966. The story that’s always told, is the producers of Star Trek couldn’t afford using a shuttle craft, so they came up with the transporter to save on production costs. That’s fine, but there is a huge logic hole in their design. Why does it take a machine to send people, but not another machine to receive people? If they could grab people off a planet, why didn’t Scotty just beam Kirk from the bridge to the planet? Why did they always have to go to the transporter room to beam down, but didn’t need a machine to beam up. Think of the jokes Scotty could have played on Kirk, beaming him to a different Yeoman’s bedroom every night after he had gone to sleep.

Also, how many exabytes of data are required to describe a human in transporter logic? And the transporter appears to beam people faster than light. Does that require warping space? And how are people decoded at a distance without a machine?

The aliens in Star Trek often had super-powers, or even god-like powers. The Talosians could create perfect delusions in humans. The first regular episode of Star Trek, “The Man Trap,” the creature was called a shape shifter, but obviously that was incorrect, because it appeared in one scene to several men, looking different to each. It evidently had the same power as the Talosians. But think about what such a power means. First it means faster-than-light data communication between two minds, with very massive amounts of data transferred. And with multiple humans, means multitasking at a tremendous rate.

Our minds can create very realistic, vivid hallucinations, but only when our senses are turned off. Like when we’re asleep and dreaming, or in a sensory deprivation tank, or we’ve taken some powerful drugs. Even then, the details of hallucinations are never even close to details of how we experience reality processed through our senses. Creating perfect illusions is impossible. This is only a gimmick for the allegory.

I don’t know why, but most “advanced” aliens are always given PSI-powers in science fiction. These super-powers are always very similar to the powers we attribute to gods. There’s no scientific reasons to think such powers exist in us, or aliens. Quite often in Star Trek, Kirk and crew meet aliens with such god-like powers. In each case Kirk is required to outthink such beings, and he does, although often with silly gimmicks. I get the feeling Roddenberry hated authority, religion, and any kind of mind control, and many of his science fiction stories reflect this in allegory. Often Roddenberry is much closer to The Twilight Zone than Astounding/Analog. But then again, maybe I need to revisit 1950s/1960s science fiction to see if it was more allegorical than science fiction.

To me, real science fiction was always about preparing us to go to the stars. Fans think that’s true of Star Trek. I’m not so sure, at least for the original series. My hunch is Roddenberry didn’t get the science fiction religion until after Star Trek:TOS. As I watch the shows, I’m wondering if the fans didn’t read the pro-space theology into the original series. I’ll see as we watch.

JWH

Our Fantasy For Interstellar Travel is Dying

For over 50 years I’ve been reading science fiction hoping humanity will someday travel to the stars and settle other planets. Obvious other people do too, just witness the frenzy behind the new Star Wars movie, which opens on the 18th. Galactic empire stories are the new locale for big sword and sorcery epics. (Isn’t it bizarre that both are enamored with aristocracy?) What deep rooted drive makes us want to colonize distant lands? Why are we enchanted by alien landscapes, strange superior beings and their surreal cultures?

Of course, the film Avatar probably reveals our true intentions. We’d do to other worlds, what we’ve done to ours.

A Heritage of Stars - Clifford Simakavatar

I just finished A Heritage of Stars by Clifford D. Simak, which questioned our desire for interstellar travel. It was published back in 1977. A Heritage of Stars is a quaint little book, not particularly good, unless you relish 1950s style science fiction, where Simak, in his seventies, questions many of the tropes of our genre. This same questioning was evident in Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel. Both Simak and Robinson wonder at the wisdom of traveling to the stars. The distances are beyond fantastic, almost beyond comprehension. Characters in Star Wars zoom between planetary systems quicker than we travel between cities on Earth in our jet airliners. The absurdity of that strains the boundaries of absurdity. It’s only slightly less delusional than thinking we can travel to other worlds by dying.

Aurora KSMCity - Clifford Simak

Simak covers many of the most famous themes of science fiction in A Heritage of Stars. The setting is in the far future Earth, a thousand years after the collapse of a great technological civilization that went to the stars, and built intelligent robots. In some ways, it’s a variation of Simak’s classic City. America is now a post-apocalyptic landscape of roving tribes who collect the heads of robots for ceremonial voodoo. They are primitive people who can’t conceive of space travel or intelligent machines. The story is about a young man named Cushing who takes shelter in a closed-wall town, built around a former university. Cushing learns to read, discovering that humans used to be great. Cushing eventually finds mysterious references to “Place of Going to the Stars” and sets out on a quest to find it. Much like a L. Frank Baum Oz book, Cushing gathers along the way a motley assortment of strange characters to take up his quest too. A witch, a surviving robot, a horse, a man who talks to trees and a autistic like girl who can commune with the transcendental.

Along the way, Simak’s characters discover what happened to mankind, and allows Simak to philosophize about why we wanted to go to the stars. Simak also wonders if mankind is smart enough to survive his addiction to technology. Even forty year ago Simak realized that interstellar travel isn’t very practical, questioning his science fictional roots. Had Simak given up on the Final Frontier dream because he was getting old? He was in his mid-seventies at the time. I’m in a my mid-sixties and I too have given up on colonizing distant worlds. Does getting older make us realize our childhood fantasies have no foundation in reality?

Earth Abides - George R. StewartThe World Without Us - Alan Weisman

Science fiction is mostly high tech fantasy that reveals the same impulses humans have always shown. This world and life doesn’t seem to be enough for us. We want more. But the reality appears that this life and planet is all we’ll ever have. Like many other science fiction stories Simak wonders if the future of humanity will be one where we give up technology and live nomadic lives much like how Homo sapiens lived its first two hundred thousand years of existence. I can’t help but believe Simak was greatly influenced by Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. And I believe Simak would have been blown away by Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, a philosophical thought experiment that wonders what Earth would be like if humans just disappeared.

Shouldn’t we psychoanalyze why science fictions two strongest themes are space travel and the post-apocalypse? Why are galactic empires always suffering collapse and revolutions? Isn’t it rather telling that our favorite fantasies feature feudal governments and primitive weapons? The heroes of Star Wars fight with swords made of light. Is the reason why conservatives want smaller governments is because they don’t have the genes to imagine large ones?

Childhoods End - Arthur C ClarkeMore Than Human - Theodore Sturgeon

Strangely, Simak reveals a problem that NASA wouldn’t discover until years later. Mainly, we can collect the data, even store the data, but we won’t always be able to access the data. One of the conundrums that Cushing and his crew face is humans went to the stars but what they discovered is locked up in technology that their post-apocalyptic world can’t access. I felt let down by Simak’s solution. Let’s just say that Simak’s hope for humanities failures is to discover supernatural powers. That was a common theme in 1950s science fiction, especially Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End and its 1960s retelling, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Theodore Sturgeon was never much of a technological science fiction writer, and went right for the ESP solution in More Than Human. Even the hard science Heinlein had hopes humans would discover magical powers. I guess they all grew up reading Oz books.

I feel let down by Simak, although I enjoyed A Heritage of Stars well enough. I believe he ends his story with false hope. Simak believes humanity can keep trying until it gets it right. Yet, he doesn’t attempt to describe what is getting it right might be. Not long ago I read a passage about Neanderthals that shook me up. It stated for the entire length of its long species’ lifetime, Neanderthals never showed any progress after achieving a certain level of development with their stone tools. For hundreds of thousands of years they made the same tools. We Homo sapiens feel superior because we’re quite dazzling with our technological innovation. However, I’m not sure we’re not like the Neanderthals in that we’ve continued to follow the same emotional and psychological patterns that we have for the last two hundred thousand years. We can’t get away from our Old Testament mindset, and without technology, we’d all live pretty much like North American tribal people before the advent of Western invaders, or the people who lived on the Russian Steppes and spoke the language that inspired all the Indo-European languages.

Kim Stanley Robinson has a much more sophisticated lesson about why we won’t be colonizing planets orbiting distant suns in his book Aurora. We are adapted to our biosphere. It’s extremely complex and interrelated. It’s extremely doubtful. even if we could travel the distance to another stellar system, we could integrate into another biosphere. Humans were made for this planet and biological landscape. We could probably export our biosphere to other barren planets if the conditions were right, but even that is doubtful.

Simak doesn’t give much focus to the intelligent machines of his story, but I’m guessing artificial intelligence has more potential validity than any other theme that science fiction explores. Simak points out that robots are the true species for interstellar travel. If Star Wars was realistic, galactic empires would be governed and populated by C3POs and R2D2s. Biological creatures would always stay on the planet of their origins, comfortably bound to their biospheres.

Simak wrote A Heritage of Stars near the end of his life, probably speculating about what will happen to humanity after his death, and revealing a certain level of age related pessimism about the future. I don’t know if he was aware of environmental catastrophes—he seemed to fear our mishandling of technology. Forty years later, our race doesn’t seem any wiser, but it does seem more suicidal.

More and more, I’m becoming an atheist to the religion I grew up with, science fiction. It’s not that I’m going to stop reading science fiction, but I no longer believe it. I study science fiction like many former believers still study The Bible. Both The Bible and science fiction reveal our deepest inner hopes. For some reason humans want to go to Heaven or Alpha Centauri. We need to understand why, and also need to understand why we’re turning our own biosphere into Hell.

Essay #984 – Table of Contents

Are We Going To Mars Because of Science Fiction?

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 24, 2015

The new movie, The Martian, based on Andy Weir’s book of the same name, is generating tremendous buzz, for the movie, for science fiction fans who love books that inspire space travel, and for NASA types who feel Mars is the place to go next. Last year I wrote a review of the novel, “When I Was Martian” where I gushed about the book but wondered if I really wanted to go to Mars. Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s I thought Mars must be a wonderful place from all the science fiction I read. However, over the decades, all those robotic missions have convinced me Mars is only a suitable destination for robots and geologists.

The-Martian-Matt-Damon-Hamilton-Watch-5

Millions of people still want to go to Mars, and NASA recently released gargantuan plans to visit Mars by 2039. On the other hand, yesterday I read three essays questioning our desire to go to Mars. The first, by Ed Regis in the New York Times, “Let’s Not Move to Mars” is probably the most critical. Regis wonders why anyone would be willing to live in a capsule with the living space of a SUV for seven to nine months, only to get to a destination with little atmosphere, the scenery all rocks, and far colder than any place on Earth.

Over at The Guardian, Chris Chambers writes about the psychological impact of travel to Mars. He makes going to prison an appealing alternative to traveling to Mars. And this blogger compares colonizing Mars to going to Hell. I’m not sure how many people have The Right Stuff to get to Mars—to actually enjoy the experience. I doubts its many.

I have to wonder if most people who dream of going to Mars do so because of science fiction. I’ll admit I wanted to go to Mars because I pictured Mars like the novels of Robert A. Heinlein (Red Planet, The Rolling Stones, Podkayne of Mars, Stranger in a Strange Land). I’ve known guys older than myself who dreamed of Barsoom, the Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs. But is even the Mars of Kim Stanley Robinson and Ben Bova any less romantic? Compared to reports sent back by NASA robots, can any work of fiction convey the true brutality of living on the Red planet without being escapist?

Mars can get as cold as -225F, and the surface air is as thin as being four times the height of Mt. Everest here on Earth. Why would anyone want to live there—or even visit? My best guess is science fiction. How can stories make us so irrational? Fiction is appealing. Fiction is an alternative to reality. If we analyze ourselves, does reading reveal a desire for adventure and travel? Or does reading reveal we’re bored with our lives and just want to go somewhere different? Or even want to be different people? Kids used to want to be astronauts when they were famous and legendary, but now all the people who fly up into space are mostly nameless. If I was young I might still want to go to Mars, even knowing what I know now. It’s appeal is that strong. Why?

Like I said at the beginning of this essay, The Martian is creating a lot of excitement, both for the movie and the desire see manned missions actually go to the Red planet. Since the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomy has been going through a renaissance larger than what it went through in the time of Kepler, Copernicus and Galileo. I think space exploration gives some people a sense that existence has great meaning. Does that sense of purpose come from a love of science, or science fiction?

Aurora KSM

Yet, even science fiction is becoming more realistic about the possibilities of space travel. In his new book Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson questions the wisdom of leaving Earth. If science fiction is guilty of overselling space travel should it now be responsible for removing the false romanticism its given the final frontier? How many people would remove their names from the Mars One mission if they read Aurora?

I still think it’s possible that some humans will want to colonize the Moon and Mars. Whether they are thrill seekers or final frontier missionaries is another issue. To live on the Moon or Mars will require living mostly underground, in highly controlled environments that are always one technological failure from extinction. All the science fiction stories we now read about cities on the Moon and Mars are 99.99% unrealistic fantasies. Too much of science fiction is about transferring Earth living to space life, and it won’t be like that. Should science fiction be held responsible for false advertising?

I must admit, even my hopes for the realistic possibilities of space travel are still driven by the science fiction I read. My guess is anyone who hasn’t been enchanted by the genre would see that space is only suited for robots. 

JWH

Would You Go To Mars?

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, December 6, 2014

Have you ever wanted to go to Mars?  Probably not, but if you have, have you ever wondered why? What’s the appeal of leaving Earth and traveling to another planet? Over 200,000 people signed up for Mars One, which hopes to start sending four people to Mars every two years starting in 2024, in one way missions. NASA is talking about manned missions to Mars in the 2030s. China also has its sights on Mars.

Why do so many people want to go to Mars?  At National Geographic I found this short film, which interviews five people that are volunteering for the Mars One mission, even though it means not coming back.

Are these five people just unhappy with their life on Earth, and hope to find something new on Mars?  I think that’s how I was in my teens, back in the 1960s, when I used to dream of going to Mars. I read a lot of science fiction, and I guess I was seduced by the romance of adventure and excitement. The trouble is my personality type isn’t suited for adventure and excitement. I recently wrote “When I Was A Martian” about growing up thinking like these people in the film.

I can’t imagine Mars One succeeding before NASA or China, but I guess it’s possible. If there were ten times as many volunteers for Mars One, two million people wanting to go, all willing to donate one hundred dollars a month to the cause, that would generate enough private money to fund such an ongoing space mission. But would the lucky four who got to go to Mars be just average people like in the film, or would Mars One pick the right stuff astronauts like NASA? What if Mars One astronauts were chosen by lottery? What if ordinary people could go to Mars – would you go? When I was a kid, I would have said yes. For most of my life now I would have said no.

Orion_with_ATV_SM

NASA’s new space transport, the Orion, is designed for trips to the IIS, the Moon, asteroids and Mars, but somehow I can’t believe it’s big enough for trips further than the Moon. It only has 316 cubic feet of living space. A 10x10x8 foot room has 800 cubic feet, so can you imagine living over year with three other people in the space of a small bedroom? I can understand a spacecraft that size for a three day journey to the Moon, but not an 8 month journey to Mars, or similar length to an asteroid. Of course, it will be combined with other modules for longer trips, but I can’t imagine them being huge and roomy.

Orion_docked_to_Mars_Transfer_Vehicle

Russians and Americans have lived in space for over a year on space stations, but they have a good bit more room and variety of habitat modules. That makes me wonder, just how big does a mission to Mars spacecraft have to be to make it psychologically comfortable? What would be the most limited accommodations you could handle for a mission that could last 400-450 days.

Men and woman have sailed non-stop solo around the world in trips that were almost a year, living in cabins that about about the size of the Orion spacecraft. But only certain kinds of people have that kind of mental make-up for such solitary sailing. Which would you prefer, being a solo astronaut, or be crammed in a can with three other people for an eight month voyage to Mars? If I went with other people I’d need my own private living space, but then I doubt I have the right stuff.

I’m 63, so a one way trip to Mars doesn’t scare me.  Sounds like a better way to die than getting cancer or Alzheimer’s. But the Mars One volunteers who are interviewed in the film are young people who have every reason to stay on Earth. I wonder if they would really go if they got the opportunity.

There’s a kind of Ponzi scheme to Mars One.  They hope to send four people every two years, but after ten years they’d have twenty people on Mars. How many supply rockets will it take to keep those people alive? At what point could the colonists become self-sufficient? How many supply rockets will it take to build a self-sufficient infrastructure? When people aren’t selected to go, will they lose interest, stop donating money and strand the early settlers?

After we see people living on Mars, and what life would be like there, will people change their minds? I can’t believe the reality of life on Mars will be that appealing. Once a one-way program for colonizing Mars is started, ending the program means a death sentence to all the colonists. The ethical thing to do is build a self-sufficient colony first, with robots, and when it’s obvious that a human viable colony on Mars could survive, then ship the volunteers.

I bet if you wait until 2024 and asked these five people in the film if they still wanted to go to Mars they’d say no. People who are really willing to be astronauts are also willing to work their whole life towards that goal with an almost single-minded devotion.  And even among professional astronauts, I’m not sure how many would even commit to a 2-3 year mission. The failure rate of unmanned Mars missions is around fifty percent.

I’m not sure how many people actually would give up their Earthly lives for living in space.  Mars, the Moon, asteroids, the outer moons, they are all just rocks, with lots of radiation and intense cold. I think science fiction has oversold space travel. I think we will travel to the other planets, and maybe even colonize the Moon and Mars, but only very unique individuals are going to go, and even rarer folks will stay. I don’t think people who dream of traveling into space really understand what it means to leave Earth for good.

JWH

Manned Mission to Mars or Gigantic Space Telescopes?

Which would be more exciting to happen in  your lifetime:  humans landing on Mars, or discovering life on a planet in another star system?  If we were willing to spend the money, and some big money at that, we could explore Mars, or we could build gigantic space-based telescopes to hunt for life on other planets orbiting nearby stars.  In our lifetime the Hubble telescope greatly expanded our vision of reality.  Then the Kepler telescope discovered thousands of exoplanets, letting us know that planets are common.  Building a very large space telescope would allow us to detect what’s in the atmospheres of those planets, including chemicals that indicate life, or even intelligent life.

Growing up in the 1960s with the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs I was crazy for manned space exploration, but over the course of the last several decades I’ve been more thrilled with the rewards of robotic missions to Mars, missions to the rest of the solar system, and especially by space telescopes.  NASA has two upcoming spaced based telescopes that I’m trilled to see launched, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).  And ESA has plans for CHEOPS.

If you pay attention to space news, you’ll know that there are many people out there with different goals for space exploration.  Some want to go back to the Moon, others to Mars, some to asteroids, and many want to build fantastic space based observatories.  You can divide them into two groups – those who want manned missions, and those who want robot missions.  I’d prefer both, but what if we don’t have the money for both?  What gets the most bang for our bucks?

Manned missions are exciting and let us feel like we’re progressing towards greater heights of civilization and accomplishment.  Robot missions expand our awareness of reality at a much faster pace than we’ve ever imagined.  However, I feel that manned missions without the goal of permanent colonization doesn’t offer that much for our money.  If we went to Mars to build a new home for humans, to spread our eggs to another basket, then it would be worth all the money we could throw at the project.  If we only send a few people there over a period of decades and then stop, then I’d rather put all our money into robotic missions, especially gigantic space based telescopes that hunt for life in other stellar systems, and giant SETI projects.

If I’m lucky I might live another quarter century and I’d really like to know that we’re not alone in this universe before I die.  Sure, I’d love to know we could send people to Mars and back, but that’s not as exciting as knowing that life, and especially intelligent life exists somewhere besides Earth.  As a lifelong science fiction reader I’ve always felt that to be true, but I’d like to have proof.

Now that the economy is improving, that so many billionaires are starting private space programs, and Thomas Piketty is creating a movement that proves higher taxes would improve capitalism, we might have more money for space exploration, both manned and robotic.  Like I said, it would be great to finance both kinds of missions.  However, if I got to vote, I’d campaign for building a gigantic space based telescope, something far bigger than anything on the drawing boards at the moment.

I have no idea how big will be big enough.  Would building telescopes with kilometer size apertures on the far side of the Moon or out in L5 orbits do the job, or would it take building several large space telescopes positioned around the solar system to create a gigantic hyper-telescope interferometer array?

The trouble with all this is most citizens of the world do not care about science or spending such vast sums of money to learn more about reality.  That’s a shame because spending big bucks gets us big knowledge.  If we had spent the trillion dollars we spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars on giant space telescopes we’d know if we were alone or not in the universe.  Or we could have a K-12 and higher education school system that would have produced vast armies of scientists and dazzling inventors and make us far more richer.  Money spent on science pays off more than money invested anywhere else.  It’s a shame we’d rather invest so heavily in war, and other forms of self-destruction.

I wish our species was smarter.

JWH – 7/16/14

1964–Fifty Years of Reading Robert A. Heinlein

While everyone is remembering it was fifty years ago that America discovered The Beatles, I’m remembering it was fifty years ago that I discovered Robert A. Heinlein – a discovery that had far more importance to me.  1964 was the year after Project Mercury, and the year before Project Gemini.  Back then each space mission got uninterrupted coverage on CBS, NBC and ABC, and I always got to stay home from school and watch.  1964 was also the year a very futuristic World’s Fair in NYC and everyone seemed to be thinking about the decades to come. 

1964 was the year I turned 13 and I started thinking about my future. 

Now it’s 2014 and I’ll turn 63 later is year, and I think about my past.

As much as I love The Beatles and remembering 1964, 2014 is my 50th anniversary of reading Robert A. Heinlein.  I thought it might be interesting to analyze why reading the twelve Heinlein juveniles I first discovered in 1964 was so much more important than “Twist and Shout.”  Wouldn’t it be fun to read a series of blogs by baby boomers remembering all the artists that meant more to them from 1964 than The Beatles?

hein04

I read science fiction before 1964, but it wasn’t until I discovered Heinlein that I became a hardcore science fiction fan.  I turned 13 on November 25, 1964.  For some reason I started puberty by rejecting religion and God, becoming an atheist, and embracing science fiction.  I’ve always joked that science fiction was my religion, which made Heinlein my messiah.

I have my 8th grade English teacher to thank for introducing me to Heinlein, although I’m pretty sure I would have discovered him one way or another.  I wished I remembered this lady’s name, and had a photograph of her.  She had a remarkable teaching method.  For each six weeks grading period she required the class to read and report on three books.  However, if you read five, she would raise your grade one letter.  That allowed me to be a B student that year – at least for my English class.  My teacher provided us with a list of approved authors and Robert A. Heinlein was one.  In the 1940s and 1950s Heinlein had published twelve young adult novels with Charles Scribner’s Sons that had gotten a lot of recognition with librarians and teachers.

The first of the twelve juveniles I discovered was Red Planet, after that I quickly consumed the other eleven, and then went on to read the Heinlein adult novels.  Sadly I don’t remember the order in which I read them.  I do remember the night I read Have Space Suit-Will Travel, my favorite Heinlein book, and my all-time favorite science fiction novel.

HSSWT

I was babysitting for an airman my dad knew from work at Homestead Air Force Base.  I was dropped off at their house around eight, after the kids were already put to bed, and the couple didn’t return home until after three.  So I was paid fifty cents an hour to read Have Space Suit-Will Travel.  I was blown away.  When the couple came home the young dad offered to drive me home, I told him I’d walk.  It was 3:30am, and I wasn’t even sure where I was.  I had a vague idea my house was north of their house, so I started walking.  It was eerie out – completely dead, with a bit of a mist from the dew. 

I wasn’t afraid, but the long walk was surreal.  All I could think about was Kip’s adventures, going from Earth, to the Moon, to Pluto, to a planet orbiting Vega, to the Lesser Magellanic Cloud.  My brain speeded on thinking about the future and I felt very alive.

A sliver of the Moon glowed in the sky that dark night fifty years ago, and the stars looked down on me, and I up at them.  I was living the mundane life of an 8th grader, the 1960s was heating up, and all I could think about was living in the 21st century.  Now, it’s 2014, and my future is almost over, and more and more, I think about the past.

The promise and potential of space travel was why I loved Heinlein.  Elementary school had been about Project Mercury, Project Gemini was going to be my junior high years, and Project Apollo my high school years.  I started the 1st grade a couple months before Sputnik went into orbit, and graduated high school a couple months before Neal Armstrong walked on the Moon.  That, reading science fiction, and being a baby boomer growing up with the rock music revolution of the 1960s, did a number on me. 

So did the drugs.  Strangely, by 1968, science fiction had taken me far further than the chemical trips I had started taking.  Reading Stranger in a Stranger Land in 1965, I’m sure I saw it way different than Heinlein intended.

I read everything I could about NASA.  In 1964 all I could think about was the rock music on the radio, the science fiction I read, and the future of manned space flight.  I was positive I’d grow up and in my lifetime we’d build a colony on the Moon and Mars, and just maybe, I might get to go. 

Boy, was I wrong.

Heinlein made it all sound so simple, so obvious, so right.  Humans were meant to go to the stars.  His twelve young adult novels were a roadmap for all my tomorrows.

1947 Rocket Ship Galileo Moon
1948 Space Cadet Asteroids, Venus
1949 Red Planet Mars
1950 Farmer in the Sky Ganymede
1951 Between Planets Venus
1952 The Rolling Stones Moon, Mars, Asteroids
1953 Starman Jones interstellar
1954 The Star Beast Earth with interstellar visitors
1955 Tunnel in the Sky interstellar
1956 Time for the Stars interstellar
1957 Citizen of the Galaxy interstellar
1958 Have Space Suit—Will Travel Moon, Pluto, Vega 5, Lesser Magellanic Cloud

Ross, Morrie and Art, three teens in Heinlein’s first juvenile only go as far as the Moon, but in the last book, Kip and Peewee leave the galaxy.  The first half-dozen are about interplanetary travel, the second half-dozen have youngsters like me going to the stars.  These books made me a true believer in space travel in the same way Christians believe in heaven.

I’m now an atheist to my own religion, and Heinlein and his books are in my past.  They are just fun stories now, myths I lived by growing up a half-century ago.  The future was everything I never expected.  As I spend my retirement years trying to write science fiction, I imagine a much different future than I did at age thirteen.  What will the next 50 years be like? Can I conceive of a more realistic future, one that might happen, or will I only invented imaginary futures that will become fantasies like the Heinlein stories?  Do I stir up the passion of kids to believe in scientific fairy tales, or do I try to give them hope about real scientific possibilities?

Like the 1964 me, I still contemplate the future.  I have no space suit, I will not travel to the stars, but the future still holds exciting possibilities.  If I’m alive in 2051, what will I write about looking back on the next fifty years?

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JWH – 2/3/14