The above illustration (by Ed Emshwiller) is from the 1958 novel Have Space Suit – Will Travel by Robert Heinlein. The story centers around Kip, a young lad eager to get to the moon, but plagued by a mediocre public school system that fails to launch him into an academic trajectory likely to lead to Mare Tranquilllitatis. With a heapin’ helpin’ of hard work, and a dash of luck, Kip teaches himself Calculus, wins a space suit from a soap company and is abducted by aliens while wearing his space suit in his back yard. You might say “Gee whiz, thanks aliens!” but Kip ends up being sequestered to Pluto where he blows his captors up.
Yesterday, real-life retired astronaut, Dr. Sally Ride answered questions from the White House about the importance of Mathematics and Sciences to high school students. When asked what single class most helped to prepare her for NASA and the Space Shuttle, Sally cited “Calculus.” So maybe Kip was onto something. But Dr. Ride also talked about the importance of communication and how refreshing it was for her to take language and literature classes in college while feeling buried in labcoats, calculators and other scientific paraphernalia. “I was surprised at how relevant these classes were.”
In fact, without writers priming the imagination of the public, it’s unlikely that public would have supported the astronomical spending it took to leave earth. Science fiction frequently featured trips to the moon as early as the 19th century and Jules Verne calculated the velocity required to escape terrestrial gravity in 1870. How did Verne’s book, From the Earth to the Moon, suggest that we would accomplish the velocity to get to the moon? By being fired out of giant cannons. While these books captured the public’s imagination, they were not able to make space travel seem any more feasible.
Willy Ley helped change that. A German-born scientific writer who fled Nazi Germany, Ley was a powerful advocate for space exploration. He published several books that popularized the idea of space exploration, in part, by bridging the gap between science fiction and scientific fact. Sadly, Ley died less than a month before Apollo 11 landed on the surface of the moon, a surface that features a crater named in his honor.