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NSRC 2023

Ray Bradbury speaking at a symposium at Caltech in November 1971, shortly before NASA’s Mariner 9 arrived at Mars, from a video released last week by JPL. (credit: NASA/JPL)

Ray Bradbury’s influence on one career in aerospace

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I suspect that for many who live their lives in space and science careers, author Ray Bradbury’s passing last week may evoke the some of the influences that took them down their chosen career path, much as it has recalled my own nostalgia of what turned out to be an especially formative time in my life. As it happens, I lived for a time in Bradbury’s hometown of Waukegan, Illinois. I was about the same age as he, before he moved to Los Angeles in 1934. That time, that place, and those youthful experiences in that neighborhood—especially in the Waukegan Public library, with its rows of books by Bradbury and others—initiated a foundational love of reading with the endless possibilities it conjures up, a lifelong interest in space and rockets, and eventually a career in aerospace. This is the kind of inspiration we need today to encourage young people to choose space-related careers.

Each week I lugged home a stack of books, including Bradbury’s and the works of the other giants of science fiction now sadly gone: Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein.

I didn’t know it then, but I lived just a few blocks from Mr. Bradbury’s former childhood home. An assignment to the nearby Great Lakes Naval Training Center had brought my naval officer father, mother, three brothers, and two sisters to Waukegan. We lived off base in a house near the ravine, which had inspired a similar ravine and mysterious story line in the fictional Green Town, Illinois, in Bradbury’s 1957 novel Dandelion Wine. While nearly forty years and a certain amount of urbanization had occurred between then and the fictional setting of the novel, some of the small town feel of that early 1930s Green Town was still there in 1969. I remember baseball, hide and seek, and kick the can, played out on the street under the green trees and the lightning bugs of those muggy Midwestern summer evenings. I remember hauling wire-bound stacks of newspapers for a friend’s paper route from the corner at the end of the long block, folding and putting rubber bands around them on the front porch, and delivering them from the basket of a bicycle in the cool fall air. But mostly I remember the public library and its influence.

The public library, too, was just a few blocks from our house, on the other side of the ravine, and just blocks from the old public library that similarly influenced the young Mr. Bradbury. This is where I fell in love with reading. Each week I lugged home a stack of books, including Bradbury’s and the works of the other giants of science fiction now sadly gone: Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein. The stacks also included many other books, both fiction and non-fiction.

Actually buying a book then was a rare and special experience. Once in a while you received one as a gift. So the library was like… unlimited dessert! And like the books burned in his classic novel Fahrenheit 451, the books were printed on paper, Bradbury’s preference over digital, electronic books. Of course, electronic books and Kindle-like devices did not yet exist, except sometimes within some of those talea of science fiction.

These books and the stories their authors told, became the literal foundation for the rest of my life, with nearly endless fascinating subjects including science, math, science fiction, history, and spaceflight.

I watched the Apollo 11 launch, and the Moon landing and first steps on the Moon a few days later, from our TV room not three tenths of a mile from Bradbury’s former childhood home.

Among the first of the places to which books led me was astronomy. This led quickly to forays into the warm Waukegan summer evening— and sometimes into a clear and crisply cold winter night—to explore the wonders of the night sky. There were the Big and Little Dippers in their nightly circles. Cygnus, with wings outstretched, soared overhead, then dove head first into the horizon. I learned about a fuzzy smudge that is the “nearby” Andromeda galaxy, 2.6 million light-years distant. I could almost see—and still do today—galactic civilizations and empires like those in the science fiction books I began to read, especially when further inspired by the photographs in other books, on astronomy. And there were the planets: Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars. Yet, even in my best friend’s small telescope, the setting for Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles was but a ruddy speck.

So then I discovered books about building telescopes, which soon resulted in purchase of a telescope mirror grinding kit. I learned through hands-on experience about telescope optics and grinding a mirror. I didn’t finish that telescope then, and worked on in it less and less frequently over the next couple of years after we moved. Eventually, the ground but only partially polished mirror was relegated to a cardboard box, which I carried around the country over a period of forty years, to be finished “someday.” I’m happy to say that “someday” has arrived and I am completing it now. It will be modest by today’s amateur telescope standards, but it will be so much more than just a telescope. It is a joy to grasp a piece of that dandelion wine-like past.

The library’s history books led to the building of models of the ships and airplanes I read about, at first carefully stored on shelves or hung with string from the bedroom ceiling. Soon curiosity, carefree youthfulness, and pre-adolescent peer pressure led to floating and then bombarding and sinking the ships in the creek that ran through the ravine, or hand launching the plastic model airplanes to “fly” from the top of the embankment that constituted one side of the ravine, only to shatter in spectacular crashes on the concrete steps leading down the ravine or on the wooden footbridge crossing the creek below.

Books then led to a new and more important topic: the building of flying model rockets, carefully crafted and launched from the nearby park that constituted one end of the ravine. Like many of my colleagues today, this early learning by reading and doing about rockets and spaceflight eventually led, not too surprisingly, to math and science courses in high school, engineering in college, and a career in aerospace developing and launching the much larger cousins of those small rockets.

My time in Bradbury’s hometown was also the era of Apollo. I watched the Apollo 11 launch, and the Moon landing and first steps on the Moon a few days later, from our TV room not three tenths of a mile from Bradbury’s former childhood home. Given the excitement of the Apollo era and the deliberate emphasis on science education at that time, it is possible, maybe even likely, that I would have taken the same life path without the influence Ray Bradbury and all the others. But the more salient legacy—one that we should cherish, preserve, and encourage today—is the curiosity, imagination, and lifelong love of reading and all things space and science that have been instilled in so many by Ray Bradbury, his colleagues, and public libraries across the nation.