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Michael Cassutt
Michael Cassutt has built up a reputation in both science fiction and space history.

20 minutes into the future: an interview with Michael Cassutt

Michael Cassutt is a writer who has worked in several genres over the years. He is perhaps best known in science fiction circles as a television writer, penning episodes for shows such as Farscape, Stargate SG-1, and the late, lamented American version of Max Headroom (which was brought to us live, from “20 minutes into the future…”). He has also written several near-future science fiction books, set in the current space program. These include Tango Midnight, Missing Man, and Red Moon, about a murder investigation in the Russian space program during the height of the Moon race.

But to those interested in space history, Cassutt is known as the author of several non-fiction books, including: Deke! the biography of Deke Slayton (1992), a biography of General Tom Stafford, and all three editions of Who’s Who in Space (1987, 1993 and 1998), a reference guide to the important people, as well as astronauts, involved in the world’s major space programs.

During a recent trip to Los Angeles I was able to meet up with Cassutt, who talked about several of his projects. This prompted me to follow up with this interview via e-mail.

The Space Review: Where did you grow up? What influenced you as a kid?

Television and sports were the twin pillars of my interests until about age 11, when I discovered science fiction and spaceflight.

Mchael Cassutt: I was born in Owatonna, Minnesota, because my father was then teaching in a small town nearby. Spent a few years as a teacher’s brat in various other obscure locations—my favorite (and the site of my first memories) being Kiester, MN. But my hometown, where we moved in 1958, was Hudson, Wisconsin, a wonderful mix of small town and suburbia located on the St. Croix River about 15 miles from downtown St. Paul, Minnesota. It was then about 4,000 people… Now it has a population of over 10,000. I lived there until graduating from high school in 1972. My parents still live in Hudson, and so do many friends. My wife went to high school in the same class, so the community is still very much a part of my life.

My influences: television and sports were the twin pillars of my interests until about age 11, when I discovered science fiction and spaceflight. (My father had been a professional baseball player prior to becoming a teacher. He still coached, however, and I believe that until acquiring the science fiction-space habit, I spent far more hours playing or watching sports than reading.)

TSR: Were you always interested in space and science fiction?

Cassutt: My mother also taught. Unlike my dad, who was one of those coaches-who-teaches-social studies, my mom’s subject was junior high English. One day in the spring of 1965 she brought home a book titled Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein. Over the next year, I managed to read nine of the eleven Heinlein juveniles, and was a confirmed science fiction reader.

(By the way… my mother’s school was John Glenn Junior High, the first facility named for Glenn, literally on the day of his Mercury flight in 1962.)

At the same time, I was fascinated by the first Gemini launches. To me, they were the first steps toward the science fiction worlds of Heinlein’s books. And while now I can make a plausible argument that spaceflight is the central trope of science fiction, at age 11 I linked them because they were both cool.

TSR: What about television influences? Tell me the story about your reaction to Lost in Space. And you were in your early teens when Star Trek was on. What did you think of it?

Cassutt: Television was a huge influence, starting with Men Into Space, The Twilight Zone, and The Outer Limits. Those shows were my real introduction to science fiction, and with Men Into Space, near-future spaceflight. (I still have the Colonel McCauley helmet I got for Christmas when I was six.)

I was the right age to be psyched for Lost in Space when it premiered on CBS in the fall of 1964. But WCCO TV, the CBS affiliate in Minneapolis/St. Paul, chose instead to run local programming… The Norm Van Brocklin Show. (He was the coach of the Minnesota Vikings.) Now, as noted elsewhere, I was a huge sports fan, and the Vikings were my favorite team, but I hated the idea.

Fortunately, the re-runs of that first season were aired on WCCO. I rather liked them. The second season of Lost in Space, however, was filmed in color—and on a more constrained budget. The stories all took place on a single planet, where the first season shows (the ones I remember, at least) dealt with the journey from Earth to another part of the galaxy. I soon developed a healthy, adolescent disdain for Lost in Space, deciding, in fact, that I could come up with better stories. So that series was, indeed, very influential.

I liked Star Trek and watched it religiously through the first two seasons, which remain among the best science fiction ever done for television.

TSR: I think that a monkey banging on a typewriter with a frozen banana could write a better story than episodes of Lost in Space. Who inspired you as a kid?

Cassutt: Astronauts became one source of inspiration and emulation. I wrote to NASA for the astro biography pamphlet and for the standard pictures. From 1965 on, I was the kid in the neighborhood who knew the names of the astronauts on that week’s Gemini mission.

Science fiction writers like Clarke, Asimov, Bradbury, Simak, and especially Heinlein were also inspirational. Soon after getting my first, obsessional science fiction fix and devouring the various classics, I hit upon World’s Best Science Fiction: 1966, edited by Don Wollheim and Terry Carr, and discovered a whole new generation of writers, such as Harlan Ellison and Larry Niven.

Personally, I was most inspired by my parents and extended family, especially aunts and uncles. My father came from a family of seven, all of them and their children then living in northeastern Iowa and northern Illinois, so I grew up surrounded by cousins.

TSR: What authors have you found most inspirational? Who do you really admire in your various fields?

Cassutt: See the list of authors above for a start. I would add Greg Bear, Connie Willis, Philip K. Dick, Jack McDevitt, Allen Steele, Wilson Tucker, and Neal Stephenson. I’m a big fan of Robert Crais’ mystery novels.

More mainstream influences… Kurt Vonnegut, Gore Vidal, the often-neglected Sinclair Lewis, and my all-time favorite writer, Kingsley Amis.

In television, I am a big fan of two writers I’ve worked for, Karl Schaefer co-creator of Eerie, Indiana, and Ann Lewis Hamilton. I’ve long admired Steven Bochko and Dick Wolf as producers and writers.

Tom Wolfe has been a big influence on my non-fiction mind, and not just for The Right Stuff. David McCullough. James Oberg.

TSR: How did you get into television writing?

Cassutt: Inspired by the example of Harlan Ellison, who showed (circa 1970) that it was possible to write great science fiction for both print and television, I aimed my writing career at both media. I broke into print first, selling a couple of short stories while in college, and several non-fiction pieces after graduation.

My day job—broadcasting—got me into CBS television in late 1979. While there I began to have access to scripts and to other people who wanted to write. I partnered with one fellow CBS employee to try drama, with another to write comedy. The comedy stuff worked—we got assignments on such forgotten series as Love, Sidney and Gloria, and on the nowhere-near forgotten Alice. Eventually we went our separate ways… I remained a TV sitcom writer on my own for a year or so, then wrangled my way into the 1984 edition of The Twilight Zone, and became a TV drama writer.

I thought, jeez, if Chuck Yeager’s wingman is worth a book, why not somebody like Deke Slayton? So I simply wrote him a letter asking if he had ever considered doing his life story.

TSR: I have no idea why, but I do remember Love, Sidney—it’s probably because I watched too much TV as a young kid. That’s the 1981 sitcom where Tony Randall played a gay artist who takes care of a single woman and her little girl. Except that after the pilot, the show hardly made any references at all to the fact that he was gay. I’ve heard that at least in the 1970s, it was common for a single writer to write an entire sitcom episode, but that now they are usually written by a team. Have you noticed any difference between writing for sitcoms and dramas in the amount of control that a writer has over the script?

Cassutt: You remember Love, Sidney correctly. To be fair, some sitcoms (or comedy variety series) were always gang-written. Others, like I Dream of Jeannie (another astronaut show, you’ll note) were written by one primary writer or at most a pair of writers or teams. But team writing is clearly the mode for comedy: the funniest show in the world, The Simpsons, has two rooms with ten writers each going five days a week.

And it is very different from individual writing, or even the more limited room writing done on drama series. Rooms tend to divide into story specialists and joke specialists, and both of them defer to the show runner or head writer. Working in a room means you’re a cog in a story machine. It can be fun, but there’s not a lot of personal satisfaction in it.

TSR: How did you get introduced to Deke Slayton? How did you end up writing his biography?

Cassutt: In the summer of 1991 I happened to buy and read To Flight and Fight, the autobiography of Air Force test pilot “Bud” Anderson, whose claim to fame was that he had been Chuck Yeager’s wingman. (Anderson had an honored career and I don’t mean to slight him, but that is how the book was promoted.)

I thought, jeez, if Chuck Yeager’s wingman is worth a book, why not somebody like Deke Slayton? So I simply wrote him a letter asking if he had ever considered doing his life story. He wrote back saying a couple of people had asked the same question, but no one had stepped up to help out.

So I did. We met at the Reno Air Races that September, hit it off, and started working on the project.

TSR: How has writing Deke’s autobiography changed your access to the space world?

Cassutt: It has improved things immensely. For one thing, every Gemini or Apollo-era astronaut seems to have read it, so I have that immediate entree whenever I run into one of them. For another, it has led directly to other projects, notably Tom Stafford’s book.

TSR: Is there anything that you learned after you wrote the book, or after Slayton’s death, that you would include in an updated version of the book?

Cassutt: I would have asked more questions about Deke’s interactions with Manned Space Center management—Gilruth and Kraft, for example. But, believe it or not, I see very few holes in the book: not that there aren’t gaps or subjects I could have covered, but these are the subjects Deke wanted to talk about.

TSR: When did you first take on the Who’s Who project and why?

Cassutt: For years I would pick up the Congressional Research Service’s Astronauts and Cosmonauts pamphlet, until I began to realize how dated and incomplete it was. To make a long, tedious story short, I decided to do the book because I couldn’t buy the book.

I probably got serious about it in 1982, when I set aside a long-planned and abortive history of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory I had been planning, and completed the text by the end of 1985.

TSR: I know several people who started writing space history because they felt that nobody was writing about topics that they were interested in—if they couldn’t read the book about it, they would write it themselves.

Have you thought about updating the Who’s Who book? If so, how would you do it? What aspects, other than all the astronauts who have flown in the last ten years, deserve more attention?

Cassutt: I’d love to publish an update of Who’s Who, especially since I continue to add to, and revise, the files. A new edition would delete the extraneous sidebar material forced on me by the last publisher. What deserves the most attention? Narrative material about the missions themselves, especially missions flown since the last volume.

TSR: How did you end up writing Tom Stafford’s biography?

Slayton and Stafford were both small town boys who made good, but their lives were quite different.

Cassutt: General Stafford liked Deke!, so he approached me through a mutual acquaintance, Doug Beason, a former member of The Synthesis Group [a committee set up in the early 1990s to evaluate various proposals for human spaceflight to the Moon and Mars-ed.] and an accomplished science fiction writer. We talked, hit it off, and started working on a proposal based on an existing but unpublished authorized biography of Stafford.

TSR: How do Slayton and Stafford compare? How do they differ?

Cassutt: Slayton and Stafford were both small town boys who made good, but their lives were quite different: Slayton grew up in a big family and went off to war at a young age. Combat not only shaped Slayton, it re-arranged his life—he had to work his way through college and his career path was never easy. Had the Mercury program never come along, he would have retired as a lieutenant colonel.

Stafford’s father died when Tom was a teenager; Stafford was smart and persistent enough to enter the Naval Academy, which put him at the heart of what Tom Wolfe (accurately) calls the “military aristocracy.” Stafford’s career was always on the fast-track. Even without his NASA experience, he would likely have made general.

They were both brilliant, though Stafford had more formal education and credentials. The major difference is that Deke’s methods tended to be fairly open—here’s what I’m doing, like it or lump it. Stafford was happier to work behind the scenes. Slayton lived to fly airplanes. Stafford enjoyed flying, but he was willing to walk away from it.

TSR: Do you see yourself writing any more astronaut biographies? If so, whose biography would you like to write?

Cassutt: I’d certainly like to write another astronaut/cosmonaut biography someday. First choice would be Sergei Krikalev, second… Jim Wetherbee.

TSR: You’ve been involved in a lot of projects over the years. Which ones are you most proud of? Which ones were the most fun?

Cassutt: I’m very proud of the Who’s Who books as well as Deke! Also my historical space novel, Red Moon, and a couple of my short stories.

The most fun? Writing scripts for the Eerie, Indiana, television series. Not only did I get to work with people like John Astin and Ray Walston (heroes of my early TV watching days), but with directors like Joe Dante, Ken Kwapis and Bob Balaban. The tone of Eerie was perfectly suited to my twisted small-town sensibilities.

Max Headroom, of course, was another series that I was born to write, but the hours and schedule were on the brutal side. I enjoyed the results, but the process was a bit of a challenge.

TSR: Actor Jason Bateman remarked in an interview a couple of years ago that being in television was stressful because even when you’re working, you’re perpetually in fear of cancellation. You’ve worked on some shows that are dubiously labeled cult classics because they reached an audience that loved them, but they only lasted a season before being canceled. If you had to give it all up and get a job with more security, what would you do, plumber or bank robber?

Cassutt: The smart answer is plumber, but in my heart I realize I’m a bank robber.

TSR: In television a lot of ideas get proposed but never get anywhere. A lot of pilots get shot that never get picked up by a network. Is there anything that you worked on that did not see the light of day that you really wanted to see get filmed?

Cassutt: I like my various scripted adaptations of Clifford Simak’s novel Way Station, which I wrote as a one-hour television pilot for ABC, then as a feature. It was never produced and never will be.

While it’s obvious that there would have been no major space program without the Cold War, it was science fiction that prepared the American people for it—and showed them what it might be like.

Most frustrating was a project I developed with Joe Dante that was eventually called X-Ray TV… the idea was to produce a series of science fiction TV movies based on classic stories by Heinlein, Jack Williamson, and others in a retro style and mode. That is, to do Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold the Moon in the style of a 1940s biopic, without trying to use Apollo or other historical facts and figures after 1949. Nobody understood what we wanted to do. A few years ago, of course, Kerry Conran wrote and directed Sky-Captain and the World of Tomorrow, which had the same sort of idea, so if we were crazy enough to pitch this again, we could at least point to an example.

TSR: Your idea sounds somewhat like Allen Steele’s alternate history short stories set in a world where the Collier’s spaceflight articles came true. How do you think that science fiction has affected how we view spaceflight? Alternatively, how has spaceflight affected science fiction?

Cassutt: See my recent article, “Me and Deke and the Paradigm Shift” in the February 2007 Asimov’s Science Fiction. While it’s obvious that there would have been no major space program without the Cold War, it was science fiction that prepared the American people for it—and showed them what it might be like.

Actual spaceflight seems not to have affected science fiction in a major way. Why else would people still be writing about giant starships crewed by five hundred people? (I’m exaggerating, of course…)

TSR: What are you working on now?

Cassutt: A new non-fiction book in the space area—recent history—that I’m not ready to talk about. A science fiction feature in collaboration with David S. Goyer (he wrote Batman Begins, among many others). A couple of spec scripts of my own, and a revision of a sports-related mystery novel I wrote a few years back. How’s that for variety?

TSR: You need to work on a comic book and a spoken word performance art piece…

Based upon your readings in space history, what subjects would you like to see explored more? Not necessarily what you want to do yourself, but what would you like to read about?

Cassutt: Good biographies of Robert Gilruth and Christopher Kraft. A study of James Fletcher’s two terms as NASA Administrator. A history of the National Reconnaissance Office and its programs. A declassified Manned Orbiting Lab history. A lively look at the creation and evolution of the Jet Propulsion Lab. A book on the selection of the first Soviet cosmonauts.

TSR: There is a new history of JPL out, covering the years 1976–2004. It’s called Into the Black by Peter J. Westwick. I owe a journal a review of it. I’d like to write the NRO history myself. An official history of the Manned Orbiting Lab exists, but it’s still classified and won’t be released until there’s a new, less-secretive administration in the White House.

Although your novels have a space theme, they are essentially set in the present day, not the future. Clearly your interests in spaceflight and science fiction intersect. Is that something you plan on continuing, or is it just the way it has worked out recently? In other words, I guess I’m asking if you might write something set in the far future (or even in the past).

Cassutt: My desire to do “realistic” space novels pretty much forced me to make them contemporary. But I’ve always wanted to write “pure,” far future science fiction at book length. (I’ve published a few short stories that would qualify, but not many.) I hope to one of these days.

Lightning Round:

Favorite baseball player?

Kirby Puckett, Minnesota Twins

Favorite book?

Heinlein’s Have Space Suit, Will Travel. Close second, Way Station by Clifford Simak.

What are you reading now?

Making my decadal attempt to read Gravity’s Rainbow. For fun I’m reading some of the new Hard Case Crime mysteries, most recently Fade to Blonde by Max Phillips.

Favorite movie?

I can do top three: The Godfather, October Sky, and Five Easy Pieces.

Favorite TV show on now?

House.

Favorite TV show of all time?

Hill Street Blues.

If you could be any animal in the world, what would it be?

Raven.


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