Griffin, Heinlein, and spaceflight
by Jeff Foust
|I didn’t get interested in space because of Robert Heinlein. I got interested in Heinlein because I was interested in space.
And so, unlike maybe many of you, I didn’t become interested in space because of science fiction. I became interested in science fiction because of space. And to be interested in science fiction as a kid, and I read many, many other genres as well, but to be interested in science fiction was to be interested in the works of Robert Heinlein. But that order of things has given me a different perspective on Heinlein’s career and contributions than I think many others may have.
So, a question that has often been asked and that I’ve asked myself is, “Was the growth of science fiction as a genre and hard science fiction in particular, a response to the cultural zeitgeist or was it a cause of it?”
I think in all such questions, there is an inevitable chicken-and-egg effect, one sponsors the other in a reinforcing loop. But, I think that if asked that, when I have been asked that, I often said that I think the growth of science fiction helped to create the cultural matrix in which we saw the advancements that we saw in aerospace in the 50’s and 60’s, more so that than the other way around.
I mean, American kids had for generations been raised on boyhood stories of people who accomplished themselves in difficult arenas. There was Jack Armstrong, all-American boy, and Tom Swift and then later Tom Swift Jr. and Rick Brant and other things that maybe many of you, like me, read as kids. We celebrated the accomplishments of great people and people were acknowledged to be great people.
So, in science fiction literature, Tom Swift, I think, led inevitably to Asimov, Clarke, and inevitably Heinlein. And if asked, I would say that I think that Asimov painted the broadest canvas and Clarke was the best technician. But Heinlein was the guy that put you there. Heinlein’s literary skills combined with his technical knowledge put you there, in a way that no one else did and, frankly, that not even the best in my opinion have done since. I enjoy reading science fiction to this day, and my own opinion would be that I’ve not seen Heinlein’s equal at putting you there…
In general, the great early authors of hard science fiction, I think, created a climate in which it became ultimately possible to talk about putting people in space, about going to the Moon, about going to Mars, without having people question your sanity. It didn’t have to be a fantasy, like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels, which of course were interesting and fantastic to read. But Heinlein and Clarke and others made it real. You could see how it could happen. It didn’t happen quite in those ways but you could see how it could happen.
In fact, it became a reasonable presidential response to a geopolitical conundrum to propose that the United States put a man on the Moon and return him safely to the Earth before this decade is out. That became a reasonable thing for a US president to stand up and say, and I don’t think that would have happened without the hard science fiction authors and I especially don’t think it could have happened without Heinlein’s contributions.
Robert Heinlein had a lot to say about morality and usually he said it through the lives of his heroes and usually he did it in a very soft and understated and elegant way by example rather than by preaching, by the way his heroes acted. You liked Heinlein’s people because of who they were and what they stood for.
So, Heinlein was a moralist, in my view, but what were his morals? Well, that’s very interesting because they weren’t those that would occur immediately to many, at least if the man’s character could be judged by his literature. I mean, for Heinlein, clearly, morality went beyond what church you attended or what god in which you believe if you attended a church and if you believe in God…
|In general, the great early authors of hard science fiction, I think, created a climate in which it became ultimately possible to talk about putting people in space, about going to the Moon, about going to Mars, without having people question your sanity.
So, what were the things that if you read the novels of Robert Heinlein carefully, or his non-fiction carefully, what would you conclude that the man believed and what would you conclude that you might take forward in your life? […] I mean, you could not read Heinlein’s novels without, I think, concluding that evidence in kindness to the weak or to the disadvantaged or to the infirm was a value. You couldn’t read them without inferring that charity to the needy, to those who need, was a good thing. You couldn’t read his novels without understanding that the man worshiped achievement and hard work necessary to get to it.
Another theme was self-sacrifice for the greater good when necessary. Keeping your word. Keeping your commitments. Getting an education and continuing to get an education. Respect for seniors, and notice I do not say respect for authority. [Laughter] Which is somewhat lacking in my own life. [Laughter] Minding one’s own business, understanding the requirement that human beings have for personal privacy and the right they have to it. The need for formal politeness in social settings. We see far too little of that today, in what passes for civil discourse in politics, and we’ve reached the point where matters that many of us will think ought to be private, or which ought to be technical, are now being judged on the standards that one might use for religious arguments or art appreciation arguments, matters of opinion that should not be.
And finally, the goal of seeking wisdom, always. I think the strong theme that runs through Heinlein’s work is a goal of seeking greater wisdom, of being willing to change your mind in the face of new facts. If we can’t do that, then learning becomes impossible.
These are values. These are great values that I think are wisely passed along to any generation that will listen to them.
[Heinlein] could see and make you see the other side of nearly any question. And to me, that is the key first step in the development of the skill of critical thinking which is so crucial to life in a republic. We have elected and appointed leaders; for the nonce, I happen to be one of them. But America was built on the questioning of leadership well, and the questioning should be intelligently motivated. There’s a phrase I sometimes use that if I don’t know something about a topic, I’ll say, “I don’t have a right to an opinion on that.”
Heinlein’s work, implicitly, carries with it the ethos that you have to know something to be entitled to an opinion. Why and why not? Why not is the skill of critical thinking. Why and why not are poles apart in intellectual discourse and in their implications. The youngest child learns quickly to ask why. The acceptance of the answer or not tells you something about what that child’s future can be.
Anyone can ask why. Those who make the future are the ones who ask, “Why not?” Heinlein could make you ask that question. Through his novels, he could teach you critical thinking and that’s a valuable skill.
Spaceflight, in all its forms, robotic and human, is the hardest thing that human beings do, when you add it all up. I mean, individual things are quite complex, I would not attempt to pass as a brain surgeon But when you add up the difficulty level in a variety of disciplines, it’s my observation that, technologically speaking, spaceflight is today the hardest thing that human beings do. So, it is one of the frontiers.
|Anyone can ask why. Those who make the future are the ones who ask, “Why not?” Heinlein could make you ask that question.
In my opinion, I have often stated through a series of policy mistakes, tracking back to the early 1970’s, the United States retreated from the frontier of space exploration and chose to concentrate on low Earth orbit. We’ve been doing that now for 35 years and I think that was a strategic mistake. I do take umbrage when the people blame NASA for that. NASA is an executing arm of the federal government. I don’t, and no prior administrator is allowed to just make up what we’re going to do. At best, I get a voice in the discussion, at best, and it’s not a majority voice. NASA takes instruction from the Congress and the President. Ultimately, those instructions reflect what those people believe will get them elected or re-elected. In the early 1960s, space was an election issue, it has not been since. I think it’s regrettable for our country, I think that’s regrettable for our culture and our society and the values that we hold, but it is so.
We’ve been given a very good vision—which I actually prefer the word “strategy”—by this President and by the last, previous Congress. If successive Presidents and Congresses realize that they have been given a good strategy, a good policy, a good set of words in a row to guide NASA’s execution, then the United States will reclaim, I think, its rightful course in space development, which is to be at the frontier. If future policy makers choose again to make the mistakes that were made in the 1970s, I will regret it but I must be realistic with you, there is very little that I can do about it.