1969 Sci-Fi: Humans Walked on the Moon, and Dreamed Still Higher

By Eric Wolff | July 20, 2009 6:11 pm

Forty years ago today, Neil Armstrong made science-fiction geeks out of everyone. Without waxing too poetic, it was the moment when decades—if not centuries—of dreams about going to new worlds became a reality. With all due respect to Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard, Armstrong’s step onto an actual extraterrestrial surface was the first real space travel, in the sense of going somewhere. For a short while, there actually was a man on the moon.

Given the awesomeness of science non-fiction that year, I might almost expect it to be a down year for science fiction. Not so. 1969 had some good sci-fi—maybe not as good as landing on the moon, but damn good nonetheless.

It was, for example, the year Billy Pilgrim came unstuck in time. In Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut challenged the idea that sci-fi wasn’t an appropriate genre for high-brow “literary-fiction” writers, tradition that has carried forward to become the “counter factual” fiction (sci-fi by any other name…) of writers like Margaret Atwood and Michael Chabon. It was also the year Ursula K. LeGuin explored gender and identity in Left Hand of Darkness, and Michael Crichton scared the bejesus out of everyone with his  mutated virus in The Andromeda Strain. Ray Bradbury published a collection of short stories in I Sing the Body Electric (the title story of which became The Electric Grandmother), and Isaac Asimov collected some of his best stories in Nightfall and other Stories.

In June of that year, TV watching geeks saw Captain Kirk set his phaser on stun for what they thought might be the last time (oh, what they didn’t know!) when Star Trek went off the air. Perhaps in mourning, ardent fans held the first Star Trek convention before the show was even canceled, in March 1969 at the Newark public library. The Doctor (you know Who) regenerated for just the second time as Patrick Troughton made way for the 1970 arrival of Jon Pertwee.

In movieland, sci-fi screenwriters would have a hard time following up Barbarella, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Planet of the Apes, all of which came out in 1968. Gregory Peck struggled to rescue stranded astronauts Gene Hackman, Richard Crenna, and James Franciscus in Marooned, which came out four months after the moon landing. The novel that provided the basis for the movie actually used the single-occupant Mercury capsule, but Hollywood updated it for the Apollo era. The space station in the film is based on NASA’s early drawings for SkyLab. In some ways the movie was ahead of its time, as producers decided not to include a regular score and instead use a series of beeps and hums to evoke the isolation of space. (Turner Classic Movies will be airing Marooned at 1:30 a.m. EDT Tuesday, July 21. Check local listings and set your Tivos!).

Tough to compete with actual space travel when you’re a science-fiction writer or producer, but still, not a bad year to be a nerd.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Books, Movies, Space Flight

Comments (4)

  1. I’m really glad about all the attention the 40th of Apollo XI is getting but, let’s be honest, manned space flight since the 70’s has been kind of an embarrassment.

    While we’ve made massive strides in other areas, information technology being the most obvious example, we have let four decades go by without topping ourselves. Moreover, we now lack the infrastructure to accomplish this feat and have to start largely anew.

    We were supposed to be to Mars and beyond by now. What happened to our ambition, to our dreams to the only reason one needs to climb a mountain?

    Now, with the shuttle retiring and the USA being relegated to the status of space passenger, I can’t help but wonder if the last thirty years have been one big betrayal of the twenty that came immediately prior.

  2. Peter Reyes

    For all of the great sci-fi that came post-Apollo 11 that you’ve noted here, there have been some real clunkers too!
    I found this really funny article that sums up the 5 worst sci-fi TV series. Thought you might like it!


  3. 1. Thomas Says:
    July 21st, 2009 at 4:26 am

    I’m really glad about all the attention the 40th of Apollo XI is getting but, let’s be honest, manned space flight since the 70’s has been kind of an embarrassment.

    I can’t entirely agree with that. The Space Shuttle has allowed us to master some basic fundamentals of working in space: space-based construction, performing on-orbit satellite repair and retrieval, and mission flexibility.

    Unlike the old Apollo rockets, which were designed and built for one mission and one mission only, the Shuttle is able to improvise. If it needs to stay on-orbit an extra few days, it can do that. If it needs to host an unplanned fourth EVA to fix a broken solar panel, it can do that. It’s also been a platform for development of a few generations of rocket engines, guidance software, remote manipulators, and countless other pieces of technology.

    Our space program was a very precocious youth, reaching for the moon in its infancy and reaching it, quite literally. But I believe it really wasn’t ready for the task – it still had a lot of learning to do. I see the Shuttle program as the time we needed to spend at Space Exploration University, getting our graduate degrees and mastering the fundamentals that were skipped over in the quest for the moon.

    I don’t see it as a betrayal at all. Just a bit of maturation.

  4. After the Apollo program concluded, NASA focused on the Shuttle program. Unfotunately, too many of the people directing and running NASA before the Challenger disaster were political appointees and not the techno-geeks who had scientific/aerospace backgrounds they replaced. Too many of the decisions the politicos have made have resulted in too many deaths and the loss of millions of taxpayers’ dollars. Examples are: 1) Challenger would not have been lauched when the temperature was so low if the political appointees would have listened to the technical experts who wanted to postpone the lauch; 2) the disaster during the re-entry of Columbia could have also been prevented if the process for making the foam on the wings of the shuttle had not be changed. What is means is that the original process of making the foam was deemed to be “environmentally unfriendly” so the new process does not use the freon. The new foam doesn’t adhere to the wing as the original foam did. Go figure!


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