It’s been 50 years since the Apollo 11 mission sent Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the moon, fulfilling the dreams of many star-gazing scientists and civilians alike. The New York Times ran coverage this Sunday honoring the historical event, and sci-fi authors Mary Robinette Kowal and Ken Liu contributed columns reflecting on space travel and its place in shaping American culture and history, past, present, and future.
Kowal, author of The Calculating Stars, focused on the history of women in NASA’s space program in her essay “In Space Unisex Won’t Fly.” Kowal has delved into women’s involvement with space travel in her Lady Astronaut series, and frequently mentions in her essay how women were behind-the-scenes for NASA, but rarely at the center of the action. There are various points in NASA history where women could have been a part of the program, but were excluded due to gender bias; during Dr. Randall Lovelace’s tests for the Mercury astronauts, for example, women were proven to be more than capable of withstanding space travel, but were scrapped as potential astronauts during the Space Race frenzy with bogus excuses. Kowal cites one 1962 NASA official’s letter response to a young girl wanting to be an astronaut, “we have no present plans to employ women on spaceflights because of the degree of scientific and flight training, and the physical characteristics which are required.”
As NASA gears up to re-explore lunar travel with its Artemis program, Kowal articulates that for NASA to continue progressing forward, it must learn from the mistakes of its past and make accommodations aptly suited for women and their bodies. One example is the space suits, which were designed in various sizes for men, but cut due to budget issues. Those designs and data have carried over from the 1960s, as evidenced by the ventilation and cooling garments within the suits, and would need a re-design to allow for comfort, fit, and dexterity so that female astronauts can perform equally as well as their male counterparts in space.
Ken Liu, the author of The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, looks more at the political messaging behind the moon landing—literally. In “Messages on the Moon From a World Turned Upside Down” Liu writes about The Blue Marble, the iconic photograph of the full Earth taken by the astronauts of Apollo 17 (the final lunar mission), as well as the paraphernalia left on the moon as proof of humanity’s conquering of space. One such piece is a disc of goodwill messages from the leaders of various countries, meant to present a facade of unified peace in the face of such an accomplishment as landing on the moon. Liu points out that many of the leaders who recorded these messages were allies of the United States at the time, but not necessarily the picture of humanitarian goodness.
Liu writes, “The Apollo program gave us a chance to see Earth as we never had. But that view had to be manipulated to fit our expectations. When the Apollo astronauts stepped onto the moon, they were representatives of the entire human species, but they also carried a disc filled with propaganda reflecting one side in a world not at all at peace.”