Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Space

Volume XXVII Number 1
Fall 2004

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astronaut illustration

De Witt Douglas Kilgore
De Witt Douglas Kilgore
Photo © Tyagan Miller

Star Trek cast with NASA Enterprise shuttle
Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry (third from right) and original Star Trek cast members post with NASA's real-life Enterprise in 1976.
Photo NASA Headquarters--Greatest Images of NASA (NASA-HQ-GRIN)

Rocket Men

by Eric Pfeffinger

As genres go, science fiction carries a lot of baggage. For many of us, its very mention conjures images of light sabers and jet packs. Radioactive talking lobsters from outer space. Those weirdly awful movies the Sci Fi cable network broadcasts on Saturdays. Conventions where people wear Mr. Spock shirts and clamor for signatures from some-one who played Agent Mulder's dry cleaner in Episode 49.

Like all preconceptions, of course, those images are oversimplified. And if you think it makes life difficult for Mark Hamill, consider the situation of De Witt Douglas Kilgore, associate professor of English and American studies at Indiana University Bloomington. He's built a career on taking science fiction seriously--and persuading other people to do the same. You might think this task would make him envy the Ezra Pound scholar, at least on bad days. But in Kilgore's erudite and pragmatic vision, science fiction's dubious reputation is all part of its big-picture story.

"Science fiction has been thought of as escapism," Kilgore acknowledges. "It's fantasy in the pejorative sense." But Kilgore's work demonstrates that science fiction has a palpable effect on real-world events, and that the boundary between science fiction and the real world isn't even particularly firm.

Although Kilgore teaches literature, with an office nestled in Ballantine Hall among the English faculty, his training was primarily as a cultural historian dealing with 20th-century America--and in his book Astrofuturism: Science, Race and Visions of Utopia in Space, he's coined a term whose applications go well beyond literature. "Astrofuturism" is a utopian vision about human exploration and colonization of outer space and the benefits, such as the reduction of racial and other social tensions, that derive from that adventure.

Kilgore identifies a relatively small collection of people whose passion about the possibilities for humanity's future in outer space drew them together in the United States after the Second World War and spawned astrofuturism as a cultural movement. Some of these people, like science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, might ring a bell with the average reader. Others, like Willy Ley, David Lasser, and Wernher von Braun, are less familiar. But in Kilgore's formulation, all of them had a collective hand in shaping the world we live in today.

It's important that these people were writers, because they sought to proselytize about their optimistic outer-space visions to society at large through their words. But it's also important that they weren't solely writers.

"These people weren't just pie-in-the-sky promoters of this (futuristic) vision. They were also connected to engineering and other technical fields," Kilgore says. "They had to have a grounding in the work in order to have a conversation with it. They weren't limited to being airy-fairy dreamers. This was a cultural practice as well as an intellectual mindset."

In other words, these guys weren't just thinking and talking about outer space but experimenting in their backyards with liquid fuel rocketry. Perhaps most important of all, they were readers. As Kilgore sees it, these visionaries drew inspiration from being avid science-fiction fans as kids, devouring the far-out and sometimes formulaic genre stuff (like talking space lobsters) that fired their imaginations later in life.

Homer Hickam, whose memoir Rocket Boys was the basis of the 1999 film October Sky, is a terrific emblem of the phenomenon Kilgore describes: "Here's this guy growing up in a dying coal-mining town. The community is built on a declining 19th-century industry, but he's certainly not supposed to aspire to become an aerospace engineer," Kilgore says. "But his reading of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne and popular science writing of the 1950s fires him up. He starts a rocket club, moves into the hobby culture, and the rest is history: he eventually achieves his dream of becoming an engineer at NASA."

Hickam's story is also an apt illustration of why astrofuturism is a utopian outlook. "It's a narrative of class and race," Kilgore says. "This kid coming from the margins of political and social power hooks into this dream and makes it. Not only is exploring space a fanciful ‘I want to find gold in the moon' thing, but it has a social impetus too--it's a way by which minority and working-class kids can fulfill their best potential."

This is why astrofuturism isn't about escapism. Its heroes are people who knew real things and used that concrete knowledge to have an effect on the world. "It's not an escape," says Kilgore. "The things Hickam read really told him something about the world. It gave him the tools that he needed to work in the world, in a way the circumstances he grew up in didn't."

The ambitious social optimism of astrofuturism has implications beyond stories of individual triumph. "What does it mean to be an American?" Kilgore asks. "You go out and conquer new frontiers. Think about that conquest in terms of its effect not just on nature but on people--finding a way to do it that will benefit all mankind. Like a 1960s bumper sticker, you know? It's not just about the white male adventurer but about finding ways to deal with problems involving race and resources."

Paradoxically, then, for astrofuturists, directing our energies toward interstellar travel becomes the best way to solve the crises plaguing us here on Earth--through the development of new resources and technologies and the discovery of new things about ourselves.

This is the legacy not only of the original astrofuturists' brilliant enthusiasm for technology's potential at mid-century, but also of the U.S. space program coming-of-age alongside the rise of the American political left. "Otherwise," says Kilgore, "the scientists and government wouldn't have had to respond to constituencies outside the insulated educated middle-class white male astrofuturists." When socially conscious college students demanded of their physics professor why America should be sending up rockets instead of addressing racism or poverty, the professor had to come up with an answer: "Space travel, in fact, makes it possible to have both!"

If the multicultural optimism of astrofuturism seems familiar, that's not surprising: one of its intellectual descendants is Gene Roddenberry, whose vision for Wagon Train in outer space--the TV series that would become Star Trek--was shaped by the climate astrofuturism created. That influence goes beyond the fact that the Starship Enterprise's multiethnic technocratic hierarchy made it possible for characters of color like Lieutenant Uhura and Lieutenant Sulu to have authority on the command deck. Even Roddenberry's design concept for the ship's bridge owes a debt to astrofuturism's faith in science. The TV network thought a background of randomly flashing lights would be sufficient to signify a future setting but Roddenberry, Kilgore reports, insisted on a stable bridge set in which actual working machines made logical sense.

"One could argue this is what astrofuturists do," Kilgore says. "It's not just flashing lights, but a world where laws of physics and cause-and-effect are operating. Even in the fantasy of Star Trek, the impulse is always toward the illusion of reality. When you talk about warp engines, there is some scientific basis for that concept. Food replicators. Transporters. The story at least gestures toward the fact that this stuff which looks like magic to us could someday be made real."

Star Trek also proves to be a provocative example of how, in a post-astrofuturist society, science fiction and science fact can blend and blur. "In the 1970s, NASA was in trouble because they were all white. That was on purpose; people had previously wanted to see Chuck Yeager--you know, people with 'the right stuff'--but the public started losing interest," says Kilgore. "NASA said, 'We need some good P.R.,' and because she played Lieutenant Uhura, the actress Nichelle Nichols was visible to them. Soon the first space shuttle is named Enterprise, and I've got a snapshot of the fictional Star Trek Enterprise crew posing in front of the real shuttle Enterprise." Kilgore shakes his head and laughs. "That's cultural history for you. There are no neat divisions. In order to accomplish a scientific project, you have to have the dream, which helps the public understand what the project is for." Fact and fiction are not only interrelated but interdependent; the former relies on the persuasion of the latter. Paging Captain Kirk!

The echoes of astrofuturism and the debates it informed clearly resound today, from the spike of public interest in the Mars Rover to the people who question whether these projects are worth the scarce resources they consume. But Kilgore acknowledges we're living in a different world. "There is cynicism about whether NASA can 'walk and chew gum at the same time,'" he says. "And the interest in robotic exploration doesn't compete with the mass excitement of the 1960s and 1970s. As for President Bush's proposed manned missions to Mars, the Apollo program taught us some salutary lessons: footprints and flags made for great pictures but they didn't create the great space future envisioned by the astrofuturists. Our pioneering impulse may still be there, but is it politically viable?"

Still, public curiosity about space exploration continues to fuel a steady stream of books, magazines, and other narratives about the prospect. And that means there's still plenty of room for De Witt Douglas Kilgore to boldly go where no English professor has gone before.

Eric Pfeffinger is a freelance writer in Toledo, Ohio.