Tuesday, September 18, 2012


The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal has an interesting article out: "Moondoogle: The Forgotten Opposition to the Apollo Program." In it he points out that support for the Apollo mission never approached 50% while it was active. As one historian put it:
Consistently throughout the 1960s a majority of Americans did not believe Apollo was worth the cost, with the one exception to this a poll taken at the time of the Apollo 11 lunar landing in July 1969. And consistently throughout the decade 45-60 percent of Americans believed that the government was spending too much on space...
In 1979, only 47% of Americans thought it had been worth it; that raised up to 77% in 1989. he also points out some major cultural trends that opposed it: activists in the civil rights movement pointed out that the government was ignoring poor minorities while spending unprecedented amounts of money to send some white guys to the Moon; even a significant block of scientists argued that the manned space exploration was a sub-optimal way to get real science done.

 I think this is really important to remember when we're bemoaning the state of the space program today. I had long believed in a narrative that said: "Once upon a time, after WWII, everyone was super optimistic about the American future in space. It was the Golden Age of science fiction, and everyone agreed that heading into space was the right next step--especially since it meant we would beat the Commies!" So it was really a bit stunning to me to realize that the Apollo programs suffered any number of hostile OpEd pieces, angry Letters to the Editor, and accusations from scientists and pundits alike that it was a waste of resources.

 However, those facts make what's happened since make a lot more sense. How did we get from 'everyone loves space' to Skylab falling out of the sky in just a decade? Well, it's because most people didn't love space, and they still don't now. There was never a grassroots space movement. Certainly there were lots of folks who were rooting for NASA (and there still are!), but there were more who saw it as a big waste. We didn't get to the Moon via an up-swelling of popular support--we got there by the top-down fiat of a President and his successor (JFK and LBJ) who saw it as a combined PR victory over the Soviets and peace-time jobs program for the nation's best and brightest technical talent (who, Madrigal's article points out, probably didn't need the help). There's quite a bit more on the PR image issue in Nicholas de Monchaux' fascinating Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo. My review of it should be in the next issue of Cascadia Subduction Zone, and Rosten Woo wrote a great review of it in the LA Review of Books last year.

So perhaps it would be OK to spend less time worrying about the lack of popular support for the space program today. It might make more sense to focus on targeted lobbying efforts at the highest levels of government. It's actually a little bit heartening to me to learn that the Apollo mission succeeded in the face of fairly robust public opposition. That means that we don't need to get 200 million Americans on our side to make any progress. What we do need are effective leaders who can communicate clearly with folks who hold the purse strings.

 The future's not what it used to be, and it turns out that it never was.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Changing Up Spiral Galaxy

You may have noticed that the name of the blog has changed above: from "Spiral Galaxy Reviewing Laboratory" to "Spiral Galaxy Musings." It's no surprise that I've barely been blogging here for the last year. I realized that one reason for that is that almost any review I write goes to venues like SFSignal, Strange Horizons, Locus Magazine, or Cascadia Subduction Zone--so as long as I thought of my blog as a place for reviews, I didn't have much content to put here.

However, I have a lot of thoughts that aren't necessarily reviews, but that don't fit on Twitter (too long) or Facebook (all baby, all the time). So I think it's time to shift Spiral Galaxy's purpose, and make it more of a "Karen's Thoughts" blog than a strictly reviewing blog. I may still post reviews here, especially whenever I can get back into my Golden Age/New Wave/Non-Fiction Criticism reading lists. But I'd also like to post things like the following:

If any of you follow the Roundtable section of the Locus Magazine website, you might have seen Vandana Singh's post on early Indian SF that she'd love to see translated. She talks about Niruddesher Kahini a story written in 1896 by Jagadish Chandra (J. C.) Bose. She points out that he was a polymath: "His contributions to the science of radio waves predate Marconi, and he also pioneered research in biophysics through his study of electrical impulses in plants." I learned today that the IEEE agrees: they honored him and contemporary C. V. Raman in ceremonies in Kolkata, West Bengal this past weekend. The article describes Bose's work in physics, biology, botany, and archeology. Here's an interesting bit:
After graduating in 1884 with a natural science tripos (an honors baccalaureate), Bose returned to India. A year later, a recommendation from Rayleigh got him the post of professor at Presidency College, in Calcutta, the first Indian to hold that title there. The college’s British administrators offered him only one-third the salary of its European professors. Bose protested by taking no salary at all for several years until the college recognized his value and raised his salary to match his European peers, retroactive to the start of his professorship.
C.V. Raman did groundbreaking work in acoustics and optics, all while working as a civil servant in the Indian Finance Department. He won the Nobel Prize in 1930.

I love reading about the scientists who contributed so much since Newton's day and who aren't as well known as Einstein and Maxwell et. al. It's great that the IEEE is working to bring them some additional recognition. It'd have been even cooler if the article had mentioned Bose's role as an early science fiction writer!