(This is a new feature I’ve been wanting to add to the blog, talking about some of the most memorable meetings I’ve attended — meetings about science, science fiction, world affairs, all kinds of things.. Some of them were one-off or by invitation only, so I can’t urge you to try them for yourself. Most, though, are regularly scheduled yearly functions — for example the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Future Society and (of course!) the World Science Fiction Convention. The good part of that is that I’ll try to time the columns about the open ones for a few months before their next meeting and give details of how to register, so that if one takes your fancy you can try it for yourself.)
The NASA Conference on Speculative Technology
This first, and so far only, NASA conference on speculative technology was the brainchild of a NASA man named George Pezdirtz. If I ever wanted to put together a really fun scientific conference of my own would try to hire Mr. Pezdirtz to plan it. He did just about everything right.
To start with, the conference was held on an island off the coast of Georgia. I have come to believe that that is the very best kind of site for a conference that wants to explore new possibilities in its mandate. You see, the only way in or out for most of the participants was a single-engine propeller plane that commuted between the Atlanta airport and the island. In most conferences that feature a lot of high-profile participants, the superstars generally fly in just in time for their performances. Then they fly right out again as soon as they’re over. At Spec Tech they couldn’t do that. There weren’t enough seats on the plane. So nearly all of the conferees hung around for the duration, mingling with the others, to the great enrichment of the discussions that followed each paper.
Of course another factor that made that work so well was that so many of them were in fact superstars themselves.
Before we go any farther, let me make a confession. I had some personal reasons for particularly enjoying it. One was that, during a break in the proceedings, Arthur Clarke found some bicycles nobody was using, and attempted a spot of bicycle jousting — I pedaling, Arthur on the handlebars. (That was about the last time both Arthur and I were spry enough for that sort of juvenile delinquency.)
And then there was the question of Wernher von Braun. He and I had been aware of each other’s existence, but the only tangible connection was that he did keep inviting me to watch rocket launches at the Cape. This troubled some mutual friends, Willy Ley in particular, who thought that Von Braun and I could be good friends, but he never offered any one-on-one invitations, and I couldn’t get past the fact that he had been an officer in Hitler’s SS to take the initiative.
But then came an evening at Spec Tech when we had all been invited to a barbecue on the far side of the island. It was an automobile road away, and there weren’t enough cars to go around. So we doubled up. And for half an hour there I had Wernher Von Braun sitting in my lap. . . . Oh, it didn’t overtly change much, but after that I couldn’t help thinking of him less as a Nazi slave-labor driver and more as a human being who shared the same interplanetary ambitions as I did. I don’t think I would have done what he did to get there. But I wouldn’t have got as far as he, either.