Posts tagged ‘NASA’

(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

Ed Mitchell

Ed Mitchell, failed telepath?

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.

Continue reading ‘Great Conferences I Have Attended, No. 1’ »

Apollo  17, ready for launch.

Apollo 17, ready for launch.

By now you have noticed that I have left to the last one particular event, the actual Apollo 17 launch.

Actually the launch happened in the very early morning of December 7th, the third day of the cruise, after the ship had leisurely steamed down along America’s east coast to the Cape, but I’ve left it to the last because it was unquestionably the finest moment of a particularly fine cruise. By the night before, we were anchored in shallow water a mile or so off the Florida shore. Around nine or ten o’clock, the room parties were beginning to thin out, but no one was going to bed. On deck, the air was balmy, the stars were bright, the waves gentle.

We could see the bright lights of the Apollo and its launch tower — too far to be easily viewed with the naked eye, but several of the more intelligent among us had brought field glasses, and were generous about passing them around.. The three astronauts themselves, Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans and Harrison Schmitt, were perhaps still asleep, or were supposed to be, but would soon be awakened to be suited up and generally prepped for the December 7th early morning launch.

We people lingering on the deck knew that our chances of catching a few Z’s before the launch were rapidly becoming zero, for launch was to be at half an hour after midnight, the first nighttime launch in the Apollo series. No one wanted to leave. A few of us took ourselves down to the dining area and drowsed over mugs of hot black coffee, until — with still an hour to go before the launch — we went back to the top deck and discovered that other shipmates were joining us in quantity. Once on the deck they strolled around, pausing to chat with friends, but never for long taking their eyes off the activity around the launch tower.

At 12:25 or so, the strolling dwindled as passengers sorted themselves into their proper observation spots.

Minutes later we began getting reports from the field-glass people: “Astronauts boarding over that scrawny little bridge,” “shackles holding spaceship to tower dropping away,” “door closing.” Apollo 17 was good to go, as soon as the clock reached that precise second of the scheduled launch.

Then it was T time.

We saw something flaring around the base of the rocket. Then that whole precarious stack of thrusters and capsules began to ease itself upward.

We all blinked and squinted as the five great rocket nozzles on the Saturn 5 savaged our eyes with the five blinding supernovas of hydrogen burning in air. The blinding flames began moving upward with the rest of the train, slowly at first, then picking up speed. Everything moved straight up together until the thrusters were level with the little bridge the astronauts had walked on, then higher and clear of the launch tower entirely.

And then at last the sound of those five Saturn rockets reached us, over beach and water, from far away, but still making the ship’s lighting fixtures rattle and our ears hurt. Now the entire construct was overhead, the hydrogen fire stretching down toward us, but far away and getting rapidly farther. Now the departing assembly of space-going parts was vertically over our heads.

Every head was craned back, every face aimed at the spectacle above. I turned around to look at my companions behind me. There were the upturned faces of Bob Heinlein and Isaac and Ted Sturgeon and others, clustered like blossoms in a flower-shop bouquet, starkly lit by that super-sun that was sliding across the sky above them. I could have kicked myself, angry at my dimwitted absence of forethought for failing to stick a camera in my pocket to capture a shot of those faces in that wondrous light.

Then the light went out as the fuel to the great Saturn nozzles dried up. That whole bank of ponderous rockets was cut free and fell away. A moment later the next complex of rockets ignited, tracing the Apollo’s course in a great, but dwindling, arc across the sky.

And then it was gone and we all began to talk again.

 
That was it, the last manned Apollo mission to the Moon. There has never been another. Unless the Chinese do one just to show off, I don’t think there will be in our lifetimes.

 
Related posts:

Me, ca. 1972.

Me, ca. 1972.

Gather round, dear friends and fellow fans, especially the kind of fans who enjoy going to science-fiction cons. I have a story to tell that will make you eat your heart out. It is a tale of the absolute jim-dandiest (sort of) science-fiction con that was ever held, although it wasn’t called one. Unfortunately for present readers, it happened nearly forty years ago, and it is highly probable that nothing like it will ever happen again.

The project was the brainchild of three good friends of mine. One was an astronaut, one was a communications genius who used to work with Walter Cronkite and the third was a highly respected scientist, and the one thing I won’t tell you about them is their names. You see, the three of them collectively cooked up one of the very best ideas I have ever heard, and they overcame all obstacles to make it come to pass. But then they messed up one tiny, inconsequential little detail. That turned the whole enterprise into a catastrophic confusion which gave great pleasure to some but cost others, including one of its principle intended beneficiaries of the idea, the Holland America cruise ship line, a ton of money.

That’s why I conceal their identities. They suffered all the embarrassment they needed forty years ago. Now, well into the 21st century, they are entitled to set that huge humiliation behind them. So, just for purposes of identification. let’s refer to them as Joe, Jack and Jim.

The inspiration came to them in the early spring of 1972. By that year, NASA had already made good on President John F. Kennedy’s pledge, in his famous “Man on the Moon” speech of May 1961, to put a man on the Moon before the end of the decade. The space agency had landed five two-man teams of astronauts on the Moon’s surface in the Apollo series. One more was due on 7 December 1972, listed as Apollo 17. Several additional launches had been announced, but the fickle public had lost interest in space, and now they were all canceled. Apollo 17 would be the last of its kind, at least unless and until a new program began.

Our three friends, sitting around and chatting about it, agreed that this last Apollo launch would probably pull in a considerable crowd of spectators. “Only, you know,” (said Jack, or Jim, or possibly Joe), “if you’re just an ordinary citizen who wants something to tell your kids about, it’s really a lot of trouble to be a spectator to a launch. You have to fly down to a motel that’s probably ten or fifteen miles away the night before, and rent a car. Then you drive to your assigned parking space through miserable traffic while it’s still dark the next morning, then hiking half a mile or so across the sand dunes to get to your assigned observing spot, with the bull alligators bellowing at each other and the mosquitoes lining up for breakfast. Wouldn’t it be nice for them if there were some way to sit in comfort and watch the whole thing. Besides staying home and watching it on TV, I mean.

At that, one of them — I don’t know if it was Jim, Jack or Joe but we’ll say Jack — said, “Hey, what about watching it from a cruise ship anchored just offshore?”

And another one, maybe Jim, said, “Great idea! And, listen, if you really wanted to do it, maybe you could get a bunch of people like us to give lectures on the ship in exchange for free tickets.” And somebody, possibly Joe, said, “Why the dickens don’t we just go ahead and do it?”

They did. They talked to Holland America line (my own personal first choice among cruise companies), who loved the idea, only they wanted to make a real cruise out of it, with visits to four or five gorgeous tropical islands. Then they got busy compiling a guest list of leading science-fiction writers and assorted celebrities to attract hoi polloi. To all of which Holland America responded with approval and encouragement, and did they have any other ideas like that? And everything was going smoothly and the future looked good.

 
That year the Worldcon was in Los Angeles, in one of their big hotels close to the airport.

I planned to attend — actually I was their Guest of Honor that year — and when one of the three planners let me know that the three of them, too, would be in L.A. that weekend, I decided to drop in on them to see how things were going.

That was a little bit trickier than it looked. Los Angeles is one of the sprawliest of cities and, while the con hotel was next to the airport, the three schemers were clear on the other side of everything at the much classier Century Plaza Hotel in Century City. Still I did want to see them, and, besides, from experience I liked eating in the Century Plaza’s restaurants. So I shifted a few items in my Worldcon schedule around and drove my rental car clear across LaLaLand to join Jack, Joe and Jim for a very upbeat lunch.

Things were going splendidly, they said. They had been working the invitation list. Robert Heinlein was coming, and Ted Sturgeon and Isaac Asimov and at least a dozen other top science-fiction writers, said Joe. And other celebrities, too, Jack added, people like Carl Sagan and Norman Mailer and Katherine Anne Porter, whose 1962 novel Ship of Fools had created a stir in the world of publishing (an invitation which produced quite a lot of joking from Jim and Joe when Jack mentioned the title).

“And,” Joe put in, giving me a grin, “of course everybody brings his wife or husband or main squeeze. And we’re all comped, for the whole cruise, courtesy of Holland America. In your case, Fred, you don’t even have to worry about air fare, because you live near New York and that’s where this cruise starts and finishes.”

That I took to be my cue to tell them some good news I had brought with me. “Over on the other side of town at the Worldcon,” I said, “there’s a hotel stuffed full of four thousand or so science fiction fans, each one of whom would sell his grandmother into white slavery for the chance to be on this cruise. So why don’t the three of you come back there with me today? I’m giving a talk this afternoon. I’ll introduce you and, if you still have any unsold space left, you can have a sellout by dark.”

I had expected to get a pleased, maybe even a relieved response to that. After all, when you’ve got a thousand or so passages to sell and each one costs a couple of thousand dollars, you’d like to lower the risk factor as soon as you could, wouldn’t you?

So I thought they’d be happy to have the suggestion. They weren’t. They were polite, but not taking me up on my offer. One of them — Jim? — said, “We’re not ready for that, Fred. We’ve got to finalize the invitation list, and that’s what we’re here to work on for this weekend. We don’t want to start selling cabins until we know how many we need for guests, which means how many we have left to sell.”

Well, it wasn’t the way I would have done my calculations, but Jim, Joe and Jack were savvy, experienced human beings. So all I said was, “Let’s see. This is the first week in September. The launch is scheduled for December 7th. That’s not much more than ninety days away.” And the response I got to that was three friendly what-is-there-to-worry-about? chuckles.

 
And we went on with our lives. I was aware that there was a fair amount of telephoning going on in science-fiction circles — “Did you get invited to go on this cruise?” “Did you?” — but I was not involved in the decision-making, and very glad that was so.

I was never able to make a reliable count of the guests invited by Jack, Joe and Jim. More than fifty, I’m sure, but I think fewer than one hundred, and most, as Joe had said, were invited to bring their marriage partners, while a few had brought progeny as well. These were all traveling free, the cruise line covering their expenses, while the number of paying passengers was —

Was —

Well, I don’t know what it was. I have been told, by people who claimed to know, that there were a handful of people, fewer than a dozen, who in spite of the best efforts of Jack, Jim and Joe — who never did consider themselves quite ready to start selling tickets — somehow managed to pay actual money to someone for actual tickets for passage on the cruise, but I never met any of them. It is quite possible that the number of paying passengers on the ship was zero. It is true that, at the last moment, Holland America Lines, recoiling in horror from the approaching disaster, did put a couple of small nonpaying groups of travel agents aboard, as cruise lines, airlines and hotels often do to encourage future business. But most of the ship’s cabins were unoccupied as it pulled out of the port of New York.

This fact, of course, was reflected in all the ship’s services. There was only one sitting at meals and no waiting to use the exercise machines or visit the snack bars. For those passengers on the free list, it was a dream of paradise. For the cruise line, not pleasant at all. I don’t actually know what these follies cost Holland America. A figure I have heard mentioned was half a million 1972 American dollars. Jim, Joe and Jack might have been able to give a more precise figure, but we couldn’t ask them.

They hadn’t come aboard.

To be continued.

 
Related posts:

Arthur C. Clarke, photo by Amy Marash, www.marash.tv

Sir Arthur C. Clarke at home in Sri Lanka, 2005. Photo by Amy Marash.

I first met Arthur C. Clarke in the 1950s, on the occasion of his first cross-Atlantic visit to New York City By then Arthur had established himself as a first-rate science-fiction writer and he did what sf writers do in a strange city: He looked for other sf writers to talk to.

He found them in the rather amorphously shaped group that called itself the Hydra Club, where I was one of the nine heads that had been its founders. We became friends. We stayed that way for all of the half century that remained of Arthur’s life. We met when chance arranged it — at a film festival in Rio de Janeiro, at an occasional scientific meeting, at assorted “cons” — sf-speak for science-fiction gatherings — in many places at many times.

In the early days Arthur spent a lot of time visiting New York, usually staying at the Chelsea Hotel on West 23d Street, and when possible I would join him for dinner or a drink — that was all expense-account money and happily paid for by my publisher, because I was an editor in those days and eager to publish as much Clarke as I could get my hands on. But by the turn of the millennium our friendship had reduced itself to a desultory correspondence and the odd phone conversation. I had given up editing to concentrate on my own writing. What Arthur had given up was ever leaving his island home in Sri Lanka, where I had never been. (Although I visited a number of other countries, Sri Lanka wasn’t one of them.)

Then, in one of his letters in the early part of 2006, Arthur rather offhandedly mentioned that, a couple of years earlier, in a fit of exuberance, he had signed publishing contracts for several books that, he was now convinced, he would never be able to write himself. Most of them he had arranged for some other writer to finish, but there was one, called The Last Theorem, for which he needed a collaborator.

Continue reading ‘Sir Arthur and I’ »