Today’s review comes from the SFRA Review 250, January/February 2001, which I have only written for on a very few occasions. The Dream of Spaceflight: Essays on the Near Edge of Infinity by Wyn Wachhorst is a collection of essays that came out in 2000, and unless you are a member of the Science Fiction Research Association it’s very likely that you won’t have had a chance to see this review before.
As T.S. Eliot said: ‘Human kind cannot bear very much reality’. We need the real leavened by adventure. Not the sort of adventure that imperils us, but that about which we read and dream, that which creates our heroes and our hopes. Journeys, explorations, have often provided such adventures, and for a while, say between 1944, when Chesley Bonestell’s paintings of alien worlds first appeared in Life, and the end of the 1960s, when Neil Armstrong stepped out on the Moon, the journey into space seemed the very epitome of those dreams. Briefly, in April 1970 when Apollo 13 struggled around the Moon, that spirit of adventure surged again. But it was a false rebirth, caught on all those held breaths, and the moment the spaceship splashed safely down it hissed away again. Since then, as human kind has retreated from space, so it has stopped providing our dreams of heroes and adventures. Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins reveals the vital clue in one of these exquisite essays when he is quoted as saying that for an astronaut ‘boring is good because it means that you haven’t been surprised, that your planning has been precise and your expectations matched’. For the reality of spaceflight that is almost certainly true, but it is, in Eliot’s terms, too much reality. Space has stopped being the exotic beaches that Bonestell conjured, the surge of power that inspired Goddard and von Braun, the astonishment of star-filled nights and strange worlds that excited Kepler and Wells. And when the dream died, the reality did not long survive it.
It is the dream of spaceflight that historian Wyn Wachhorst explores and attempts to revive in the four central essays that comprise this small and beautifully-produced collection. The first essay, ‘Kepler’s Children’, explores the hold that space and journeys in space have had as we travel from Johannes Kepler, taken as a six-year-old boy to see the Great Comet of 1577 streak across the sky, to the cosmic voyages of Jules Verne; from the US diplomat Percival Lowell, freezing through the nights in his observatory at Mars Hill while he conjures canals on the surface of Mars, to the failed pencil sharpener salesman Edgar Rice Burroughs turning those canals into the setting for exotic adventures; from Robert Goddard labouring thanklessly in the desert to send a rocket into the New Mexico sky, to George Pal sending a slender silver ship to its Destination Moon; and always the romantic dream of spaceflight is the thread of inspiration that ties them all together. ‘The Romance of Spaceflight’ develops this theme further. ‘Soon there will be no one who remembers when spaceflight was still a dream, the reverie of reclusive boys and the vision of a handful of men’ Wachhorst begins, establishing the elegaic tone that is one of the key features of this collection. Spaceflight in dream and in reality are very different things, and here he looks at the effect upon our imaginations, in particular, of Bonestell’s paintings and Pal’s films. The third essay, ‘Seeking the Center at the Edge’, steps back a little to look at the way we construct space, from the pyramids of the Egyptians to the Cathedral at Chartres, and from them to the towering Saturn rocket glittering in its cradle in the Florida sun. Finally elegy turns to regret in ‘Abandon in Place’ which focuses on Apollo 13 and the retreat from space that followed, in public perceptions, political will and scientific reality.
The notes that accompany these essays are chockablock with references to historians, scientists, biographers, psychologists, journalists, poets, science fiction writers, philosophers and astronauts. A huge amount of information from many disparate sources has been synthesised here, though it is unlikely that the interested reader will learn anything new. But that isn’t the purpose of the book. What Wachhorst is doing is spelling out how necessary wonder is to our imaginative identity, and how vital a part space has played, and should play again, in the evocation of that wonder. These essays are a lyrical hymn to all that we might lose as human beings if we turn away from space, and constitute the finest advocacy of the romance of spaceflight imaginable short of a new issue of Chesley Bonestell and Willy Ley’s The Conquest of Space.