625. Gateway Drug

Science fiction is a gateway drug. I don’t mean a gateway into general reading; that would probably be Dr. Seuss. I mean a gateway drug into a life of exploration.

Harlan Ellison told this story on himself. He was on a tour of some space installation, probably Houston but I can’t be sure. It’s been years since I read the story. One of the pocket protector crowd came up and told Harlan that his stories had been inspirational to his career. In Harlan’s version of the story, he was unimpressed, but he had a carefully crafted curmudgeon persona, so who knows really. He later found out that he had been talking to an astronaut.

Space exploration is taken for granted today. The moon landing happened during my early twenties, but just a dozen years earlier, in the late fifties when I first became fascinated with science fiction, few people believed man would ever leave the earth.

Science fiction people — writers and readers — believed.

Science fiction has been a gateway drug for a very long time. In 1898, 16 year old Robert Goddard, already fascinated by science, turned his attention to space when he read H. G. Wells War of the Worlds.

With little outside help and while enduring the disdain of his colleagues, Goddard invented the liquid fuel rocket, then went on to invent the multi-stage rocket. He received patents for both in 1914 and had actually built and successfully launched a liquid fuel rocket by 1926. He went on to pioneer the use of gyroscopic control of steerable thrust rockets.

Goddard was launched by science fiction, and in turn he launched a whole flotilla of boy scientists building rockets in their basements and flying off to explore space in the science fiction of the twenties and thirties.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is named after him.

In 1905, in Transylvania (now in Romania) eleven year old Hermann Oberth became fascinated with the works of Jules Verne, particularly From the Earth to the Moon.

Oberth took training in medicine, but spent his spare time conducting experiments in rocketry. He studied physics from 1919, but his dissertation on rocket science was rejected as utopian. He chose to expand his work and publish it privately, saying he would become a great scientist even without a diploma. He was right.

His book, The Rocket into Planetary Space, became a classic. Its publication led to the formation of the VIR (Verein für Raumschiffahrt — Society for Space Travel) a German group which built and launched rockets in the years between the World Wars. Wernher Von Braun became a member. Oberth later became a mentor to Von Braun.

Von Braun’s work led to the V-2, and the V-2 led to every subsequent rocket built by the Americans or the Russians, including the Saturn V. Oberth was in the crowd watching its launch when it carried Apollo 11 to the moon.

Today Nova on PBS is probably the gateway drug for a life of fascination with space, and science fiction as literature has been largely co-opted by the movies. But there is a lot more content in a science fiction novel than Nova or Star Wars can present, and kids are still reading.

The first time a kid comes upon a science fiction idea, no matter what the quality of the work it appears in, that story is the one which counts. It doesn’t matter how many times the idea has been presented in the past, the story you read when you are twelve or thirteen is the one that stirs your juices and sets your neurons into a new pattern.

Maybe someday, some kid will be inspired by one of my books. The odds are against it so late in the history of science fiction, but it’s a comfort to know that it could happen.

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