Neil Armstrong’s famous words as he stepped onto the moon in 1969 are forever ingrained in our world history. It was the finish line of the competitive space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. It changed our understanding of what’s possible for us in terms of exploring space and technology. And it opened up the universe beyond what we know for developing the science fiction genre.
The near-constant progress of the space race meant filmmakers, directors, and writers had consistent material to work with. Cultural icons like Star Trek and Star Wars were inspired by previous space films like Forbidden Planet and the 1930s Flash Gordon series. But of course, these icons also incorporated more scientific accuracies that the world learned from the space race. This type of science fiction, however, started somewhere before the space age.
Early science fiction largely had earthly bases. Stories like Frankenstein and The Invisible Man took what was known and exaggerated it – as science fiction does. And any otherworldly sci-fi stories that came before humans’ initial attempts at space exploration were even more imaginative. Heavier on the fiction than the science, if you will. Take Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon.
Verne wrote of Americans launching themselves to the moon with a giant cannon. Though that sounds silly now, cannons were a prominent technology during the Civil War. There was no way Verne would think of space travel the way we do now. Pop culture does reflect the current state of society, after all. But how did this change once we finally dove into (out to?) space?
The race really began in 1956 when the Soviet Union successfully launched the satellite Sputnik into orbit. Seeing as this happened amid the Cold War, the amazing feat had non-scientific fallout. Rampant fear of communism in America only intensified as questions about the purpose and ability of Sputnik arose.
Science fiction made sure to include this detail in its stories. The film Invasion of the Body Snatchers depicts creatures coming to Earth in pods and creating doppelgangers to replace humans. This takeover is a clear representation of the American understanding of communist values. It emphasizes the idea that people should be on the lookout because those around them may not be who they seem. This is also one of the first instances we see a direct influence on science fiction from the space race and the Cold War conflict. Then, the moon landing shifted the general consensus about space travel.
The Moon Landing
Over a decade later, NASA put a man on the moon. The race suddenly ended (though, obviously, space exploration continued), and the idea of going to the moon was no longer fantasy. On top of that, the lack of activity on the moon meant being on its surface didn’t make for fascinating material. As a result, space-centered sci-fi focused on the journey to the moon rather than anything happening on the moon itself. Now, it wouldn’t be a historical moment if we didn’t get the Apollo movies telling the stories of the brave astronauts who risked and gave their lives for progress. But fictional retellings fall on the biographical side of things.
The real change we saw in science fiction came about in films like Countdown. The 1968 sci-fi thriller is about the challenge of the journey into space while also racing to get there first. And since the moon’s barren surface offered little excitement, writers used its lifelessness to their advantage. Some stories have astronauts stranded or working alone on the moon to capture the intense isolation and evoke an eerie feeling in the audience. On the other hand, films like Apollo 18 took it as an opportunity to put aliens on screen that disguise themselves as space rocks to make the moon more of a spectacle.
New Fears Unlocked
Despite incredible progress, humans had only scratched the surface of space travel in the ‘60s. There was, and is, so much unknown about space. Throw in the fact that the general public also knew little about the technology used for it, and you’ve got a world of paranoid and fearful human beings. Science fiction definitely fed off of that fear. For instance, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey featured HAL, a computer in charge of a ship headed to Jupiter that manages to kill four of five members on the ship before the fifth dismantles it.
The movie encompasses the growing fear in society at the time that technology would outpace humans and we would lose control. This fear, coupled with the fear of the unknown, gave rise to the idea that space travel might go against human nature. People worried that our involvement in space would only lead to disaster. The Planet of the Apes is an example of this type of fatalism. Three astronauts land on a planet dominated by apes that treat humans like animals, only to realize that it’s not a foreign world they’re on – it’s Earth. The thought process that led to films like this allowed filmmakers to end stories with a twist or on an unsettling note instead of the usual conflict resolution where humans come out on top.
The Ever-Looming Threat of Nuclear War
Aside from all that was unknown about space, there was the very Earth-bound threat of nuclear weapons. Though it seems unrelated to our business in space, a nuclear warhead actually detonated in space at the command of President Kennedy in 1962 under Starfish Prime. Americans’ fear that nuclear missiles could be fired from space became reality. Two 1964 movies (Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe) highlight the possibility of glitches and miscommunication between transcontinental bombers that cause an unintentional nuclear war. Such on-the-nose storytelling made some of the first science fiction films that were basically propaganda about changing war methods. This aspect of the space age is one of the more unexpected outcomes of the era.
Where We Are Today
As we make even more mind-blowing advancements, our position in the universe is something we reflect on frequently. Interstellar is one film that forces us to consider how small we are and how improbable it is for us to have survived this long.
The characters search for potentially habitable planets for humans before the Earth’s resources run out and we go extinct. It’s an especially haunting take on human survival and the desperation to succeed that doesn’t seem too far out of reach.
But the most recent development that may bring another round of science fiction innovation is the James Webb Space Telescope. It allows us to see further into the early universe than we have ever seen. It has captured images of some of the first galaxies and stars to form in the universe. The most distant galaxy, which appeared only 300 million years after the Big Bang, is one that scientists named GLASS-Z13. This is an earlier galaxy than the earliest captured by the Hubble Space Telescope at 400 million years after the Big Bang.
As Webb continues looking far into the universe’s past, there is much we have yet to discover. We’ve come a long way from the doubt that we could even get to the Moon. Science fiction captures almost everything from interplanetary travel to intergalactic travel to even the social and political state of society – so what could this newest advancement in space exploration bring us next?
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