How the Space Race Changed Science Fiction

The moon landing, 53 years ago today, was an important turning point in the space race- and for science fiction.

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On this day, July 20, in 1969, the Apollo 11 mission landed on the Moon, and Neil Armstrong took the first steps on the surface. This was a pivotal moment of the Space Race that began decades ago, as the US government competed with the Soviet Union to be the first to explore beyond our planet. The Space Race occurred during Cold War and focused mostly on the two world powers competing against each other. But the result of being the first to explore beyond our planet, is still praised as a very worthwhile effort today. But how did the Space Race shape the genre of science fiction, which was just coming to life?

Science Fiction Before Space Travel


The story that can be pointed to as the “catalyst” of science fiction is still widely debated, but many agree that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein released in 1818, was one. Throughout the 19th century, sci-fi developed as a genre, with topics spanning from Shelley’s exploration of what it means to be human, to underwater exploration and aliens from authors like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Most importantly, Verne wrote a story in 1865 called From the Earth to the Moon, where people travel to the moon via a giant cannon-like device. This was one of the early examples of a science fiction writer speculating based on the technology at the time, just like authors do today.

In 1902, the first movie to show space travel was A Trip to the Moon by Georges Méliès. It was partly based on Verne’s novel and was very popular at the time. The movie let sci-fi officially enter the world of motion pictures. After its success and the release Wells’s novel War of the Worlds in 1898, space and aliens became an influential part of science fiction.

The Start of the Space Race


While the Cold War started to escalate right after World War II, the Space Race didn’t really kick off until 1957. During the 50s, Americans started to see space as “the new frontier”, the next thing to explore in progression of the Manifest Destiny. What shocked many individuals, was when the Soviet satellite, Sputnik, launched in October 1957. Not wanting to lose ground, the United States launched their own satellite, the Explorer I the following year, and created NASA to oversee all space operations- including exploration.

The Space Race primarily involved getting an advantage over the other world power, as both United States and Soviet Union wanted to use space for military purposes. The CIA was involved in intelligence operations in space. But the public’s ideas about it were a little different. Though, President John F. Kennedy announced in 1962 that Americans would land on the moon by the end of the decade. It was around this time that science fiction writers started to imagine what a future with space travel might look like.

1960s Sci-Fi and Space


Because of the political nature of the Space Race, the movies that came from it had a noticeably patriotic tone; the movie, Countdown (1968), for example, shows the US sending one man to the moon before the Soviet Union does. But not every sci-fi story about space travel was focused on the moon. As the day of the Apollo 11 mission came closer, people in the 1960s stopped seeing the moon as a far-future fantasy and saw it as something that could quickly become a part of life. Margaret Weitekamp, a historian at the National Air and Space Museum, stated in an interview for that:

“The [portrayals] that are focused on the reality of what’s going on and realistic space programs tend to fall away in the 1960s, because they can’t really compete with the real thing… and so what you get are more extrapolated visions of what spaceflight could be.”

Weitekamp, to

This idea led to stories with even more speculative stories of the future of humanity like Star Trek. After the moon landing, science fiction took an even bigger step forward.

After Apollo 11


After the moon landing, space travel was a guaranteed part of human history. With that in mind, authors wanted to explore the possibilities of the future more than ever before- and to also think about its consequences. Stories like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation was seen today as ahead of their time. Epic sci-fi sagas like Dune and Star Wars took place in faraway settings. What the Space Race gave to the world about the solar system and beyond, led to more hard science fiction stories that used real science. This trend has continued into today, where movies like Interstellar consulted real physicists to depict space travel more accurately.

The Space Race’s Impact Today


The legacy of the Space Race also influenced many to explore the idea where space travel isn’t portrayed as a positive thing. Lots of movies and books about contact with extraterrestrial life in our universe show this as a bad thing, often because of the choices people make when they discover them. Ender’s Game and its multiple sequels, written from 1985 to today by Orson Scott Card, specifically cite the Cold War’s influence on space travel as the reason why the first contact was terrible. And plenty of other stories, like the 2015 novel, Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, portray Earth politics as a barrier to greater heights that could be achieved in space travel with cooperation.

Looking into the future with space travel can still be a positive thing- even though other problems we face are shown in sci-fi films more frequently. Many science fiction stories from the last twenty years, such as WALL-E, Interstellar, and more, show the Earth as uninhabitable because of the effects of climate change. In all of these stories, going into space is or was seen as the answer, although some of them also focus on how to get home. These stories show that the problems that affect us shape science fiction today, and the Space Race caused a major shift in how we think of the future, and how we could solve said problems. While sci-fi has always looked up to the stars, the moon landing gave us a foothold beyond Earth that let writers look even further into the future.

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