How would Heinlein react to today’s progress in space?

By Michael Grossberg

Have spacesuit, will travel?

If only Robert Heinlein were still alive today, what would he think of the progress humankind is making in outer space by harnessing the creative energies of free enterprise?

Heinlein (1907-1988), often called the dean of science-fiction writers, was a pioneer in hard sf who often wrote novels and stories imagining how our species would expand beyond our planet to the Moon (“Rocket Ship Galileo,” his first novel published as a book; and “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” perhaps the most beloved and explicitly libertarian of his many Prometheus Hall of Fame winners and the first to be inducted in 1983), Mars (“Red Planet,” a 1996 Prometheus Hall of Fame inductee; “Podkayne on Mars,” and “Stranger in a Strange Land”) and well beyond (“Citizen of the Galaxy,” “Friday”, and “Have Space Suit – Will Travel,” among others.)

I thought of Heinlein, who I met at the 1981 Denver Worldcon and interviewed at the early-1980s L5 Society national convention in Houston, Texas, when I read a June 2019 news story in the UK newspaper “The Independent” about NASA announcing plans to let tourists, industrialists, and other private individuals into the international space station.

Excerpt: “The missions will be part of NASA’s broader plan to allow commercial companies into space. It hopes that private industry can develop the space technologies of the future, and help with its plans to return to the Moon in 2024, taking the first ever woman and the first person in decades.”

“NASA hopes that the missions help test out and encourage future private missions into space, which could provide funding for further exploration in years to come…

“The space agency will keep using the ISS as a place for research and testing in low-Earth orbit, doing work that will help contribute towards its plans to head to the Moon, it said. But it will also work with the private sector to allow it to use the ISS to test technologies, train astronauts and encourage the development of the “space economy”, it said.

NASA will also help develop a whole host of private spacecraft, floating around above the Earth, that can serve as a home for people, NASA said.

…Eventually, private companies could use floating habitations like the ISS to stop off at on their way to further destinations deeper in the solar system.”

For the generations that grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, even before the first humans went to the moon, such news stories still seem a bit like science fiction – and recall many of the sf stories and novels that we read growing up.

Dozens of novels about space travel, space exploration, space industrialization and space colonization have been nominated for the Prometheus Awards over the past four decades. Many now seem prophetic; and some inevitably are beginning to seem a bit quaint – but that’s progress.

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Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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