Jonathan Fetter-Vorm and Mary Anne Mohanraj on the Anniversary of Apollo 11 and Space Exploration
With Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
In this episode of the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast, author and illustrator Jonathan Fetter-Vorm and science fiction writer Mary Anne Mohanraj talk to hosts V. V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell about the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and how space exploration has been rendered in images, nonfiction, and fiction. What has been erased from the history of space exploration, and what might the future hold?
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Readings for the Episode
Moonbound: Apollo 11 and the Dream of Spaceflight by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm · Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm · Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm · “To the Moon, but Not Back: You might be surprised what humans left behind on the lunar surface,” by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm, The New York Times, July 19, 2019 · Jump Space stories by Mary Anne Mohanraj · The Stars Change by Mary Anne Mohanraj · Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys by Michael Collins · Hidden Figures by Margot Shetterly · The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe · Apollo 13 · Apollo 13 by James Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger · “To Make It to the Moon, Women Have to Escape Earth’s Gender Bias” by Mary Robinette Kowal, The New York Times, July 17, 2019 · Mary Robinnette Kowal on Twitter about peeing in space · Captain Marvel · Star Wars, “A New Hope”
V.V. Ganeshananthan: Some of my favorite elements of Moonbound are mini-bios of individuals relatively unknown to the general public, and it was fascinating to learn about Jerrie Cobb and other potential female astronauts. Why have we not heard more about Cobb and the other FLATs, who were the first lady astronaut trainees?
Jonathan Fetter-Vorm: That’s a good question, because I was really surprised to discover their history, and I knew that it was an important one to include in the book. And it’s just fascinating. I think part of the reason a lot of their story has not been told until recently was really just sexism, the sense that astronauts were men, the idea of an astronaut was a man. And that combined with the celebrity of NASA’s anointed astronauts, the Mercury seven who were announced before Jerrie Cobb did all the tests that they did, before there was there was even stirrings about the idea of sending a woman to space, NASA had this group of very charismatic, very photogenic, all-American astronauts. And so I think their celebrity was part of what encouraged NASA to say, we’ve already got this figured out, we don’t need to add any more. And then on top of that, it was just this general sense, articulated in a congressional testimony by John Glenn, that our culture is—he said it pretty bluntly—our culture is just set up so that women don’t risk their lives the way that men do.
Whitney Terrell: Because what your book shows and that this guy, Dr. Lovelace, who I guess he worked at NASA. That there’s no reason physically why a woman wouldn’t be a good astronaut. And they knew that by that time.
JFV: Yeah, totally. And in fact, there were many ways in which women would make ideal candidates. Rocket engineers were definitely in favor of the idea of female astronauts because their only concern was figuring out how to make the crew cabin as small as possible so that their rockets needed less fuel. And so you know, the idea that on average, women are smaller than men. They were like, yeah, great, great. And then the First Lady Astronaut Trainees demonstrated, by doing all of the physical and psychological tests that the male astronauts went through, they demonstrated that in many situations, they were better equipped to handle some of the psychological and physical pressures, than their male counterparts. And now unfortunately, NASA never really took them seriously. The public did, and the press jumped on this in the 1950s, early 1960s. And it became kind of a cause celebré that everybody was excited about, but behind the scenes, NASA and even Lyndon Johnson, they were basically like, we got to shut this down. This is—this cannot happen.
WT: Do you guys remember Janet Guthrie? Or maybe remember or know of Janet Guthrie? Like female Formula One racer, and also NASCAR, successful NASCAR racer. And actually, the history podcast, The Dollop which I like, did a recent show on her and they say the exact same thing. And it’s roughly the same time period, right? There’s no reason why you can’t drive if you’re a Formula One car fast if you’re a female, but it was just the consistent barriers were about it was just straight out unbelievable sexism, just direct stuff. And all the famous guys in the industry said, she can’t do this, we don’t want her doing this. And then they would make it so she couldn’t get a good car have a chance to do it, you know? Right. So I saw parallels there.
JFV: And there’s something there’s something important to be said about these First Lady Astronaut Trainees—the hurdles they were going up against just to be aviators. Anybody selected to be an astronaut had to have a background in aviation. But women couldn’t fly in the Air Force, there wasn’t the same kind of opportunities for women. So they had to make do where they could. A lot of them were acrobats, they flew planes, around the country at air shows to do stunt work. The fact that they managed to accrue tens of thousands of hours in the cockpit is, in a way, far more impressive than the men who were fast-tracked from the Air Force to test pilot training and in the astronaut corps.
VVG: Everything you’re saying is reminding me of Captain Marvel, which is a story about women pilots battling—and I feel like you can see echoes of Captain Marvel in there. In recent years there has been more attention paid to people like Katherine Johnson, or Mary Jackson, or Margaret Hamilton—people who, like Hidden Figures, in particular, as you’re pointing to the ways that women were involved in some of the—like, science related to getting people into space, but it really, I feel like there’s still so much farther to go.
Part of the reason a lot of the first lady astronaut trainees’ stories have not been told until recently was really just sexism, the sense that astronauts were men, the idea of an astronaut was a man.
WT: So you claim that there are two reasons why the story of NASA is mostly a story of white men. Could you talk about those?
JFV: Yeah, I think a lot of it was just the structural barriers to having women and people of color, whether that was engineering schools only admitting men, and predominantly white men, to the way the Air Force was structured. But then there was also this interesting element that I wasn’t expecting to read about, and that’s the political aspect, that for Kennedy, and then Johnson to get the political will to send people to the moon, they needed to marshal the support of their Democratic base, which in the 1960s, was southern states, largely segregated southern states, and that’s to appease those constituencies. Almost all of the facilities that were producing parts.
WT: Yeah! That amazed me!
JFV: —were happening in the south.
WT: I did not know, that was the deal.
JFV: Hidden Figures definitely shows it with the, with what was going on at Langley, the segregated there. But that extended beyond into Huntsville, where Von Braun was building his rockets, and even down into Florida, in Texas, Houston, where the Mission Control was—all of these major facilities were in the south. That definitely contributed to the sense that NASA was predominantly a white institution.
VVG: Time to geek out. I would like to know your thoughts on spacesuits, the layers of the spacesuits, the research you did on the assembly of the spacesuits.
JFV: The spacesuits were a lot of fun. In part, I didn’t expect this, but that really came out of drawing. I started drawing the spacesuits and they’re so chunky and they’re so fun to—you just, it was my chance to go a little wild, most of this book, I’m trying to pay such close attention to the details of the consoles, and all the equipment, everything’s so specific. And then the spacesuits were a real pleasure to draw. As I started looking into them, they, they’re an interesting history, because the original idea was—for what a spacesuit should look like, was very science fiction. It was an idea that looks sort of like a suit of armor. These were almost like cyborg suits. You had heavy, bulky material, and plates. People realized pretty quickly that it was impossible to move when you were wearing this stuff.
JFV: And in comes the technicians and engineers at International Latex Corporation, who made Playtex bras and girdles, so they had a lot of experience doing, making clothing that helps control. But is also flexible. And so they put their engineers on it, but more importantly, they put their experienced sewers, and designers, all of whom were women, who figured out how to make this flexible suit that was both comfortable, and it could protect these guys from the sun, from the extreme temperatures of the moon, from micrometeoroids, from—and it could also, you know, hold their bodily waste in, there was never a point where some article of clothing had to do as much as these suits had to do. And the crazy thing is you think about these as marvels of high tech, which they were, but they were assembled entirely by hand, using all these old-fashioned techniques of sewing and artisanship.
WT: And all that the panels that you draw on this, which are really great. And those are around page 182, in the book where people want to check those out, but that the DIY quality of it was the thing that I just thought was so great.
JFV: Yeah, so much of this was DIY, because it’s never been done before. So there was a lot, they just had to figure out how to make this work. It was really—it was really an attractive aspect of the story to see this thing that in retrospect, we think, oh, this is all fixed. This was a momentous occasion. But a lot of it was just people trying to figure out how to take the things they had and to make them work.
VVG: As someone who is really bad at sewing, the notion that like, I don’t know, you could be basting a uniform, and then if you did it wrong, the consequences later would be so, so—
JFV: Yeah, it was a high-pressure sewing job.
There was a lot of back and forth behind the scenes leading up to the Apollo mission about planting a flag . . . . so this didn’t start as a nationalist endeavor. It was only in retrospect that it became an icon of American ingenuity.
WT: So I’m still moved by the plaque they left behind them. What is the thing that is left on the moon that they blast the module off of? What is that called? The little thing with the legs, does it have a name?
JFV: You know, they would call that the descent stage, the lunar module. Not a very sexy term—
WT: So on the descent stage, they left a plaque that reads: “Here, men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon, July 1969 AD, We came in peace for all mankind. The thing I like about that plaque is that it’s nondenominational. It’s non-national. Like, I feel like if Trump set the Space Force up there now it’d be like—This is America—got here first, and it’s ours now! You know, that’s not what it said.”
JFV: Yeah. And it’s important, I think, to remember that, like the flag, the planting of the American flag was an afterthought. There was a lot of back and forth behind the scenes leading up to the Apollo mission about what they were going to do. And originally they were going to plant the flag of the United Nations. It was only a last-minute decision. And it was very last-minute. Some technicians set out their secretaries to go to Sears and they just bought a bunch of American flags. Those $5 and 50 cent American flags were the ones that ended up on the moon, like this was—so this, it didn’t start as this big nationalist endeavor. Like I said before, it was only in retrospect that it became an icon of American ingenuity.
WT: I like because it’s like the language from the Declaration of Independence, right? It’s all men are created equal. It’s an inclusive language. And yet, there were social costs for the Apollo program. And there were protests, particularly by civil rights leaders like Reverend Abernathy, during the time that this program was going on. And you do a good job of talking about that in the book. I wondered if you could talk about that a little bit for our listeners who might not be familiar with those issues.
JFV: Leading up to the Apollo 11 launch, in fact, during the entire decade of the Apollo program, opinion polls from the time showed that a majority of Americans did not think it was worth spending taxpayer dollars to send men to the moon. And that was a real surprise to me. It was only really during July of 1969, that opinion polls switched, which was when we were actually on the moon. So there was a lot of ambivalence about it. And Reverend Ralph Abernathy and Hosea Williams, they lead a poor people’s march—a mule train, and about 500 prominently poor African American protesters to the launch site, Cape Canaveral, on the eve of the Apollo 11 launch. And there’s this very, very surreal scene when Thomas Paine, who is the head NASA Administrator comes out to greet this mule train, and, you know, they Ralph Abernathy and Williams are like we will we, we support this, but we want to, we want to know that America is behind investing these kinds of resources to solve the problems of poverty and hunger in America. You know, it takes $12 a day to feed an astronaut but only $8 a day to feed an American child. So why aren’t we spending money on that? And Thomas Paine, the NASA administrator, was like, Look, if I could not press that launch button and solve American poverty, I would not press that launch button. Essentially, you saying that social problems are not like engineering problems, that is a lot harder to solve the social problems.
Mary Anne Mohanraj
Whitney Terrell: Earlier in today’s episode, we talked about the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11. Moon Landing, which is our news peg for this episode. And I was just wondering, as a writer who writes about space, how has that event and the real-life exploration of space beyond that influenced your imaginary explorations if at all?
Mary Anne Mohanraj: It certainly has, I think. I’m 48 so the actual landing happened a little before I was born. But of course, I grew up watching Star Trek, and going to the library and falling in love with science fiction, looking for the books with the rocket ships on the covers, on the spines, in the children’s section. And then these days, I actually write science fiction quite a bit. I had hoped to be an astronaut at one point, but it turns out I’m too short. Actually Mary Robinette Kowal talks about some of this, you know, in the recent New York Times piece, she published something where they were talking about how both the spacesuits and the ships were not designed for women in a variety of ways, which has caused all kinds of difficulties. And so I wouldn’t be able to reach the various levers and so on, if they had let me go up, because it was designed for taller men. So I gave up that dream and was going to be a librarian. It turns out that librarians don’t get to read all the time, but writers do. So I write about space. And I actually recently did a story for George RR Martin’s Wild Cards series in which these superhero-ish characters end up who are encountering a lot of stigma on Earth, end up going to the moon. And as a result, I got to do a lot of fun research into craters and various attempts to land there by the Russians, by the Americans. Wild Cards isn’t in an alternate timeline. So our characters end up interfering with our world history of what happened there.
These days, I actually write science fiction quite a bit. I had hoped to be an astronaut at one point, but it turns out I’m too short.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: So for our listeners who might not know, can you explain a little bit about what the Wild Cards consortium is? And maybe also talk about what George is like, as an editor? That’s what an interesting experience.
MAM: Wild Cards started as a role playing game that he used to play with his friends. And then it turned into this shared world universe. And periodically, they invite more people to join the universe. It’s been going on for a long time, there’s, you know, at least 20 books in the series. Fort Freak was the first one I was in. And it’s challenging, because there’s all of this backstory and all of these characters that you’re trying to keep track of and manage. Thankfully, they’ll answer questions if you get stuck. And it’s—it’s one of the premises of science fictional one, there are these aliens who came to earth and left behind a disease, which if you catch it either kills you, mutates you to have a deformity, or gives you powers, and sometimes very minor powers, but sometimes superhero-ey kinds of powers. It’s actually coming to Hulu as a TV series. They’re working on the pilot now. George as an editor is amazing, actually. So in Fort Freak, I set up this threesome series and relationship. And I really like these characters. But then in the second story, one of them behaves badly in such a way that it would really compromise the marriage. And I, you know, I gave them a happy ending. And he saw my draft and he called me up and he’s like, Mary Anne, you cannot. He is very willing to kill off characters. He really wants actions to have consequences. And so he was like, seriously would these people really, and this is a huge spoiler for my story—but you know, would these people seriously be able to just happily stay together after one of them has behaved so badly. And, and I had to admit that he was right, I had to kill my darling, I had to go back and rewrite the ending to be more true to the characters and more satisfying. And I would say he’s always going to push for that. He doesn’t let you soft pedal things.
WT: It’d be insane if we didn’t ask if you ever talked to him about Game of Thrones.
MAM: We are not supposed to ask about Game of Thrones. It’s been made very clear to us. I’ve asked his assistants about it, I will admit, and they have told us that he goes in every morning into his office and closes his door and works on Winds of Winter. And so he’s working on it. It’s got to be tough.Fiction is about the creation of difficulty and surmounting obstacles.
VVG: That’s amazing. I’d forgotten a bit about you wanting to be an astronaut. And for our listeners who—I mean, I guess no one would know this, except for the two of us, but Mary Anne has known me since I was born. And is one of my writing roles models, and has been one of my writing role models, since I was a very little kid. I had somehow forgotten that bit about you wanting to be an astronaut. And the way that that must have changed how you approach the research is so interesting, and The Stars Change, and some of the other material that you’ve worked on recently take place in what you’ve called the Jump Space Universe. And that was also the title of the first story. So when you are thinking about the rules of actual space, and then inventing rules for your space, how do you do that? And can you explain what jumps are and how they work and the rules of your world?
MAM: So part of the challenge with writing Science Fiction set in space is faster than-light travel. As far as we know it’s not possible. The physics as we understand it makes it not possible. And that’s a problem for storytellers. Because it’s super boring not to be able to go fast to other places, right? So Science Fiction has traditionally had a couple of conventions to help with that. And you either have, somehow we develop these magical FTL drives that are faster than light drives, and now we can travel as fast as we want. So that’s why Star Trek has warp drives—
WT: And then the new Star Trek has an even better spore drive—
VVG: Wait, is that the tardigrade thing or is that?
WT: Yeah, it totally is. I love the new Star Trek.
MAM: And the mycelial network. Yeah. I actually also love the new Star Trek, I have some real questions about the sport drive, but we can table that for a different conversation. Another convention of the genre is that there are these wormholes. That there are these phenomena in space that let you jump from one point in space to another point of space. And you could think of it maybe like, if you if you read A Wrinkle in Time, or saw the recent movie, the tesseracts would let you sort of fold space and connect two points that wouldn’t otherwise be connected. I actually should ask—my husband’s a mathematician who does four and five dimensional math. I’ve never actually talked to him about whether what he does connects to this at all. But anyway, putting that aside, nobody knows if this would actually work. And sometimes their natural phenomena, sometimes they are constructed, we figure out how to build wormholes. And that lets us jump from point to point.
What I love about using that system is for the kind of social science fiction that I write, it lets me approximate the 1800s as to now, in terms of travel possibilities. There’s these things called Portolan maps, which if you Google, you’ll see there, these kind of like odd maps, which only the coasts are indicated. And there are these lines, based on the compass rose, sometimes called rhumb lines. And, and it’s they’re meant for navigation. And there is a way in which nations—people’s countries could interact, back when it was difficult to get from one point to another, right? When it was really, really hard, it affected immigration, it affected your ability to wage war, the spread of languages, etc. And so what I like about working with a wormhole network in space, is that it lets me do some of the same kinds of things sort of plausibly.
WT: It creates difficulty. I mean, fiction is about the creation of difficulty and surmounting obstacles. And so if one of them is travel, those are the—I mean, that’s a classic fiction to be surmounted or wrestled with.
MAM: And separation of cultures. And I grew up as a kid, the stories I love the most in science fiction, were always the first contact stories. And maybe that’s, you know, as being an immigrant, I was born in Sri Lanka, I came to the U.S. when I was two and a half. I was the only brown kid in my Polish Catholic school. And so I was very much aware of difference, and trying to find friends, which thankfully, I managed. And then how we bridge those those differences. And the science fiction stories that focused on that won my heart, and with Star Trek, Spock was my favorite character because he was caught between two worlds. He was half human and half Vulcan. And how is he going to navigate that? And look, he got to be friends with Jim Kirk and Bones McCoy, and they had a great friendship and for kind of lonely, weird, geeky kid, that was a very compelling story.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. This transcript has been edited and condensed by Damian Johannson and V.V. Ganeshananthan.