I thought of Ray Bradbury today while reading about the NASA helicopter on Mars.
I thought of him not because of his first book, The Martian Chronicles, which he published in 1950.
Instead I recalled the day 30 years ago I got a chance to sit down and talk with him.
I was a young newspaper reporter just out of college. My job allowed me to meet all sorts of interesting people, including occasional famous ones such as Roy Rogers, President George H.W. Bush, Pat Sajak, and Bradbury.
In 1991 Bradbury had recently published Zen in the Art of Writing, a collection of essays about creativity. So I figured that’s what we would talk about.
Instead our conversation kept detouring to his disappointment and somewhat intense anger that the U.S. government was not devoting more resources and brain power to space exploration. He thought it was a massive missed opportunity.
I understood the argument on an intellectual level. But I was only 21 years old. I didn’t have the life experience yet to perceive what he was really saying.
I started to put together the full picture in 2012 when Bradbury died and tributes flooded in from around the world.
The man who’d written so vividly and memorably about the future was revered not only by high school English teachers and science-fiction fans, but also by scientists, engineers, and astronauts.
Andrew Chaikin, who commissioned an article by Bradbury for Space Illustrated magazine in 2000, discussed Bradbury’s enduring appeal on National Public Radio.
He said Bradbury’s writing remains “the best expression of the why of space exploration that I’ve ever heard.”
Chaikin quoted a favorite passage:
We have been given eyes to see what the light-year worlds cannot see of themselves. We have been given hands to touch the miraculous. We’ve been given hearts to know the incredible. Can we shrink back to bed in our funeral clothes? Mars says we cannot.
I’m older now. I have since married and raised children. They will soon go to college.
My daughter — nearly the same age I was when talking to Bradbury — told me just today about some of the astronomy courses and clubs at the college she’ll attend.
For a moment I was confused. She has never been a particularly eager student of math or science.
But as I listened to her excitement, I recalled Bradbury and his insight about space exploration.
Voyaging into the cosmos is about so much more than science or math. There is room for all disciplines — literature, ethics, visual art, history, mythology. In fact, done properly, space exploration not only has room for young people from these areas, it desperately needs them.
Another artist I once got to meet was the actor Alan Alda. He too surprised me by wanting to talk almost entirely about science.
He said his passion was to get the most advanced theoretical scientists to communicate effectively with the rest of us. In a world of increasing specialization and technology, Alda said the gulf between scientists and the general public had grown too large.
Incredible discoveries were being made every day, Alda said. But scientists were losing the ability to explain the significance of these discoveries to the rest of us.
A communicator by training, Alda was spending his own time, money, and energy encouraging scientists to begin bridging that gap. He believed that both groups — scientists and the general public — needed each other desperately. (The current pandemic and the surprising strength of vaccine skepticism may illustrate the same point.)
I have no idea what my daughter will study in college. I always figured she would wind up making art or writing poems. But at 52, I’m finally starting to grasp what Bradbury was trying to tell me that day.
Our nation should not be spending trillions of dollars stockpiling weapons and fighting forever wars. We should be exploring the universe. It’s in our DNA. Our imagination demands it. Our survival as a species may depend on it. We need everyone’s help, including artists, philosophers, and poets.