Former NASA engineer Homer Hickam gained notoriety when his autobiography Rocket Boys was made into the movie October Skies (which is an anagram of the words ‘rocket boys’). He has also gotten a lot of press for his criticisms of NASA, particularly those pointing out the poor design of the Space Shuttle propulsion configuration. Since his retirement from NASA, Hickam has become an accomplished novelist. His latest work, a sci fi novel called Crescent, recently came out. On the heels of its publication, Hickam agreed to speak with us about NASA, the Moon, and advice for young would-be astronauts.
In Crescent, you speculate that the Apollo Moon landing sites could be turned into National Parks. Do you really think there’s a risk they could be trashed unless they are protected somehow?
Hickam: I use the National Park idea as a plot device in Crescent. The main city on the Moon is close to the first Apollo landing site which has become a tourist attraction and has been more or less destroyed. I have one character who is interested in preserving the other sites and is attacked on a trip out to look at them.
It is interesting to me that when we do have settlements on the Moon, the Apollo 11 site will probably be made into a tourist attraction. The other sites are further away and I believe people who live there will want to protect them one way or another.
When do you really think that will happen?
Hickam: It depends on the situation here on earth. Why did people first go to California? They went there because gold was discovered there. The Moon equivalent of gold, I believe, has already been discovered and that will lead to setting up a lunar infrastructure. But there are a lot of things that have to happen before that takes place. If we presuppose that everything is going to happen based on the reality of today, we will probably be wrong. I am guessing that by the early 22nd century, we will have a need for the Moon’s resources and the wherewithal to go get them.
As a former NASA engineer, do you have a propulsion technology in mind that will be used for space travel?
Hickam: If we are seriously interested in studying the solar system, we have to build nuclear engines. In Crescent, I have people using chemical engines. It is a retro type of a novel and a little steam punky in that regard. I also have them using Aldrin cyclers. (In 1985, astronaut Buzz Aldrin theorized a so-called Aldrin Cycler trajectory that encounters two or more bodies on a regular basis.) I tend to agree with Buzz that cyclers are the way to go. The Moon can be explored very well using chemical engines this way.
People with technical backgrounds who write fiction sometimes get accused of bogging down things in technical details. Is that a problem for you?
Hickam: I am not that kind of writer. I am probably best known for being a military historian. I was publishing military history when Rocket Boys came out. My interest is in people. I use my technical background to enhance the story of the people I am writing about.
NASA is a big bureaucracy. Has your career at NASA shaped the way you write science fiction plots?
Hickam: I was pretty much a rogue within NASA and I resisted the bureaucracy. I was disliked because I would speak up and tell people what they were doing wasn’t right. I pretty much didn’t care what headquarters said.
Are NASA bureaucrats models for any of your characters?
Hickam: Yes. The novel Back to the Moon was the story of a Shuttle being hijacked to the Moon. In it, I was able to lay out what the NASA bureaucracy is really like. My characters are fighting the bureaucracy most of the way.
That said, the workers in the trenches of NASA are spectacularly proficient. But they haven’t had good leadership in 50 years, and it shows. That is why we are where we are.
What do you tell kids today who ask you about how to be astronauts? Do you advise them to pursue a career in NASA or go elsewhere?
Hickam: That is a tough one. The kids I hear from still tend to think of astronauts in the old way, where tens of thousands of people apply to NASA and they choose ten. To be chosen you have to study hard and make good grades. But I don’t think that is the future.
Right now, NASA has more astronauts than they can possibly use. The have no way to get them into orbit except by using the Russians, and that is a tenuous link in my opinion. And the U.S. government really has very little interest in human space flight. When a country like ours chooses to let its ability to put people in orbit just go away without any replacement, it just screams that we don’t care. They treat it more like a nuisance and I think that will be the case for some time.
The government seems to be happy to hand human space flight over to Elon Musk and the other commercial operators. I am happy to see it handed over if they truly do hand it over and don’t try to prevent it from happening.
Based on the government’s non-interest, I would have to advise young people to go out and get a job with SpaceX if you can, or with another company that is interested in human space flight.
The story is a little different for robots. NASA is very interested in putting robots in the solar system, perhaps because it looks good for a country to have science progressing. Or it might just be that it is cheaper than human space flight. But it is a muddy picture there, too, about what will continue in the future.
A lot depends on whether we get ourselves in such a technical crunch that we have to gear up in a way like the Sputnik era. Right now we are just adrift. All I can tell interested kids is to try and get good grades, get into the best technical school you can, and see where you are at the end.