On the evening of December 7th, 1972, a cruise ship named the SS Statendam coasted in the dark waters off the shores of Cape Canaveral. It carried a light load: only one hundred passengers occupied the vessel meant to carry over six times that number. Onboard, everyone had their eyes trained towards the shore. At 12:33 am, Apollo 17, took off into the night sky, carrying astronauts Gene Cernan, Ronald Evans, and Harrison Schmitt on America’s final lunar mission.
It was a bittersweet moment for the crowd of the cruise ship, a collection of science fiction authors, scientists, and other members of the literary community. Some of the genre’s best-known authors were in attendance: Isaac Asimov, Fred Pohl, Ben Bova, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Heinlein, Carl Sagan, Norman Mailer, Katherine Anne Porter, and many others. The occasion had been organized as a sort of floating convention designed to examine the future of space travel.
NASA had always been an attraction to the science fiction community, turning what had been just the dreams of science fiction authors scribbling stories for pulp magazines into reality. The reality of space travel came true in October 1957, during the height of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, when the Soviet Union launched the first man-made satellite into orbit, kicking off an escalating race between the USSR and the United States to reach the moon. The race captivated the US, and had an outsized effect on the country. “America has profited immensely from a generation of scientists and engineers who, instead of becoming lawyers or investment bankers, responded to the challenging vision posed in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy,” wrote Neil DeGrasse Tyson in Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier. The same was true for science fiction fans and authors, who would spend the better part of a decade watching space travel and lunar missions – once only available through the pages of pulp magazines and cheap television shows – become reality.
When Apollo 11 carried Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the Moon in July 1969, Robert Heinlein had been invited to watch the launch by Lee Atwood, the CEO of North American Aviation, which had designed many of the components of the rockets that NASA was using. Heinlein was overwhelmed by the invitation, and flew down to Orlando to watch the launch along with several other science fiction authors, including Arthur C. Clarke.
“Yet it was real,” Heinlein would later say in an interview, “it was real as could be. The rumble in the ground, the rumble in the air, the smoke, the flame, the seeing that enormous big thing lift up and go into the sky and know it was going to the moon.”
In many ways, science fiction gave its fans the ability to understand the ramifications of what was happening in the world. They understood the logistics of space travel. “By the time the first exploring party finally did set foot on the moon,” Alan E. Nourse wrote in Science Fiction: Today and Tomorrow, “Science fiction readers had long since been working out the logistics of permanent moon colonies, debating specific techniques for interplanetary exploration elsewhere in the solar system, and were chafing at the apparent limitations which seemed to make travel to other star systems something less than practical as a short-term goal.” Hard science fiction was having its moment, playing out on television screens across the world.
Yet, some segments of science fiction were turning away from the advent of space travel. The 1960s and 1970s heralded in the dawn of the ‘New Wave’ of science fiction. One science fiction author, J.G. Ballard wrote that the genre “should turn its back on space, on interstellar travel, extra-terrestrial life forms, galactic wars and the overlap of these ideas that spreads across the martins of nine-tenths of magazine s-f.” The New Wave movement didn’t eliminate the Hard SF that characterized the Golden Age, but it did make science fiction stranger, and coincided with the end of the Apollo missions in 1972.
The “absolute jim-dandiest (Sort of) science-fiction con that was ever held,” Frederic Pohl wrote, “although it wasn’t called one.” The Statendam event had been put together out of the logistical nightmare that many had experienced in the Orlando, Florida area at the time. Thinking about the problems with finding a hotel room during a major launch, one of the organizers suggested that they hire a cruise ship anchored off-shore, and another suggested that they organize a symposium to attract guests.
However, the event was planned quickly. Pohl noted that he tried to get the trio of organizers to accompany him to the 1972 World Science Fiction convention in Los Angeles, but that they weren’t ready to begin advertising. The Holland America cruise line sponsored the event and its guests, but turnout was minimal: only a hundred people were onboard the ship.
The ship set sail from New York City on December 3rd, before anchoring off the coast of Florida on the 6th. “We could see the bright lights of the Apollo and its launch tower,” Pohl wrote, “too far to be easily viewed with the naked eye, but several of the more intelligent among us had brought field glasses, and were generous about passing them around.” Few people slept, and even after the launch was delayed by two hours, the authors and guests assembled on the deck to watch.
“The lift off was every bit as fascinating as it had ben for [Apollo] 11,” Heinlein noted, “but much more spectacular! It was as if the sun had risen at midnight, but in the west, not in the east.” Moments later, the roar of the Saturn V rocket reached the ship, “making the lighting fixtures rattle and our ears hurt,” Pohl reported. Asimov would later write in his memoir, I. Asimov, that the launch was “beautiful and incredibly impressive even when seen at a distance of seven miles out to sea. We watched Apollo 17 climb into the sky, lighting the night into a copper-colored semi-day, and a full minute after we watched it do so, the sound waves reached us and the world trembled.”
The ship departed for the Caribbean Islands the next day, taking part in panel discussions and mixers before returning home on December 13th.
Apollo 17 marked the end of an era for American spaceflight, and to date, the moon’s only visitors has been robotic probes. “Reality let SF down,” Adam Roberts wrote in The History of Science Fiction, “Golden age optimism had become harder and harder to maintain as the 1970s went on.” The result, Roberts noted, was complex. Some authors, such as those in the New Wave tradition, pointed to NASA’s failure to continue as an inherent problem with space travel. Others insisted that with renewed efforts, mankind would reach the moon once again, and eventually, to Mars and beyond. While efforts have been made to attempt to revive the country’s space ambitions, the latest private sector efforts might very well herald in a new era of space travel – and science fiction.