The writers who predicted the future

Arthur C. Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust (1962) impressed me for lot of reasons when I first read it. The book still does – not least because, seven years before the first Moon landings, he predicted (a) that the only life found on the Moon would be bacteria retrieved from human-built probes, and (b) the surface features would be a lot less jagged than was supposed in the 1950s.

Buzz Aldrin descends to the lunar surface, 20 July 1969, illuminated by light reflecting from the regolith. Photo:NASA.

He was right on both counts, and that’s quite apart from his descriptions of how dust thrown up from a vehicle doesn’t drift – it moves in ballistic arcs, because there’s no air resistance. And that’s exactly what the Apollo Lunar Roving vehicles did a decade or so later.

A few years earlier, on the other side of the Atlantic, Robert Heinlein produced an incredibly accurate description of how space-suits would have to be built in Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (1958), the last of his so-called ‘juveniles’. This was down to the need for bellows-style joints for mobility, use of air-flow to cool the astronaut, and how the inside of the helmet was likely to include dispensers for pills, drink and so forth. All of this came to pass, with the exception of adiabatic cooling. That was tried in the Gemini EVA suits, but it wasn’t sufficient to keep the astronauts cool – which is why the Apollo suits included a water-cooling inner garment.

So how did that work? Were Clarke and Heinlein secret time travellers? Of course not. Clarke specialised in ultra-hard science fiction – always beneath the surface, secondary to the characters and the story. But the science was always there, and the principles he described were well known by the mid-twentieth century. Bacteria are ubiquitous and get everywhere – so yeah, of course there’ll be some on board our space probes. It was to discover just that point, among other things, that Apollo 12 landed near the Surveyor 3 probe that had landed two years earlier, and the crew retrieved components. Guess what – yes, they had bacteria in them. More to the point, it was viable.

That’s why, today, NASA have been very careful to sterilise probes as far as possible – and to crash-dive the Galileo and Cassini probes into Jupiter and Saturn, to avoid contaminating potential life-hosting moons.

The dust-in-an-arc issue didn’t even need proving in 1962. Fine particles are small enough to be influenced by the air, which is partly why dirt thrown up from wheels spreads so much. Without air that won’t happen.

Heinlein’s space-suit, meanwhile, was phenomenally accurate for a couple of reasons. One was that, as an engineer, he had worked on spacesuit design in the early 1940s, when they were needed for high altitude flight. By the 1950s, working spacesuits were already in service for that very purpose. The first Mercury program suits, indeed, were adapted Mk IV Navy suits. What hadn’t been done was to build one that would operate outside a spacecraft – which is what Heinlein was describing – but they were on the drawing board and it wasn’t much of a stretch for him.

This highlights what both authors were doing – which was giving their future worlds a very solid dose of credibility, by mildly extending what was already known and established. And, inevitably, that meant they had to make predictions based on some very solid reality and fact, which they did with intellect and reason – and which, inevitably, panned out.

Oh, Clarke also predicted the modern world of the internet, personal computers and social media. In detail, and precisely, even down to the changes it would bring to society. Just saying.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018

2 thoughts on “The writers who predicted the future

  1. I believe they possessed an imagination that you rarely find any more. Today’s children have everything thrown at them on TV, videos, internet and phones – they don’t bother developing an imagination.

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