Fifty years ago today, emissaries from Earth–riding in a command cabin the size of a car, and guided by a computer less powerful than a modern smartphone–landed on our Moon and left Homo sapiens’ first footprints on another world. In honor of the Apollo 11 anniversary, I chose this date to launch the print edition of my lunar-based science fiction novel Syzygy.
The astronomy term syzygy describes an alignment of cosmic bodies, but the word can also refer to any connected things. As I read more about the history of Apollo 11, I discovered a touching syzygy between the mission and my story. This is not an exercise in self-aggrandizement—clearly an epic space expedition is light-years beyond a humble indie book—but a celebration of how science fiction can echo the themes of humanity’s most daring scientific accomplishments.
1. IT TAKES ALL OF US TO REACH THE STARS
Space exploration is often portrayed, in both history and fiction, as a man’s game. While no one can deny that the men who visited the moon displayed extraordinary courage, that “one small step for [a] man” got a boost from women. Programmer Margaret Hamilton headed the team that created the onboard flight software for the Apollo missions; thanks to her rigorous leadership, no software bugs were known to have occurred during any crewed Apollo missions. During the launch, JoAnn Morgan—the only female face in iconic photos of the control room—served as a senior engineer and instrumentation controller, monitoring the rocket’s sensors. (In the course of her 40-year NASA career, she became the Kennedy Space Center’s first female senior executive.) Many female mathematicians and engineers worked behind the scenes at NASA and JPL, their contributions largely unsung for half a century.
Even kids played a role in the mission’s success. Hamilton often brought her young daughter to work with her on weekends; when the girl hit some keys, she revealed a potentially dangerous error in the prelaunch program. Leadership insisted that astronauts were too well-trained to make a child’s mistake…until one of the Apollo 8 astronauts did the exact same thing, prompting a fix. Separately, when a failure at the Guam tracking station threatened communication on the last stage of Apollo 11’s return, the station director’s 10-year-old son used his small hands to pack the housing with grease and keep the equipment working until the crew landed.
Syzygy captures a similar spirit of humans cooperating to reach the stars. Stranded for generations on a ramshackle lunar station, the survivors’ only chance to start anew on Mars depends on whether they can overcome their conflicting agendas and cultural prejudices. I chose adolescent protagonists because I wanted to empower young readers in securing their own home planet. Diverse cast members support the quest, but the most influential characters—for good and evil—are women. Females are chronically underrepresented in science fiction, so I hope that by emphasizing their roles, I can help make things a little easier for the Margaret Hamiltons and JoAnn Morgans of the future.
2. SCIENCE CAN MAKE A GREAT STORY
When journalist John Noble Wilford set out to report on the moon landing, his editor told him that newspaper did not “want someone to write a science story or a flight story or an engineering story,” but “a story of a big adventure.” Wilford accomplished that with panache, weaving technical information with evocative descriptions and snatches of dialogue in a way that captured readers’ imaginations. Who says science and storytelling can’t coexist?
Not me. I conducted extensive research for Syzygy (although only a fraction of the data appears in the final text). But it is, first and foremost, an adventure story. Characters make bold choices, get into danger, rescue one another, and repeat the cycle…all in a framework as realistic as I could make it. Why? Because I firmly believe in stories as a vehicle for exploring real topics and their implications. Fiction can reach audiences that a textbook can’t, prompting curiosity about the facts behind the fiction. Beneath the page-turning plot twists, my books are my advocacy for environmental issues and the future of our planet.
3. WE ONLY GET ONE EARTH
You’d think that planting your flag on another world would make you feel mighty. But the Apollo 11 astronauts described the opposite experience when looking back at their distant home planet. “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth,” said Neil Armstrong. “I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” Fellow crew member Mike Collins noted that “the overriding sensation I got looking at the Earth was, my god that little thing is so fragile out there.” Standing in the dust 240,000 miles away from home, adrift in the immensity of the universe, quite literally puts things in perspective. Earth may be just a speck in the solar system, but it’s the only home our species has.
Syzygy explores this theme, envisioning a future where humans have lost their homeworld. Through the eyes of teenaged “divers” who scavenge Earth, I try to convey the raw wonder of nature, from a tiny dragonfly to a brilliant desert sunrise. I contrast this with confined, colorless life on the lunar colony—and the psychological struggle of characters resigned to it—in an effort to portray what we risk if we fail to preserve our planet. Can a terraformed Mars ever be home? How much are they willing to change for a chance to live on Earth again?
Tonight, a full moon will shine down on our planet. As you bask in its ghostly glow, remember Apollo 11, an endeavor still unmatched 50 years later. Most of us will never walk the surface of another world, but science fiction stories like Syzygy let us glimpse what it would be like, and imagine the astronomical adventures we’ll be celebrating generations from now.