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NASA Helps Scifi Authors but Is It Space Propaganda?

NASA Help Scifi Authors but Is It Space Propaganda?

NASA has often admitted being influenced by science fiction creators from Jules Verne to Gene Roddenberry, and now they are looking to repay the favor. Scifi publishers Tor has announced a partnership with the space agency, pairing up their roster of authors with leading scientists. The intention is to create a better standard of science in the world of speculative fiction, although at least one member of the community is accusing the agency of “space propaganda.”

The partnership between Tor and NASA was first announced in 2011, when several authors where invited to the Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) for a two day workshop hosted by the Innovative Partnerships Program Office. Authors such as Heather Graham and John Land were shown around the facility and attended lectures on topics such as space travel, wormholes and astrobiology.

This week sees the publication of the first novel to result from this partnership. Pillar To The Sky by Bill Forstchen tells the story of an attempt to build the world’s first “space elevator,” an enormous superstructure that reaches into space. Set in a dystopian near-future, much of the book focuses on the very real problem of trying to find funding for the project, with a tight-fisted congress slowing things down. The real-life GSFC features heavily in the novel.

Forstchen designed working plans for the space elevator before writing the novel, putting together a 12-page outline of exactly how it would work. He then worked with NASA astrophysicists to shape the details into a fully feasible plan. Forstchen admits that he hopes that the novel will one day inspire a real-life space elevator project.

Forstchen is one of the first scifi authors to benefit from this partnership, with many more to appear on the Tor imprint of the coming years. It seems set to make for a better quality of science fiction. So why are some people accusing NASA of “space propaganda”?

That accusation comes from journalism professor Charles Seifie. An outspoken critic of NASA, he has questioned the usefulness of the agency and space travel in general many times. In response to the partnership with Tor, Seifie questioned the ethics of implanting ideas in cultural narratives, suggesting that such a move was effectively propaganda.

The NASA-supporting website NASA Watch responded quickly by pointing out that recent NASA authorization legislation expressly forbids any kind of advertising or propaganda on behalf of the agency. The site went on to argue that the relationship between NASA and popular culture is a long and fruitful one, where scifi authors imagine future worlds and “then NASA makes it real.”

NASA does have a long history of engaging with pop culture. The agency frequently makes itself available for consultations on movies, providing advice for films such as Apollo 13, Armageddon and Space Cowboys, as well as TV shows such as The West Wing and Touched By An Angel. 

Pillar To The Sky may touch on an issue—congressional funding—that’s of vital importance to NASA, but Tor and the scifi authors on their roster would probably dismiss the idea that they are producing “space propaganda.” Further novels in this series are due to be announced on the Tor books website over the coming months.

By Bernard O’Leary


NASA Watch
Wall Street Journal
LA Times