During World War II, Wernher von Braun had a lot on his mind. The German rocket scientist was busy running Adolf Hitler’s V-1 and V-2 programs, which sent more than 10,000 rockets into England in 1944 and 1945. But beneath Von Braun’s famously exacting manner lurked a dreamer who throughout the conflict obtained a treasured subscription to Astounding Science Fiction by using a false name and a neutral mail drop in Sweden. The magazines made their way to Germany in diplomatic pouches. 

When Von Braun immigrated to the United States after the war, he took to the pages of a different magazine to launch one of the most influential popular science writing series of all time. Beginning with the March 22, 1952 issue of Collier’s, Von Braun sketched out his vision of a manned space program—starting with orbiting and spinning space stations, working through lunar landings, and culminating in a massive expedition to Mars. Illustrated by the great astronomical artist Chesley Bonestell, the series fired the imaginations of a generation of tech lovers; it was science fiction with all the rivets showing. Many cite it as the true beginning of the U.S. space program. 

As Von Braun would put it, in an update to the old saw, “Late to bed, early to rise, work like hell, and advertise.” The Collier’s campaign was his way to use science fictional ideas to advertise the future he wanted to create. And it worked: Von Braun went on to run the famous Apollo program, which put a man on the moon.

Longtime National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) physicist Al Jackson says that Von Braun, “always practical,” used the Collier’s series to stress the importance of “establishing a ‘node’ in low earth orbit and so introduced the space station. It was to be an assembly point for expeditions to the Moon and Mars, a crucial logistical concept. It’s much more economic to launch from earth orbit than from a deep potential well.” An orbiting station had an obvious advantage as a fuel depot and viewpoint. Plus “the rockets can be much smaller.”

Although NASA has gone to the moon and built a space station, more or less as Von Braun foresaw (although in reverse order), the agency now seems in retreat. America can’t even reach its own International Space Station, since the ruinously expensive space shuttle program died a long death. Shuttles were to be renewable workhorses, but they killed two crews—one on launch, one on re-entry—and never solved the core engineering problem of heating on re-entry. The program lingered too long, sustained by ever-higher costs of gold-plated, out-of-date gear. The shuttle’s original obsolescence date had been 1995, and NASA stumbled through several abortive programs to develop a new large booster to get astronauts to the station, wasting billions without result. 

Congress came to see NASA primarily as a jobs program, not an exploratory agency. Slowly, NASA complied with the post-Apollo vision—safety-obsessed, with few big goals for manned flight beyond low Earth orbit. Very little useful science got done in the space station. NASA never did the experiments needed to develop the technologies required for a genuine interplanetary expedition: centrifugal gravity to avoid bodily harm and a truly closed biosphere. The station was about camping in space, not living in space. In that respect it resembled the earlier Russian Mir Station, where crews were allowed a weekly vodka, cognac, and cigarette ration to pass the time.

“We had the shuttle to reach the station, and the station to give the shuttle a destination,” an old NASA hand once told to me. “A school bus route writ large.” NASA even tried to send a schoolteacher into space, killing her in the 1986 Challenger launch failure.

Seeing the space future through science fiction can be difficult. Much science fiction of the early era, the 1950s through the ’70s, took an expansionist view. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) fueled some new near-space defense-related ideas, but then the Nixon–era bureaucracy descended. Lyndon Johnson had used NASA to develop Southern states; Richard Nixon turned it into a jobs program, and soon the thrill-seeking romance of spaceflight had lost its luster in the popular imagination.

There remains a core of authors still writing stories set within the solar system, most notably a flurry of Mars novels in the 1990s. Still, Arthur C. Clarke’s vision of interplanetary travel in his 1968 novel 2001 looks sadly out of date in 2012.

The Fuel Tank Is Half Empty

Even before the first moon landing, English science fiction writer J.G. Ballard was writing nostalgic stories depicting the space program as a glorious folly of the 1960s. It took longer for the optimism of American science fiction writers to fade. The 1970s saw a multitude of space novels, especially about living in habitats there.

Many of the best science fiction writers, such as Clarke, Isaac Asimov (Foundation), and especially Robert A. Heinlein (Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress), set epics in futures that assumed ready access to space. But as the sad realities of the limping American space program became apparent, such settings became less common. Today the frontier imagery of interplanetary exploration is more often tied specifically to a more distant future of interstellar travel, as in Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero (1970), Vonda McIntyre’s Superluminal (1984), and Allen Steele’s popular Coyote series (2002), rather than movement around our mere solar system. 

Through the 2000s NASA vacillated over building a new, huge launch rocket like the Apollo program’s Saturn V. Costs mounted rapidly before any actual building began. “What was to be Apollo on steroids became Apollo on food stamps,” NASA’s Al Jackson says. Dithering over just how to build a big lifter ended with a 2011 report estimating its cost at $34 billion. The shock of this figure led to talk about ditching the Webb Telescope, Hubble’s replacement, whose cost has soared from an initial $900 million to nearly $9 billion. The telescope vs. rocket debate exposed a rift in the space community: manned travel to Mars or asteroids vs. solid, mind-blowing science. No longer lean and swift, NASA’s products could not even get off the ground.

Science fiction writers didn’t predict the fade-out of NASA’s manned space operations, and they weren’t prepared with alternative routes to space when that decline became undeniable. Allen Steele, a journalist who once covered NASA and now writes award-winning stories and novels about it, remarks: “Those who equate NASA with space exploration can’t see any other options. They got scared away from writing about space, or else became cynical about the whole thing and claimed that space exploration is a failure.” This leaves us, Steele says, with a “small number of writers who foresaw NASA’s twilight and who have long advocated private space exploration.”

The Fuel Tank Is Half Full

One writer who has held onto the expansive Von Braun vision is Geoffrey A. Landis, a physicist at NASA Glenn Research Center. “After the early NASA and Soviet probes gave us the first looks at the real solar system, and we knew for sure that it was not the solar system of [astronomer and author Percival] Lowell’s canal-covered Mars or the swampy Venus,” Landis says, “science fiction moved outward, toward the stars, and also inward, returning to Earth. The solar system itself was little used as a setting, simply because we learned that it was so hostile.” But lately, as in his novel Mars Crossing (2000), Landis has returned to his home system. “We realize that although we will never see the ancient Martian cities of [Ray]Bradbury,” he says, “it is still a strange and wonderful place, quite as interesting, in its own way, as the fantasies of the early space age.”

Stephen Baxter’s alternate history novel Voyage (1996) explored a universe in which the Von Braun agenda played out. If the Nixon administration had opted to continue that approach, Baxter speculated, the cost would have been no more than that of the shuttle and space station, and we would have landed on Mars in 1986. “There’s nothing more wistful,” he says, “than looking at a 1970s Mars mission profile with long-gone 1980s launch dates.” 

Landis and Baxter both believe that pop science fiction has distorted the difficulties of space. “Exploring space is so very easy,” Landis says. “You just jump in your ship and go, and nobody ever questions why or asks ‘Who’s funding this?’ or even ‘What’s the energy source here?’ In the real world, there’s little margin for error. That guy who says, ‘It’s a crazy idea, but it just might work!’—well, in the real world, 99 times out of a hundred, it doesn’t work.”

DARPA is quite aware of how hard space flight is. At the end of September it held a conference, the 100 Year Starship Symposium, to stimulate fresh thinking. The gathering felt much like a science fiction convention, but with solid content. DARPA intends to spur research and select an organization that will sustain and develop interplanetary resources during the next century, culminating in an interstellar launch. David Neyland, DARPA’s director of tactical technology, spoke of “creating a culture centered on human expansion into the solar system, and onward to the stars.” Such dreams are science fiction staples, so DARPA needs science fiction writers, who appeared on several panels and gave papers. There were presentations on social issues (“Did Jesus Die for Klingons, Too?”), but most concerned the hard issues of propulsion and life support for decades (at least) of very high-speed flight. “Vision without execution is daydreaming,” Neyland dryly noted.

Many at the Starship Symposium felt that  if NASA doesn’t show the world it has a goal (most favored Mars), it will be savaged in the budget battles soon to come. Nuclear thermal rockets, like those initially envisioned by Von Braun and others, are the sole economical way we have to reach such places as the distant L2 Lagrange point, where the Webb telescope would be stationed. 

At the symposium, Landis reported on the NASA Glenn nuclear thermal rocket program, the third generation of development (after the NERVA (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application) program of the 1960s and ’70s and Timberwind, a still-classified program of the 1980s and ’90s). Stan Borowski, an engineer at NASA Glenn, projects a manned Mars expedition by 2033—a goal close enough to inspire a new generation.

Meanwhile, in today’s frugal climate, space is going commercial. A nuclear thermal rocket to be used only in space, and resupplied with fuel by the launchers we have now, could open whole new industries. Some envision profitable businesses that could build a genuine interplanetary future: repowering of satellites in geosynchronous orbits, big spinning-wheel “hotels” resembling structures in the Bonestell paintings Von Braun used in Collier’s, asteroid mining, and more. Getting people into orbit can best be done not with risky rockets but in two stages, with an airplane carrying a rocket plane. Such new ideas about safety mesh well with the vehicles in development now by Virgin and SpaceX. Takeoff will be not on a Roman candle but on a runway. 

Allen Steele’s recent Hugo Award–winning story “The Emperor of Mars” depicts a privately funded Mars exploration program. So did my own novel The Martian Race, which tells the story of a prize-based race to Mars won by an entrepreneur. Science fiction is becoming more economically literate, Stephen Baxter believes, because the history of post-1972 NASA has sobered the writers. They know the unglamorous scientific and political realities; of the living writers mentioned here, all but Steele have Ph.Ds.

Much of the passion in science fiction springs from a deep-rooted human need: to reach out, to prefer movement to stasis, to understand. The Collier’s paradigm has its share of unspoken and unargued assumptions, yet it keeps coming back. Science fiction is pre-eminently the literature of the intellectually discontented, those who feel there must be more to life than this; and therein lies its maturity. Paradoxically, some see this as perpetual adolescent yearning.

NASA has a choice: swing for the bleachers or die. But even if NASA shrinks to a minor agency, the commercial uses of space will remain. There are plenty of science fiction writers who believe that that alone will bring about a future as grand as the one envisioned by Wernher von Braun.

Contributing Editor Gregory Benford is a novelist and a professor of physics at U.C.-Irvine.