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I've been asked why it is that, as a reviewer of science fiction, I devote so much ink to the Space Race and other scientific non-fiction. I find it interesting that fans of the first would not necessarily be interested in the second, and vice versa.

There are three reasons non-fiction figures so prominently in this column:

4) I like non-fiction;
5) All the science fiction mags have a non-fiction column;
6) Science fiction without science fact is without context.

Let me expand on Point 3. Science is different from all other philosophies because of its underpinning of reality. My wife and I had this debate in graduate school many years ago with our fellow students. They felt that, so long as their systems were logical, their views on how the universe worked were just as valid as any others – certainly more valid that lousy ol' science, with its dirty experiments and boring empiricism.

They're wrong, of course. Religion and philosophy have discerned little about the natural universe except by accident or where the practitioners have utilized some version of the scientific method. The fact is, there is a real universe out there, and it pushes back at our inquiries. That "friction" is what allows us to experiment as to its nature. It's why we have wonders like airplanes, nuclear power, the polio vaccine, the contraceptive pill.

Similarly, science fiction is nowheresville without an underpinning of science. Science fiction is not make believe – it is extrapolation of scientific trends. Even fantasy makes use of science; ask Tolkien about his rigorous application of linguistics in his construction of Elvish. It is important that my readers keep abreast of the latest science fact so they can better understand and appreciate the latest science fiction.

And it goes both ways – the science of today is directly influenced and inspired by the dreams of yesterday. Without science fiction, science is a lusterless endeavor. Jules Verne showed us space travel long before Nikita Khruschev.



Thus ends the awfully long preface to today's article, which as anyone might guess, covers America's first manned space mission. Yesterday morning, May 5, 1961, Commander Alan B. Shepard rocketed to a height of nearly 190 kilometers in the Mercury spacecraft he christened "Freedom 7." His flight duplicated that of chimpanzee Ham's February trip: a sub-orbital jaunt that plopped him in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. He flew for just 15 minutes.

(see the rest at Galactic Journey!)
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