The price was right – free.
On December 3, 1972 many of the leading sf writers, artists, and scientists of their generation boarded Holland America’s cruise ship SS Statendam to view the launch of Apollo 17 and to discuss the future of space travel. This would be the last manned mission to the Moon — the rest of the Apollo series had been cancelled — but it was still too early for so many optimists to internalize that America was entering the doldrums of manned space exploration.
A documentary of the cruise, Voyage Beyond Apollo, was recently posted on YouTube.
Some of the most interesting figures on board were Isaac Asimov, the only two people Asimov would admit were more intelligent than he was, Carl Sagan and AI specialist Marvin Minsky, plus Richard Hoagland, Ben Bova, poet Berguet Roberts, artists Rick Sternbach and Don Davis, Harry Stine, Robert Heinlein, Frederik Pohl, Theodore Sturgeon, Fred Ordway, rocket designer and space visionary Krafft Ehricke, SETI pioneer and director of the Arecibo Observatory Frank Drake, and physicist Robert Enzmann. They were joined by a sprinkling of other comped celebrities – Norman Mailer and Katherine Anne Porter among them. All that was really missing were — paying passengers.
In the first of several posts he wrote about the cruise for The Way The Future Blogs,“The Ship of Foolishness, Part 1: The Foreplay”, Frederik Pohl said the three men who organized the cruise were an astronaut, a communications genius who used to work with Walter Cronkite, and a highly respected scientist, but 40 years having passed by the time he penned these memories Pohl decided the organizers deserved anonymity. He just called them “Jim, Joe and Jack.”
The trio knew a lot of people would like to view an Apollo launch, and had experienced what a pain it was to drive down to the Cape, book a hotel, and find parking near the site. One had an inspiration.
“Hey, what about watching it from a cruise ship anchored just offshore?”
And another one, maybe Jim, said, “Great idea! And, listen, if you really wanted to do it, maybe you could get a bunch of people like us to give lectures on the ship in exchange for free tickets.” And somebody, possibly Joe, said, “Why the dickens don’t we just go ahead and do it?”
They did. They talked to Holland America line (my own personal first choice among cruise companies), who loved the idea, only they wanted to make a real cruise out of it, with visits to four or five gorgeous tropical islands. Then they got busy compiling a guest list of leading science-fiction writers and assorted celebrities to attract hoi polloi. To all of which Holland America responded with approval and encouragement, and did they have any other ideas like that?
They invited Pohl and filled him in on who else would be there.
Things were going splendidly, they said. They had been working the invitation list. Robert Heinlein was coming, and Ted Sturgeon and Isaac Asimov and at least a dozen other top science-fiction writers, said Joe. And other celebrities, too, Jack added, people like Carl Sagan and Norman Mailer and Katherine Anne Porter, whose 1962 novel Ship of Fools had created a stir in the world of publishing (an invitation which produced quite a lot of joking from Jim and Joe when Jack mentioned the title).
“And,” Joe put in, giving me a grin, “of course everybody brings his wife or husband or main squeeze. And we’re all comped, for the whole cruise, courtesy of Holland America. In your case, Fred, you don’t even have to worry about air fare, because you live near New York and that’s where this cruise starts and finishes.”
…I don’t actually know what these follies cost Holland America. A figure I have heard mentioned was half a million 1972 American dollars. Jim, Joe and Jack might have been able to give a more precise figure, but we couldn’t ask them.
They hadn’t come aboard.
According to Up Ship, Katherine Anne Porter’s biographer reports only 100 people in total paid for the cruise. There were only 40 “premium tickets” sold for the conference itself. It seems that staggeringly few people wanted to pay the $400 for the conference on top of the $400-$900 for the cruise.
Of course, the guests had no need to think about that, they were there to have a good time, and in “The Ship of Foolishness, Part 2” Pohl assures everyone they did.
Well, enough of telling you about experiences you can’t have. Simply imagine that you’re at the best con you’ve ever attended, only it’s with fewer people than usual and it runs twice as long. And it takes place not in a hotel in some strange city but on board of some twenty thousand tons of steel that is chugging through blue waters under balmy skies. Put them together with a host of entertaining companions available on what is almost a twenty-four hour schedule, and you’ve got the picture.
The titles of the talks presented at the on-board conference are listed in Up Ship’s article about the cruise titled “The Conference That Vanished”.
CORNUCOPIA OF SPACE (1st seminar 6th December)
Bruce Hunt: Co-Chairman
Donald Banks: Co-Chairman
- Isaac Asimov: What is a Cornucopia
- Norman Mailer: Is there a Cornucopia out there?
- Pandora Duncan: Planetary rover designs
- Robert D Enzmann: Out of the Cornucopia
- Richard Hoagland: The Space Shuttle
- Ben Bova: Expanding the Cornucopia
- Berguet Roberts: Last Lunar Flight Dreams
Krafft Ehricke: Co-Chairman Extraterrestrial Industries
Kenneth Franklin: Co-Chairman
- Eric Burgess: Emerging Conscience of Man
- Roger Caras: Earth the Teacher, Lessons learned from out 1st planet
- Isaac Asimov: A heirarchy of niches from comets to Earthlike planets
- Neil Ruzic: Development of the moon as a niche
- Richard Sternbach: Experiment that failed
- Don Davis: Paintings: Clones
PROPULSION INTELLIGENT MACHINES AND SOCIO-GENETIC CHANGE
Roger Caras: Co-chairman
Harry Stine: Co-chairman The Third industrial Revolution
- Robert Heinlein: Genetic fitness, Social fitness, training & technology and communications Marvin Minsky: Artificial intelligence
- Sarah Meltzoff: Universals, Cultural viability, economic specialization
- Janet Jepperson: Psychological barriers to full realization
- Linda Sagan: Comment: Ultimate Machines
- Krafft Ehricke: Comment: Ultimate Machines
ENERGY AND PROPULSION
Donald Banks: Co-Chairman Energy
Ben Bova: Co-Chairman
- Werner Rambauske: Observation of the Universe
- Brude hunt: Propulsion
- Robin Anderson: Plowshare: Big guns for the benefit of the people
- Fred Pohl: The shape of shadows from the future
- Carl Sagan: Interstellar probes and Pioneer 10
- Neil Ruzic: Human acquisition of Moon and its effects on war and peace
THE GRAND DESIGN
Gillet Griffin: Co-chairman
- Eric Burgess: of Mankind but no longer Men
- Cassandra Boell: Space states and the howling of beasts
- Harry Stine: Comment: Ultimate Machine
- Robert D. Enzmann: Statement of grand design, & galactic fertile crescent
- Robert Heinlein: The grand design
- Theodore Sturgeon: Communications, The Cold Equations, and the grand design
- Fred Pohl: Star flight and relativistic twins “lost in space”
- Fred Ordway: Use of satellite systems for education
- Marvin Minsky: Artificial intelligence and the grand design, have we nurtured “The Descent of Machines?”
- Richard Sternbach: Paintings: Mankinds’ grand design
SCIENCE, ART, COMMUNICATION, AND COSMOLOGY
Neil Ruzic: Co-chairman
Eric Burgess: Co-chairman
- Donald Burgy: Order theory: an art exhibit in the clipper room
- Gillett Griffin: Migrations of men and their art
- Isaac Asimov: stellar types and organic evolution
- Robert D Enzmann: Force= dp/dt (F=/ma) and e=hv(1-d/D) That is an intellectual revolution
- Ben Bova: galaxies and quasars
- Norman Mailer: Revolutionaries of science and technology
- Donald Davis: Paintings: Cupules and stick charts
Asimov told what it was like to witness the launch of Apollo 17 in his column for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, saying he —
… watched Apollo 17 rise into the air like the biggest firefly in creation. It lit the sky from horizon to horizon, turning the ocean an orange-grey and the sky into an inverted copper bowl from which the stars were blanked out.”
Slowly it rose on its tail of fire, and it was well up in the sky before the first shaking rumble reached us some forty seconds after ignition and shook us savagely.
Mankind was making its attempt to reach the moon a sixth time and place and eleventh and twelfth man upon it. It was the last launching of the Apollo series (and the only night launching, hence incredibly spectacular, and I was delighted to see it). It may be decades before mankind returns to the task – after establishing a space station that would make it possible to reach the Moon more easily, more economically, and more elaborately.
Pohl, in “The Ship of Foolishness, Part 3: Apollo 17”, wrote:
We saw something flaring around the base of the rocket. Then that whole precarious stack of thrusters and capsules began to ease itself upward.
We all blinked and squinted as the five great rocket nozzles on the Saturn 5 savaged our eyes with the five blinding supernovas of hydrogen burning in air. The blinding flames began moving upward with the rest of the train, slowly at first, then picking up speed. Everything moved straight up together until the thrusters were level with the little bridge the astronauts had walked on, then higher and clear of the launch tower entirely.
And then at last the sound of those five Saturn rockets reached us, over beach and water, from far away, but still making the ship’s lighting fixtures rattle and our ears hurt. Now the entire construct was overhead, the hydrogen fire stretching down toward us, but far away and getting rapidly farther. Now the departing assembly of space-going parts was vertically over our heads.
Every head was craned back, every face aimed at the spectacle above. I turned around to look at my companions behind me. There were the upturned faces of Bob Heinlein and Isaac and Ted Sturgeon and others, clustered like blossoms in a flower-shop bouquet, starkly lit by that super-sun that was sliding across the sky above them. I could have kicked myself, angry at my dimwitted absence of forethought for failing to stick a camera in my pocket to capture a shot of those faces in that wondrous light.
Others’ attempts to put their experience into words are quoted in Realizing Tomorrow: The Path to Private Spaceflight by Chris Dubbs and Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom.
For space artist Rick Sternbach, the launch was all about visual images and color, “the repeating shockwaves off rocket, the blowtorch yellow-orange glow around the vehicle, the smoke and steam streaming away in every direction.” He had witnessed the daytime launches of Apollo 11 and Apollo 13, but this was an altogether different experience.
After the launch, the ship’s many bars filled with celebration and discussion. Ehricke estimated to a gathered crowd that the brightness of the night launch was about that of five hundred full moons. “Incomparably beautiful,” Robert Heinlein termed it. For Norman Mailer, “It was the one time when I wanted instant replay.” Eighty-two-year-old novelist Katherine Anne Porter, on assignment to cover the launch for Playboy magazine, never expected to witness anything like it in her life. “I came out of a world so primitive you can scarcely imagine it,” she said. “We barely had gaslight in New Orleans when I was a girl. When I saw them take off, I wanted with all my soul to be going with them.”
Fresh from his own rounds of celebration, Richard Hoagland commandeered the ship’s public address system to announce that “due to a lack of interest, tomorrow has been canceled” —as though the launch were so singular an event that all else lost meaning in its wake. The comment might have served as a final epitaph for the extraordinary Apollo program, except that the Statendam passengers had gathered precisely to consider “tomorrow” and how to fill its possibilities.
[Thanks to David K.M. Klaus for the story.]