Friday, June 12, 2009

Curiosity: Author Robert A. Heinlein exiled to Jet Propulsion Laboratory's cafeteria in 1976

Belated congratulations to Clara Ma, a sixth-grader from Lenexa, Kansas, who submitted the winning essay in a recent national contest to name the rover of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission. Scheduled to be launched in 2011, NASA gave the rover the name that Ma proposed: Curiosity. In recognition for winning the contest, Ma visited NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, on June 8, 2009, and signed the rover while it was being assembled and tested at JPL’s "Mars Yard."

This reminds me of a curious, but humorous, incident that transpired at JPL back in 1976. Here’s how SF author Jerry Pournelle tells the story in the book Requiem: Collected Works and Tributes to the Grand Master (2nd ed., 2008), by Robert A. Heinlein and Yoji Kondo:
Some years ago when the United States flew spacecraft instead of endlessly redesigning them, I had the extraordinary fortune to be sitting with Robert A. Heinlein in the cafeteria at Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory during the landing of the Viking probe to Mars [July 20, 1976]. We were in the cafeteria because, while I had both press and VIP credentials, Mr. Heinlein did not. I had brought him to JPL because I thought he belonged there; but there hadn’t been time to get him credentials, so the NASA authorities ordered him out of the Von Kantian Center.

I was outraged, and wanted to make a scene, but Robert would have none of that. He trudged up the hill to the cafeteria.

There is sometimes justice in this world. At the moment our first spacecraft landed on Mars, most of the network news cameras were in the cafeteria trained on Mr. Heinlein, rather than down in the center recording what NASA's officialdom thought they should be watching.
Perhaps this explains why Robert A. Heinlein is not mentioned in “Mars? New Realities for Sci-Fi,” an article which appeared in The New York Times in late July 1976, and why he is missing from the library on Mars.

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