This guest post is from author Emma Barry. Emma Barry is a novelist, full-time mama, recovering academic, and former political staffer. When she’s not reading or writing, she loves her twins’ hugs, her husband’s cooking, her cat’s whiskers, her dog’s tail, and Earl Grey tea.
She writes a series of romances about the space race with Genevieve Turner called Fly Me to the Moon. A boxed set of the first three books in the series will be 99 cents from July 16 to 24 to commemorate the Apollo 11 mission.
What’s so romantic about space?
I don’t mean phallic rockets—though, OMG, have you seen the design for Blue Origin’s New Shepard? —but space exploration itself. Terms like countdown sequence, Apollo lunar mission, and Sea of Tranquility fill me with giddy longing, and I’d bet some of us can name more astronauts than Supreme Court justices. Why is that?
When I was a kid in the 80s and early 90s, the sexiest period of space exploration seemed over. Don’t get me wrong, the Space Shuttle was cool, but by that point, it felt like NASA, Roscosmos, and other space agencies had reached a mature middle age and had settled down from their wild youths. But as we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing, I wonder what that earlier verve was.
Some of the romantic gloss is intrinsic to the night sky itself. Seemingly every culture has mythology about the moon and the stars. Moon deities, from Hina to Artemis to Khonsu, are a mixed bunch. Sometimes women, sometimes men, sometimes having many lovers, sometimes representing chastity, moon gods and goddesses are persistently related to menstrual cycles and conception and, by extension, to life and death—so it’s no wonder that the modern exploration of space has a certain amatory zing.
My favorite astronomy romances include Courtney Milan’s Talk Sweetly to Me, Carrie Lofty’s Starlight, and, most recently, Olivia Waite’s The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics. One thing that ties this subgenre together is the eroticism of the gaze: the sense that when we train our attention on something, a power dynamics spring into play between the lookee and the looker, and sexuality can be part of that puzzle. In all of these books, there are parallels between how the astronomers regard the night sky and how they regard their love interests. It’s right there in the double meanings of “to regard”: to see and to love. When the cosmos-studiers turn their attention on you, you become stardust.
Without going too far down the Laura Mulvey path–she explores how the sexual power of looking plays out in Hitchcock films in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”–I feel like there’s something charged about gazing through a telescope and perceiving more than you can with your unaided eye. A tiny shift of the optical tube, and you’re looking tens of thousands of light years away—you’re looking quite literally into the past. But even without knowing that, the first time I saw the moon and Jupiter through a telescope, I cried. What the lense brought into focus plugged doubts I didn’t know I had. Yes, the books weren’t lying to me. Yes, the universe is beautiful and infinite. Yes, you are that small—but not too small to take in this grandeur. Sometimes, the only power we have is the power to behold, but astronomy tells us that’s power indeed.
I realize that the day-to-day reality of astronomy is painstaking, cold, and probably boring at times, and all of the books I recommended above are careful to separate the practice of astronomy from the romance of it. But I choose to believe that under the daily grind and minutiae, astronomers can still catch a whiff of the wow and still feel the excitement that led them to want to become astronomers in the first place.
When we went from merely looking at the stars to trying to travel to them, both the Soviet and American space programs tried to capture all those emotions in the names they choose for missions. I mean the term astronaut is pretty cool, but cosmonaut? Cosmonaut is amazing. The three different phases of the Soviet program, Vostok, Voskhod, and Soyuz, translate into English as East (in the sense of something dawning), Advance, and Union. Soviet mission names are poetic and collectivist at once—exactly as you’d expect.
On the other side of the Cold War, a memo explaining NASA’s naming conventions claims they want “simple euphonic word[s]” that “reflec[t] NASA’s mission.” Following these rules, the three major projects in the late 50s and 60s were named Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, all figures from Greek mythology.
What’s fascinating is that public support for space exploration in this period was not consistently high. A Gallup poll from 1965, for example, found only 39% of Americans supported doing “everything possible” to get to the moon; this doesn’t square with the gauzy construction that all Americans were cheerleaders for NASA, which has cropped up at times in commemorative coverage of the Apollo 11 mission.
Given the controversy, I’d argue that both the Soviet and American space programs attempted to capture the romance of space and sprinkle it all over their rockets. The names are only the beginning; the same framing is present in the language of press releases, in coverage of the astronauts’ families, and in the entire aesthetic of the space programs. The cultivated glamour of the space race can be seen as a rhetorical tactic to buoy public support.
Indeed when I started writing romances set in this world, the gleaming veneer of NASA, or what I took to calling the Apollo 13 filter, fell away at once. Space exploration was undertaken for some squicky reasons–red scare and pork projects for members of Congress–and was often as exclusionary as the culture that birthed it–as just one example, meet Ed Dwight. But even when I started seeing NASA in all its complexity, the brightness of the project didn’t disappear. Strip away the facade and keep a firm grasp on the inequities, and the heart of the mission beats just as insistently.
Tens of thousands of people worked in tandem to put a human on the moon. No longer content to merely look at the stars, they shattered technological and conceptual barriers to get closer to celestial bodies. The Apollo 11 mission was the culmination of eons of longing. It was a cooperative endeavor, and, simultaneously, one that ended with a single individual slowly, slowly descending a ladder to walk on the moon’s surface. When it comes to space, the momentous undertaking often collapses into its most intimate components because the team of dedicated engineers, executives, PR folks, and so on didn’t leave earth, a handful of astronauts did. Space exploration is absolutely collective and almost painfully intimate.
For me this is where the two dissimilar worlds of space and romance begin to merge. To get to the moon, humans had to learn about rocketry, orbital mechanics, computing, and so on. Winning one’s beloved is also a process of knowledge acquisition, not to mention one of becoming more worthy and taking risks. The shock of first sight, then the tumble of wonder, desire, pursuit: there are more overlaps in language between astronaut memoirs and romances than you might assume.
I don’t want to overstate or oversimplify these parallels. I do wish to suggest that there is a reason astronomy, heavenly bodies, and, yes, space have been mainstays in romance, and why scientists and engineers so often seem to need poetry to discuss their work. Humans and the moon are locked in a primordial romance, and it’s nowhere close to cooling down.
So when I’m reading about the fiftieth anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s “small step” in the next few weeks, and that now familiar dizzy ache settles into my chest, I’ll recognize it for what it is. Love.
Do you feel moved by the romance with space? Where do you think it originates? And where will it take us next?