Survival Guide: Perspectives from the field

Ray Bradbury, author

Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, 85, has spent a lifetime making things up. But his stories of other worlds and travels to Mars have inspired people to believe that what seems impossible can come true.

The Planetary Society, which promotes and funds space research, honored Bradbury Nov. 12 with the Thomas O. Paine Award for the Advancement of Human Exploration of Mars. The award is named for the former NASA administrator, who was running the agency at the time of the first moon landing.

Bradbury, author of such science fiction classics as the "The Martian Chronicles," "The Illustrated Man," and "Fahrenheit 451," has a keen interest in technology and its effect on society. He makes no bones about believing that humankind's future lies in space. History is on his side, he said: "Go ahead and argue with me."

He spoke recently with Editor Nick Wakeman about technology and man's return to space.

WT: What technology development has surprised you?

Bradbury: The most important development was when we went to the moon. I thought I would be an old man when that happened, but I was only 49 the day we landed. That development surprised me, and we did it very quickly.

WT: What else has surprised you?

Bradbury: Medicine has been wonderful over this past century. We've developed sulfanilamide and various other drugs. We were able to save millions of lives. Those were big surprises. When I was born, people died of all sorts of simple things. A cut on the hand could do it.

The next big surprise I hope will be when we go to Mars sometime in the next 15 years. I wish I could be alive to see it.

WT: Why is it important to go to Mars?

Bradbury: Because we want to live forever. We are not going to stay here on Earth. We have to move on. We've got to go out to Alpha Centauri [the solar system closest to Earth's]. If we do that, mankind will live for the next million years.

WT: What will happen if we don't explore space?

Bradbury: We will die here. I don't want us to do that. I think we are important. The gift of life is fantastic. I love it, and I appreciate it, and I want other people to appreciate it. We can heighten [that appreciation] and ensure that it passes on for many generations.

WT: Are you optimistic that we will go to Mars?

Bradbury: Oh, we will. There will be people like myself, kicking butt to do it.

Look at history. Five hundred years ago, three explorers ? Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Giovanni Caboto [later known as John Cabot] ? sailed for an unknown place across the ocean. They had no guarantees and no one to back them up. But they created America, and now 300 million people are here, and we are the beacon of the world.

Three explorers in three ships started it 500 years ago, and people told them not to do it.

WT: Do you think they faced a greater unknown than we do going to Mars?

Bradbury: Yes. They didn't know anything. They thought they were going to India. Some people predicted they would fall off the face of the Earth.

WT: How does society handle rapid technological change?

Bradbury: They have to assimilate it. One of the most exciting and wonderful days in the history of the world was the night we landed on the moon, and I was on Telstar that night explaining to people how important it was. The more we do, the more excited we will become, and the more mankind will accept it.

WT: Should the government or private sector take the lead in exploring space?

Bradbury: The private sector isn't big enough, and its motives are smaller. The government has more reason to do it, but there has to be competition among nations, because that is how we work. Look at what happened 500 years ago. Italy and Spain sent Columbus, and then King Henry VII got jealous and sent Caboto.

The sooner China gets competitive, the better. If the Russians really get back into it, that's even better.

WT: Does science fiction prepare us for the future?

Bradbury: It depends on the teacher.

WT: Do you see yourself as a teacher?

Bradbury: I didn't think of myself like that, but I found out later in life that I am a teacher. When I lecture at schools and libraries, people say, "You have changed my life," which means I'm a teacher. If you inspire people to care about things, to teach them to love, then you are a teacher.

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