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What if women were our first astronauts? Mary Robinette Kowal discusses her Lady Astronaut novels

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Sep 11, 2018, 5:00 PM EDT

“It began with a deep love of Ray Bradbury and the stories he was telling about exploration before we'd even gotten anything into orbit,” Mary Robinette Kowal says of her “Lady Astronaut” duology. “The Martian Chronicles is set in a period following a devastating atomic war — which was the great fear of the time. The catastrophe we worry about today is the slow creeping one of climate change.”

And so that was the subject Kowal wanted to tackle with her novel focusing on the early days of the space program. It wasn’t fear of the Russians that prompted us to want to go to the moon. It was a natural disaster. “A meteor combines those two," she explains. “Because it's a natural disaster, it also allows me to look at the way we tend to all pull together in a crisis. I sometimes look at the early days of the space program and wonder what we could have done if everyone had been working together instead of in fear and secrecy.”

The premise of The Calculating Stars and its sequel The Fated Sky (both out now in paperback from Tor Books) is that a meteor has hit and obliterated the East Coast of the United States. Humanity is required to venture into the stars on an accelerated schedule out of fear that our own planet may soon be uninhabitable.

The main character, Elma York, is a mathematician and human computer. Not only that, but she’s a pilot. And if her country is sending humankind to the stars, she wants to be a part of it. As a mathematician, sure, but also possibly as an astronaut.

As a NASA fan, writing this book was quite the experience for Kowal. "I'm at NASA Kennedy Space Center, awaiting the launch of the Parker Solar Probe," she explained. “Now, I'll admit that my initial interest in this was because of the name ‘Parker’ since a character by that name plays a key role in the Lady Astronaut novels.” But it was through this entry point that she got to learn more about this mission, which will actually fly into the sun’s outer atmosphere. “It was conceived in the 1950s by Dr. Eugene Parker. He's 91 and would have been a contemporary of Elma (my main character) and her husband.” After attending a Q&A with him, thanks to a program called #NASASocial that invites NASA’s social media followers to attend rocket launches and see incredible events firsthand, she said, “He's still sharp and witty and absolutely passionate about science.”

“The reason I mention this is that it's the same drive and energy that I've felt from everyone I've met at NASA,” she said. “I see it when I read biographies and autobiographies of the early space pioneers. There's this burning curiosity, which, when you get down to it is also why I write science fiction. We're all engaged in this quest for 'What if?'”

The research process for the book mirrored that of much of Kowal's other historical fantasy novels; it was the math that tripped her up. “The amount of math that I would need to know in order to write these convincingly was daunting,” she said. “So I hired a literal rocket scientist, Stephen Granade, to be my science consultant. I talked to a whole slew of experts: astronomer, flight surgeon, fighter pilots, and astronauts.” She even asked astronauts to fill in technical jargon to make the novels as accurate as possible. “Parts of this book were literally written by astronauts.”

While the fictional disaster and NASA missions construct the plot of the novel, its heart is Elma and her struggle to be recognized as an equal in the post-WWII era. She had all the qualifications to be an astronaut. The blatant sexism she encounters at every turn is difficult to stomach at times, and Kowal points out the situation hasn’t improved much for women today. “As far as I can tell, [sexism in STEM fields] hasn't changed as much as people think it has,” she explained. “A young woman who read the books said that, like Elma, she was the only woman in the math department in her college. Is the sexism as blatant now? Well, they don't ask women pilots to powder their noses in the cockpits of planes anymore — that was a real incident that I stole for the novel — but if you look at the interview questions that modern astronauts get, the women are asked about leaving their children behind or putting off marriage. Then men aren’t.”

It’s not just sexism that the book deals with, though. Elma faces crippling anxiety every time she’s asked to speak publicly, which leads to discussions of mental health. And there is, of course, the terrible racism of the time period. Elma means well, but she’s often blind to the plight of the characters of color who surround her. Every day, she must learn to do better, a deliberate choice on the part of the author.

“The novel is set in the 1950s, during the heart of the Civil Rights movement. Ignoring race relations would have been wildly inaccurate. But more than that, honestly, Elma is me,” she admitted. “That sensitivity is the result of painful years of effort — but not my pain. Not my effort. Every conversation she has in there is the direct result of friends of mine having patience and doing emotional labor.”

The major themes of these novels come together to make a fantastic and thrilling reading experience. Both these novels are page-turners, and while no one will ever leave them wishing the events in them were true because of the environmental disaster, they do present a fascinating “what if” scenario. What if women had been more involved in the early space program? What if women had set foot on the moon? What if it had been a giant leap for humankind? Those are the questions that Kowal poses in her fascinating duology.

Within the next year or two, NASA should be once again launching humans into space. But what about going to Mars? Kowal thinks it will happen in her lifetime. “The what-if I wanted to think about was what if we had continued to throw money at the space program the way we did for the moon landings? What if the goal was consistent and everyone was pulling together? I think it's possible to do amazing things.” It certainly is, both in the real world and within the pages of her novels.

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