Kurt Vonnegut’s “The Manned Missiles”

One of the books I enjoyed the most during my first year of blogging (2010) was Kurt Vonnegut’s short story collection, “Welcome to the Monkey House.” It’s only natural, then, that when I was planning my 2012 short story reading project, I would include at least one of the stories from that collection.

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As many already know, the year 1957 marked a turning point in the new space age. Unexpectedly – to the United States anyway – the Soviet Union launched the satellite, Sputnik, into orbit, which became a visible, public (it was visible to the naked american eye as it hurtled over our continent) reminder that we weren’t “in the lead.” It served to shock the United States out of a complacent delusion of technological superiority and was an event that sparked the “space race” which led t0 the July 20, 1969 moon landing.

It was in this climate that Vonnegut’s story “The Manned Missiles” was published in the July 1958 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. (see cover picture below, which trumpets “five stories and a complete mystery novel!”)

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***Spoiler Alert!***
This story is unique among Vonnegut’s work because it was the only thing he wrote in “epistolary” form. It consists entirely of an exchange of letters between the fathers of a pair of astronauts, one American and one Russian (I guess I should’ve said an astronaut and a cosmonaut?). Anyway, we learn that both sons are dead and their deaths are somehow related (Vonnegut withholds the details, portioning them out gradually). The Russian son, Stephan Ivankov, is the first man in space and the American son, Bryant Ashland is sent up immediately after Ivankov in a kind of reckless technological one-upmanship between the nations. An “accident” has occurred, however, and both sons were killed.

The letters between the fathers seem intent on convincing the other that, in spite of what has happened, the sons were “good men” and not the villains that the governments and media involved seem to want to paint them. Ivankov’s father, a stone mason, had long struggled with why his son wanted to be a pilot and later a cosmonaut. Having eventually figured him out, he shares with Ashland’s father that “It was not for the Soviet Union but for the truth and beauty of space, Mr. Ashland, that Stephan worked and died.”

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Ashland, who runs a gasoline station, concludes his letter to Ivankov by admitting that he’s “crying now” and that, “I hope some good comes now from the death of our two boys. I guess that’s what millions of fathers have hoped for as long as there have been people.”

The story is made even more poignant by the fact we learn near the end that the two “baby moons” (that’s how Vonnegut refers to satellites and spacecraft in the story) have, after the accident, split into a bunch of baby moons, drifting apart, two of which are… Ivankov and Ashland.

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This story interested me mainly because of the time in which it was written. What must it have been like to be in America in the late fifties, seeing Sputnik fly over head and know the U.S.A.was “behind…”

This weekend also marked the passing of American Astronaut, Neil Armstrong, who became the first human to walk on the moon eleven years after this story was published. A few years back, I read a good biography of Armstrong, “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong” by James R. Hansen. It’s well worth reading, if you’d like to learn more about the remarkable life of an inspiring man.

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10 Comments

  1. Dale said,

    August 27, 2012 at 11:24 am

    This sounds like a great story! So far, I can’t say enough good things about the short stories Vonnegut has written (the ones I’ve read anyway). I’ve wondered if a biography of Armstrong was ever written. I’ve heard over the years that he was a very private man. As a kid, I always enjoyed going to the Neil Armstrong museum in Wapokaneta, OH. Great post!

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    • Jay said,

      August 27, 2012 at 11:35 am

      Hi Dale,
      Yes, he was a very private man, as I recall from the biography. I read a couple other astronaut bios at the same time, one on John Glenn and the other – my favorite – was “Last Man on the Moon” the story of Gene Cernan.
      -Jay

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      • Dale said,

        August 27, 2012 at 11:43 am

        I’ve heard Carrying the Fire by Michael Collins is good, too. Haven’t read any of them – yet.

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  2. August 27, 2012 at 11:30 am

    Hmm…nice write up. Although I thought you might’ve mentioned how Vonnegut *hated* space travel and thought the entire endeavor a waste of money. I recently read about the fact that he was on live television and part of a panel (with Susan Sontag if memory serves) that was arguing against space exploration on live television *as* the coverage of the moon landing was going on (much to the consternation of the anchor I’d add). Vonnegut certainly made his opinions known in his novel Sirens of Titan.

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    • Jay said,

      August 27, 2012 at 11:42 am

      Thanks for the comment, wondermachine. You know, I DID want to dig out my copy of Vonnegut’s “Man Without a Country” which I thought was the book that contained his essay “Excelsior! We’re Going to the Moon! Excelsior!” (Turns out that’s in “Wampeters, Granfallons and Foma”, though) which is a pretty scathing indictment of space travel as well, but for some reason (probably laziness) I didn’t.

      You may be familiar with another ‘darker’ shoprt story of his also relating to space travel, “Thanasphere.”

      -Jay

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      • August 27, 2012 at 11:55 am

        I’m recalling now that the story about the television appearance appears in his biography so I looked it up. It’s on page 264 of the Shields biography and the moderator was Walter Cronkite and it wasn’t Sontag it was Gloria Steinem. The other two panelists were Jerome Berry and Arthur C. Clarke(!) who of course was over the moon about going to the moon. The invitation came because of Vonnegut’s “Excelsior” essay. I’d LOVE to see that bit of archival footage.

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    • Jay said,

      August 27, 2012 at 11:49 am

      I hadn’t heard of the television appearance with Sontag, either. Going to look for it on YouTube now… 🙂

      Like

    • Jay said,

      August 27, 2012 at 6:06 pm

      I looked around the internet on my lunch hour today in hopes of finding some footage, but without result. 😦

      Like

      • August 27, 2012 at 7:51 pm

        I did a little search too and couldn’t find anything. From the looks of it there’s quite a bit from what seemed to be hours and hours of coverage Cronkite was doing (including a rather chummy chat with Arthur C. Clarke that’s worth a looksee). But nothing with Vonnegut.

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  3. August 28, 2012 at 9:03 am

    […] of periodicals that would likely not publish fiction today, let alone, science fiction! Yesterday, Bibliophilopolis reminded us that the Vonnegut story “The Manned Missiles” was originally published in […]

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