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.
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!”)
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.”
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.
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.