RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
When Ray Bradbury died this week, he was hailed as one of science fiction's great writers. Best known for works like "The Martian Chronicles," Bradbury himself didn't think science fiction was a good label for his work. He said science fiction was about what could happen, and believed most of his work was actually fantasy. And yet, in the real world of space exploration, Bradbury was revered. Science writer Andrew Chaikin, for one, considers Bradbury the poet laureate of space exploration.
ANDREW CHAIKIN: For anyone who longs to make their dreams take flight, Ray Bradbury had some very clear advice: Jump off the cliff, he said, and build your wings on the way down. He was telling us that every impossible dream that comes true begins with a leap of faith. That's why he inspired so many generations of people - not just science fiction fans, but real space explorers, scientists, engineers, even astronauts. More than anyone, Ray Bradbury was able to put into words that thing that is written in our DNA that compels us to always strive for the next hill, even if that hill is another planet or another star.
Back in 1967, LIFE magazine arranged for him to travel to the Space Center in Houston, where he met with Apollo astronauts and witnessed the preparations to send them on the first voyages to the moon. Even there, in the all-but-emotionless world of simulators and flight plans, Bradbury's passion soared. He wrote about Apollo as if it were a technological work of art, a glorious display of what is best in us.
He was like a lightning rod for the sheer power of human drive and ingenuity. He gave voice to the passion that no one at NASA could have expressed, a passion more powerful than rocket fuel.
I first felt Bradbury's passion in high school, when I read a poem of his in the book "Mars and the Mind of Man," that has been a touchstone for me ever since. In it, he said: I send my rockets forth between my ears, hoping an inch of will is worth a pound of years, aching to hear a voice cry back along the universal mall: We've reached Alpha Centauri. We're tall, oh God, we're tall.
In 2000, when I was the editor of a magazine called Space Illustrated, I commissioned Bradbury to write an essay about Mars and its hold on our imaginations. His response was the best expression of the why of space exploration that I've ever heard. He called us the betweens on a journey from the cave to the stars, a journey the universe requires us to take.
We have been given eyes to see what the light-year worlds cannot see of themselves, Bradbury wrote. We have been given hands to touch the miraculous. We've been given hearts to know the incredible. Can we shrink back to bed in our funeral clothes? Mars says we cannot.
Today, with NASA's solar system exploration program threatened by budget cuts, I wish all of us could understand the profound importance of what Bradbury was trying to tell us. He believed the stars are our destiny. And I have no doubt that when we reach them, we will celebrate one name as the beacon that guided us there: Bradbury.
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MONTAGNE: Andrew Chaikin wrote about Ray Bradbury in his book, "A Passion for Mars." It's NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.