June 5, 2003 

An Interview* with Larry Young
Creator & Writer of Astronauts in Trouble
* via email

Billionaires with their own space programs, private spacecraft heading for the Moon, lunar land claims, civilians riding rockets... could these be news items at HobbySpace? Well, yes, as a matter of fact, but they are also the makings of the wild and amazing space adventures created by writer Larry Young and artists Charlie Adlard and Matt Smith in their series of space comic books called Astronauts in Trouble.

The AiT series begins with the book Live from the Moon in which a TV news crew investigates a corporation's mysterious activities and finds itself launched into a bigger story than the crewmembers ever imagined.

The Space 1959 follow-up speculates on an alternative space past with a what-if involving a secret rocket program in the early days of the space age. In One Shot-One Beer we step into a lunar pub and hear tall tales from old space hands relaxing after a tough day on the high frontier.

Larry Young was both a big comic book and space exploration fan as a kid and when he grew up he managed to fulfill one big childhood dream by going to work in the comic book business as a writer and publisher.

Astronauts in Trouble: Live from the Moon
Astronauts in Trouble:
Live from the Moon

by Larry Young, Charlie Adlard & Matt Smith

Unfortunately, though, he has not yet fulfilled his other dream of riding into space. By the mid-1990s, space exploration seemed to have faded from the scene and he didn't even find much in the way of space sci-fi comics. Inspired by the Pathfinder mission (and a comment from his wife) he decided to use his comic book skills to create some space exploration via his imagination and wrote Live from the Moon, whose success was followed a few years later by the other books.

In my Solar Sci-Fi section I advocate a return from intragalactic adventures and back to space stories that take place in our own time, in our own star system. Unfortunately, many near-future space sci-fi offerings, especially in film and TV, have not been very successful. They often seem flat and uninspired, particularly to young people. The AiT series, on the other hand, manages to make near-future space sci-fi once again seem cool and hip.

I contacted Mr. Young to try to get an idea of how he and his collaborators managed to do this. The Space.com article - Live from the Moon: It's 'Astronauts in Trouble' - Space.com - Apr. 15.00 - and interview - Ground Control to Larry Young - Space.com - Apr.12.00 - covered the particulars of the stories so I thought I would focus more on the broader issue of near-future space sci-fi.


HS: How would you describe your own interest in space and how it developed? Did you follow the space program closely as a kid? Were you particularly into space sci-fi?

Young: I grew up outside of Dallas in the late Sixties, so along with hero-worshipping the defensive line of the Dallas Cowboys, most of whom lived in my neighborhood, I also loved the guys further south in Houston at Mission Control. I was six years old in 1969, and we had a telescope that looked up at the moon at the backyard. It wasn't hard to imagine that my friends and I would all be living up there as adults.

When I was a kid, I was into all the stuff little boys are into: dinosaurs, Egyptology, race cars, knights-in-shining-armor, that kind of stuff. It was a small leap to see that astronauts are modern-day knights, gearing up for their adventures in Beta cloth suits instead of hammered steel plates.

I guess I got interested in science fiction when I realized that I WOULDN'T be living up on the moon as an adult, so I came to it sort of backwards.

Astronauts in Trouble: Space: 1959
Astronauts in Trouble:
Space 1959

by Larry Young &
Charlie Adlard

HS: I found the AiT series very inventive, great fun and a wonderful example of how, with imagination and art, near-term space activities can provide scenarios for sci-fi that are just as entertaining as galactic empires. While not exactly Arthur C. Clarke type of hard sci-fi (if you can't go over the top, what's a comic book for?), generally the stories stay within a recognizable non-fantasy world. Is it tough to create captivating stories for the modern audience within that world where you don't have the plot conveniences of starships, aliens, and time travel?

Young: Well, it wasn't for ME. I mean, if you'll pardon the pun, it doesn't exactly take a rocket scientist to see that any next big leap in crewed spaceflight is going to come from the private sector. So take a Bill Gates-type character with a jones to see the moon for himself, and you've got yourself a story. There were a million ways we could have gone with that one: the story of the guys who built his moonbase in secret, how they got NORAD to look the other way when they're launching payload; what sort of business the billionaire was in that funded such an initiative, that sort of thing.

But putting reporters on the scene of man's return to the moon gets quite captivating, immediately. I mean, just look at current events: imbedded reporters are giving us the word on the ground in Iraq. It's even better, for fiction, when you have that dynamic of reporters on the ground at the second biggest story of human history and that ground is lunar
.

HS: One of the things I follow closely with HobbySpace is the growing parallel universe of private space development outside of NASA and the usual aerospace suspects. This universe harbors lots of activist organizations and many entrepreneurial companies developing launchers, satellites, space services and other businesses.

I noticed that AiT really avoids the "NASA is space" mentality that dominates most contemporary space fiction. I didn't see the NASA acronym anywhere actually. (Though the AiT logo looks vaguely familiar...) Would you say that space sci-fi based around NASA, such as the short lived TV series "The Cape", drastically limits the range of plots and characters? How much can a writer do with yet another satellite rescue by the shuttle?

Young: I don't know... I think that sci-fi based around NASA doesn't lend itself easily to continuing stories, like The Cape, but there are several really very entertaining parallel-development and just-the-other-side-of-real-life fictions like Abandon in Place by Jerry Oltion and Cosmonaut by Peter McAllister and Orbital Decay by Alan Steele that utilize the scene very well. Heck, I even very much enjoyed James Michener's Space when it was first released.

But, yes, I avoided mentioning NASA in Astronauts in Trouble just to underscore that there are real folks doing real jobs with space exploration, and our stories were meant only as entertainment and not as instructions.

HS: I'm very intrigued by public perceptions towards space. I remember vividly as a kid the intense excitement around the Mercury launches and I remember the widespread apathy a decade or so later towards the final Apollo flights.

There remained great fascination with space sci-fi but it was mostly the intragalactic adventure type with faster-than-light travel and lots of aliens. I believe it was the big bureaucratic and impractical way that we went to the Moon that turned many people off to "real" space travel. What is your view of why space became boring to so many people? And what can be done about it?

Young: I think NASA's PR folks were too good at their job, frankly. Especially in the early Eighties, the emphasis on the shuttle and its promise of making spaceflight "routine" was picked up and parrotted by mainstream media until folks just got bored. I think it's understood that the tail-end of Apollo suffered from a lack of an answer to the what's-next? question...

Astronauts in Trouble: One Shot, One Beer
Astronauts in Trouble:
One Shot, One Beer

by Larry Young &
Charlie Adlard
I'm not sure what can be done, honestly. The disintegration of the Columbia certainly has re-emphasized that the shuttle is a complex piece of machinery and that crewed spaceflight is anything but routine. I think that your regular folks who read the papers won't get interested in the exploration of space again until you have the space equivalent of Coke and Pepsi and McDonald's and Burger King commercial competition.

Or, conversely, one really audacious feat of engineering could do it. If someone ever builds the postulated space elevator, you'll see people falling all over themselves to get a ride up.

The Making of Astronauts in Trouble
The Making of
Astronauts in Trouble

by Larry Young

HS: I was wondering if "Space 1959" was at least partially inspired by the X rocket vehicle projects of the 1950s? Many of the rocket builders I know like to point to that pre-Moon Race period as a golden age for rocket vehicle development. From the X-1 to the X-15, rocket planes were built by relatively small teams working in a step-by-step, build-a-little, test-a-little approach. If Sputnik had not set off a mad rush to get to the Moon by 1969, we might have gotten a practical reusable rocketplane by that time instead of throwaway capsules.

Young: Honestly, 1959 was a gift to myself as a boy; I very much enjoyed Destination Moon and Robinson Crusoe on Mars and other SF pictures of the time, and when thinking of a follow up to Live from the Moon, which is obviously in the same vein as the Jerry Bruckheimer/Michael Bay movies like Armageddon, I figured a natural follow-up would be a story in the George Pal/Robert Wise manner. I guess I just wanted to show my audience I could write three different styles of adventure fiction; that Live from the Moon wasn't a fluke.

So that's where the tripod genre structure of Space 1959 comes from: the first act is a crime/noir/murder mystery; the second act is a nod at the superhero tropes you find in comics; and the third is the poetic/elegaic theme you find sometimes in grand opera. Just wanted to show my readers I had a bunch of other pitches besides my fastball.

HS: OK, I guess I was over-projecting a bit there. I did enjoy the diversity of the stories and the styles. I can also relate to the SF that inspired you as a boy. Although I found the books fun and engaging as an adult, they did bring on a certain nostalgia. I can definitely remember reading these kinds of stories outside in the shade on a summer day. I wish I could afford to buy a few hundred copies and distribute them to some deserving young teenagers as their vacation starts.

Young: Well, thanks very much.

HS: As with Sydney Stanton, the wheelchair bound financier in "When Worlds Collide", early sci-fi often relied on a rich guy to fund the rocketships. Then Apollo came along and it needed hundreds of thousands of engineers, technicians and bureaucrats and tens of billions of dollars to reach the Moon. For a long time it after that it became quaintly unrealistic to propose that any private individual could do anything significant in space.

However, in AiT, written in 1999, we find that Ishmael Hayes,"the world's richest man", has funded a secret space project that includes a lunar base.

I'm wondering if you sensed that something was changing? Today, in fact, we do find billionaires funding space projects: Robert Bigelow (owner of Budget Suites) created Bigelow Aerospace to develop space hotels, Elon Musk has his SpaceX orbital launcher, Paul Allen is rumored to be funding Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne suborbital project, and now it's revealed that Jeff Bezos has his own suborbital rocket company. Do you think we've crossed a threshold as wealth has increased and the technology has come down in cost to where private development of space will actually become common?

Young: Im not sure if it's going to become commonplace but I do think that within our lifetimes it's going to get at the level of adventure vacations; extreme sport enthusiasts will probably be ponying up for suborbital jaunts from trave agents before too long.

I think it's the Wild West, now, in terms of development. I love to follow the folks going after the X-Prize, and yes, I think it's in the hands of commercial development for the Next Big Thing. I just wish NASA wasn't so bloated, administratively, and that the US government had more of a vision for space exploration.

AiT
An astronaut in trouble

I have a hunch another space race is going to start when China launches its first taikonaut, though.

HS: If so, won't that make for a lot of great sci-fi story possibilities? It seems to me a lot more fun to speculate about people building a space hotel than with astronauts installing a module to do micrograv experiments on the ISS! .

Young: I'm with you, yes. That sort of thing will definitely lend itself to good fiction. SF is just societal extrapolation, anyway. Technology is always at the forefront of societal change, and the business of science fiction is to anticipate THAT.

HS: Cosmonauts, astronauts, taikonauts, tourists, moguls, etc. It's going to get interesting up there! If some enlightened magazine editor comes to you in a couple of years and offers to sponsor you for a trip on Rutan's SpaceShipOne or similar rocketship in exchange for an article about the experience, would you do it? It would be one hell of a ride. (See the trajectory.)

Young: Heck, yes. I think if you posed that question to nearly anyone with even a passing interest in space exploration, they'd sign up quickly.

HS: I hope and think that you are right. There has been a lot of argument among space advocates as to whether the short suborbital rocket rides would be exciting enough to build a business at a price of $50k-100k per ticket. The response so far to SS1 looks promising.

HS: With Tito's flight, space tourism went overnight from a ridiculous fantasy to a simple fact. In the next year or so we will start to see private piloted rocketships flying. They won't be reaching orbit, much less the Moon, but they will still be going to space. The regulations need to be worked out, but within two or three years paying passengers will start taking rides.

If suborbital tourism turns out to be as popular as I hope (say, 1000 passengers a year at $100k each), we'll finally have a genuine private space industry, The profits will be reinvested in improved vehicles and within ten years we could have passenger rides to orbiting space hotels. All without breaking any laws of physics or economics.

Resources related to space science fiction, arts, & future possibilities

  * Solar SciFi
  * Space Movies
  * Space TV
  * Space Music
  * Space Art
  * Future of Public Space
  * Space Tourism
  * Living in Space
  * New Space Businesses
  * Space Angels

Do you think that suborbital space rides could trigger another such paradigm shift in perceptions and people will start to see space as a real place where one might actually go someday to visit? If so, do you think this will make audiences more receptive to stories about near term developments in space?

Young: Oh, absolutely. As I often say, space is just an hour away by car. I'm closer to space than I am to Los Angeles. I think once it gets commercial, even people who don't like rollercoasters will buy a ticket to experience zero-g or a few minutes. I don't think, though, that any such developments will make people more or less receptive to stories about near term space development. A good story's a good story, no matter what.

HS: You're an obvious exception but I believe many writers even in sci-fi need a paradigm change before they will be inspired by space travel. I still get annoyed thinking about the movie "Red Planet". Not a single character in the movie expressed any enthusiasm whatsoever about going to Mars. It was just an ordeal to get over with as soon as possible. Obviously that's what the screenwriters think about space. ("Mission to Mars" was also a big disappointment but for other reasons.)

Young: I think the writers were trying to imagine a time in which space travel was just a job. I mean, wasn't the Val Kilmer character in RED PLANET the ship's janitor, or something? I think viable space fiction can be had WITHOUT a "sense of wonder" permeating the piece...

HS: They should hear Dennis Tito. At a lecture I attended last year, he went on and on for over an hour about what a pure state of joy he was in for the whole week he was in space. I don't think a trip to Mars or some other space venture would necessarily be such an ecstatic vacation, but it obviously would be carried out by people who love being in space.

Young: You'd have to be, to take a two-year bus ride to Mars!

HS: When you talk with other sci-fi writers do you find yourself in the minority as far as still having a real enthusiasm for spaceflight? Bruce Sterling, for example, has panned space as yesterday's has-been adventure. "Manned space exploration : Can you hear me, Houston? Put a stake through its heart, it's a flying mummy in a coffin." (Wired Jan.2000)

Young: Everyone has different interests; I admit that my enthusiasms aren't usually those shared most often by others, but, heck! that's what makes it all fun.
 

HS: Are there any new installments in the AiT series in the offing?

Young: We're collecting all three stories into one big hardcover for August, and I have a quick story I'd like to do with series artist Charlie Adlard if his schedule allows.

HS: As noted in the Space.com interview, the AiT series is very cinematic. Is there any chance we'll see an AiT story on the big or small screen anytime soon?

Young: Well, the property's been optioned, and LIVE FROM THE MOON was mentioned in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY as a "graphic novel ya gotta have," so there is certainly some other-media opportunities. I'd sure like to buy a ticket, I can tell you that.

HS: Me too! Thanks Larry for these great space adventures.

    

Larry Young can be contacted via his website AiT/PlanetLar.

AiT/PlanetLar

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