What if, when the U.S. went to the moon in the 1960s, it never stopped — not by choice but in desperation, as a time bomb of climate change ticked away?
That's the scenario novelist Mary Robinette Kowal envisions in her Lady Astronaut series, the newest book of which, "'The Relentless Moon," was released this month (Tor Books, 2020). (Read an excerpt from "The Relentless Moon.") The series is built on a "punch-card-punk" imagining of an alternative timeline where the Apollo program's pace of space exploration continued.
And Kowal wanted to write about female astronauts. "How would the world have needed to be different in order for them to actually send women into space?" she told Space.com she wondered as she imagined the context of her series. "It turns out that you have to slam an asteroid into Washington, D.C., to make that happen." (That event opens the first book in the series, "The Calculating Stars.")
In "The Relentless Moon," Kowal tracks the adventures of astronaut Nicole Wargin as a lunar base confronts existential threats imported from Earth. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Related: Best space and sci-fi books for 2020
The Relentless Moon
Tor, 2020 | $16.19 on Amazon
In the third installment of Mary Robinette Kowal's Lady Astronaut series, follow the drama unfolding on Earth and the moon as space exploration accelerates.
Space.com: In the first two books, you followed astronaut Elma York; in the new book you follow her colleague in the first group of female astronauts, Nicole Wargin. Why did you make that choice?
Mary Robinette Kowal: What I wanted to do actually was to write a book about what was happening on Earth while the Mars expedition was going on. … Nicole was the one who made the most sense, because I knew that I wanted to be dealing with the political situation on Earth. She's married to a politician, she's steeped in all of that.
The other piece for me was that … this started with an older protagonist and Nicole is the oldest of the lady astronauts. So that was also an opportunity to talk about the way we regard aging and the fairly gendered reaction that we have to aging.
Space.com: For this book, you had to design a lunar base. What was that process like and what sort of challenges did you run into along the way?
Kowal: I've read a lot of different proposals for lunar bases. We've been thinking about putting a base on the moon since the '50s and '60s, they've had varying degrees of planning. The challenge was to design something that they could have built with the technology available in 1962 but with the knowledge that we have in 2020, because they've got boots on the ground, and they've got a lot more time on the moon than we do. … The model that I wound up settling on was something that's based on a fairly inflatable. You inflate it and then you do some reinforcing, but it's mostly buried, which is unsurprising.
But then there are also pieces of it that I very carefully do not describe in detail because I have no idea how they actually work. What I try to do is if my character has to interact with it directly or it's a plot point, then it is as accurate as I can make it. If they don't, but I know it's a problem that they had to solve then I just assumed that they solved it. This is a solvable thing and they solved it, I just don't know. But [I think of] the number of things that I interact with on a daily basis that are solved problems, and I don't know how that's done. Like, do I really know how my cell phone works? I mean, kinda? Would I be able to write a scene in which my character repaired a cell phone? No, I would not.
Space.com: You must have been working on the book when NASA announced the accelerated moon-landing program and its name, the Artemis program. What was it like to have that news come out mid-book?
Kowal: It's funny because I had already named the new base, the Artemis base. That happened and also Andy Weir came out with his book, "Artemis," and I'm like, oh, for crying out loud. And then I thought, Well, you know what, the reason we're all picking that name is because it's the name that makes sense. So we just roll with it. It actually always should have been the Artemis program. Apollo was the god of the sun, it should never have been the Apollo program. Not where we were going. We're all just correcting the same thing.
I have other feelings about the branding of the Artemis program that are not not related to the name, per se, but the way they are, you know, the next man and the first woman. I also want there to be gender parity, but I want it to be more than that. And forgive me, but why does it have to be the next man? Why can't this be a two-woman crew?
Space.com: Near the end of the book, you even have an all-woman spacewalk in there and everything goes great! Was that on purpose?
Kowal: Actually, I honestly did not think about that until just this moment, but everyone on that particular moonwalk, there are five people on that particular thing and they are all women.
Space.com: The Earth First movement, which opposes space exploration in favor of addressing terrestrial problems, plays a big role in the book. Could you talk about your inspiration for that group?
Kowal: The Apollo program was not universally beloved. At the time, it wasn't even like a majority of the people supported the Apollo program, and there were a lot of people who, because we're in the middle of the civil rights movement, there's a lot of focus on injustice and poverty and economic disparity. People were like, why aren't you spending that money to fix things here?
The same thing would happen with this space program, combined with some additional things, which is they're trying to get people off the planet but there's no way they're going to be able to get everyone off. The thing that the Earth Firsters say is correct: it is essentially a eugenics program as it is structured at the beginning of the book.
If you have asthma, you don't get to go. If you have a heart condition, you don't get to go. If you have anything that is at all off-nominal, you don't get to go. If you didn't go to the right school, and in order to go to the right school in 1950, you would have had to have the right quote-unquote skin tone and have lived in the right city. Earth First, they're right about a lot of stuff.
Some of Earth Firsters are like, "There's injustice here and it needs to be addressed," and some of the Earth Firsters are saying, "You know, I don't think climate change is actually happening." [In the series, the meteor strike triggers climate change that some believe will eventually make the planet uninhabitable, hence the emphasis on space exploration.] And those are two different arguments, but they've hitched their wagons together. It's something that you see in the real world too.
Space.com: Why did you want to look at the intersection of space exploration and equity?
Kowal: When I start writing, because I do write historical things so often, I work on the assumption that the women and people of color and LGBTQ folks and disabled folks were there and that they are erased from the media representation. So the first thing I do is I start and I go look for them, and the moment you start down that path, you realize how much worse it is than you actually think it is. There were a lot of people who were very heavily involved and they just are left completely out of the conversation. That creates a cyclical thing, so I try very hard with my books to not perpetuate that and also to interrogate it and interrogate my own default assumptions.
[In the present] despite all of the efforts that NASA has made for gender parity in the astronaut program, space is going to continue to be male-dominated for at least another decade. We're starting to see a shift: Great, we had an all-woman spacewalk, we had two, we had a couple right there in a row. And now we're back to all-male spacewalks again.
There are no women in space right now. Russia does not send women into space. ESA has very few women in their program. I think Japan has one. So this is a global problem that we have with the selection process and it takes people making an active choice to change things.
Like the active choice that they're making with the Artemis suits, that they are designing the suit for a small woman and then they're going to scale it up from there. That is probably the first time in the space program that the needs of a woman have been prioritized. We've always had to accommodate and work around things that are built and prioritized for men.
Space.com: What do you want space fans to take away from reading the book?
Kowal: Two things that are linked. One is something that I hear every astronaut talk about, which is that when you are in space and you look back at the Earth and you realize that it is fragile and it's just one planet and that we're all on it and in this together. And the pandemic is a reminder that this is all interconnected. You can't make a change in one place without it affecting everyone else.
Linked with that is to think about who we are prioritizing and to do that consciously instead of the unconscious assumptions that we have made so frequently in the past. There's a status quo, but is that the status quo that we need to have? And the answer is pretty much every time, no, it's not. So why are we protecting it?
Space.com: What else are you working on? There will be a fourth book in the series, correct?
Kowal: That's called "The Martian Contingency"; we're back to Elma's point of view for that one. And it begins, I've been joking, about five minutes after the end of "The Fated Sky." So we have the second Mars expedition, that book is all Mars, all the time, and it's about the process of setting up a 100-person colony on a new planet.
There are the choices that the governments make before you leave, and then there's the choices that you make when you're there, and those are not necessarily the same choices. About whose culture is important and what it's like to be able to create a culture, making deliberate choices about what to import, not just in the tangible items but the intangible as well. And what things you don't want to import. There's a conversation about, "Can we not call it a colony?" So eventually they're "establishing habitation" on Mars.
The next book that I'm working on is not a Lady Astronaut book, but it's still a space book. It's called "The Spare Man," and it's an interplanetary cruise ship locked-room murder mystery. It's a cruise going from Earth to Mars. I sat down with a rocket engineer and we came up with the plan of the ship and a whole bunch of variables. I think we came up with an 11-day transit with constant thrust. Again, the engines aren't going to fail so I have no idea what that ship is actually being driven by.
Email Meghan Bartels at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.