Romancing the Moon: A Guest Post from Emma Barry

Gorgeous Full Moon In A Dark Black Night SkyThis guest post is from author Emma Barry. Emma Barry is a novelist, full-time mama, recovering academic, and former political staffer. When she’s not reading or writing, she loves her twins’ hugs, her husband’s cooking, her cat’s whiskers, her dog’s tail, and Earl Grey tea.

She writes a series of romances about the space race with Genevieve Turner called Fly Me to the Moon. A boxed set of the first three books in the series will be 99 cents from July 16 to 24 to commemorate the Apollo 11 mission.

You can find Emma Barry on her website, on Twitter, on Instagram, and you can join her mailing list for more of her writing!

What’s so romantic about space?

I don’t mean phallic rockets—though, OMG, have you seen the design for Blue Origin’s New Shepard? —but space exploration itself. Terms like countdown sequence, Apollo lunar mission, and Sea of Tranquility fill me with giddy longing, and I’d bet some of us can name more astronauts than Supreme Court justices. Why is that?

When I was a kid in the 80s and early 90s, the sexiest period of space exploration seemed over. Don’t get me wrong, the Space Shuttle was cool, but by that point, it felt like NASA, Roscosmos, and other space agencies had reached a mature middle age and had settled down from their wild youths. But as we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing, I wonder what that earlier verve was.

Some of the romantic gloss is intrinsic to the night sky itself. Seemingly every culture has mythology about the moon and the stars. Moon deities, from Hina to Artemis to Khonsu, are a mixed bunch. Sometimes women, sometimes men, sometimes having many lovers, sometimes representing chastity, moon gods and goddesses are persistently related to menstrual cycles and conception and, by extension, to life and death—so it’s no wonder that the modern exploration of space has a certain amatory zing.

The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics
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My favorite astronomy romances include Courtney Milan’s Talk Sweetly to Me, Carrie Lofty’s Starlight, and, most recently, Olivia Waite’s The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics. One thing that ties this subgenre together is the eroticism of the gaze: the sense that when we train our attention on something, a power dynamics spring into play between the lookee and the looker, and sexuality can be part of that puzzle. In all of these books, there are parallels between how the astronomers regard the night sky and how they regard their love interests. It’s right there in the double meanings of “to regard”: to see and to love. When the cosmos-studiers turn their attention on you, you become stardust.

Without going too far down the Laura Mulvey path–she explores how the sexual power of looking plays out in Hitchcock films in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”–I feel like there’s something charged about gazing through a telescope and perceiving more than you can with your unaided eye. A tiny shift of the optical tube, and you’re looking tens of thousands of light years away—you’re looking quite literally into the past. But even without knowing that, the first time I saw the moon and Jupiter through a telescope, I cried. What the lense brought into focus plugged doubts I didn’t know I had. Yes, the books weren’t lying to me. Yes, the universe is beautiful and infinite. Yes, you are that small—but not too small to take in this grandeur. Sometimes, the only power we have is the power to behold, but astronomy tells us that’s power indeed.

I realize that the day-to-day reality of astronomy is painstaking, cold, and probably boring at times, and all of the books I recommended above are careful to separate the practice of astronomy from the romance of it. But I choose to believe that under the daily grind and minutiae, astronomers can still catch a whiff of the wow and still feel the excitement that led them to want to become astronomers in the first place.

When we went from merely looking at the stars to trying to travel to them, both the Soviet and American space programs tried to capture all those emotions in the names they choose for missions. I mean the term astronaut is pretty cool, but cosmonaut? Cosmonaut is amazing. The three different phases of the Soviet program, Vostok, Voskhod, and Soyuz, translate into English as East (in the sense of something dawning), Advance, and Union. Soviet mission names are poetic and collectivist at once—exactly as you’d expect.

On the other side of the Cold War, a memo explaining NASA’s naming conventions claims they want “simple euphonic word[s]” that “reflec[t] NASA’s mission.” Following these rules, the three major projects in the late 50s and 60s were named Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, all figures from Greek mythology.

What’s fascinating is that public support for space exploration in this period was not consistently high. A Gallup poll from 1965, for example, found only 39% of Americans supported doing “everything possible” to get to the moon; this doesn’t square with the gauzy construction that all Americans were cheerleaders for NASA, which has cropped up at times in commemorative coverage of the Apollo 11 mission.

Given the controversy, I’d argue that both the Soviet and American space programs attempted to capture the romance of space and sprinkle it all over their rockets. The names are only the beginning; the same framing is present in the language of press releases, in coverage of the astronauts’ families, and in the entire aesthetic of the space programs. The cultivated glamour of the space race can be seen as a rhetorical tactic to buoy public support.

Indeed when I started writing romances set in this world, the gleaming veneer of NASA, or what I took to calling the Apollo 13 filter, fell away at once. Space exploration was undertaken for some squicky reasons–red scare and pork projects for members of Congress–and was often as exclusionary as the culture that birthed it–as just one example, meet Ed Dwight. But even when I started seeing NASA in all its complexity, the brightness of the project didn’t disappear. Strip away the facade and keep a firm grasp on the inequities, and the heart of the mission beats just as insistently.

Tens of thousands of people worked in tandem to put a human on the moon. No longer content to merely look at the stars, they shattered technological and conceptual barriers to get closer to celestial bodies. The Apollo 11 mission was the culmination of eons of longing. It was a cooperative endeavor, and, simultaneously, one that ended with a single individual slowly, slowly descending a ladder to walk on the moon’s surface. When it comes to space, the momentous undertaking often collapses into its most intimate components because the team of dedicated engineers, executives, PR folks, and so on didn’t leave earth, a handful of astronauts did. Space exploration is absolutely collective and almost painfully intimate.

Fly Me to the Moon: Volume One
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For me this is where the two dissimilar worlds of space and romance begin to merge. To get to the moon, humans had to learn about rocketry, orbital mechanics, computing, and so on. Winning one’s beloved is also a process of knowledge acquisition, not to mention one of becoming more worthy and taking risks. The shock of first sight, then the tumble of wonder, desire, pursuit: there are more overlaps in language between astronaut memoirs and romances than you might assume.

I don’t want to overstate or oversimplify these parallels. I do wish to suggest that there is a reason astronomy, heavenly bodies, and, yes, space have been mainstays in romance, and why scientists and engineers so often seem to need poetry to discuss their work. Humans and the moon are locked in a primordial romance, and it’s nowhere close to cooling down.

So when I’m reading about the fiftieth anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s “small step” in the next few weeks, and that now familiar dizzy ache settles into my chest, I’ll recognize it for what it is. Love.

Do you feel moved by the romance with space? Where do you think it originates? And where will it take us next?

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Eliza says:

    What a lovely piece of writing, Ms Barry! Thank you.

  2. 2
    Lisa F says:

    I love the Fly me to the Moon series so, so much. A lovely post!

  3. 3
    EC Spurlock says:

    I was there. I was 14. And I remember it well. I still have all the newspaper clippings leading up to and during and after the Apollo program ended. The reasons at the time were pragmatic and political: we had to get there first to prevent Russia from building a base on the moon from which they could nuke any place on Earth with impunity. Once it was established that that would take more effort and capital than any nation had available, there was no reason to go back. And yes there were many who thought it was a waste of money that could have been better used for things like the War on Poverty and upgrading our school systems.

    But there were also those of us who had been weekly devotees of the recently-cancelled Star Trek, who had seen the visions on display in the 1965 World’s Fair. To us, this was the Future rushing toward us, full of glory and freedom and equality and the hope of a united humanity. We wanted that future so badly.

    And then Vietnam and Watergate destroyed that future, and we will never have that kind of hope again.

  4. 4

    I love the Fly Me to the Moon series, too. So well-written on so many levels. My knowledge of the period and the program is limited to the books The Right Stuff, A Man on the Moon and The Astronaut Wives Club, the movie Apollo 13, and the HBO series From the Earth to the Moon, but the vibe I get from the romance serious is very much on the same wavelength as the other things I’ve absorbed. I can’t even say how much I love the series…

  5. 5
    DonnaMarie says:

    This was a lovely bit of writing. Thank you.

    I was just reminiscing about the moonwalk with someone today. My mother had a pretty strict “get out of the house” policy in the summer. Unless you were there to use the bathroom or having a meal, you stayed outside until the street lights came on. Except for this one amazing week 50 years ago when the TV was on until we went to bed.

    We had Star Trek and Lost In Space and every comic under the sun, but none of it was as enthralling as those fuzzy images and delayed responses.

    We are so jaded and blase about it now. Makes me a little sad that I’m the only person I know watching the live feeds from NASA or who will be watching tomorrow when they rebroadcast the Apollo 11 landing. I won’t be holding my breath this time, but I bet I tear up a little.

  6. 6
    Aarya says:

    OK, don’t laugh at me but one of the first memories I have of space and pop culture is the Magic School Bus episode where they go the space (Keesha wants to “buy” a star for Dorothy Ann and they travel to space to find the perfect star). I loved it to pieces, especially because DA was my favorite character in the show. My second memory of space is when Pluto got demoted from a planet; I didn’t know the science of it, but I definitely remember the outrage and anger!

    It’s interesting to see how space is represented in romance. On one end, you have the astronomers looking up at the stars and trying to understand what’s out there without hope of traveling there (the Waite and Milan books). In the middle, you have the astronauts determined to travel to space one day (Fly Me to the Moon). And on the other end, you have SFR, which Emma didn’t talk about much but I think absolutely is a love letter to space (even if it’s very different than the previous two categories).The romanticization is very different in all three, but it is present.

    And just echoing the comments above – I love the Fly Me to the Moon series. I get bored of Regency/Victorian historicals (I love them, I just get tired every once in a while) and it’s really fascinating to read a “historical” set in recent-ish history. I don’t know much about the space race or the original moon landing, but hopefully it’ll become a popular setting in the future decades.

  7. 7
    Aarya says:

    Oh! One more point that I forgot to add. I would love for a Martian-esque romance. Think about it: forced proximity IN SPACE!!!!!!!!!! You could probably sneak “we have to share one bed” in there and it’s also a survival romance.

    Okay, someone write this. This is a free idea, and I’d like to read it tomorrow so no rush.

  8. 8
    LauraL says:

    Very thought-provoking. There’s a meme circulating around, “I am such a ‘look at the moon’ sort of girl.” I think that sums up a bit of the romance as humans have likely been looking at the moon and sky since they first started looking beyond staying alive.

    My husband and I were pre-teens at the time of the moon landing and this 50th anniversary really brings back the memories. My memories, along with other “senior” residents’ recollections, were shared in a news story in my town’s weekly newspaper. My husband has been interested in space since the Apollo missions. One of his most-treasured photos is of him sitting in the original Mission Control in Houston. He will tell anyone who listens about his dinner with astronauts!

    I think the future will include more space exploration and my nephew hopes it does. He decided at a young age he wants to be an astronaut and is planning a career in astrophysics, hopefully with a trip into space.

  9. 9
    Taylor says:

    @donnamarie – we’ll be watching it too! I got all choked up with today’s google doodle!

  10. 10
    DonnaMarie says:

    @Taylor, me too! I thought it was wonderful, especially the part about being alone but not lonely with 8 million and two people one one side of the Moon and him on the other.

  11. 11
    LF says:

    This is a very well-written post. Touching and thought-provoking at the same time. I love this.

  12. 12
    Kathy says:

    Thanks for your well-written post! NASA /the US is going back to the moon with human landings planned… the new program is called Artemis. I’m hoping it inspires more writers to include the moon as a setting in their writings. Looking forward to reading your series!

  13. 13
    Viktória says:

    For me it began with the Magic School Bus too, like for @Aarya. But it went to a different direction after that.

    I was having a conversation with my Grandma about her religion and how she looked at her faith or the lack of it thereof, and she surprised me with sayin: “I gave up going to church the day Gagarin went into space and God let him be there.”
    She told me that she believes that if there would be some higher spirit, it would not let a mere men go up to space and come back. For her, the mission into space brought a break with the church and she formed a new relationship with religion and everything that comes with that. She was a woman of simple principles and perception, emotional awareness and integrity, for her, the fact that a man could reach space was something that shattered the believes she was raised with.

    I am sharing this with you because I was thinking about this post for the last few days and my Grandma’s words struck me true again and again in the sense that space, and the exploration of space is a great and big thing, something incomprehensible for a lot of us. It has an effect on our lives since the beginning of time as @LauraL pointed out, and this effect can differ a lot from person to person.

    For me, the constellations and looking at the stars is something otherworldly and linked with romance. When I was six, I got a big geography atlas for Christmas and it contained a detailed constellation map. I cannot even count the hours I’ve spent looking at Leo, Taurus, Gemini and the Milky Way on the pages and thought about princesses and great magicians seeking advise from the night sky. Now as an adult, they have a translucent and calming effect on me when I look up, they bring hope and they help me remember loved ones that are not here with us anymore.

    As a child, my Grandma was told that everyone gets a star after leaving life on Earth and they are responsible for polishing the stars so they can shine for people on Earth. She answered that she hopes they will bury some good cotton rags with her, so her star could always be neatly polished. I think this sums up her personality perfectly, how she was a hard-working woman with great kindness and understanding. I miss her a lot, but when I look up, she’s always there.

  14. 14
    SB Sarah says:

    This is really, powerfully moving. What an extraordinary person she was. Thank you for sharing your grandmother with us.

  15. 15
    Jean Lamb says:

    There’s a wonderful song called “The Longest March” by Leslie Fish that sums up everything about the space race that is wonderful.

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