J and I watched the movie Apollo 13 with the kids yesterday. You know, the one with Tom Hanks in it, the one with “we’ve never lost an American in space and we’re not going to start on my watch.” At the point where Jim Lovell is staring out the window at the moon, knowing he’s never going to get another chance to walk on it and he might be dead before the week is out, both my children burst into loud sobs.

We paused the movie and held them, but I honestly don’t feel too bad about it. After all, parenting can be viewed as the process of systematically scarring your kids’ brains until they instinctively flinch away from actions that a) will get them killed and b) are antisocial. Placing a scar in my kids’ little cerebellums that says, “space travel is important and dangerous and it is one of the greatest achievements of our kind, and a loss to any one of us in space is a loss to us all” — I’m okay with that. M and K were bawling not because they were worried about Lovell’s life — we had, after all, reassured them vigorously before turning on the tv that everyone lives, it all turns out okay. My kids were sobbing because Lovell was missing his chance. Because his dream was right there, and it was never going to be attained.

I’m perfectly happy that they sobbed. Out of such empathy are non-sociopaths made.

I, on the other hand, was sobbing at different parts of the film.

It’s the Mission Control parts that get to me. Partly, I suspect, because that’s the end of the mic I’m on — the end sitting in a big room with scopes and radios and monitors, trying to talk pilots through bad weather or icy conditions. I know exactly how people can be yelling and frustrated and even scared, and when we key up the mic to transmit, our voices are calm and easy. But that empathy is only part of it. The scene where the engineers all check Lovell’s math makes me cry. The scene where the engineers fit a square peg in a round hole makes me cry. The parts, all the parts, where dozens of nameless men in their short hair and ties and sportcoats and black-rimmed glasses get us into and out of space. I honestly can do without the hero-narrative throughline of Apollo 13. The true heroic story, for me, is that hundreds of people all over the country keep putting things in space.

When J and N and the kids were at the reception for the crew and families of STS-128, the party was full of representatives from all the space centers, all over the country, who contribute to getting the shuttle in orbit. The people who make the motors, the people who make the tiles, the teams of engineers and scientists who each make one small part of the shuttle and their work is in space. That’s the sort of accomplishment that gets to me. That is astonishing.

Throughout human history cultures have built things that took the production of entire nations to finish. Those things have rightly been called wonders of the world. But it’s not merely the Great Walls or Colossi that make me pause, and think, and choke up. I just finished two books, both about the Victorian Age of Empire, both about the effects of efforts of will by groups of people. The Ghost Map tells the story of how modern sewer systems made the future possible. King Leopold’s Ghost tells how and why the Congo has entered the twentieth century at a crippling disadvantage from which it has yet to recover. In both these tales, acts of will by single men set a course for great changes, both good and ill. But in both stories those acts of will did absolutely nothing, had no effect, until their causes were joined by others.

History knows the name of John Snow, but it barely recalls Henry Whitehead, or Balzagette. Snow discovered the source of the cholera epidemic in London; but Whitehead proved him right, and Balzagette was the architect of the idea of a modern sewer system. King Leopold II was the owner of the Congo, and his policies were responsible for the deaths of 10 million Congolese and the theft of 1 billion dollars from the colony. But he didn’t kill a single man, woman, or child. He cut off no hands. His work was done by thousands of willing partners in the search for first ivory, and then rubber.

When I read fiction these days, my mind is drawn to the nameless thousands implied by the story. When the resistance fighters in Terminator 4 fire those endless rounds of ammo, I’m pondering the smelting of brass, and how on earth one would hide that from the Machines. When the elves of Rivendell prance about in their clothes, I am pleased to recall that Tolkein devoted page-count to telling us how the cloth was made. I’ve read too much history to not think about the wider world beyond the page or screen. When I see Nicole Stott in orbit at the ISS, I look at the polymers and cloth and metal up there with her and wonder how much of our planet has gone into her presence in space.

This is why steampunk grates on me as a genre. Because the myth of the lone hero-inventor-scientist-engineer ignores the questions that I need answered. How does the hero get clean water when germ theory hasn’t been invented yet? And where does he get the rubber for all those steam-gaskets?