Does your book ‘Shoot for the Moon’ about the Apollo missions really exist, or is it all an internet conspiracy theory?
It is very real. We recently sent the book into space and while we were filming, the book landed on my head. The clip is online and I can verify that the book both exists and is harder than you might think.
What inspired you to write ‘Shoot for the Moon’?
I think it was finding out that the average age of the people in Mission Control was 26 when Armstrong walked on the Moon, and that they came from such modest backgrounds. Today we associate success with tough talking CEOs or go-getting entrepreneurs, but these were ordinary people and I was fascinated by how they did what they did.
How many of the surviving Mission Controllers did you interview?
I think there were about 15 interviews in all. They are now in their late 70s and early 80s, and still have very vivid recollections of their time at NASA. They are an amazing group to talk to.
Obviously, working on the Apollo lunar missions must have been a very pressured and stressful environment. Was there a high burnout/turnover rate, or did most stay for the duration of the project?
My understanding is that pretty much everyone stayed. Some people couldn’t hack it, but everyone I spoke to was so passionate about what they were doing. The problem was actually stopping them doing it! They know little about the 1960s because the Moon landings became their life.
What single fact that you discovered while researching the Apollo missions, surprised you most?
I asked Doug Ward – who was one of the media folks broadcasting live from Mission Control – what was so extraordinary about the Controllers. He paused and said how ordinary they all were. I think that’s true. Many of them came from rural backgrounds and were the first in their families to go to University.
Did you learn any lessons as a result of your research into the Apollo missions, which have changed how you personally approach challenges?
Yes. Everyone in Mission Control was very very open about their failures. Nowadays we tend to try to cover up our mistakes and times that didn’t go well. In fact, those are the occasions that tell us a great deal and allow us to move forward. As a result, I have tried to be more honest about what didn’t go so well and what can be done to ensure a better future.
The Apollo program was clearly a fantastic achievement, but owed a great deal to Wernher von Braun, who was essentially given an amnesty for his actions during World War 2. In your opinion, would man have walked on the Moon before 1970, without Wernher von Braun’s active involvement?
There were lots of people that played a crucial role. Kennedy for one. John Houbolt (who came up with the overall plan for the mission and had to fight von Braun all of the way), the astronauts who put their lives on the line, the people at Mission Control, and the 400,000 people who fed into the project. It was a huge initiative.
If NASA called you to invite you to spend a month in the International Space Station how would you respond?
I don’t think I would be good in space, and I would feel sorry for anyone that has to share a small space with me. I would love to go up and float around for a bit, but maybe just for a day.
Finally, are theories that the moon is composed of cheese basically just no Gouda, or is it actually Edam of sterner stuff?
Some scientists worried that it might actually be covered in a really thick layer of dust, and that the lunar lander might simply sink and never be seen again! However, in terms of the moon being made of cheese, how wrong can you Brie?