By Arthur Lightbourn
Best-selling author Craig Nelson was the guest speaker at the March 15 luncheon of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society at The Grand Del Mar. The luncheon series is sponsored by Northern Trust, the Rancho Santa Fe Community Center and this newspaper. The next luncheon on April 19 will feature physician/novelist Abraham Verghese and his latest book, “Cutting for Stone.”
Ironically, after spending four-and-a-half-years researching and writing “Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon,” Craig Nelson was asking himself the same question that troubled the astronauts who made the historic Apollo 11 voyage to and from the moon in 1969.
“Once you’ve been to the moon, what do you do next?”
For Nelson, it took about a year for him to find his bearings as a writer again to decide on his next book called “The Age of Radiance,” scheduled for publication in 2013, the story of the discovery of radioactivity and the birth of nuclear science, power, medicine and bombs.
But for astronauts Neil Armstrong, commander of Apollo 11, Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, and Mike Collins, command module pilot, it was even more complicated. Their lives, especially of the two men who first stepped onto the lunar surface — Armstrong first and Aldrin second —were dramatically impacted and changed forever.
And, for America itself, after experiencing unprecedented global applause and approval for its awe-inspiring achievement, the question, after 41 years, is still being asked: What will be the next “giant leap for mankind” in the human exploration of outer space and who will be able pull it off.
We interviewed the 56-year-old author and former New York book editor prior to his March 15 luncheon talk to the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society at The Grand Del Mar.
“Rocket Man” is his third book since he became a full-time history-genre writer after 20 years as an executive editor for Harper & Row, Disney, and Random House.
As an editor, Nelson oversaw the publishing (and in some cases the “ghostwriting”) of 20 New York Times’ bestsellers, including books by celebrities Annie Leibovitz, Lily Tomlin, Andy Warhol, Roseanne Barr, Alex Trebek, William Shatner, John Lennon, and Keith Richards.
As a freelance writer, Nelson’s books include: “The First Heroes,” an account of the Doolittle Raid, the first U.S. bombing raids on Japan in 1942 following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; and “Thomas Paine: Enlightment, Revolution and the Birth of Modern Nations.”
Asked what motivated him to write Rocket Men, he said, as America approached 2009 and the 40th anniversary of landing the first man on the moon, there had not been any one book that “told you everything about going to the moon, how did it happen, how and why did we do it, and why don’t we do that any more.”
He wanted, he said, to approach the subject as a historian “to do a ‘big picture’ look at this event.”
In his research, which included countless interviews and examining 23,000 pages of NASA oral histories and declassified CIA documents, he was surprised to discover that “no one had tried to integrate the ‘Space Race’ into the Cold War.”
The two other major surprises he encountered were, he said, “how dangerous the mission actually was and how primitive the technology.”
In almost all the preparatory missions leading to Apollo 11, he said, there were instances in which astronauts narrowly escaped death.
As an example of how primitive the technology was, he cites the time NASA was going to send pigs into outer space and made a special strap-in cradle for the pig only to be warned by a secretary who had grown up on a farm that you can’t put a pig on its back in a cradle because its belly fat will suffocate it. NASA switched to monkeys and eventually to human beings.
In his 349-page book, Nelson explores the history of rocketry, how former Nazi scientists under Wernher Von Braun contributed to America’s Cold War struggle for space superiority with the Soviets that led to President John F. Kennedy’s 1960 decision to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade.
Nelson also creates penetrating profiles of the three astronauts who flew the mission: the laconic commander Neil Armstrong, the ambitious Buzz Aldrin who desperately wanted to be the first man to step on the moon, and the focused Mike Collins, who piloted the orbiting command module while Armstrong and Aldrin descended in the Eagle Lunar Module to the moon’s surface.
Nelson also recounts how the astronauts’ post-moon lives were affected by their fame.
Armstrong, who as a national hero was thought to be too valuable to risk flying again, avoided the public spotlight. Armstrong became a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati, lived on a dairy farm, was left by his wife, suffered a heart attack, divorced and remarried.
The usually outgoing Aldrin sank into depression and alcoholism, a battle from which he recovered and described in his memoir, “Men from Earth.” He also divorced and remarried.
Collins, after a career with the State Department, went on to become the first director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space museum. He is still married and in his spare time paints watercolors, not of space, but of Florida landscapes and wildlife.
Of the three Apollo 11 crewmen, only Mike Collins agreed to be interviewed for the book.
NASA, Nelson said, was “incredibly helpful” in providing information, while the Pentagon was “incredibly unhelpful, because they consider all of their space work confidential...and the stuff I found out that wasn’t confidential was so embarrassing, it should have been confidential.”
Nelson was born in Marion, Indiana, and was raised in Houston and Austin, Texas. His father was a business management psychologist and his mother was the head of special education for the Houston School District.
While in high school, he and his brother earned extra money as Fuller Brush salesmen, “and we were pretty good at it.”
He earned his B.A. in humanities from the University of Texas in 1973, followed by graduate school and film school at the University of Southern California, “but I didn’t like it.” He then got work in Hollywood at a law firm, entered UCLA’s writing program, “which I liked very much,” went on vacation to New York City and “fell in love with it.”
He landed his first job in publishing after 67 interviews, a persistence that has stood him in good stead throughout his career.
Nelson lives in New York City’s Greenwich Village.
He still puts in 14-hour days writing, but he balances his day between writing, reading, working out and cooking.
“And that’s what my day primarily is,” he said. “In fact, one of the best ways I’ve discovered to work as a writer is to alternate with physical activity because if you’re working out with weights, you can’t think about writing problems. So you get distracted and that keeps your mind fresh for a book.”
The moon achievement, Nelson said, was born out of the competition between the Soviets and the U.S.
“By having that incredible competition that started with Sputnik and that the Soviets won for the first 13 years, made this happen. So it’s really an old-fashion American story where tremendous competition spurred people to do great things. And when you don’t have that competition anymore, you don’t do as much.”
As for the future of human spaceflight, Nelson ventured, “I think something will happen to trigger that competition again. I don’t know whether it will be triggered on a corporate or governmental level, but someone will discover something or find out something that will make everyone get engaged in that again.”