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.”