FLR: Magnificent Desolation is being released on June 23rd and there’s a children’s book being released in May -
BA: Look to the Stars. I’ll be promoting Look to the Stars in the fall after the summer book tour for my memoir Magnificent Desolation. Everything involves a journey on my part. Going somewhere, coming back, looking out somewhere.
FLR: Magnificent Desolation is being timed for the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. What can you tell us about your purpose in writing this book?
BA: It follows an early autobiography which I wrote after deciding that NASA and the Air Force were not to be my career and the challenging part for me wouldn’t be a journey to the moon but the Return to Earth. As I began that, it became clear that the story was acknowledging that I needed medical assistance for depression that I felt I inherited. That got me involved in the board of directors of the National Association for Mental Health. Then I was asked to be the chairman of the Mental Health Association, but the work was really as spokesperson talking to different organizations about mental health and depression. By the time a TV movie came out based on my life up to my retirement from NASA and the Air Force, it became clear that treatment for depression was not the whole solution to the problem, and that I had also inherited alcoholism that was intensified by my unstructured life and the rapid-paced achievement, striving for perfection that leads to expectations that promote discouragement when they’re not fulfilled. That began the trip of recovery from alcoholism, which resulted in the breakup of my marriage to my first wife, a second marriage that didn’t last, and then a bachelorhood of ten years or so.
After about ten years sober, I met Lois and we began forming a partnership in which we began to stimulate each other to do things that we wouldn’t normally do. By that I mean she wanted to participate in outgoing, social activities, and encouraged me in speech making and other business activities. I wasn’t quite attuned to that. As I moved in those directions, she began to get exposed to different people that she would not have had the opportunities to meet before meeting me. For me, that began a combination of trying to figure out, “Where do I contribute in life? What do I know how to do? How do I earn a living?” I decided to continue an advocacy for future space; doing things better than they’ve been done in the past; and seeking out improvements. At the same time, I was trying to become more comfortable in public activities, social events and moving back into the greater intensity of Los Angeles from the beach setting of Laguna Beach. I was beginning to see more specific areas in the space program that needed changes. At this point in my life, it felt like the right time to share my story in Magnificent Desolation. Now I’m very enthusiastically caught up with the imperatives of making changes to improve U.S. leadership in a very critical part of our national make-up.
FLR: What do you think our nation should focus on as our next exploration?
BA: U.S. global space leadership. That’s pretty general, but I think what it means is not focusing on just expendable rockets and landing in the ocean, after the American public and the world has seen our space people land on a runway for what will be thirty years by the time we retire the orbiter. To go back to landing in the ocean when coming back from the moon or elsewhere or from earth orbit just for a cheaper, easier, quicker way of taking a capsule for cargo up and down is not too progressive.
I think we need to reach beyond where we were fifty years ago with human transport, beyond objectives of the moon, in a progressive way to a much more attractive destination, which is the surface of Mars. We need to do that in progressive steps, emphasizing the use of the moon of Mars, Phobos; do what we need to do to be capable of putting a habitat there; occupying that habitat; and controlling things on the surface of Mars safer and much more efficiently than from the earth. Paving the way for humans to land on Mars directly, realizing that the enormity of consumption of resources is more than twice as much to bring people back than to put people there. The need to have more than five, six or seven replaced by five, six or seven or even just overlapping in order to sustain a settlement with as much independence of Earth as possible means you need to accumulate a large number of people. We don’t have the ability to take a large number of people at one time, therefore these people become the Pilgrims on the Mayflower that are not going to hang around Plymouth Rock looking for the ride home.
FLR: Wow! That’s pretty amazing.
BA: That takes a contemplation of a bigger purpose of doing things and its place in history. Confronting an adversary in a cold war of mutual assured destruction, by performing something that maybe you could do that he couldn’t, advanced space transportation way ahead of its normal process. It is not going to sustain itself, but having done something spectacular, the public support is going to dwindle when you can’t retain “spectacularity” except by tragedy. We really need to look beyond, and look beyond in a way that enables transition to be as seamless as possible. We had a very continuous process from Sputnik to landing on the moon. We were flexible in picking diverse ways of doing that, but after the moon to the shuttle, we had a big gap in human access to space. We didn’t exercise the best choices that we could and now we face a big gap, not continuity, and we’re not as flexible as we maybe should be. Recognizing all of this and my inability to solve all the problems, I’m trying to ensure that we have flexibility and continuity between the moon and Mars, or between Mars and the moon, and order them in their correct priority of achievement. That sounds like a pretty big task for a young kid from Montclair, New Jersey to take on.
FLR: You’ve taken on some very large tasks and you said that that was not what you ever dreamed of when you were a kid. What did you dream of doing?
BA: Flying airplanes! Being a football player. Pole vaulting as high as anybody could.
FLR: Pole vaulting! That’s news. I don’t remember reading that before.
BA: Somebody showed me that funny way of getting over a cross bar and I put that away for a couple of years, came back to it again in junior high school and did the best I could in high school and then at West Point. That was before the poles bent 90 degrees and turned it into a gymnastic event.
FLR: There have been a lot of changes of sporting equipment over the years.
BA: Well, I’m a SCUBA diver now and so I have to don all sorts of pieces of equipment and my wife says that’s been my life, dealing with lots of equipment that you have to put on to protect yourself against what’s out there.
FLR: A hostile environment?
BA: Yes. There’s a spear and a shield represented by 50 caliber machine guns in a Saber jet airplane or a supersonic afterburner and nuclear weapons—whatever the advancing technology puts in your hands as you fulfill your commitment to serve your country. I guess my tools are orbits and the solar system and space craft and rockets.
FLR: How do you think you can inspire other people to take on this purpose as well?
BA: We’re always asked to be the “Why” and I think we really learned how to be the “How,” hoping that somehow wise leaders would fill in the “Why.” But occasionally, because we’ve experienced things, we have to answer did we really do it or was it a hoax? And whether there are aliens and UFO’s and crop circles, we’ve become experts in the big bang, in string theory and all we really set out to do was operate machines.
FLR: When you talk about coming home and seeing how many people were involved in watching the televised broadcasts and how people greeted you, you comment in your book that that kind of communication with people overall and globally is a huge part of an experience that should be fostered.
BA: Well, that sort of confrontation made me quite uncomfortable and feeling inadequate. When I first came back, sitting in quarantine and then around the pool, knowing that I had to address a joint session of Congress was not really what I aspired in my future. But you sort of have to do those things, then go around and meet kings and queens, take that lightly in stride, and then figure out, “Well, ok, what do I do for the rest of my life?” Didn’t seem as though NASA took advantage of what the taxpayers invested in and neither did the Air Force. It takes a maturity to realize there’s a lot invested in these people.
FLR: You have just written Look to the Stars, a picture book released this May, and I’m wondering if you find that it’s any more or less challenging to write for children versus adults? Do you have a preference for which audience you wish to address?
BA: Well, yes, I have a preference for joint ventures and teaming with expertise that supplements my lack of expertise. Turns out I’ve been able to get away a lot of my life without writing things down, so I always have somebody who writes things far better than I do and right now I’m trying to surround myself with political experts, beltway experts, big corporation knowledgeable people and trying to figure out how to entice a leader of the country to realize that he can be far more important than JFK who sent us to the moon.
FLR: Many of the things that you have done to stimulate interest, for example the ShareSpace Foundation, the books that you’ve written and so on, have dealt with popular culture icons like Buzz Lightyear, the Simpsons, that kind of thing. Any of those in particular that you have enjoyed or have been the most beneficial in promoting some of your programs?
BA: Well, I like to say that I taught my cousin, Buzz Lightyear, everything he knows, and just last year worked with Disney on a promotional piece where I put Lightyear through a few special training techniques before he flew on the Discovery shuttle mission to the International Space Station. It was part of NASA’s Toys in Space initiative, and I think these kinds of activities are good ways to get kids interested in their science and math classes.
FLR: Are there times when memories of your flights in Korea, your space travel or walking on the moon are particularly vivid for you?
BA: Everything is brought back by visual cues. Some of it is brought back by somebody saying verbally,“What was it like in Korea?” It always amazes me how the people who ask those questions are looking for some kind of specifics but they aren’t very specific when they ask the question. It’s “How did you feel?” Or “What were your thoughts?” We didn’t go there to have feelings or thoughts; we went there to do things and to report on the things that we did. Alan Bean, who was the lunar module pilot on the second landing on the moon, and I agreed that someone choosing to hit a golf ball on the moon after a third tragic recovery for Apollo 13 was not an appropriate use of taxpayer money. It wasn’t long before we re-thought that, and decided that was exactly what the American people want to see. They want to see our astronauts hitting golf balls on the moon.
Everything is a compromise between different levels of understanding, observation, support and receiving the benefits. You have to do the science, because the scientists are dismayed at how expensive it is to send humans. If only we could just concentrate on science and forget this human spaceflight. We need to keep the public inspired by what we’re doing and educated at the same time. I think that’s what I’ve been able to do in specialized ways with Reaching for the Moon; taking a person who’s on a pedestal in history and bringing him where the youngsters see that he grows up pretty much like they do, has to make decisions about the future and education. That’s why I’ve done another children’s book about the spectrum of progress between Keppler and Copernicus and Isaac Newton and all the things that lead to airplanes and to rockets and to spacecraft to one day walking on Mars. We have to actually Look to the Stars. I was motivated to say “What do people need to know that they don’t know much about?” I felt in the 1970s that we knew how to get to the moon and we had pretty good ideas how to get to Mars, but we (that is the public) had no idea how far away the stars really are and how enormously difficult it would ever be to get there. So that was the birth of my science fiction story Encounter with Tiber where people from another place are motivated strongly to go elsewhere, come to Earth, and don’t meet with great success. They have to abandon Earth to go somewhere else. It makes a great story of their advanced technology and how we can use that to go the stars ourselves. When we get there, we find that we’re not the only ones. How Hollywood can not understand that this is a fantastic story of education and not see fit to make that into a movie is beyond me. Maybe they’ll make it into a children’s movie eventually through animation.
FLR: What kinds of books and movies do you personally enjoy?
BA: You’re going to expose all my flaws. With my busy schedule and business travels, I don’t get enough time to enjoy as many movies and books as I would like. Of course there are the occasional movie premieres I’m invited to, and the occasional movies I participate in, such as the 3D animated film, Fly Me to the Moon. Mostly I occupy my time as a very concerned observer and as a competent observer in where the country’s going. So the immediate dilemmas that we have to face are of concern to me. Other people can interpret history and interpret the mistakes that are made. I can maybe glean something from their reflections even though it gets to be very discouraging when you find that not everyone shares the same motivations for historical significance of the nation and the place that we have in the nation. On my off time, I enjoy skiing and SCUBA diving.
FLR: So would you say that when you have the physical relaxation time beyond the sports activities that keep you in such tremendous shape that you are more likely to tune in to the news rather than read a novel, or would you rather read something that’s a technical publication?
BA: I’m into the news and the technical publications that are pertinent. I have a grandson who likes to fly but chose not to go through the Air Force Academy. He is 19 and rather well-rounded (even had the male lead in a theater production!) and I now have him pursuing gravity waves for communication from one side of the earth to the other side by going through the earth instead of around it. We read about some of the advanced physics that might lead to breakthroughs in propulsion that might open up the stars.
FLR: If you had your way, what would you want a librarian to tell somebody when suggesting Magnificent Desolation?
BA: It’s a reality of a human individual dealing with great aspirations; very, very good fortune, luck and being in the right place; but dealing with and accepting that in company with others there are human tendencies.
FLR: Is there any question about your astronaut experience that no interviewer has thought to ask about that you’d really like to talk about?
BA: Things that they haven’t asked about I’ve tried to fill in on my own, I guess. That’s why I admire things that come along like telling of the reality of Apollo 13 without fantasizing but still creating kind of a mystique that it’s miraculous that they came back and that’s not true at all. The people that brought them back did the right things at the right time, and that’s what we expect out of people. If they hadn’t come back, it would have been because somebody screwed up. Now, that takes a little bit away from the glitz of the drama of a wonderful movie ala Hollywood. I guess some of my observations to Science Fiction writers have troubled them because I’ve stated that there is the growing tendency for fantasy and unrealistic tales to be better or more bizarre than the previous one are leading the youth into totally unrealistic expectations of what can be good and of what can be done. I don’t think that’s what Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon creators really did. I think they were trying to be as realistic as possible and when you deal with the reality of the unknown and the future it can be fantastically stimulating. You don’t have to deal with bizarre fantasy of beaming people up and down and going warp 7 just to make the story fit into a pre-conceived mold.
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