What led to your fascination with space history?
I started out captivated by the idea of visiting other worlds, something that was still science fiction but was enticingly illustrated in my childhood astronomy books. Astronauts were just starting to go into space, and when I was in grade school the Gemini missions were flying. I saw those amazing photographs of Ed White walking in space and thought, “I want to be him." Of course I was eagerly anticipating the Apollo missions to the moon, which happened when I was in junior high and high school. I was glued to the TV for every one of them. My plan was to study planetary science and apply for the astronaut program, but partway through college I realized NASA would never pick me; I didn’t have the perfect medical record they required. At the same time I was realizing that as much as I love planetary science it wasn’t what I wanted to do for a living. It took a few years for me to figure out what I did want to do, and that turned out to be writing about space exploration. The eight years I spent writing A Man on the Moon turned me into a space historian, and the opportunity to spend hours and hours talking to not only the astronauts but the flight controllers, engineers, and scientists of Apollo was just a fantastic experience.
The Apollo 8 astronauts talk about the telegram they received from a citizen after their mission around the moon, which said, “Thank you for saving 1968.” What did Apollo 11’s success mean to America in 1969?
In some ways, I think, America’s reaction to Apollo 11 was profoundly mixed. People were amazed by the event, and many saw it as a moment of triumph for the nation, but others were feeling that the money should have been spent in other ways—to help the poor, for example. Still others viewed it through the lens of the Vietnam War, another expensive government activity, but one which was drawing a great deal of protest. Nevertheless, Apollo 11 was an American triumph, and it showed off the country’s talent, ingenuity, and boldness. That was very exciting and impressive to the world, and it seemed to foster a spirit of unity. I've heard stories of NASA people who went abroad during that time and heard people say, “We did it”—not “You did it,” but “We did it.”