Apollo Astronaut's Latest Mission: Writing For Kids To commemorate the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 and the first moon walk, host Scott Simon speaks with author Andrew Chaikin and astronaut Alan Bean. Together, they have written and illustrated a book for children and young adults called Mission Control, This Is Apollo. Alan Bean was the lunar module pilot on Apollo 12, and was the fourth man to walk on the moon.
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Apollo Astronaut's Latest Mission: Writing For Kids

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Apollo Astronaut's Latest Mission: Writing For Kids

Apollo Astronaut's Latest Mission: Writing For Kids

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, country music's bad girl makes good. But first...

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. NEIL ARMSTRONG (Astronaut): Four-thirteen is in.

Unidentified Man: We copied you down, Eagle.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Houston, the Eagle has landed.

SIMON: You know, in a way that phrase, the Eagle has landed, has become even more memorable than Neil Armstrong saying that's one small step for man, as he stepped off the porch of the lunar landing vehicle, called the Eagle, and onto the surface of the moon.

The Eagle has landed seemed to summarize the centuries of dreams and decades of effort that culminated when humans first set foot on the surface of the moon, 40 years ago this summer. Six more Apollo missions would blast off into space. In all, 12 human beings have been to the moon's surface and back so far.

Alan Bean was the lunar module pilot on Apollo 12 and the fourth man to walk on the moon. He joins us from the studios of member station KUHF in Houston.

Mr. Bean, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. ALAN BEAN (Astronaut): Scott, glad to be here today and glad to be here with Andy.

SIMON: Andy is Andrew Chaikin. He's the author of a number of books about Apollo missions in space. This new one is called "Voices from the Moon." He's out at KQED in San Francisco.

Andrew, thank you very much for being with us.

Mr. ANDREW CHAIKIN (Author, "Voices from the Moon"): It's my pleasure, Scott. And hi, Alan.

Mr. BEAN: How you doing?

SIMON: Let me mention that these two have collaborated on a new book for children about the Apollo missions. It's called "Mission Control, This Is Apollo." I have a rule, by the way, Mr. Bean, in interviews. Whenever I'm talking to someone who's been to the moon, they get the first question. So...

Mr. CHAIKIN: It seems fair.

SIMON: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: I find it cuts down on a lot of the more extraneous decisions. So does a man feel different after walking on the moon?

Mr. BEAN: I think he feels satisfied. I think it's a situation where your childhood dreams are satisfied. I don't think you have to go to the moon for that. If your childhood dream is to be a skilled doctor and you become one, I think you had the very same feeling as walking on the moon. It all depends what's, in my opinion, what's in your heart and what your dreams are for yourself.

SIMON: Andrew Chaikin, help us appreciate all over again the majesty of that first, the landing of Eagle on the surface of the moon. Kind of thing we take for granted over the years 'cause we know everything went fine.

Mr. CHAIKIN: Yeah. And I think I'm probably in danger of sounding like an aging Baby Boomer as I do this, but so be it, because it was a spectacular time. It was an event with a capital E. I think that it's hard today in the midst of this kind of 24/7 news cycle, information overload condition that we live in to think back to a time when one event could be so momentous.

It was science fiction becoming reality and you had, you know, you had pundits on TV, like Arthur Clarke, the science fiction writer, saying this is what our civilization is going to be remembered for 500 years from now, this may be one of the only things that lasts from our time.

SIMON: Alan Bean, that first landing, or for that matter the fourth or fifth landing, was it difficult in a way that we don't appreciate, 'cause everything worked out so well?

Mr. BEAN: I think probably so. After the landing - now, I was designated lunar module pilot, but really probably the right title would've been lunar module systems engineer. Pete Conrad was the guy that actually flew it.

When we had landed and we're standing there talking in the cabin there, he said to me, he said, You know, I had to use all the skills that I had learned in my whole career flying airplanes, simulators, and training vehicles. So I think it was successful because the training was good and we selected the right people that could keep their emotions under control and still implement the skills they had to make the proper landings.

SIMON: Andrew, the Eagle almost ran out of fuel, didn't it?

Mr. CHAIKIN: Yeah, that's absolutely right. And you know, you think back, not only the fuel issue, but the fact that the computer was becoming overloaded with things to do on the way down and it threatened to abort the landing. And then Mission Control finally solved that problem. And at that point, Neil Armstrong, who was doing the flying and looking for a safe placer to land, looked out the window and saw that the computer was now steering them toward a giant crater the size of a football stadium. And it was surrounded by boulders, some of which were the size of cars.

And this is where the computer was blindly taking them. And they were only about 700 feet above the moon at that point. So Armstrong took over semi-manual control. He let the computer adjust the thrust of the engine but he controlled the orientation. He steered past the crater. He kept looking for a safe spot. He knew the fuel supply was getting lower. Finally, he found a safe spot and he started down that last hundred feet. And at that point he had a new problem because the blast of the descent rocket was kicking up moon dust and it was like a - like a fast-moving ground fog. It made it hard to tell which way he was moving over the surface.

You know, one of the interesting things that Neil told me when I interviewed him was that when they got down to about 20 feet, in the back of his mind he knew that if they ran out of fuel they'd be okay, that they'd just fall onto the moon. And you know, fortunately that didn't happen.

They did make it down to the surface. They had less than a minute's worth of fuel in the tank before they would have had to abort. And it was quite a cliffhanger.

SIMON: Yeah. Alan Bean, one last question for you. Ever dream you're on the moon?

Mr. BEAN: No, I never do. When I was flying airplanes, I didn't dream of flying. After I quit flying and became an artist, two or three times I did dream of flying. And it's interesting that it was always during an instrument check or doing some difficult things in airplanes. It never was just having fun. And then I've had two dreams of space since I left.

Both of them are almost like the movie "Space Cowboys," where NASA comes and says, look, we've got a space station up there and it's got a lot of equipment from Skylab and we know you spent 59 days up there. We'd like to take you up there. We'll make you commander of the mission, and you'll fly back up to the space station and help repair it, because you're familiar with it. By the way, nothing exists like that anyway.

But in this dream - in this dream then, I - the part that's the most fun to me is I go out to NASA, the astronaut office, and we have a meeting with my crew, you know, and I'm saying to them, look, we have to launch in just a few months, and I don't have time to learn the computer programs for the space shuttle that were going in. You all are going to have to carry me, but together we'll be able to do this job.

Now it's complete, I don't know what you would call it, a complete fantasy, but I think it's a subconscious desire of mine or something to still be important, you know, not someone that just they can do without, which they can, by the way. It's a great dream.


Mr. CHAIKIN: I beg to differ. We need him.

SIMON: It's been wonderful talking to both of you. Alan Bean, the indispensable Alan Bean, lunar module pilot on Apollo 12, and together with Andrew Chaikin they've written and illustrated a book for children called "Mission Control, This Is Apollo." And Andre Chaikin's latest book is "Voices from the Moon."

Mr. BEAN: Scott, thanks for having us on your program.

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