In Eight Years to the Moon (Page Street, July), Atkinson, an editor and writer for Universe Today, gives a year-by-year account of the steps leading up to the lunar landing. She discusses the legacy of Apollo 11 and what’s changed in space science since she started covering it 15 years ago.
With so many books releasing around the Apollo anniversary, were you concerned about setting yours apart?
When I was just getting started, Glynn Lunney, who was the Apollo flight director, told me, “The story of Apollo is like a mosaic, and the more people who contribute to the view of what happened, the more complete that view will be.” There are at least 150 pictures in the book, a lot of which have not been published before. Some of them were given to me by the people I interviewed, some are hidden NASA gems, others are from MIT—they’re releasing a large database of images in April and they let me have an early look.
The anniversary aside, why is it important to revisit Apollo 11 now?
It’s estimated that it took 400,000 people around the world to get the Apollo missions running, and I wanted to tell some of those behind-the-scenes stories. Most of them are from people the general public has never heard of, but they made important contributions to the effort.
I talked to two female NASA engineers—Dottie Lee and Cathy Osgood. They had challenges, like figuring out childcare and grocery shopping, in addition to working incredibly long hours. Dottie Lee has dementia, so I used her oral history from the Johnson Space Center’s collection and chatted with her two daughters, who were gracious in trying to recall their experience with both their mother and father, who also worked for NASA, completely immersed in Apollo.
Have things opened up for women and people of color since you started reporting about space?
What’s happened because of Hidden Figures, both the book and the movie, highlighting the role of women, is so important. I think NASA has always done a good job hiring [people of color] and women, but not necessarily putting them in the spotlight. Now, though, NASA has its first woman chief flight director, for example, so there has been a shift.
In your research, did you stumble across anything unexpected?
Everybody talks about the Saturn V rocket, but there were also these tiny thrusters on the outside of the spacecraft that allowed the astronauts to maneuver. Those thrusters had a lot of problems early on, which I was not aware of. They were blowing up in tests. That would have been completely disastrous in space.