In one sentence, can you tell us what readers can expect to experience when reading your latest book Into the Black?
As close as you’ll ever get to being on board Columbia with John Young and Bob Crippen on that epic – and nail-biting – first Space Shuttle mission, labelled ‘The Boldest Test Flight in History’.
What inspired you to write about the events surrounding the first flight of NASA’s space shuttle Columbia?
I was born too late to have experienced the excitement of the Apollo Moon landings. The Space Shuttle was the first time I got to watch astronauts being launched into space. And, even better, they were on board a machine that, in comparison to the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules, felt like proper spaceships – with wings – that would return to Earth and land on a runway before being prepared for its mission. It felt like Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers made real. I wanted the book to be both a celebration of the Shuttle and a testament to the courage of the astronauts who flew her. It was only after I started the research that I realised that, contained within the story of the first flight of the Columbia, was a real – and untold – race-against-time drama to make sure she could return home safely.
How long did you spend researching and travelling to interview astronauts and engineers for Into The Black?
The research took about three years and took me from Kennedy Space Center in Florida to Edwards Air Force Base in California’s Mojave desert. The astronauts, engineers and administrators I spoke to were unfailingly generous with their time and, I got the impression, eager for the story of the Shuttle and their contribution to it to be told.
Out of all of the people you interviewed, is there one person, story or account that is particularly memorable to you?
There were so many occasions that I had to pinch myself about – an email popping into my inbox from a Moonwalker, speaking to an X-15 pilot, or talking on the phone to the former Director of one of the US’s most secretive intelligence agencies are good examples – but if I’ve got to pick one it’s tempting to suggest that it was interviewing Fred Haise, one of the crew of Apollo 13. It was certainly a stand out moment. Perhaps the truth is, though, that it was a conversation with one of the early Shuttle astronauts. I asked him if NASA had approached the Air Force for help during the first Shuttle mission. He smiled and replied ‘You know, that’s a great story, and I can’t tell you a thing about it …’ That was when I knew for the first time exactly what I wanted to write about.
What challenges did you face in getting the information you needed from the people you interviewed? Was it difficult to obtain the documents you used to help inform your account of the space shuttle’s first flight?
Apart from the sheer volume of documentary material, the main challenge was that a large part of the story I wanted to tell remains deeply classified. Such is the sensitivity that the very existence of the National Reconnaissance Office, the agency responsible for America’s spy satellites, was itself classified until the early eighties. On occasions, people I interviewed who had the necessary security clearances were unable to repeat codenames that I’d dug up through my research. In terms of the documentary research, when it came to the classified aspects of the story, I felt as if I was assembling a jigsaw made from lots of tiny snippets of information hidden in often quite unexpected places. It felt like panning for gold. Or searching for needles in haystacks!
Did you have a ‘eureka’ moment during your research when you thought, ‘this is it, this is the information i’ve been waiting for’?
On a few occasions, but the most significant was definitely when I found the smoking gun that proved beyond any reasonable doubt that the classified story I’d pieced together in the book – which of course none of the people I interviewed who knew the facts were permitted to talk about, let alone confirm or deny – was completely on the money. I’m pleased the air punching that followed wasn’t filmed and posted on YouTube …
You have written other books, could you tell us a bit more about those?
All were aviation stories that, like the Space Shuttle captured my imagination when I was growing up. All are non-fiction stories which, I hope read more like thrillers than the average history book. My first, Vulcan 607 was about what was at the time the longest bombing raid in history, flown by the RAF during the Falklands War; a kind of jet-powered ‘Dam Busters’. The second, Phoenix Squadron – inspired to an extent by the miniseries that launched the Battlestar Galactica remake! – was about HMS Ark Royal, Britain’s last, ageing big-deck aircraft carrier. Storm Front was set in Oman in the early seventies and tells the story of how a small band of RAF pilots fought alongside the SAS in a crucial, secret Cold War battle. And then there’s The Big Book of Flight. This one was a real labour of love; a lavishly illustrated full colour book, inspired by things like the old Look and Learn magazine or The Dangerous Book for Boys, that explores everything from hot air balloons to spaceflight with lots of surprises along the way, from the history of airline food to the Bermuda Triangle. It also shows you how to make a rocket out of an old lemonade bottle and a bicycle pump…
Into the Black is published by Bantam Press and is now available on Amazon and from all good bookstores