Interview: Space Historian Glen Swanson Talks the Apollo Program

Friday, 19 May 2017 - 1:40PM
Friday, 19 May 2017 - 1:40PM
Interview: Space Historian Glen Swanson Talks the Apollo Program
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Image credit: NASA, YouTube

From Our Friends at The Portalist

Glen Swanson has made a career in space-all while keeping his feet firmly here on Earth. In his former role as a NASA historian at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, Swanson collected oral histories that highlighted the countless people involved in the Apollo program. Swanson also launched the world's only peer-reviewed journal of space history, Quest; served as a space history consultant for HBO; and curates programs designed to educate and excite the public about the history of space exploration. 
Speaking over the phone last week several days following the death of Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon, The Portalist talked to Swanson about the untold stories behind the Apollo program-and what the future of NASA looks like. 
The Portalist: What was your relationship with Gene Cernan like?
Glen Swanson: I wasn't on a first name basis with him, but when I worked with NASA, I was the historian at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Houston, Texas for four years in about 1988. And one of the things that I did there is, I was involved with an oral history project. They started up a program then to interview a lot of the folks, astronauts as well as the over half a million people that worked at some point in time on the Apollo program. 

Gene Cernan's way up there as far as the celebrity stuff because he's been to the Moon twice, walked on it once, been in space three times. His story has been very well told and has been out there quite a lot. I had met him a couple of times when I was working at NASA and was involved with the oral history project, but certainly with the moonwalkers-which is a pretty exclusive club!-their stories have been told so many times, and retold so many times, that there's not a whole lot more that can be said.  

Portalist: What's an example of one of the untold stories that you think people should know more about?
Swanson: I think the astronaut wives is a whole group that has a lot to tell. And of course a lot of them are getting up there, as well. I mean, you're talking about people that are in their eighties. There's a lot to be told from their perspective, and I don't know if that ever will happen, there might be stories they'll just be taking with them to their graves....
The astronauts themselves, the men, had gone to the Moon, but the women had to hold the fort down while they were gone–or even while they were here training, because it was rare that they were home...The families still had to go on. The women were extremely brave, and of course a lot of the marriages suffered too, because of that pressure....That was a very exclusive group, and in the '60s the media just zoomed right in. There was an awful lot of tension and pressure that resulted just from that. So that's one story I think needs to be told, and it would be great if more like The Astronaut Wives Club could come out.

The Hidden Figures thing is really great, too! That whole story is one of others that was there, it was present, all of that occurred, and yet it was not told, it wasn't brought out. It's just been a delight that that book [Margot Lee Shetterly's Hidden Figures] was produced, and it was made into a film. And I guess the movie has done phenomenally well. It's even done better than Rogue One!  
Portalist: You talked a little bit about all the shows and movies coming out that do reference the history of space exploration. Do you think the growing awareness of that in pop culture is going to change public investment in the space program? For those of us that didn't grow up watching people walk on the Moon for the first time, we're maybe less aware of the romance around it.
Swanson: Take Hidden Figures for example-that whole period, the 1960s. I think there is an interest in that time period, there was an awful lot else [besides the Apollo program] going on. The Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, and 1968 was the year from Hell-there was a lot going on. I think there is an interest in that period. 

And Andy Weir's The Martian, that was very popular, as far as just looking at space-themed movies, not necessarily historical. National Geographic did a wonderful miniseries last November on exploring Mars, and I just heard that's going to be up for a new season. And you've got The Expanse coming out, a new season on that. So the interest in space movies in general is there. And space fiction, taking place in the future or not so distant future, that's certainly building on the achievements that defined the Apollo program. Getting us from our cradle and landing on another world for the first time.
Portalist: Does it surprise you that we haven't been back in so long?
Swanson: It's a common question. But you've got to remember the political circumstances, which will never be repeated. You had two superpowers, the former Soviet Union and the U.S., and both of them were vying for the attention of the world. They [the Soviet Union] certainly had the ability to loft humans into space before we did, and using basically rockets that if they replaced your capsules with warheads, you had missiles. And everyone knew that. It was a different time. And Apollo was born out of that political arena, and it was more of a political child than anything else.

And because of that, we did this one shot, two shot, three shot to make sure it just wasn't a fluke to get there and back, and eventually that uniqueness kind of wore out. People were getting bored with it, we'd demonstrated to the world that we could do it. We made a statement with it and that's never going to be repeated. 
That all being said, I'm hoping that we will return. To the Moon, to Mars. And I'm hoping that it will be for political reasons other than one-upmanship, which will certainly always be there. To make a more progressive, planned approach where it's not just basically going there and coming back, but going there to stay and kind of basically put our footprints there for a lot longer than they are now. 

This article has been abridged. You can read the full interview on The Portalist.
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