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Interview: Space Historian Glen Swanson Talks the Apollo Program

"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."

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. 

What was your relationship with Gene Cernan like?

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. Because these people [non-astronauts that worked on the Apollo program] are getting old, and their stories need to be told as well, if not more so, than the ones of the astronauts that have been told so many times. 

We put together this program to preserve this record; we interviewed a lot of the engineers, a lot of the folks that worked on the sidelines. 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.  

What's an example of one of the untold stories that you think people should know more about?

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. And maybe that’s all well and good. But I know some authors, some writers, researchers and historians have made inroads in that area. There was a nice book that came out a number of years ago called The Astronaut Wives Club, which was made into a TV series. That’s a whole fascinating story there. 

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. They [the astronauts] were at different contractor sites and their time was spent an awful lot in training and the countless exercises that they had to do to prepare for their mission. 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. Being a military wife has its challenges right there, but being an astronaut’s wife, my gosh—you’ve got that celebrity already built in just because of the fact that you’re an astronaut. 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. 

apollo program space historian astronaut wives club abc
  • Still from The Astronaut Wives Club.

  • Photo Credit: ABC

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

It’s great. It’s a really good film. They took some liberties history-wise in some of the production, but you often have to do that, you’ve got 92 minutes or whatever to tell this story and to keep people’s attention and to keep the narrative moving. But there was nothing that just said ‘oh my gosh, this is re-writing history’ or anything. They did really well in keeping the production close to historical facts.  

apollo-program-space-historian_hidden-figures
  • Still from Hidden Figures.

  • Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox

I'm hoping that we will return [...] and I'm hoping that it will be for political reasons other than one-upmanship

And you've served as a consultant on similar projects, right?

Years ago, almost 20 years ago or more. That was back when the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon came out, I did some work in helping support production as far as the history of it goes. I have a magazine that I produce and it’s still in print, it’s called Quest, it’s the only publication dedicated to the history of spaceflight, and it’s now entering its 25th year of publication. I started that magazine back in the early '90s, so by that affiliation I was able to get some attention on some of these early productions that came out, like the HBO miniseries. There was another one I worked with called Moon Shot, which was a series that was done on TBS based on the book. It was about Alan Shepard, and his missions, and of course he was the first American to go into space, and he was a moonwalker, and it talked about the early astronaut program.  

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What drew you to becoming a space historian?

I’ve always been interested in science and technology. I’ve also been interested in history. I lived at the time when a lot of this stuff was happening, but I was pretty young. I was born in ‘53, so I was only six years old when we first walked on the Moon. I certainly remember some things, but I missed a lot of that. There was this kind of lull for quite a while between when Apollo-Soyuz went up in 1975, and when the first space shuttle went up. But we also did a lot of unmanned stuff at that time, with the Voyager Program that went and explored Jupiter and Saturn. Oh my gosh, when that occurred in the late '70s early '80s, that was amazing. That was when Cosmos came out, Carl Sagan’s phenomenal miniseries. Just his wonderful voice and his beautiful narrative of being able to explain the magnificence of the cosmos in this miniseries, and of course you had the Voyager missions that were just unraveling these beautiful images ... even if you didn’t understand the science, you saw these gorgeous, detailed photos of these worlds for the first time being sent back from across space. And that was just amazing.

While I was in high school, I was fortunate, we were one of the few schools that had a planetarium in our area. Back when being a geek was not as popular as it is now, we had our geek group where we had astronomy club, we would produce planetarium shows. It was just an amazing time period. So all of that background was really what kind of inspired me. I wanted to be an astronaut, like most kids, but I couldn’t do that, so I kind of fell back on what I could do. And my interest in history and science, it was kind of natural to fall back and study the history of the space program—which really, not a whole lot of people were doing back then.   

apollo program space historian voyager 1 jupiter great red spot
  • Jupiter's Great Red Spot taken by Voyager 1 from 1979.

  • Photo Credit: NASA Solar System Exploration / Flickr (CC)

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.

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 Mark 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.

But it really seems hard to swallow that it’s been 50 years since we have been there, or since we first had been there. When I was a historian at NASA, we used to look at the anniversaries that ended in either zero or five, because we knew that something would have to be done, especially the zero ones. And now you have an anniversary that has five and zero in it, the 50th anniversary of Apollo 1, and that’s the first of the big Apollo anniversaries. And then you get all the way to Apollo 11 in 1969, and that’s just around the corner—two years around the corner we’ll be at the 50th anniversary of that. So I think it gives a lot of people pause when they look and see ‘my God, how did we do that 50 years ago? And we haven’t been back there since 1972?’    

Does it surprise you that we haven’t been back in so long?

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. 

apollo program space historian eugene cernan apollo 17
  • Eugene Cernan salutes the American flag on the Moon.

  • Photo Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight / Flickr (CC)

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

For more Apollo history, check out Roger That!, a symposium running February 10-11 in Grand Rapids, Michigan in honor of astronaut Roger B. Chaffee. Chaffee was a Grand Rapids native who died during testing on Apollo I in January 1967. Co-organized by Swanson, the event will feature speakers including Chaffee's family and director of the Vatican Observatory Brother Guy J. Consolmagno, discussing everything from archaeology to astronomy.

Feature photo of astronaut Eugene A. Cernan (left) and scientist-astronaut Harrison H. "Jack" Schmitt (right) aboard the Apollo 17 spacecraft during the final lunar landing mission in NASA's Apollo program. Via NASA on Flickr 

Photo of Jupiter via NASA Solar System Exploration on Flickr. 

Published on 24 Jan 2017

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