Interview With an Astronaut

The docked Apollo 9 command and service modules and lunar module conduct the first docking maneuvers in space. This photo of command module pilot David Scott in the command module’s open hatch was taken by lunar module pilot Russell L. Schweickart on the fourth day of the Apollo 9 Earth-orbital mission. Image: NASA


This is the full version of an interview appearing in the Spring 2012 issue of I, Science.

I, Science’s Nicola Guttridge interviewed ex-NASA Astronaut Colonel David Scott, who made his first flight into space as pilot of the Gemini 8 mission along with Neil Armstrong in 1966 before going on to be Command Module Pilot aboard Apollo 9, and finally commander of the Apollo 15 mission. As part of Apollo 15, Scott became the seventh person to walk on the Moon and the first person to drive on the Moon. Scott is currently promoting a re-release of Two Sides of the Moon – the stories and memoirs of Scott and Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov during the ‘Space Race’.

NG: I’m sorry if this is a tired question, but what was it like walking on the moon? 

DS: Yes, we are all asked that question frequently.  “What is it like” covers such a broad range of “feelings” that a simple one-liner cannot tell the totality of the story.  Some answers are in an article I wrote for the National Geographic in September 1973, “What Is It Like to Walk on the Moon?”  Accelerating, challenging, very hard work…  “Walking” (or hopping) is very much like bouncing across a trampoline; one reason being that the ankle joints on the spacesuit are easier to flex than knee and hip joints.

Is there anything you wish you’d done while you were on the moon or in space that you didn’t get a chance to do?

Yes, explore the North Complex at the Hadley Apennine site; a very geologically significant location, within easy driving range for the rover.  However, complications with the drill/heat-flow experiment (due to design flaws) reduced the time available for the planned traverse; and time is the most limiting element of lunar exploration.

If you could go anywhere in the universe, where would it be and why?

The Moon.  Because there is still some much to be learned from the Moon; and the Moon is without doubt the best site for preparation for further human expeditions into the solar system.

Where do you think the future lies for human space exploration?

In the near term, the Moon.  In the medium term, the Moon.  In the very distant term, Mars.

Do you think manned spaceflight is necessary, or can robots now do all the tasks required from an astronaut?

Manned spaceflight is absolutely necessary, because of the natural capabilities of humans.  However even the robots of today can perform many of the tasks assigned to humans during Apollo — and such robotic assistance, if properly applied, would open even more opportunities for humans to apply their unique capabilities.

Scott being greeted by a Navy diver who has just opened the command hatch, 1971. Image: NASA

Would you ever be tempted to pay for civilian spaceflight (for example, Virgin Galactic)?

No, not really. I had the best of missions and the best of the lunar exploration sites. Although civilian spaceflight would be exciting for many people, I was fortunate to have had such far-reaching experiences that something better would need to come along to grab my interest.

If you hadn’t gone into the military and subsequently NASA, what do you think you would have done?

Become an engineer, most likely aerospace.

As explained in the book, the “space race” was very politically-driven. Do you feel that now this motive is less prominent, there is a lesser emphasis on exploring space?

The political motive is less prominent, but the interest in exploring space is even broader today due to scientific, technical, and cultural advances of the past few decades.  The Internet is an early example, and subsequently such evolving concepts as social media and the stimulation of joint space projects among many countries are others.  Because of the “space race” and the success of Apollo, the political emphasis in terms of funding is no longer as strong because fortunately free societies now prevail; and within our free societies, clear justification for human space exploration must be made, but the results will be even more rewarding, and far beyond the early Apollo lunar landing missions as was demonstrated on later extended scientific missions such as Apollos 15, 16, and 17.

Did you meet with Leonov when writing the book? Did you forge lasting friendships with the soviet cosmonauts?

I met Alexei in June 1973 during a visit to Moscow in support of the Apollo Soyuz Test Project; we have been friends ever since.  And yes, all of us have formed lasting friendships with cosmonauts.  I believe that astronauts and cosmonauts share a common bond which circumvents any political ideology.

David Scott (left), Al Worden, and Jim Irwin aboard the U.S.S. Okinawa in 1971. Image: NASA.

In the book, you mention how you were the advisor on several TV shows/films documenting your NASA colleagues such as Armstrong, Cernan, Aldrin, Lovell (Apollo 13, In the Shadow of the Moon), and even yourself (From the Earth to the Moon). Did you enjoy these roles, and find the results to be accurate?

I did indeed enjoy these roles and learned so much about film-making, and I was fortunate to be involved with so many exceptional and creative artists.  All were very accurate – however, one scene in one film was an exception.  One of the beauties of Apollo was its culture – everybody was encouraged to speak out and participate, especially regarding safety; never was anybody criticized or denigrated for stepping up and expressing an opinion, nor did anybody ever fear retribution or condemnation for speaking out.  Unfortunately, In the Shadow of the Moon contains one scene that is counter to this culture and therefore does not represent reality.  During Apollo, if anybody thought there were safety problems with the spacecraft or any part of the mission, they would have informed management without hesitation, with absolutely no fear of losing their jobs, absolutely none.  I refer to John Young’s recall of his conversation with Gus Grissom regarding the spacecraft wiring; such an event would not have occurred during Apollo.  Nevertheless, the film is otherwise excellent as are the other films you mention – the producers, directors, actors and crews went to great lengths to make these films in particular as accurate and realistic as practical, given the need for dramatic emphasis (which most of these adventures had anyway!).

Many other countries are becoming involved in space exploration, either through satellite launches, space agencies or missions such as the ISS. Who do you think will become prominent in the field in the future?

China is moving forward at a measured pace, India is not far behind; but the US has unfortunately diverted its directions such that it may find itself far behind in human space exploration.  Other countries are also gathering momentum, and it is becoming clear that international partnerships and participation for mutual goals are the best direction to ensure that all mankind continues to benefit from space exploration.

How did you feel last year when the space shuttle fleet was grounded for the final time?

At some point the Shuttle had to be retired – so that new technology could be employed to continue our progress in space.  This continuity was supposed to have been covered by the Constellation Program, which was unfortunately cancelled outright leaving the US with a very troubling gap between the Shuttle and the next US manned spacecraft.  It would have been prudent to have modified Constellation such that this gap would not have occurred, or at least would have been minimized.  Constellation had the basics for a new manned spacecraft; all it needed was a reduction in scope.  It does not appear that the US decision-makers took this into consideration when they cancelled Constellation.

Apollo 15 astronaut James Irwin works on the first Lunar Roving Vehicle, before he and fellow astronaut David Scott take it out for a drive. Credit: APOD/NASA

What was the defining moment of your career?

There were many, all because I was fortunate enough to be at the right place at the right time — each time a fork in the road appeared the trail to the future was clear.  But probably the first defining moment in my career was when I was about 4 years old and decided that I wanted to be a fighter pilot like my Dad.

In the book, you describe the immense time and physical demands on you when in preparation for a mission. Do you think that the idea of being an astronaut is now romanticised? What would you say is the most important quality to have?

The idea of being successful or achieving in any field is usually “romanticised” anyway. The image and exploits of astronauts during the era of Apollo follow those of pilots during the early days of aviation, or knights during medieval times, or any other individuals who represent adventure and perform unusual deeds which drew the attention or emotional attraction of those who themselves want to be part of such adventures.   But in reality, as in any field of endeavour, the most important qualities are determination, preparation, natural skills, and the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time.

Do you think that missions like the recent Moscow Mars 500 are helpful for preparing for a mission to Mars? Do you think such a mission would be possible – and if so, would it be worthwhile?

Yes, every mission to Mars will help prepare for human missions to Mars.  A human mission to Mars will someday be possible, but it will occur only when it is worthwhile; and in practical terms, “worthwhile” has yet to be defined to the extent that a human mission to Mars will have highest return and lowest risk.

If you were in charge of NASA, what would be your next step?

Big question; but I will offer one approach.  I would outline major management and fiscal objectives, gather my 10 Center Directors and key Hdq staff and retreat to an off-site meeting for one week.  During this period we would discuss openly all of the issues facing the Agency, including science, engineering, and political objectives.  We would also discuss the roles and missions of each Center, with an emphasis on reducing duplication and eliminating unnecessary facilities.  We would then prepare, present and negotiate our consolidated plan with the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House with the objective of defining clear and definite programs to be funded in sequence for at least the next 5 years; but to be adjusted annually based on evolving circumstances. Effective communications between and among these groups is essential for progress.

What advice would you give someone wishing to follow in your footsteps?

Set your goals; consider very carefully the options and opportunities for each decision, perform the best you can at each and every task, compete strongly and fairly with your colleagues, and be not distracted by the easy way.

Apollo 15 Splashdown. Image: NASA

A note from the publisher of the book, Bedford Square Books:

The book details the ‘Space Race’ through the eyes of two prominent figures in the US and Soviet Russian space industries – NASA astronaut Colonel David Scott and Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov. It features forewords from fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong and actor Tom Hanks, who famously played Jim Lovell in Apollo 13. Armstrong points out that politics were not the initial cause of the international forays into space, but something more inherently scientific – “the space age actually began because of a scientific event known as the ‘International Geophysical Year’ [July 1957 to December 1958]. Sixty-six countries joined together to analyse the planet Earth and its environs: oceanography, meteorology, solar activity, the Earth’s magnetic fields, the upper atmosphere, cosmic rays and meteors”. Some of the first to explore these fields were – as Hanks labels them – “Leonov, the artist, and Scott, the engineer/dreamer”.

“This is one of the very first books of its kind to be produced by a London-based literary agency rather than a conventional publisher,” explains Bedford Square Books’ Harry Man. “That in of itself makes the book something of an artefact.”

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