Turns out, though, Reginald Turnill offers a fascinatingly unique perspective on the Apollo era–that of a journalist in the press pool at Cape Canaveral when the moon rockets lifted off.
That perspective especially interests me because I’m a space journalist who missed out on the Apollo era; Turnill puts readers there at the Cape for the thunder of liftoff and the nail-biting drama of landing on the moon, but he also gives us journalists scrambling for the best hotels at the Cape, the mad dash from there after a launch to get to mission control in Houston, and the fierce competition for limited satellite bandwidth to file stories. All of which makes for a captivating read.
Turnill was the BBC’s aerospace correspondent during the Apollo flights, well known in Britain for his print, radio, and TV reporting. He got to know many of the astronauts and other major figures of the first space age well, and kept up with them long afterwards.
Among many other memorable sections of the book is Turnill’s account of his complicated relationship with Wernher von Braun, the architect of the moon rockets. Most American space enthusiasts know that von Braun also helped to engineer the precursor to the moon rockets, the V2, for Nazi Germany. But though that fact is more or less academic to us Yanks, it was anything but to Turnill and his countrymen and women who suffered under the V2’s onslaught during World War II. From page one of the first chapter:
“My own encounters with von Braun started in the late 1950s. The impact in 1944 in Sydenham, south-east London, of one of his first V2 rockets had hastened the arrival of my younger son, and for two years I could not bring myself to shake his hand. After that I was surprised to find quite a warm professional friendship developing between us.”
Some of Turnill’s insights into the characters of other major space age figures seem especially relevant to the commercial spaceflight industry of today, with its emphasis on sending ordinary people into space. For instance, a section from one of his original reports:
“…it was [Alan Shepard’s] ability to face the glare of a television world with a combination of modesty and assurance that really won the hearts of the Americans. We’ve just seen Yuri Gagarin do exactly the same thing. Like Shepard, he made us feel there was no reason why we should not be spacemen too. All that’s needed is a little knowledge and careful training. Supermen were superfluous.”
That statement could just as easily apply to Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie, the first commercial astronauts, who blasted into space more than 40 years later.