Giant steps are what you take…

…Walking on the moon. So sang Sting and the Police back when I was but a bright-eyed young lad. This afternoon at work I met a man who really did take giant steps on the moon when I was a boy. Mister David Scott, multiple degree holder, ace fighter pilot, astronaut and commander of Apollo 15. He dodged death flying with Neil Armstrong on Apollo 8.

He’s just co-authored a book, the Two Sides of the Moon, with legendary Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space. And when I say walked, this was as basic as it got – no fancy MMU (Manned Manoeuvring Unit – that’s a jetpack to you and me) in those days. Alexei basically clambered out of a tiny tin can and dangled by a rope miles above the Earth, travelling at thousands of miles per hour. When the phrase ‘the right stuff’ was coined to describe the pioneers of space exploration in the 60s and 70s they weren’t kidding. Alexei was training to be the first man on the moon, but obviously the NASA lunar missions beat them to it, despite the enormous (and for many years secret) efforts by the Soviet’s astonishing Chief Engineer (a man who the fictional Scotty would gladly have shaken hands with I think). He was, however, honoured by the great Sir Arthur C Clarke by having the Russian spaceship in 2010 (the sequel to 2001) named after him.

Both men came together in the 70s when the NASA and Soviet space programmes briefly united during the Cold War, their ships meeting in Earth orbit and docking, a procedure which sounds pretty simple to most of us but is fraught with problems. Two completely different engineering systems and training systems which have to meet and link 100%. Any failure of the docking collar could mean death for all onboard. And these craft have to manoeuvre miles above the planet while orbiting at thousands of miles per hour. Still sound easy? It was a potent symbol of international co-operation between explorers and scientists during a period when east and west faced each other with thousands of nuclear warheads primed for a few minutes notice. And it pioneered the way for the present space station being built by several nations. No longer just a matter of national prestige this sees humans going into space as representatives of their species, not as flag-waving nationalists, slowly turning the staged but noble rhetoric of the original Apollo missions into a reality: “we came in peace for all mankind.”

I would have loved to have time to talk to him, to ask him what it was like, but his schedule only allowed him some brief moments to sign some stock and chat quickly while he did so. Naturally I’ll be having one of those signed copies for my collection and I’m sure I’ll have a review in a few weeks on the Alien. I’ve met many people in my years in bookselling, from relatively unknown local writers to 20th Century cultural icons like Quentin Crisp. But this was something else, something remarkable, exciting. These men and their comrades were my heroes when I was a boy. Today I had an enormous privilege. Today I shook the hand of a man who walked on the Moon. Today I shook the hand of one of my boyhood heroes.

Yes, you could say I was over the Moon.