Words by Fraser Allen
Photograph by Dustin Rabin
Extract from a full interview which was published in the March/April 2023 issue of IQ, the exclusive magazine for Mensa members.
Brian Cox was just 16 months old when Apollo 11 landed on the moon yet, according to his dad, he had a ringside seat at the family TV. Growing up near Oldham, the future physics professor would gaze with wonder at grainy pictures of the Apollo astronauts. “They were superheroes to me,” says Brian. “I think that can only happen when you’ve grown up with their names.”
Not many people get to meet their superheroes, but Brian subsequently spent time with many of the astronauts he idolised as a child, including Eugene Cernan, Ed Mitchell, Alan Bean, Buzz Aldrin, Fred Hayes, Mike Collins and Rusty Schweickart. Indeed, one of his prized possessions is a landing photograph of Apollo 15, signed by at least one astronaut from every mission, all of whom he met in person.
Another of those superheroes was Walter Cunningham, a lunar module pilot on the 1968 Apollo 7 mission. At the beginning of this year, Brian tweeted: “Sad news that Walt Cunningham has died. An Apollo astronaut and therefore a legend. But also in the few times I met him, including a memorable episode of Stargazing Live, he was great fun!”
“I first met Walt when I was interviewing astronauts in Arizona,” says Brian. “If you imagine what an Apollo astronaut would be like, Walt was it. He was tremendously engaging and confident, and clearly a pilot. There was a confidence and irreverence about him, but in the best possible way. He had some great stories.”
Brian also conducted two lengthy interviews with Jim Lovell, commander of the 1970 Apollo 13 mission which, after the failure of an oxygen tank two days into the mission, was unable to land on the moon, but safely circled it and returned to Earth. “I found him really considered and thoughtful,” says Brian. “And it was interesting that he thought of himself first and foremost as an aviator. While he’s most famous for Apollo 13, he told me that Apollo 8 was the mission to be on because it was the first navigation of the moon. He’d met Charles Lindbergh (the first person to fly solo, nonstop across the Atlantic) and the two of them agreed that, as aviators, the ultimate goal is to achieve the first navigation, whether it’s crossing an ocean or flying around the moon.
“When you talk to the astronauts, you seem them in a different context,” adds Brian. “Someone like me idolises them because of their attachment to Apollo, but actually, the space missions were just one of the many challenging things that they achieved in aviation.” He cites Buzz Aldrin, who recently remarried at the age of 93, and flew 66 combat missions in the Korean War before walking on the moon with Neil Armstrong in 1969. “Yet meet him today,” says Brian, “and he’s more likely to want to talk about orbital dynamics and how we get to Mars.”
To illustrate the character of the Apollo astronauts, Brian picks out a passage from Norman Mailer’s book, A Fire On The Moon. “Mailer talks about journalists interviewing the Apollo 11 crew pre-mission, trying to get an emotional reaction from them. One of them asks what the astronauts will do if the ascent engine fails and they can’t get off the moon. Will they pray? Will they send messages to their families? The answer comes from Buzz Aldrin, and I’m paraphrasing this heavily, but basically he says: ‘I’m an engineer, I’d try to fix the engine.’ That’s why Buzz Aldrin was an Apollo astronaut.”
Sadly, the Apollo generation is fading into the twilight but Brian believes their legacy has much to teach us. He recalls talking to Charlie Duke who, in 1972, became the youngest person to walk on the moon, aged 36. “Charlie me told me how his dad remembered the Wright Brothers’ flight and then saw his son walk on the moon. So you have 60 years of history in one human lifetime from the first powered flight to a man on the moon. Charlie also said that you can do a lot right if you have 400,000 engineers and an unlimited budget, but when you look at the Apollo budgets, they weren’t as big a percentage of US expenditure as you might think. And yet this was one of the few times when we did something that was almost beyond our capabilities. With 1960s technology, it was very, very difficult to go to the moon, and come back again, and then repeat it. That tells you that we as a civilization are capable of astonishing things if we put our minds to it.”