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Chris Riley – Britain’s “Man In The Moon”


Sigh. This Apollo anniversary is going to end up costing me a fortune, I swear.

I was wandering around in Waterstones the other day, not looking for anything in particular, when a book in the “Popular Science” section caught my eye. At first glance I thought it was in the wrong place, that some idiot had put it back on the wrong shelf after flicking through it elsewhere in the shop, or maybe had put it there as a “little joke” to wind up space enthusiasts like me. Then I looked more closely, and saw…


Oh… look at that… that’s GENIUS! I mean seriously, that is just a great idea. To look at the Apollo 11 mission and its hardware in the same amount of detail that the popular Haynes car manuals do… Not familiar with those? Well, even non-drivers like me have grown up surrounded by these books…


I didn’t buy it there and then because I was on my way to somewhere else, but in one of those amazing webby coincidences that happen now and again, when I checked The Bad Astronomer’s site later that evening I found he was going nuts about it too! So, back into the shop I went the next day, handed over my card, and out I came with the book.

And I was in for a surprise.

Not the quality of the book itself, that was obvious from the start. It’s jam-packed with gorgeous photographs, artwork and diagrams, and really brings the Apollo missions and their hardware to life. No, the surprise came when I read the names of the book’s two authors –

Phil Dolling and Chris Riley.

Ah. I should haver known. Look in most UK dictionaries and encyclopedia and under “Moon” and “Apollo” you’ll see the name “Chris Riley”.

Ok, you don’t really, but you should do. For many years now Chris Riley has been one of the UK’s most active and successful producers of space exploration-related documentaries and films, and has worked on more than 30 TV shows, documentaries and films. He has a very special passion for the Apollo missions and the Moon, which led him to write this new book.

I first came across Chris’ work back in 2005, when the BBC aired a mini-series called “Space Odyssey”, which told the story of a fantastic “tour of the solar system” by a crew of astronauts onboard a fantastic – and beautiful – interplanetary ship called the Pegasus. The idea behind the series, and the gorgeous full colour book that accompanied it, was simple: what if we hadn’t turned our back on the Moon, but had kept going? What would we see if we went out into the solar system, and saw what was out there?


The series featured – for the time – ground-breaking CGI effects, as well as a¬†stirring orchestral soundtrack and well-written characters, and received pretty good reviews and viewing figures when it aired. Many of the sequences were literally beautiful, such as a lone astronaut floating amongst the tumbling ice boulders of Saturn’s rings, and several of the explorers standing on the edge of the Mariner Valley and peering down into it…


At the time I fully expected “SPACE ODYSSEY” to take off like one of the rockets featured in it, and have a real, world-wide impact. For some reason that didn’t happen. The series didn’t really catch fire, with the public or the media, and it kind of came and went without much fanfare. This literally shocked me; I bought the DVD as soon as it came out, and have watched it over and over since then, and every time I watch it I get goosebumps all over again. True, it had its faults – some of the acting was a little, um, cheesy (yes, looking at you, Zoe!) – and some slap-across-the-face-obvious scenes and sequences of historic-events-to-come were missing (when they didn’t show the first footprint being made on Mars I actually shouted “NO!!!” at my TV!), but it was a lovely production, made with real love and feeling, and no-one watching it can fail to feel a “What if..?” pang of sadness.

I was lucky enough to actually meet Chris at the time, up in Edinburgh, and was able to congratulate him on the series, which I remain a fan and supporter of. I still have the Pegasus mission patch he gave me! ūüôā

Speaking of the Pegasus, that has to be one of my all time fave ship designs… sleek, functional, realistic, it was a piece of design genius…


And I’m obviously not the only person who thinks so. I reckon Danny Boyle is a fan too, judging by the design he chose for the “Icarus” spaceship in his film “SUNSHINE…


… and it should be pointed out that half a decade before cinema goers drooled over the sight of the re-vamped USS Enterprise emerging from Titan’s atmosphere, in the new Star Trek movie, the Pegasus was shown sailing serenely through Saturn’s rings…


Fast forwards a few years, and Chris moved on to the Moon, and this time his project really did sweep and entrance the world.


Chris was co-producer of the epic film “IN THE SHADOW OF THE¬† MOON” which collected awards by the bucketful after it was released, including the prestigious “Audience Award” at the Sundance Film Festival. “Shadow” was¬† a detailed and emotional look back at the Apollo missions, with comments from and interviews with many of the astronauts, engineers and technicians involved in the missions.

I was lucky enough to see the film at a special screening here in my own town, Kendal. The Brewery Arts Centre showed the film during a special presentation, which my astronomical society supported by mounting an exhibition of astronomy and space exploration pictures, and I gave a special illustrated talk on NASA’s plans to Return To The Moon around the year 2020. It was a wonderful night, it really was, and the film was just about sold-out. I’m not ashamed to admit I was very close to tears at many points in the film, and I know it made a huge impression on many of the other people in the audience, too.

Now Chris has returned to the Moon with his new book, this “Apollo Owners Manual” which is in the shops right now. I’ve now finished the book, just a few days after buying it, and I really was impressed. The writing style is casual but informative, it’s packed with fascinating artwork, illustrations and diagrams, and the photographs in the book are all very well chosen, too.¬† A couple caught my eye – a small black and white photo on page 137, showing the lunar module EAGLE, just c0mpleted, gleaming bright and fresh and new, ready to be mated with the mighty Saturn V rocket, and a half-page colour picture on page 174 showing Apollo 17 astronaut geologist Harrison Schmitt standing next to the lunar rover, with his face clearly visible through his helmet visor…


There are lots of fascinating facts in the book, too. For example, I already knew that the “skin” of the lunar module was ridiculously thin, but until reading this book I had no idea just how thin: just 0.012″ thick, or as thick as three layers of aluminium cooking foil! As the book says, when the LEM was pressurised its skin “bulged outwards”… :-0

So, with the book read cover to cover, I was curious to know the story behind it, and to learn how Chris’s feelings about Apollo and space exploration have changed since we were last in contact. I sent him an email, asking if he’s mind answering a few questions for Cumbrian Sky, and he was happy to… ūüôā


1. APOLLO 11 OWNERS MANUAL Рanother Apollo project! What moved you to write this new title?


A friend – Phil Dolling thought up the idea and approached Haynes last summer ahead of the anniversary. ¬†They said yes – and asked him to recommend someone. ¬†He suggested me! ¬†I’d just spent a year researching the engineering of Apollo for Moon Machines so it was something I was interested in doing.
2. I¬†bought the book on Friday and even leafing through it quickly I realised that it¬†features some rarely seen ‚Äď and probably completely new ‚Äď images. Can you tell CS readers a little about the pictures in the book? Maybe pick out a¬†few favourite ones?
The pictures in the book represent ten years of trawling through NASA’s archive and tapping into the collective knowledge of some outstanding Apollo scholars (thanked in the acknowledgements). ¬†Hard to pick a favourite. ¬†Although it’s well used I guess I love the first picture in the book – with the Apollo 11 crew all smiling out from Columbia – their home en route to the Moon and back. ¬†I love this picture cos it says a lot to me about the astronaut’s relationship with the hardware and the engineering challenges of Apollo. One of my other favourites is the opener for the LM chapter of a tiny little LM on Apollo 16 (I think) making its descent to the lunar surface. ¬†It was taken from the Command Module and is the only shot I’ve ever seen like this showing the LM descending in this way. ¬†Sadly Haynes have printed it upside down in this first editionso I hope we can fix it in the next print run!
3. “IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON” was a huge worldwide hit, both with critics and audiences. Why do you think it was so popular?
We’d worked hard to capture intimate and engaging interviews with the astronauts – and I’d pushed hard from the start to persuade the director David Sington to shoot the interviews in this style – straight down the barrel of the lens – so it feels like a very personal encounter with them. ¬†Other than that I think it’s just good simple story telling – intercut with carefully chosen archive and a wonderful score by Philip Sheppard – nothing gimmicky. ¬†That’s what’s at the heart of its success I think.¬†
4. I’m sure by now you’ve seen the ‚Äúnew‚ÄĚ image of Neil Armstrong – retrieved from the Apollo archives by Andrew Chaikin – standing on the Moon, with his face visible. What are your thoughts on the story behind that? Why do you think Armstrong’s activities and presence on the Moon were so poorly recorded?
I’ve not seen it – can you point me to it. ¬†Buzz assured us that he’d never meant to return without a good photo of Armstrong on the surface – and you have to take his word. ¬†They were both very busy on the surface and I can easily believe that this was something that could have been overlooked.
5. Can you explain your personal passion for / obsession with Apollo? What makes those missions and that time so magical for you?
I guess it’s cos Apollo represented an extraordinary and lasting human achievement which united the world in ways that no politician or preacher has every really managed to do. ¬†Not bad for a bunch of engineers! ¬†On top of that I think Apollo is something of Galactic significance (as intelligent technological life is probably quite rare in the galaxy and the number of times in the Milky Way’s 13.9 billion year history that life has got going on one planet and left to explore another one is also probably quite rare). ¬†That’s something that continually amazes me – and I find that the more I explore the history of Apollo the more rich it becomes as a story. I’ve spent longer working on Apollo now than many of the original engineers and astronauts! ¬†But I continue to love it.
6. Just going back in time a little, what are your thoughts on “SPACE ODYSSEY” (known as “VOYAGE TO THE PLANETS – AND BEYOND” in the US) five years after it graced our screens? I was – and still am – a huge fan of the production, and still think it hasn’t received anything like the recognition or praise it deserved (even though I’m still mad at you for not showing the first footfall on Mars! What were you THINKING!?!?!) Do you think it “stands the test of time”? How would you change it now?
Thanks for your compliments. ¬†It was a lot of very very very hard work for two years of my life and it also¬†disappoints¬†me that it wasn’t recognised more widely. ¬†I haven’t watched it back again for some years – so not sure if it does stand the test of time – although I suspect the CGI is still OK. ¬†I also can’t believe we missed the first footfall on Mars – but looking back I guess (given that Buzz missed taking Neil’s picture on the Moon) it’s not impossible that circumstances and technical glitches might also have prevented it from being recorded in the story – but the truth is that on location in Chile the director blew it – despite my demands that they make the time to shoot it. ¬†I seem to remember that we collected some atacama dust and tried to reshoot it at Pinewood studios – but for some reason it didn’t cut well with the rest of the footage. ¬†Oh well!
7. Tell us a little about your other big Apollo project – the film “Moonwalk One”…
Well I first came across MWO at the BBC when a friend showed me it on crummy old Beta SP tape. ¬†It was still a dam good watch – with all that incredible footage buidling up to the launch. ¬†It’s all filmed so beautifully and we always used to lift bits of it to put into our own documentaries. ¬†Years later when we were making Shadow I remembered it and wondered if we could get a copy on film to transfer onto HD tape for the production. ¬†We eventually found a print at the National Archives in Washington – but it was not a great copy – badly colour faded and with some parts of the sound missing. ¬†But towards the end of Shadow we found the director of Moonwalk One on the web and I gave him a call. ¬†It turned out that he still had a 35mm print of the directors cut – a longer 110 minute version – and it proved to be the only remaining copy of this original cut of the film. ¬†Ever since then we have been working to bring a consortium of companies together to do justice to the restoration and remastering of the film to release it this summer. ¬†NASA had commissioned it back in May of 69 with just a few weeks to go before the launch of Apollo 11 and the director Theo Kamecke was asked to make them a time capsule film – capturing what life on Earth and in human society was going on that summer along side the first attempt to land on the Moon. ¬†So I guess what we are doing with this re-release is to open the entire time capsule again for the first time in 40 years.
8. As this Apollo 40th anniversary approaches, what are your feelings? Are you one of those people happy to solely celebrate the drama and achievements of Apollo, or are you ‚Äď like me ‚Äď frustrated that we turned our backs on Apollo, and the Moon, and today are another decade, at least, from going back..? Do we need to have another “Space Race” – with the Chinese perhaps? – to get manned space exploration moving again?
Well I am happy to celebrate Apollo and look back and help to remind people what an incredible thing we did back then. ¬†But I am also like you¬†disappointed¬†that we didn’t continue to maintain a presence on the Moon. ¬†However I think if we had there might be even less general interest in human¬†space flight. ¬†People would just say – “oh why are we still sending science teams to the moon at $3 trillion to keep the base operational…. there’s nothing more to discover there and what’s the point”. I suspect most people wouldn’t know the names of the current crew on the Moon if we were still there – just like they remain unaware of who’s on the ISS. ¬†Left as it was with the footprints of just 12 men on it – the Moon shots remained something sacred and special – a soruce of constant inspiration to the generation who grew up with APollo and went on to forge the IT revolution which has changed all our lives.¬†
9. What’s next? When are you going to do something about Mars? ūüėČ
Don’t know! ¬†Got any money to fund something else?
So, there you have it, something else to spend your hard-earned money on as the Apollo 40th anniversary approaches. No doubt there will be many, many more books published about Apollo as the anniversary draws near, but I doubt many will be as fact-packed, or as original, as the APOLLO 11 OWNER’S MANUAL. ūüôā

Carnival of Space #107…

… is now online and available for your reading pleasure, at the “Innumerable Worlds” blog, a blog written by an astronomer with a special interest in exo-planets…


Go take a look, and catch up on the best of the past week’s space blogging… ūüôā