Phil Stamper’s debut novel, The Gravity of Us, follows a 17-year-old journalist named Cal who moves to Houston with his family when his father is selected for an upcoming NASA mission to Mars. The book won’t hit shelves until February 2020, but YA readers are already counting down the days until its release. Here, Stamper reflects on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission and how it influenced his book.
The date was July 15, 1969, and for the thousands of Americans impacted by the upcoming Apollo 11 mission, it was truly the calm before the storm. With every pre-launch test executed and checkbox ticked, the Saturn V rocket was transported through the Kennedy Space Center to Launch Complex 39.
The crawler-transporter that carried the rocket and spacecraft to launch was an engineering feat in itself, consisting of a mobile launcher platform, eight sets of tank-like wheel tracks, and a laser-guidance system that kept the platform level to within .16 degrees for the long journey from the vehicle assembly building to the launchpad. The vehicle’s speed maxed out at around two miles per hour, but with the weight of the spacecraft—and of the country—on its back, it plodded along at about half that rate.
This may come as a shock to those of you who only know me from those two paragraphs, but I’m a bit of a space nerd. Okay, a lot of a space nerd. I’ve read nearly every biography, memoir, and Life magazine article about the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. And my first book is a contemporary YA novel set against the backdrop of NASA’s—and the world’s—first crewed mission to Mars.
A few years ago, I found myself going through the Life magazines of the 60s and 70s. I’d always been enthusiastic about the science of space travel, but only then did I understand another component that drew me in to these stories: While the astronauts worked 20-hour days, or hurtled through space in a tin can, an even more interesting story played out on the ground.
The astronauts’ families, left behind, became celebrities. They were America’s first reality stars decades before the concept of reality TV was even given a name. They had to be immaculately dressed, polished, and ready to entertain, all while not knowing if their husbands or fathers would come home alive that night. Their stories are what inspired The Gravity of Us.
In my novel, I tried to capture this tension while showcasing a contemporary queer love story between two sons of astronauts: Cal, a social media journalist with a half million followers who’s not happy to be relocating to Texas with his father, and Leon, son of the lead astronaut who’s buckling under the pressure to be who the cameras want him to be, all amidst the drama of a crewed mission to Mars.
When people learn my debut, The Gravity of Us, is neither science fiction nor set in space, they usually ask… “why?” And, honestly? It’s because what actually happened in real life 50 years ago (down to the laser-balanced tank/robot) is so much cooler to me. So cool, in fact, I’ve been recapping the 50th anniversary of each Apollo mission in my author newsletter.
Preflight tests and checks started months in advance of the flight, but in reality, Apollo 11 wouldn’t have been possible without every single Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo mission prior to it. Apollo 7 was a dry run of the Service Module—the command center for the whole program—and featured important tests of the engine that would later guide the crew of 11 to the moon and back. It also showcased the mental strain on astronauts, when a head cold resulted in space mutiny when the astronauts refused to put on their helmets while reentering earth’s atmosphere. Apollo 8 was the first crewed spacecraft to orbit the moon. No mutiny there, but thanks to the spontaneity of astronaut Bill Anders, we were able to get one of the most iconic photographs of all time: Earthrise.
Apollo 9, an often overlooked mission, stayed fully in Earth’s orbit, but tested the fragile Lunar Module—a predecessor of the one that landed on the moon on July 20, 1969—and its rendezvous with the Service Module. Apollo 10, though, did a dry run of the Apollo 11 flight, even testing the process of landing on the moon. Well, the process of almost landing on the moon. They were this close!!!
This included a final test of the various lunar landing components, and was successful enough that NASA fully believed Apollo 11 was fit to get us to the moon and back.
Spoiler alert: They were right.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing and look to what’s next, I hope that wherever we go, we get more of these stories played out on the page and in real life. Stories of adventure, of science, of resourcefulness, as well as stories about family, support, and—of course—hope.
Phil Stamper is a YA writer and freelance editor who lives in Brooklyn, NY. He works in publishing development for a large publishing house you’ve probably heard of. You can find him on Twitter, where he exclusively talks about food, Brooklyn, and books. The Gravity of Us is his debut novel.