Sometime around 1978, when I was about eight years old, my Dad took me to the HMSO shop in Edinburgh. Now, to say I was underwhelmed by the prospect of this trip is an understatement. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office? Government publications? I was sceptical. It all sounded very dry and boring to me. The last book he’d bought me had been the novelisation of Star Wars, so this seemed a bit of a radical change of direction. What on Earth was my Dad thinking?
As it turned out, it wasn’t Earth my Dad was thinking about at all. He was looking for a book he thought I’d be interested in, and by the time we got home, I realized that I should have known better than to doubt my Dad.
The book was Moon, Mars and meteorites, a slim, 36-page colourful paperback published by HMSO on behalf of the Institute of Geological Sciences. And it was wonderful.
The Moon took up the vast majority of the book; as our nearest neighbour, we obviously knew more about it than any other celestial object. The book covered the lunar landscape, both nearside and farside, and the various craters, ridges, rilles, and faults that mark its surface; it had a chapter on the geology of the Moon, including a cut-away diagram of the lunar regolith (and what wonderful unfamiliar and exotic words those seemed!); a timeline of the parallel 4000 million year evolution of the Earth and Moon; but far more fascinating to me was the section that detailed the six crewed landings on the Moon from Apollo 11 to Apollo 17.
(In my innocence, I assumed that Apollo 13 was missing from the book because superstitious NASA engineers had skipped an unlucky number, like the 13th floor in a building; it was many years later that I learned what had actually happened with that genuinely unfortunate mission.)
I pored over the traverse maps of the landing sites, from the tentative steps of Armstrong and Aldrin around their LEM to the 35km lunar road trip taken on board the Apollo 17 rover, and I imagined what it would be like to be one of those faceless white-suited explorers. I looked at the crater map dominated by Copernicus and wondered what it would look like if you were inside that enormous pockmark in the lunar surface – would the walls of the crater loom above you like mountains? I examined the pictures of the lunar rover and felt a thrill of terror as I imagined driving so far you couldn’t see the LEM any more.
The Mars section was a bit of a disappointment, in comparison. Just four pages, with a handful of pictures of a cratered surface that looked like a less-detailed red version of my beloved Moon. Of course, in 1977 when the book was published, there wasn’t much in the way of successful exploration to draw on beyond the Viking lander and the Mariner orbiter.
Even so, despite the lack of detail, it still held my interest, especially with the pictures of the un-moonlike moons Phobos and Deimos, with their asymmetric pebble-like forms.
But next, almost as an afterthought, with just three pages, one of which was taken up by an “artist’s impression”, was the Meteorites section.
There were more delicious words to absorb – tektites; chondrites; australites – and intriguing pictures of the bizarre alien forms created by the ablation effects of the meteorites’ passage through the Earth’s atmosphere.
Most fascinating of all was the very concept of meteorites; not only were we sending people out there like the Apollo missions or the Viking Mars lander, but interplanetary material was falling down to Earth in fiery bursts of light; it was a two-way exchange. And furthermore, the picture of Meteor Crater, Arizona, showed that it wasn’t just tiny pocket-sized pebbles that fell from the sky – some of the visitors from beyond were capable of immense destruction.
You can’t give a book like that to an eight-year-old and not expect it to have an effect. For years it was my ambition to become an astronaut when I grew up (although needing glasses at age 10 made that implausible, even before my lack of hand-eye coordination put the mockers on my chances of becoming a test pilot) and I became fascinated by all things related to space exploration. Science fact and science fiction packed my bookshelves, and when I turned to writing short stories as a teen, the call of space made itself felt in the subjects I chose. Even now, more than 40 years later, I can see that my story Scattered Across the Stars was heavily influenced by that HMSO publication; it features both a meteorite and a tentative explanation for mankind’s fascination with the universe beyond our own tiny globe.
The explanation in the story is somewhat complicated; the explanation for my own fascination is a lot simpler. It’s all down to the day my Dad took me to the HMSO bookshop in Edinburgh.