Sunday, February 24, 2008

Reaching for the stars … from a humble spare room in Bearsden

Glasgow Daily Herald

DAVID WOODS does this wee space trick with a mini football, about eight inches in diameter, and a two-inch sponge ball, which, by happy coincidence, are the proportional size of planet Earth compared to our moon.

He asks you to take the small, tennis-ball-sized moon and guess how far it should be from the football Earth. About the length of a desk you might guess, maybe six feet? He keeps asking you to walk backwards until you are a good 20ft away. That, he says (and he's almost shouting), is the relative distance of the moon from Earth, on average about 238,000 of our human miles.

It's a demonstration that works at two levels - showing how incredible the solar system and our place in it are and displaying the staggering achievement of the Apollo space mission in getting men on to our nearest celestial satellite.

Woods uses the analogy and many others in what is simply a good book that does what it says on the cover - How Apollo Flew To The Moon. During the day Woods is a post-production editor at BBC Scotland, a kind of mission control that rescues TV directors from themselves, and that's how I first met him. But at night, his head is in the stars.

David has written a book in his spare time, compiled from his extensive research into the manned space missions. The book he's produced is a composite mission that follows a virtual flight to the moon from launch to splashdown. There's a human dimension, the day-to-day concerns of how you go the toilet or shave while in space, with stories that capture, like the tennis ball at the end of the room, the sheer audacity of the achievement.

"It's the kind of book I hope the space geeks will give to the newbies to start them off," he says. "I certainly wish I'd had it when I started getting back into Apollo in a big way in 1995." Of course, David Woods's fascination with the moon flight began long before then.

Woods is of that generation of baby boomers who saw space flight move from science fiction to science fact right in front of their eyes. "It's an enchantment that happens when you're 10 years old and never goes away. Family, work and life come along but that magic never fades. I see it in the eyes of other people my own age. I feel blessed to have lived in an age when such dedication to science could do what it did."

Woods is no ordinary space geek. His enthusiasm for lunar travel transcends science and the grubby politics of the moon missions. He's managed to write a scientific book about the moon that is science-packed, but actually very easy to read. He may not be Tom Wolfe, but when it comes to typing words in order, a fair definition of journalism, he has the right stuff.

In 1997 Nasa gave him a medal for the work he'd done on archiving Apollo missions on the internet, and when you go to see the documentary In The Shadow Of The Moon, you'll find his name is in the credits. He supplied the production with sound archive of the Apollo 11 mission that he had stored on an MP3. I know, most people his age have Spiders From Mars on their MP3 players; David has the audio track of the Apollo 11 mission.

Along with other space enthusiasts, like Glasgow's David Harland, he can't wait for man to go back to the moon. It's just a pity that there won't be any Britons aboard future space missions. The government's space strategy, drawn up recently by the British National Space Centre, sets out to double the number of UK companies involved in the space business but it doesn't aim to put one British astronaut on the moon. There was a historic decision in the 1960s to opt out of manned space flight, but several key groups, the Commons Science Committee among them, have urged the government to think again, not least because Britain will miss the opportunity to inspire a whole other generation of scientists.

Meanwhile it's left to authors such as Woods to re-ignite our fascination with moon travel. His book has been well received among the international space community but it deserves to be a cross-over success. A BBC colleague managed to slip a copy into Tom Hanks's hands after interview in London. The star of Apollo 13 didn't take his nose out of the book from the moment he was handed it. "I'm going to read this for pleasure, this book," said Hanks, walking out of the room still leafing through the pages.

After an endorsement from an A-list Hollywood celebrity, how much higher could an author's star rise? Well, about as far as a book signing in Milngavie Book Shop tomorrow evening and a small launch party at his house in T- minus six days from now.

Woods is fittingly modest about his achievement - yet there he is, published author, consultant to space documentaries, honoured by Nasa, and shaken hands, actually shaken hands, with men who've walked on the moon. And he arranged it all from his spare room in Bearsden. He's quite an inspiration.

"You just go on with your dreams and those things you are passionate about and they kind of come true, it's a very strange but very wonderful thing," says Woods. Spoken like a true spaceman.

David Woods will splash down at Milngavie Book Shop on Monday, February 25 at 7pm to talk about the Apollo missions.

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