In researching, writing and illustrating “How We Got to the Moon,” his first work of nonfiction, Rocco wanted to showcase the science and the human ingenuity that made the 1969 Apollo moon landing a reality. He also wanted to present the mission, which employed 400,000 people across the United States, as “a blueprint” for addressing current “problems that sometimes seem impossible, like climate change and racial injustice. If you look at how people came together back then, you can see a way through.”
The Apollo program began in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy reset the space race against Russia with the goal of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.” Kennedy announced a startling deadline — “before this decade is out” — and NASA scientists and engineers went to work on their monumental task.
“Everything we had done before in space,” says Rocco, “was minuscule compared to the journey to the moon.”
To understand the thousands of decisions that went into the project, Rocco read widely and contacted more than 20 NASA engineers. Each had been responsible for a critical part of the mission, from the construction and testing of the rocket engines to the splashdown and recovery of the command module.
Rocco’s pictures and text make clear the risks and dangers of the project, especially for the astronauts.
“If you were exposed to the vacuum of space,” says Rocco, “all of the liquids in your body would start to boil away.”
A detailed illustration shows a special three-layer suit the astronauts wore to deal with that issue and several others.
The book also explains and illustrates the basic scientific concepts and the problem-solving that were used to make the spacecraft as light as possible and address all of the mission’s dangers.
For example, to protect the Apollo spacecraft from being damaged by the extreme temperatures (from minus-240 degrees to 280 degrees) on its journey, a NASA manager came up with a technique the astronauts called the “barbecue roll”: The crew set off a slow rotation of the spacecraft so that one side of the ship would not get too hot or too cold.
Rocco also said it was important to give credit to as many individuals as possible who made the moon landing happen. They include “human computer” Katherine Johnson, who worked on complex mathematical calculations, and software engineer Margaret Hamilton, who helped build a warning system that prevented astronaut errors from becoming deadly.
A Rhode Island resident, Rocco has spent some of his coronavirus-pandemic isolation working on short video lessons for the book’s website. It’s a project that draws on his engineering background. “Before I began illustrating books, I was an art director and used a lot of motion graphics,” he said. “So I am now using all my tools.”
A new space mission
NASA flew its last space shuttle in July 2011, and until this year relied on Russia to transport astronauts to the International Space Station. At the end of May, two astronauts launched from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center to the International Space Station on the first manned Space X mission and returned safely to Earth about two months later. The next astronaut launch is scheduled for later this month, and it will be the first fully operational crewed mission for SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk in 2002. Author-illustrator John Rocco has been impressed by the way SpaceX has built on the knowledge base that Apollo developed. Along with finishing “How We Got to the Moon,” the missions have been a highlight of his year: “I’ve had so much fun watching what they’re doing, including how they’re reusing rockets.”