John Rocco is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and illustrator of many acclaimed books for children, including Blackout, recipient of the Caldecott Honor. Rocco has illustrated the covers for Rick Riordan's internationally bestselling series Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, and The Trials of Apollo. He also created the illustrations for the #1 New York Times bestsellers Percy Jackson's Greek Gods and Percy Jackson's Greek Heroes. Before making children's books, Rocco spent many years as a creative director for Walt Disney Imagineering. If he couldn't make books, he would like to work as an engineer for NASA. He hopes this book will serve as his application. Rocco lives in Rhode Island with his wife, daughter, and several demanding animals.
John Rocco Talks with Roger By Roger Sutton Because I’d only seen a PDF of How We Got to the Moon: The People, Technology, and Daring Feats of Science Behind Humanity’s Greatest Adventure (Crown), I didn’t know how big it was. Around two pounds, thinks author-illustrator John Rocco as we talk below about his very big book. [This just in: How We Got to the Moon is on the longlist for the 2020 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.]
Roger Sutton: John, this book is huge. What possessed you?
John Rocco: I’ve always been fascinated by the Apollo program. Everything they managed to figure out in that short time period. I’ve read many books about it, just for pleasure. Before becoming an illustrator, I studied engineering at the University of Rhode Island. My wife suggested, “You love this so much, you should do a book about it.” I looked around to see what was out there for kids. There’s a ton of stuff about the actual mission, the moon landing; but you’d be hard pressed to find books about the engineering behind it. I love David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work—that way he has of taking very complex stuff and explaining it so the layman can understand it. I thought, “I’m going to apply that kind of thinking here—without the woolly mammoth.” I knew that if I could understand it, anyone could.
RS: I’m asking this rhetorically, obviously, but did it occur to you—you already wrote that really nice book about a blackout (Blackout, Hyperion, 2011). You could have done a really nice book about the morning everybody stayed home and watched us land on the moon. But instead you took your work in a whole different direction.
JR: I did and I didn’t. I worked in entertainment as an art director for many years. Most of that time was with Walt Disney Imagineering, designing attractions and rides and stuff. Yes, this book is a departure from what I’ve done in the past—it’s also the first nonfiction I’ve written. But I felt like I was using all of my muscles, just applied in a different way. When I first came up with the idea, I thought it was going to be a four-hundred-page book. That was quickly nipped in the bud by my publisher.
RS: It’s still 264 pages.
JR: A couple of years into it—I’m glad it wasn’t four hundred pages! I’ve always loved nonfiction, just like I love documentary films. I see the Apollo mission as a blueprint for how we can come together and solve a problem. The missions themselves—it was almost a military act for the time. These were serious problems we were trying to solve.
RS: With a deadline from the president.
JR: There was a deadline. There was a goal. And there were resources to get it done. We wanted to show our technological superiority to the rest of the world, so it became a race with the Russians. Well, first it was a race to occupy space, but then President Kennedy switched that up when we were losing. He moved the deadline to the moon, so the finish line became stepping on the moon. The whole thing still boggles the mind, when you look at what they were able to do with the technology they had at the time.
RS: Which kept changing. They kept having to invent things.
JR: Yes, they had to shift gears constantly. Today we walk around with more technology in our pockets! And it’s still a difficult thing to do, even today, to get to the moon.
RS: Do you think we’ll try to do that again? I hope we try to go someplace else.
JR: There’s a definite plan in place with NASA and SpaceX and some other companies that are planning to go to the moon in 2024.
RS: Would you go?
JR: I can barely sit in a small car—I am so claustrophobic. If my wife rolls over in bed and pins me down with the sheet by accident, I freak out.
RS: A while back I interviewed Candace Fleming about her new Charles Lindbergh book. As I was reading it—I hadn’t realized that while piloting the Spirit of St. Louis, Lindbergh couldn’t actually see what was in front of him. Scared the crap out of me.
JR: Flew by instrument only.
RS: He had a mirror he could poke out the window or something.
JR: As I point out in my book, Lindbergh was there, watching the launch of Apollo 11.
RS: Oh, he was?
JR: Yeah. He was two years old when the Wright brothers took off at Kitty Hawk, and he was there when astronauts took off for the moon. It shows how quickly we went from the Wright brothers to landing on the moon. Someone’s lifetime.
RS: That’s right.
JR: What we’ve done since is not really quite the same, as far as human exploration goes. I’ve heard it said that something as grandiose as going to the moon is done for one of three reasons: to praise a deity, done for money, or done for survival. The Apollo moon missions were about survival, about not living under a communist flag. You look at pyramids—they were built to honor a culture’s deities. The Panama Canal, another huge engineering feat—that was about money. There needs to be one of those three things in order to come together and work toward a common goal, which is what I love about the Apollo mission story—how everyone came together to accomplish that goal.
RS: Do you have any idea how many people you included by name throughout the book?
JR: Probably sixty.
RS: And it seems like for every one of those people, you could have even named a hundred more—other seamstresses, other calculators.
JR: Yeah, the common estimate is that four hundred thousand people worked on the Apollo program, across NASA and including twenty thousand companies across the United States. NASA held those companies to such high standards of engineering—everything had to have a 99.999 percent success rate. When you have a rocket with over five million parts, that still means two hundred parts can break—so they built in all this redundancy. But it taught companies that wanted to have a NASA contract that they had to raise the level of the quality of their craftsmanship.
RS: Let me ask you about illustrations. Aside from the fact that you’re an illustrator and it’s your livelihood, creating these paintings was a lot more work than using photographs.
RS: I think it’s better. Why do you think it’s better?
JR: For several reasons. The first, and the reason I wanted to do it that way, was because a lot of the kids’ books I’ve seen about the Apollo program use the same photos and diagrams because you can get them all from NASA. When I look at those photos—they tend to be such a hodgepodge that it makes the topic less accessible for me, and I think for kids, too. In my book, there are so many different things—diagrams, paintings of scenes, portraits—that having it all drawn by one hand ties everything together. Also, if you look at some of the original scientific diagrams and blueprints, they are quite mind-boggling. There’s so much information. In painting them, I was able to just extract what I needed to explain an idea. I could really focus in on what was important and leave out the extraneous stuff that adds confusion.
RS: By creating your own pictures, you’re not reliant on whatever narrative has already been created in the NASA resources. You would, to some extent, have had to make your narrative fit what you had available—whereas here, you can say, “This is what I need a picture of, so I’m going to draw it.” But your images are never generalized in a picture-book-illustration kind of way. Everything seems very precise, detailed, not cluttered. There’s one picture early on of the main control panel for the command module, and it’s just awesome, because it has all of these dials and things, but they all look like they have a purpose. They don’t just look like the things we used to draw when we were kids—my thing was submarines—where you just go crazy putting in switches all over the place.
JR: That control panel has something like 580 switches and buttons. It took a while, and it would have been very easy for me to use a photograph, or even a blueprint, instead. But I decided that I wanted to recreate it in my hand. Everything’s very accurate to where it’s supposed to be. And that’s just the command module main control panel for Apollo 11—there were different ones for different missions!
RS: What was it like, having been a storybook creator, to go into this knowing you needed to have a fidelity to the facts, but also you were going to have to convey information in a very logical way, and in different formats? Straight narrative text, captions, boxes, diagrams, paintings. It seems like you’d have to develop a lot of new skills as a bookmaker.
JR: Yes. I think of that as a compliment.
RS: It is totally a compliment!
JR: Thank you. I enjoyed the whole process. When I got to a concept that I was trying to convey, or a story that I was trying to develop, I really had to decide how I was going to do it. Sometimes it was with diagrams, like to show how the F-1 engine worked. Other times it felt like I needed a painting—the firing of the rockets, so you could see the power of this thing. So, what I wanted to share dictated how I approached the illustration and the information.
RS: I’m still looking at this picture of the command module main control panel. I don’t know if this is true, but I feel like if I pointed to anything in that picture and said, “John, what does this do?” you’d have an answer.
JR: I think if you called me the week I was working on it, I would be able to tell you. Today I’d have to use my own book as a reference. There’s just so much—so many parts and machines and things that went into this mission. What everyone sees is the big Saturn rockets, the lunar module landing on the moon, and the command module capsule that comes back to Earth. But when you think about all the machinery and stuff that was just there to support the mission—like how did they build the rockets? The parts were being built all over the country. The second stage was in Seal Beach, California. The first stage was built in Louisiana. The lunar module was built out on Long Island. How do you bring all of it together, make sure all the connections work, piece everything together? The Vehicle Assembly Building, with its cutaway, was probably the most difficult for me to illustrate. I wished I had Stephen Biesty in my studio, so I could just say, “Hey, could you draw that for me?” The rocket, when fueled, is six and a half million pounds—how do you transport that, vertically, all the way out to the launch pad? And why does the launch pad have to be so far away? Everything I learned unraveled another thing. I certainly didn’t cover every bit of minutia about the program, but I did want to cover pretty much everything that the general person would want to know, about how they built the machines, how mission control came about, what those controllers did.
RS: You say in your afterword that you were two years old for Apollo 11. Did you have a fascination for this in childhood as well?
JR: No. I absolutely didn’t. I did come across a photo of me as a kid in 1971, where I was opening my Christmas present, and it had “moon car” on the box (a version of the lunar rover), and by the expression on my face I was pretty excited about it. But I don’t remember, as a kid, being especially fascinated. My fascination first started with two adult books: Space by James A. Michener and A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin. That one was a real eye-opener for me—he interviewed all the Apollo astronauts (except one, who had died), and still today, people say this was the best book written on the Apollo program. Andy’s a terrific guy who actually vetted a lot of this material for me, which was a big help.
RS: You’re talking to a person who makes his living writing two-hundred-word book reviews. I sit down to complete a task, and then it’s done in an hour. How did you sustain your commitment? That always fascinates me about you authors.
JR: I would say the last year of working on it, I was doing fourteen hours a day, six days a week. It was definitely exhausting. I’m still working on it in a lot of ways, including all this supplemental material for teachers and educators. I’m creating videos that explain things deeper, concepts like zero gravity.
RS: One thing our reviewer really liked about it was the way that you scaffolded technical and scientific information throughout the book. Readers get a lot of basic concepts there at the beginning, and by the time the actual Apollo 11 takes off, the book’s whole pace picks up—which can happen because you’ve already prepared readers for the ride.
JR: Exactly. That was something I knew I needed to do from the very beginning. You can’t just start talking about orbital mechanics and expect the reader to understand. One of the foundations of this book is that anything these engineers did could be boiled down to the basic fundamentals of science and math. Whether it be heat transfer, which we can all understand—but it has to be explained before you can start talking about -423-degree cryogenic fluid in one tank, and then you put -297-degree cryogenic fluid in another tank next to it. That is almost like putting your hand in boiling water. Even though it’s super-cold, the difference between those two tanks is huge, as far as energy and heat.
RS: Oh, everybody knows that, John.
JR: One last thing—and I don’t say this enough—I have to credit all of the Apollo engineers who helped me, not only to tell their stories, but understand a lot of the engineering. Early on in the project, I started reaching out (and actually cold-called some of the people!), and they were so helpful and so generous with their time. They’re in their eighties and nineties, and sometimes I had to schedule around naptimes and things like that, but whenever I had a question, I could pick up the phone and say, “Look, I don’t really understand this internal combustion instability. How did that work?” And I’d be talking to the guy who was the manager of that whole program. It was just a thrill.
RS: And they were happy to pass the knowledge along.
JR: Absolutely. In fact, NASA is doing a “brain dump” with a lot of these older engineers, because so many people don’t know how to do some of these things, even today.