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Meet Belfast man who, 50 years after watching lunar landing, is writing a book on Nasa's 'forgotten' astronaut

Former solicitor Geoffrey Bowman has always been fascinated by space travel, met Neil Armstrong and is now the biographer of Ron Evans who was involved throughout the Apollo programme. Ivan Little reports

Geoffrey Bowman with his model of a Saturn V rocket at his south Belfast home
Geoffrey Bowman with his model of a Saturn V rocket at his south Belfast home
Buzz Aldrin standing on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 moonwalk
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

It's obviously light years away from the scale of the historic Apollo 11 mission half a century ago, but Geoffrey Bowman's epic journey from teenage space enthusiast to commissioned biographer of a Nasa astronaut has still been out of this world.

Fifty years on, the retired 64-year-old Belfast solicitor can still recall the surge of excitement that he felt as he watched live black and white pictures of the moon landing on a 12in television in his parents' home in the middle of the night.

But that 14-year-old schoolboy could never have imagined that in 2019 he would find himself entrusted with writing the life story of a 'forgotten' American space pioneer.

Geoffrey, who cherishes memories of a brief meeting he once had with Neil Armstrong - the first man to set foot on the moon, has been commissioned to write a biography of astronaut Ron Evans who never got the recognition that his 1969 predecessors did.

Ron, a former US fighter pilot in Vietnam, was on Apollo 17 in 1972 but was also a lynchpin in many other missions.

He's actually featured in the award winning cinema-release documentary Apollo 11 in which he was one of the Nasa officials in contact with the three-man crew.

The documentary has revived worldwide fascination with the Apollo mission that cost millions of Britons a night's sleep as they rubbed their eyes, not from tiredness but from disbelief as they watched the TV footage of Armstrong's moon walk.

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Geoffrey was among the 530 million people watching around the world.

He says: "I'd always been interested in anything to do with space. And I can take that back to 1960 when I was six. We'd just got a new TV with colour pictures from the new UTV channel. On a Sunday afternoon they put out a series called Pathfinders to Mars followed by the sequel Pathfinders to Venus.

"They were the ultimate thrill for me. They were really scary, behind the sofa stuff but something interesting happened in those times and instead of pretend astronauts the Russians sent a real astronaut, Uri Gagarin, into space.

Neil Armstrong
Neil Armstrong

"Those things happening together further ignited my interest in anything to do with space. By 1966 I could have told you the Americans were going to send men to the moon, how it would be done and that it would take five missions. They had published all their plans in advance and I'd read every detail.

"Then came the landing on the moon. On July 20, 1969 we had just returned from a family holiday and even though I was exhausted I didn't want to miss anything.

"My father said he would wake me if I went to bed for a few hours' sleep and he didn't let me down.

"And so I got to see Neil Armstrong go down the steps of his craft. I will never forget the excitement of that night."

There'd been intense speculation about what Armstrong's first words would be. And initially Geoffrey thought he'd fluffed his lines.

He says: "I didn't realise that at the bottom of the ladder he would stand in silence on a landing pad before stepping onto the moon.

Geoffrey with Neil Armstrong
Geoffrey with Neil Armstrong

"But then when he walked on the lunar surface he famously said,'That's one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind'."

Geoffrey was so moved that he saved the quote for posterity in his diary.

And he became a lifelong fan of the trailblazer.

"I wrote to Neil Armstrong and he sent me an autographed picture and returned the money for the postage that I had enclosed," says Geoffrey, who went one better in 2003 when Armstrong visited Dublin to talk with Gay Byrne as the host and Geoffrey was among the 1,200 strong audience.

But he wasn't content to leave it at that.

He says: "I paid more to attend another smaller dinner. And I actually got to chat with Neil Armstrong face to face."

Geoffrey has never met his colleague Buzz Aldrin, but he's hoping to link up with the third and lesser known Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins soon.

"I'm going to Spacefest in Arizona next month and Michael is due to be there, but he's 89 so we'll have to see if he comes along," he says.

Geoffrey was also in the States in 1975, having travelled to Florida to the Kennedy Space Centre to see the launch of the final flight of the Apollo programme, the one which docked with a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Ron Evans
Ron Evans

"It was a fantastic sight and I still have a record of it on a tape recorder and a cine camera," he says.

Unbeknown to Geoffrey, however, another astronaut was watching from less than a mile away. He was Ron Evans who'd been part of a back-up crew ready to take over from the Apollo crew if something had gone wrong.

"I wasn't to know that all these years later I would be writing his biography and talking regularly with his 85-year-old widow Jan, his children, friends and colleagues," says Geoffrey, who had first been approached by Nebraska University Press 10 years ago to contribute two pieces to a book including an account of his visit for the launch of the Apollo-Soyuz mission.

Buzz Aldrin, Armstrong and Michael Collins
Buzz Aldrin, Armstrong and Michael Collins

The follow-up was a request for Geoffrey to write an entire book on Ron Evans, who was born in Kansas in the early Thirties and died of a heart attack in 1990, one of the first Apollo astronauts to pass away.

His family are convinced his death, at the age of 56, was directly attributable to his heavy smoking that dated back to his schooldays.

Geoffrey says: "Ron had a fascinating life. And I think it's a story worth telling. He was a very intelligent man and a great sportsman. He went to university on a naval scholarship as a pilot."

Nasa sought out a number of fliers as potential astronauts but Evans didn't make the initial cut. And in the meantime he took part in over 100 combat missions in Vietnam before he was recruited into the Apollo programme.

Geoffrey says: "If they had a stick of seaside rock at Nasa then the name of Ron Evans would run through it. He was on support or back-up crews from the start to the finish of the Apollo programme.

"But his highpoint was flying to the moon as command module pilot with Apollo 17 and he still holds the record as the longest period that any person has been in orbit around any celestial body other than the earth."

Geoffrey, who hopes his book will be published late next year or in 2021, adds: "I did most of the interviews for my research on the telephone and his widow has an amazing memory. She has been able to share some fantastic stories with me including their time when Neil Armstrong and his wife were their neighbours."

Another neighbour that Geoffrey interviewed was astronaut Major Tom Stafford, who it's thought may have been the inspiration for David Bowie in his song Space Oddity with the line 'Ground Control to Major Tom.'

Geoffrey admits that he's disappointed that space exploration hasn't progressed the way people thought it would in 1969.

He adds: "We did think that within 20 years astronauts would be landing on Mars and building bases on the moon. It will happen but at a slightly more leisurely pace than we thought. But I do hope to see more TV pictures from the moon one day."

Geoffrey compares space exploration to another field of human endeavour.

He reveals: "Another fascination of mine has always been the period of Antarctic exploration in the first 12 years of the 20th century and there are a lot of parallels.

"It was also all Boy's Own stuff. But after Captain Scott turned his back from the South Pole and headed back on what would prove to be a fatal return journey, no-one else set foot there for 44 years. And that was by aircraft.

"The South Pole is on the same planet and while it's cold there is air to breathe. But it's a lot harder going to another world, in space.

"But 50 years is not uncommon in the history of human exploration."

Geoffrey isn't planning to sign up for any of Richard Branson's projected commercial tourist flights to space any time soon."It's a lot of money to experience five minutes of weightlessness. And besides I can achieve that weightlessness as a glider pilot if I want," says Geoffrey, who knows all too well the questions that are coming as we near the end of our interview.

He says: "Yes, the conspiracy theories. I thought you were going to raise that. My response is a combination of frustration, bafflement and annoyance that anyone could be so stupid as to ignore the overwhelming evidence of the moon landing.

"Some people say we weren't clever enough to have done all that 50 years ago, but scientists had designed an atom bomb in the Forties from scratch.

"If there is one lesson we learnt from history it's that if there is a desire or need to do something human beings can do it.

"Anybody who thinks that Nasa didn't land 12 men on the moon in the Apollo programme is either a certifiable nutcase or simply doesn't look at the evidence."

Finally, finally I have to ask Geoffrey THAT question, the one that has taxed the human mind since time immemorial - is there life out in space?

Geoffrey recalls the query being put Neil Armstrong in Dublin in 2003.

He says: "He paused and I could almost hear the cogwheels grinding in his head. He obviously realised that if he said 'yes, of course,' the headlines would read 'Armstrong believes in little green men'.

"I think the simple answer is that it would be utterly astounding in the whole vastness of the universe if there weren't other civilisations.

"But it is so vast that we might never know the answer...."

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