Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth by Andrew Smith
Smith has clearly harboured a fascination with the moon landings since childhood and has translated this enthusiasm into a grown up project, properly researched and examined with the sober eye of adulthood.
The further we get from Apollo, the more avant-garde it's coming to seem.
-- Andrew Smith
Andrew Smith watched the first moon landing on TV in his suburban home in California when he was a small boy. Like millions of people across Planet Earth on that evening in 1969, he ran between the glowing black and white box in his front room and the front porch, where he stared up at the silvery orb and asked himself: Are they really up there? He found it so hard to connect the images of Armstrong and Aldrin on TV to this familiar shape above.
Smith has clearly harboured a fascination with the moon landings since childhood and has translated this enthusiasm into a grown up project, properly researched and examined with the sober eye of adulthood. The fascinating project involves tracking down the last nine remaining humans to have visited the moon to ask them what it was like being up there.
Moondust is a kind of road trip. Smith covers the USA, visiting ex-astronauts, lunar hoax conspiracy theorists, NASA scientists and campaigners for a return to manned space exploration. He asks them difficult questions about the Apollo programme, about its cost, motivations, meaning, and legacy.
Smith presents the cultural and political backdrop to the Apollo programme well -- the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the 1960s belief in technology and the future. He also suggests convincingly that counter cultural currents of the '60s -- New Age mysticism, Woodstock and LSD -- were also connected in some way to what seems at first glance to be the super square space programme. We soon discover that many of the astronauts were not as square as they seemed. For example, it turned out that Ed Mitchell believed he could contact people on earth from space by using ESP.
Smith tries to find out what impact going to the moon had on the astronauts and their wives (unfortunately he can't write well about women's experiences). He locates most of the remaining nine men (Neil Armstrong remains as elusive as ever, although they do cross paths briefly). What's interesting about Smith's interviews is that he tries to get these Uber-Alpha space men (fighter pilots with PhDs) from an older generation when real men were expected to be steely and tight lipped, to talk about their feelings. He becomes frustrated with many of them who are unable to express what it was like on the moon or how they feel about it all now.
But what seems clear is that many of the astronauts have been similarly struggling to come to terms with what they did and where they've been. Eugene Cernan admits, "You feel inadequate that you can't give people the answer they want." Alan Bean left NASA after touching down on the moon, to become a painter, and he paints scenes from Apollo landings over and over again, as though he is trying to capture once and for all what it was really like. He admits that at one point when he was up there he felt as though he was an animation -- so unreal was the experience. Another astronaut has undergone hypnosis in an attempt to re-experience being on the moon and reconnect to his memories. It's hard for the astronauts to claim their experiences as their own. "When you've shared a moment with the whole world," observes Smith, "it can be hard to know precisely where your memories end and everyone else's begin".
Quite understandably, some space men had epiphanies on the way back from the moon as they gazed at the approaching beautiful bluey-green Earth in front of them. These often lead to religious conversions. Ed Mitchell says he had a realisation that the universe was an intelligent being. He founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences, an organisation aiming to reconcile science and religion.
Smith offers endless intriguing quirky facts, that Buzz Aldrin's mother's maiden name was Moon, for instance, or that most astronauts' marriages ended in divorce after their return. It is strange to discover that all the astronauts who went to the moon were either only children or only sons, and many had domineering fathers.
As the book develops, Smith builds a picture of the Apollo programme as unbelievably ambitious, and a sense of amazement that they managed it. One commentator at the time pointed out that they were having difficulty building reliable washing machines, let alone space ships. The Apollo ships contained about as much technology as two of today's mobile phones; the module that first descended to the surface of the moon had a computer with a 36k memory. He finds out that NASA estimated that there was only a 50% chance that Collins, Armstrong and Aldrin would make it back. He asks how different history would have been if they had got stuck and remained on the moon to die.
The author tries to include a personal relationship with the men on the moon, but it doesn't quite work. The story is very much about men (the tales of competitive astronauts racing Corvettes before missions is great) but Smith develops a slightly annoying laddish persona (hanging out with strippers in Vegas, for example), which adds nothing to the story.
The problem is that this tale is so damn interesting we just don't care much about the journalist; we just want him to get on with it. This book is a brilliant idea done well rather than brilliantly. But it works all the same.