August 28, 2007

Book Review: Moondust

5 out of 5 stars

Andrew Smith is a columnist for the Guardian.  Born in the US, he is lucky enough to remember that great day in July 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first walked on the moon.  For that alone, I am insanely jealous. I put the question to my parents: "Did you watch the moon landings?  What were they like?" and was surprised to find that I got a mixed response (although perhaps I should not have been; this is a good example of the usual juxtaposition of opinions that I've come to expect from them).  My Dad claims to have been riveted by them, glued to the TV (as I would have been), whilst my Mum's response was "Probably".  Surely, I said, it was an achievement so monumental that you must have been inspired by it.  Mum's response was, "I seem to remember it being old hat by the time they actually landed on the moon, as there were launches seemingly nearly every week.  I found John Glenn's accomplishment more exciting".  John Glenn was the third American in space and the first American to orbit the Earth1; slightly disillusioned by my Mum's indifference, I never quite found out why this was more of an achievement than  Gagarin's first flight into space (he was the first person ever to orbit the Earth).

But back to the book.  Moondust is as moving as its premise: that a handful of men (twelve, to be exact), in a crazily optimistic period between 1969 and 1972, were able to fly to and walk on the moon, the very edge of Deep Space.  The journeys these men made were to change them forever: the divorce rate amongst astronauts is "astronomical"; Buzz Aldrin lapsed into alcoholism and was later treated at a psychiatric institution; Neil Armstrong retreated from all public life; Ed Mitchell, of Apollo 14 and sixth man on the moon, reported experiencing an epiphany on the way back from the moon that led him to found the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), set up to reconcile the differences between science and religion, that has been a lure for hippies and new-age thinkers since its inception.  

The prologue tells the story of Smith's first personal encounter with one of the Apollo men: the tenth man on the moon, Charlie Duke.  During the meeting, Duke received a telephone call informing him that Pete Conrad, of Apollo 12, had been in a motorcycle accident; later he was confirmed to have died from the injuries sustained in the accident.  

It was the words Duke left me with that set my mind reeling that day.  He said them quietly and evenly, as though uttering a psalm.

"Now there's only nine of us."

Only nine.

Correspondingly, Smith divides his book into nine chapters; however, he does not, as one might immediately think, devote one chapter to each of the remaining astronauts.  His journey leads him to meet with not only the remaining moonwalkers, but also the men who could not go "the last sixty miles" to the moon, the Command Module (CM) pilots, such as Mike Collins (Apollo 11) and Dick Gordon (Apollo 12).  

Smith's book combines personal memory, descriptions of the Apollo missions, inner thoughts and recent interviews with the Apollo astronauts to great effect.  His accounts of the Apollo 11 take-off and the Gemini 11 Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA, or "space walk" to you and me) are heart-stopping and real.  His interviews with the astronauts and encounters with other "space nuts" really give you a feel for the characters behind the greatest achievement of mankind.  Alan Bean's (Apollo 12) artwork sounds gorgeous to behold, as he forever tries to capture the "human" part of walking on the moon that he regrets never being explored — too much emphasis was always placed on the scientific, and no time to just experience the moon.  

An undercurrent throughout the book is a sense of urgency to get back, and how we cannot let the Moon landings pass into legend.  Too many people already hold that they never happened, and too many people are alive now (myself included) who don't remember the Moon landings because they weren't alive at the time.  The last optimistic act of the 20th Century is also mankind's greatest achievement, and we should be looking to top it (by getting men on Mars) or equalling it regularly.  NASA's focus has shifted with the large budget cuts it has faced since 1972 and the need to replace the Space Shuttle, and so we haven't got out of low-Earth orbit in the last 35 years.  This is a great shame, and should be addressed.

Smith's book cannot come more highly recommended.  It will get you thinking about philosophy, the wonder of being a member of the only race on Earth to escape the atmosphere, and just how small we are in the grand scheme of things.  Not in a bad way, but in a way that really makes you feel so incredibly lucky to be alive.  What's more,you'll never be able to look at a photo from/on the Moon without thinking, "Wow. That's the Moon!", and a similar, but slightly magnified feeling now erupts inside me as I look at photos from Mars.  Read it. 

1.  John Glenn. (2007, August 17). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 15:02, August 23, 2007, from

- 2 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. I am hoping that “In the Shadow of the Moon” gets a UK release – the surviving moon walkers get to talk about their experiences on screen.

    As much as the experience changed some of the astronauts, others it left strangely unchanged: many, apparently, got fed up of being asked about their space careers and wanted to tell people about what they had done since. And then there are the likes of Lovell and Jack Schmitt who took it in their stride with the utmost professionalism. All were different and it is an insult to them that there is an entire industry devoted to pulling it down.

    However, one wonders whether America will grasp the nettle of continuing their manned program in the next few years or merely take the opportunity to close it down.

    29 Aug 2007, 09:59

  2. I am hoping that “In the Shadow of the Moon” gets a UK release – the surviving moon walkers get to talk about their experiences on screen.

    That would be good, yes; it sounds rather similar in premise to Moodust, but it would be so good to actually see the astronauts. I’m getting a pretty vivid mental picture from the book (helped in part by all the off-the-record stuff Smith includes), but it’s obviously a mental picture of the men through Smith’s eyes, and thus biased to some extent, albeit without intention.

    it is an insult to them that there is an entire industry devoted to pulling it down.

    I totally agree. But not only is it an insult to them and the other people who worked on the project, but it also undermines humanity’s greatest achievement – for just a few hours at a time, we escaped our planet! Not only that, but we landed on our own satellite! We touched the very edge of Deep Space!

    However, one wonders whether America will grasp the nettle of continuing their manned program in the next few years or merely take the opportunity to close it down.

    I agree with Buzz and John Watts Young (Apollo 16) on this one; it may be that our very survival ends up depending on new manned Moon missions, or even manned Mars missions. We as a civilisation got so much more out of the Apollo project than “just” twelve men on the Moon: Teflon, for example. And then there’s the fact that we might have to move to another planet having royally buggered this one up. The technology to take man back to the Moon or on to Mars will have a real impact on real lives here on Earth too (a good thing, scientific progress…), but NASA can’t rely on the US taxpayer to foot the bill the way they did for Apollo, unless a similar set of circumstances to the Cold War Space Race arise again.

    Here’s hoping.

    30 Aug 2007, 20:48

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