The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

book cover

Reviews: Looking back at Apollo

Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth
By Andrew Smith
Fourth Estate, 2005
Hardcover, 372 pp.
ISBN 0-00-715541-7

Race to the Moon
PBS American Experience
60 mins.
Premieres October 31 (check listings for time and channel)

At last month’s world premiere of the IMAX 3-D movie Magnificent Desolation at the National Air and Space Museum, honored guests walked down a red carpet from the museum’s entrance to a secluded VIP lounge. Media were arrayed along the red carpet, with a very specific pecking order: photographers and videographers at the door, to record the entrance of the guests, with lesser print and online journalists (this reviewer included) farther down the carpet. Many of the guests, including actor/producer Tom Hanks and NASA administrator Michael Griffin, never made it all the way down the red carpet, splitting off after greeting the initial phalanx of cameras.

On the other hand, another group of guests—a number of the Apollo astronauts whose lunar explorations were reenacted in the IMAX film—dutifully walked down the red carpet, talking with any reporter willing to direct a question their way. They were, without fail, intelligent and engaging, and eager to talk about their experiences on the Moon, their impressions of the film, and their thoughts about the Vision for Space Exploration. So eager, in fact, that on more than one occasion the astronaut had to be dragged away by his handler (who also had the duty of announcing each astronaut as they made their way down the carpet—“Anyone want to talk with Charlie Duke? Anyone?”)

How did these people adapt once Apollo was done, their career- and life-defining achievement made while still in middle age?

That event was a stark reminder of the place, or lack thereof, the Apollo astronauts have in American society today. Heroes 35 years ago, at the pinnacle of America’s race to the Moon, they have been mostly forgotten by the general public today, fading away as part of the ever-changing retinue of athletes, actors, musicians, and other celebrities. How did these people adapt once Apollo was done, their career- and life-defining achievement made while still in middle age? That’s the question that Andrew Smith grapples with—but doesn’t fully succeed in answering—in Moondust.

Smith is a British journalist who spent much of his childhood in the United States: he was eight years old and living in the San Francisco area when Apollo 11 landed. A brief interest in the space program, long forgotten, was rekindled after interviewing Duke and his wife in London. Smith wondered what had become of the explorers of his childhood, and how they adapted to life after Apollo. Moondust is about his quest to interview as many of the surviving moonwalkers as he can, and see what became of these explorers in the decades since Apollo.

Much of Moondust is composed of vignettes as Smith zigzags across the country, from Florida and California to Las Vegas and Houston, tracking down moonwalkers and other Apollo astronauts. Edgar Mitchell continues his interest in the paranormal. Dick Gordon, the Apollo 12 command module pilot, looks almost pathetic, all but ignored at an autograph show in Las Vegas in favor of third-rate actors from sci-fi TV shows. John Young dazzled—and perhaps overwhelmed—Smith with his discussions of lunar science and the threat to humanity posed by asteroid impacts. Smith had the luck of meeting Buzz Aldrin the day after Aldrin’s infamous encounter with Bart Sibrel. He was even able to cross paths in person, and later exchange emails, with Neil Armstrong, although those encounters offered few insights.

While each of these individual encounters is entertaining, collectively the whole is less than the sum of its parts. It’s difficult to puzzle out what the underlying theme of the book is supposed to be. Is it that the Apollo astronauts went off in so many different directions after their missions? That hardly seems surprising, given that, despite the best efforts of NASA public affairs of the day to demonstrate the conformity of the astronaut corps, these are all very different people, with different backgrounds and personalities, many of whom are not necessarily close with one another. (One interesting observation made late in the book is that the lunar module pilots tended to be more strongly affected by their missions than their commanders, but Smith doesn’t devote a lot of time to try and explain why that might be true.) Is the book’s purpose to show how these “men who fell to Earth” responded to achieving the highlight of their careers while many were still in their thirties? If so, the book doesn’t do that well a job of explaining how well they did. There are countless people, from child actors to athletes, whose most significant accomplishments came early in their lives. Despite the personal demons some of the Apollo astronauts had to fight after the end of the program—alcohol, depression, divorce—one might argue that the Apollo astronauts handled this better than, say, a high school quarterback who wins the state championship at age 17 and spends the rest of his life futilely trying to recapture that glory. Smith, though, doesn’t pursue that line of argument.

In the end, Moondust, like so many other books, is as much about the author as it is the subject matter. Smith comes to that realization in the final pages of the book: “Why had I wanted to come back to the time and place of Apollo? … For eighteen months this has vexed me, but suddenly the answer seems obvious: that the astronauts represent a time when the world seems to reflect my own innocence.” That innocence may have been short-lived, but the memories proved strong. Perhaps, in the end, too strong, spoiling what might have been a more coherent, enlightening examination of how a monumental effort like Apollo reshaped the lives of the men who journeyed to the Moon.

Race to the Moon reminds us of the technical challenges and triumphs involved with journeys to the Moon, a lesson NASA will be relearning as it embarks on the Vision for Space Exploration in the years to come.

A different look at Apollo is offered by Race to the Moon, a one-hour documentary produced for PBS’s American Experience series. Race to the Moon focuses on a single important, but often forgotten, mission: Apollo 8, the first manned mission to go to and orbit the Moon. Flown near the apex of the Space Race with the Soviet Union, and during a time of severe duress on Earth, Apollo 8 was a bold, risky mission designed to revive flagging momentum for the Apollo program and stay a step ahead of the Russians. It achieved those goals, but was overshadowed within months by Apollo 11.

The story of Apollo 8 is familiar to most readers, and Race to the Moon doesn’t offer many new revelations: its audience is the general public, not space enthusiasts. The documentary, though, does feature some rare archival footage of the mission, including views of Mission Control, the astronauts’ wives at home, and film shot during the mission itself, most notably shots of reentry, with the capsule’s windows bathed in a bright red glow as one astronaut advises his crewmates to “hold on tight!” Interspersed within the old footage are recent interviews with the Apollo 8 astronauts, their wives, mission controllers, and others.

Race to the Moon reminds us of the technical challenges and triumphs involved with journeys to the Moon, a lesson NASA will be relearning as it embarks on the Vision for Space Exploration in the years to come. One wonders, though, what the human challenges will be for the next generation of astronauts to walk on the lunar surface, some thirteen or more years from now, and what they can learn from the Apollo experience.