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Review: Dark Side of the Moon

Dark Side of the Moon: The Magnificent Madness of the American Lunar Quest
by Gerard J. DeGroot
New York University Press, 2006
Hardcover, 320 pp.
ISBN 0-8147-1995-3

When NASA released its basic architecture last week for manned lunar exploration, including the establishment of a permanent base near one of the poles, the media and the general public made the inevitable comparisons to the Apollo lunar missions 35 years ago. In an effort to justify its plans, NASA offered a passel of reasons for a lunar facility, from science to commerce to a staging area for future exploration, all with varying degrees of plausibility (see “Moonbase why”, The Space Review, this issue). By comparison, the Apollo program had one primary compelling rationale: beating America’s Cold War archenemy, the Soviet Union, to the Moon. By that metric Apollo was a resounding success, but at what cost besides the billions of dollars spent on the program? That’s the topic explored by historian Gerard DeGroot in Dark Side of the Moon.

DeGroot, a professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, is perhaps proof of the saying that the harshest critic is the man betrayed by his heroes. DeGroot, as he explains in the book’s preface, had originally intended this book to be a paean to “the heroes of my youth”: the astronauts of the early Space Age. However, he said, as he researched the topic, he found evidence that, besides his astronaut heroes, there was “a gang of cynics, manipulators, demagogues, tyrants, and even a few criminals.” (Gasp!) Thus, he changed the focus of the book to deconstructing the myths that he believes surrounded America’s early space program, including what he calls the “misguided emphasis upon manned space travel.”

Likening NASA to the invasive kudzu vines that plague the South, he writes, “NASA took over entire communities and sent its tendrils everywhere. Its healthy appearance obscured the fact that it was strangling the American economy.” However, DeGroot never provides any evidence to support this unlikely “fact”.

The myths that DeGroot seeks to overturn, while new to him, should be familiar to most readers. It should hardly be surprising that the US overstated the capabilities of the Soviet program, be it from a lack of good intelligence or a need to build up a case for increased funding for NASA. The belief that President Kennedy had a strong personal interest in space was overturned years ago by memos that indicated his concerns about the cost, and a potential desire to short-circuit the race with the Soviets though a cooperative venture (see “Murdering Apollo: John F. Kennedy and the retreat from the lunar goal”, parts one and two, The Space Review, October 30 and November 6, 2006.) The arguments seem familiar because, while DeGroot does use some documents obtained from NASA and presidential archives, he relies principally on secondary sources, synthesizing new arguments from them rather than uncovering new facts. (And, in at least one case, his facts are in error: after Apollo 8, he claims, “there seemed little point in testing the lunar module in Earth orbit”, so Apollo 9 flew around the Moon to test the module. In fact, Apollo 9 carried out the lunar module tests in Earth orbit; Apollo 10 tested it in lunar orbit as a dress rehearsal for Apollo 11’s landing.)

DeGroot’s arguments also fall short in some places. Likening NASA to the invasive kudzu vines that plague the South, he writes, “NASA took over entire communities and sent its tendrils everywhere. Its healthy appearance obscured the fact that it was strangling the American economy.” However, DeGroot never provides any evidence to support this “fact”, which seems difficult to swallow, especially when, at its peak in the mid-1960s, NASA’s budget was only about a tenth of the Defense Department’s. If NASA was “strangling” the American economy, then the DOD must have snapped its neck, yet somehow the economy survived and thrived. Elsewhere, he devotes a page to a “wheeler-dealer” named Bobby Baker who won the vending machine concession for most NASA centers in the 1960s—and was later convicted of fraud and tax evasion. DeGroot includes this without much explanation, other than to suggest that not all the people involved in Apollo were heroes of noble intent. Yet DeGroot doesn’t examine if the level of fraud and profiteering in Apollo was any different from what has taken place in wars or other major national initiatives. Human nature may be unavoidable regardless of the loftiness of out goals.

Although DeGroot’s facts are not necessarily novel and some of his arguments are not fleshed out, the central thesis of Dark Side of the Moon remains clear: the US went to the Moon not out of some noble sense of exploration but out of a Cold War-initiated compulsion that became impossible to reign in before its near-term goal—landing humans on the Moon—was achieved. But you knew that already. Does that mean efforts like the Vision for Space Exploration, which is taking root today in a very different political environment from Apollo, are doomed? DeGroot might think so: he considers manned spaceflight a “cul de sac” and the Moon as a desolate world of little interest to anyone. Yet, elsewhere in the book, he touches upon the mania for anything space-related that swept through American society in the 1960s: was this, as he suggests, the result of clever marketing by NASA, or perhaps a reflection of an era where technology, as exemplified by spaceflight, was seen as synonymous with progress? Or, perhaps, is there a latent interest in space exploration—for whatever reason—in American society that was awakened for a time by Apollo? If that’s the case, there may yet be a bright future for the Vision for Space Exploration, provided NASA and its supporters can craft a set of reasons for human spaceflight that can rouse that public interest once again.