Book review: Moondust

Moondust by Andrew Smith is a space history book that seeks to tell a unique tale through first person interviews. The subtitle describes the quest for which he set out – “In Search of the Men who Fell to Earth”.

As Smith describes in his prologue, he did not originally intend to spend several years on a quest to interview all the surviving Apollo astronauts. His principal career was as a journalist, not an author, and on July 9, 1999 he was interviewing Charlie Duke (Apollo 16 LM pilot) and his wife for a magazine. That was the morning the world learned of the death of Pete Conrad. Somehow that coincidence of timing haunted Smith, leading him to ponder the meaning of Apollo and those unique men, the “moonwalkers.” Hunting down all 9 surviving moonwalkers is a daunting task, but somehow Smith accomplished it, with a few Command module pilots thrown in to boot.

There is nothing like a first person account of history. Moondust is a one of a kind book (unless you count the film “In the Shadow of the Moon” as a book) in that it provides so many first person accounts of the Apollo program, from the men that flew the missions, in one place. This is Moondust’s exceptional achievement, which overcomes some other flaws – not least of which is Smith’s lack of in depth knowledge about the Apollo program. Smith is certainly an outsider to the space program. He freely admits that he is not even a huge fan of space exploration. Thus, it is understandable that he is not a space scholar. This provides a fresh outside perspective but leads to some glaring factual and editorial errors. A good example is when Smith asserts that the Apollo program stopped for 18 months after the Apollo 1 fire so that NASA management could be “overhauled.” A more studious historian would know that the entire Command Module design was also “overhauled” during this period.*

Due to these frequent errors or twists of history, I would not recommend Moondust to readers who are not already studied in Apollo history. Moondust is not a book to read to learn about Apollo. Instead, Smith’s book is a look at the personalities of many of the astronauts themselves. When reading other personal stories, such as the memoirs of astronauts Gene Cernan, Al Worden, or Dave Scott, you are only treated to one perspective for an entire book. Within the pages of Moondust you can contrast the free spirit of Al Bean with the cocky second place finisher Buzz Aldrin with the hard and political Cernan with the quiet hero Neil Armstrong, and many more. Smith’s interpretations of the many astronauts motivations and psychologies may be flawed, but the words from the moonmen he interviewed are their own. In some cases, more interesting than the words the astronauts say, is Smith’s description of their demeanor, tone, and unique quirks. For instance, Aldrin’s strange ramblings can only really be appreciated by someone that has seen him speak off script (ie, not on Dancing the With the Stars or an Axe commercial).**

The second aspect of Moondust which I really liked is what seems to be at the heart of most negative reviews of the book on Amazon.com – context. Andrew Smith does more than just recount his many interesting interviews with Apollo heroes, he gives us personal and historical context for his thoughts about Apollo, and why it may or may not have been worth it. Most astronaut memoirs do at times try to provide context by discussing what was going on in the world outside – Vietnam, civil rights, civil unrest (Kent State, Chicago DNC riots). But most of the astronauts bring those events up to admit that they were sheltered in their NASA bubble, and were thinking only about their missions. Andrew Smith of course grew up and lived through the 60s and 70s, and at times digresses from his space themed narrative to tell us what that was like. This is described by some Amazon reviews as “self-absorbed” and “narcissistic” but overall I found it enlightening.

In summary, Moondust is a book worth picking up for any space geek who wants a new perspective, and who won’t be offended by an outsider telling you that maybe space exploration isn’t everything you make it up to be. Smith’s core thesis is dubious, but interesting; that the astronauts who went to the moon never really “came back” but instead spent the rest of their lives searching for that sense of purpose that they had during their mission, forever dreaming of the Moon. This may not be a fair psychoanalysis to use with so broad a brush, but it took me out of my comfort zone and really caused me to examine each of the moonwalkers as people. Moondust is best read after first reading the major Apollo memoirs (Cernan, Aldrin, Worden, Slayton, Scott, Kranz, Kraft, and Lovell) but will likely be enjoyed by almost any space fan. Add it to your reading list.

 

*My second favorite error is during Smith’s chapter about his Al Bean interview. He says that Bean described watching “the Earth wax and wane int he sky “like a blue-and-white eye opening and closing.” But clearly this is impossible, as the moon’s orbit means that Earth’s phases, as seen from the moon, are also on a 28 day cycle. Perhaps Bean was referring to shifting cloud patterns on the Earth. In any case, Smith’s lack of scientific understanding here is glaring.
**Apparently Aldrin has partnered with AXE in some strange promotion where they will send contest winners to space. Ya, I don’t get it either.
January 10, 2013 10:32 pm

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