Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth by Andrew Smith

20 December 2010

Apollo 11 happened in my lifetime, but I’m much too young to remember it.

Andrew Smith remembers it: he was a lad of eight, and begins his brilliant book Moondust with his recollection of a warm summer day, riding his bike with a friend through their Northern California subdivision, arriving home in time to hear the last minutes of the descent, and sitting in his living room a few hours later to hear Neil Armstrong utter those famous words.

I was not quite six months old when the Eagle landed, so I remember nothing of it. My family was on a camping trip, and during the Moonwalk, the One Small Step, I was fast asleep in a big canvas tent. My parents, only vaguely aware that the world’s attentions were so acutely focused on this event, stood half-interested along with a handful of other people around a small, black-and-white portable television owned by the folks in the next campsite over. The reception was awful—and of course the images from the Moon were grey and ghostly at best—so I think their experience of the event was rather underwhelming.

One of my earliest memories of any kind is of Apollo, although in researching its specifics now I find that my recollection may be entirely flawed. In my mind, as a not-yet-four-year-old I was awakened in what seemed like the middle of the night by my grandfather and hauled blearily down to the basement to watch as Cernan and Schmitt climbed aboard the Apollo 17 Lunar Module Challenger and the last men launched from the Moon. The tricolor debris of liftoff—the red-green-blue scans of the lunar rover camera being sequential rather than simultaneous—still sticks in my mind as one of the archetypal images of the entire program.

Except that in the time zone where I was, the lunar liftoff took place around dinnertime. Perhaps the late-night rousting I recall was of the mission-commencing Saturn V launch from Florida instead, which took place well after my bedtime. If that’s the case, I have to admit to remembering it not at all.

At any rate I was young enough not to notice the hiatus, the huge gear-grinding downshift, when Apollo ended and the only things happening in American manned spaceflight for more than eight years were a trio of long(ish)-duration Earth-orbital missions aboard a converted Saturn V third stage, and the brief effort in détente known as Apollo–Soyuz. My media input was mainly from books, and in those books—among them NASA’s Apollo Expeditions to the Moon, Ruth Sonneborn’s Question and Answer Book of Space, and of course Carl Sagan’s masterpiece Cosmos—human spaceflight continued its merry ascent toward the stars, unfettered by political machinations and budget considerations.

Since then, along with biographies on Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Gene Cernan, Gene Kranz, Deke Slayton and others, I have read dozens of books on the Space Race, Apollo, the Moon landings. Some are sublime, like Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon; some are fairly routine, cut-and-dried, and uninspired; some, like Tom Kelly’s Moon Lander and Roger Bilstein’s Stages to Saturn, are rife with technical detail. Some are just going through the motions, praying to get all their facts correct (and, often as not, failing).

But few, if any, pose a question both simple to ask and complicated to ponder: What did Apollo mean? And for that matter, what does it mean today, decades later?

Andrew Smith chooses to ask those questions. By chance he found himself in proximity to Charlie Duke and his wife as they learned of the death of Duke’s fellow Moonwalker, Pete Conrad. Duke’s shattered comment to Smith: “Now there’s only nine of us.”

This sets Smith on a journey to meet all the surviving Moonwalkers and get their impressions of their time on that celestial body. But not to answer the prosaic and frequently asked “What was it like to walk on the Moon?” He delves more into the question of “What was it like to return to Earth after having walked on the Moon?” He focuses on the aftermath of each mission, the paths (some clear-cut and successful, some desultory and haphazard) each astronaut took upon splashdown.

Smith’s story of the Space Race and its aftermath is delightfully candid and uniquely personal, and is not only a fun read but also an important contribution to the history. I would even go so far as to say that, if after reading the best book on the Space Race bar none—Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon—readers find themselves wanting more, they could do far worse than to turn to this book for further perspective.

Andrew Smith comes to some interesting conclusions about what it all “meant,” but it does him no justice to attempt to condense them down to a few paragraphs. Suffice it to say that Moondust takes us on a personal voyage of discovery, clears away the veils of mythology surrounding Apollo, and brings the Moon home to all of us on Earth.

That said, one glaring point Smith makes in conclusion hit home to me.

He discusses the real reason that Lunar Orbit Rendezvous, an outsider (if not radical) idea, was chosen over the Earth Orbit Rendezvous favoured by NASA’s top engineers: time. LOR stood a better chance of getting the job done before Kennedy’s arbitrary deadline.  But EOR’s incremental approach was the better way:

Earth Orbit Rendezvous would have taken longer, but would have bequeathed a waypoint in space, prepaid for and pointed out toward the stars. It could have been scaled up or down and adapted to a range of purposes with relatively little bother. It would have involved developing technologies and skills that would endure, so that when the political imperatives that drove Kennedy had gone and the lunar landings ceased, an orbital base camp would have been left behind. The Sixties-end deadline had necessitated a built-in obsolescence that was the quintessence of its time.

For all the Space Race history I’ve read, I cannot recall having seen this idea expressed so flatly, so concisely, if at all:

Jack’s Apollo program killed “manned” Deep-Space exploration, stone dead, for at least the next four decades and probably many more.

It’s not a popular notion, that the man we think of as having sent us to the Moon ruined spaceflight for us. Unfortunately, it’s true. For the past thirty years we’ve been launching the Shuttle back and forth to low Earth orbit—and as Smith suggests, the difference between that and a voyage to Deep Space is akin to the difference between climbing a hill and actually flying. The International Space Station, for all its size and arguable science potential, goes nowhere. While the Russians are still flying a 1960s spacecraft aboard a 1950s rocket (both substantially upgraded and modernized, of course), not one bit of our moonshot hardware carried over into the Shuttle era. Apollo really was disposable.

Most people don’t realize the cold hard fact that today, in 2010, the human race lacks the technology to return to the moon. What we did forty years ago, we can no longer do. When I tell people that, they’re almost always shocked. We’ve lived so long with that old saw—“We can put a man on the moon, so why can’t we do x?”—that it doesn’t occur to us that its premise is false. We can’t put a man on the moon.

Why? Because JFK wanted to beat the Russians at something, and somebody said we could beat them to the Moon, and so we did. But we did so at the expense of a sustainable space program.

In 2010, the year A. C. Clarke used for our second manned voyage to Jupiter, forty years after Alan Shepard played golf on the Moon, how sad it is to be twiddling our thumbs in low Earth orbit and heading into yet another gap in U.S. manned spaceflight capability. Thanks for nothing, Jack.

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