Book Review: Moon Dust

Andrew Smith is a British magazine writer. Naturally, his writing is self-deprecating and full of pop cultures references. He was also born in New York and grew up in California in the 1960s and got caught up in the space race, especially the Apollo program.

His non-fiction book Moon Dust has a terrific premise. After hearing that Pete Conrad has died, Smith realizes that there are only nine men left alive who have ever walked on the moon. And they are all in their seventies (more or less). He sets out to interview each of them, ask them about Apollo (“was it worth it?”) and their experience (“how did it change you?”).

If, like me, you have an interest in Apollo for the characters (and although these are real live guys, they were definitely characters) as well as the history, this is excellent. After vaguely hearing about Buzz Aldrin being kind of crazy, I want to hear about him now. And what’s Alan Bean like now that he’s traded aerospace for fine art (albeit focusing on painting moonscapes)? What’s up with John Young? And where the hell has Neil Armstrong gone?

Smith addresses all of these questions. Bean is a particularly compelling character, even more so now, I think, for being so content. And of course we have to know, was he really the model for Jack Nicholson’s character in Terms of Endearment? (Yeah, also, strange as it may seem, for Bill Paxton’s protrayal of Bean’s colleague Fred Haise in Apollo 13.) Aldrin is the opposite, full of nervous energy, with a phobia for writing, even though he’s written some science fiction novels (he draws graphs for what happens and his collaborators flesh it out). And though Smith focuses on the nine moonwalkers, he also contacts other astronauts — including some of my personal favorites, William Anders and Michael Collins. He lets Scott Carpenter tell his side of the feud with Chris Kraft (although he says nothing that really contradicts Kraft’s memoir he comes across as more sympathetic than the Director of Flight portrays him).

This is great stuff!

Unfortunately, there’s some not as great stuff to slog through to get to the gems. There’s a lot about Smith growing up and wanting to be an astronaut. We get to hear about how sexy his fourth grade teacher was. He reminds us that the Vietnam was going on and that 1968 was a hellish year. He tells us what was playing on the radio and t.v. All this may be important context for anyone under 30 who picks up the book without any prior knowledge of NASA before the space shuttle, but not so interesting to anyone who has glanced at a history book.

The other annoying tic is the referencing of pop culture. Now anyone who knows me knows that I like pop culture as much as anyone, but maybe not as much as the average Brit. (Remember the 1990s? I read in NME or Melody Maker that almost everyone in England — grandfathers and pre-teen girls knew all the words to Oasis’ big hits and would sing along to pub jukeboxes. Can you imagine that happening in America?) Anyway, my point is, it gets gratuitous. Do you need to know what Wayne Coyne thought of Apollo? (Actually, I was kind of curious until I read the rambling, riffing paragraph that sounded like a stoned college sophomore.) Or here, how about what Smith has to say about Jim Lovell’s famous statement, “Houston, we’ve had a problem”?:

“With hindsight, the only good thing about the situation was Lovell’s response, expressed with an understatement and timing which the combined writers of Friends, The Simpsons and Six Feet Under would have struggeled to better.” (p. 207)

Huh? I’m sorry, was Lovell trying to make a joke? Is Friends the epitome of understated dialogue? Have you seen Joey?! (But then he makes up for this with another pop culture fact: Apollo 13 was a screwup. Period. until Al Reinart wrote that the mission was “NASA’s finest hour” in his 1995 screenplay, no one else thought so.)

The last stylistic device that was a little odd was Smith’s tendency to write about writing. He tells us what he wears to the interviews with the astronauts, and the interviews are presented as faux transcripts with Smith’s chuckles of embarassment or humor, odd insights and frustrations all part of the package. In a sense, if you want to know what it’s like to be a magazine writer, here’s a good place to start.

These annoyances were easy to skip, however, and I did find myself breezing through the pages about young Andrew riding his bike through the streets of Orinda. And overall, it was probably worth it for the interviews. How strange is John Young? And how cool is Rene Carpenter, writing her own Life Magazine stories (edited by Loudon Wainwright, father of LW III and grandpa of Rufus), mocking the media circus, meeting Jackie Kennedy and later (after divorcing Scott) campaigning for RFK and present in Indianapolis when Bobby addressed the crowd following MLK‘s death?

Actually, all the wives seem pretty cool, even the second, third and fourth wives.

Aside from the individual stories, Smith does connect a few interesting dots. He realizes that all the moonwalkers were eldest sons. Moreover he finds that while the commanders of the moon missions all stayed pretty straight and narrow:

  • (11) Armstrong returned to Ohio to teach, does not like to be recognized as special for having stepped on the moon first;
  • (12) Conrad and (14) Shepherd both deceased ([13]Lovell never landed);
  • (15) David Scott, more reclusive than Armstrong, wrote a bookwith cosmonaut Alexei Leonov;
  • (16) John Young still works for NASA; and
  • (17) Gene Cernan still promotes space exploration and was at GW Bush’s side when the president announced his Mars initiative (that went nowhere)

the lunar module pilots all diverged:

  • (11) Buzz Aldrin went through alcoholism, depression and is considered a little nuts (but in a “lovable ol’ crazy uncle Edwin” way);
  • (12) Alan Bean became a successful painter;
  • (14) Ed Mitchell founded ION and studies ESP and other paraphenomenon;
  • (15) Jim Irwin (deceased) heard the voice of God on the moon and threw himself into the church upon his return;
  • (16) Charles Duke, with the help of his wife, also found God; and
  • (17) Harrison “Jack” Schmitt served in the US Senate.

Smith surmises that the LM pilots were less experienced and had fewer responsibilities for the mission and perhaps more time to contemplate their surroundings. It may also be that after the strict (even stricter than Mercury) second wave of recruitment that brought most of the commanders to NASA, more humanistically oriented men were brought in. Smith also suggests that perhaps Deke Slayton of the astronaut office (whose ghost shadows every man in the book) chose hardcore leftbrain men who would not be distracted to command the missions.

So now you don’t have to read the book. No really, if you know nothing of Apollo, this is not a bad place to start (although Chaikin’s Man on the Moon is the best), and if you want some sort of follow up on where they all are now, this is the place to find it.

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