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Book Review: Moondust by Andrew Smith

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For people who grew up during the Apollo program and manned missions to the Moon, Andrew Smith’s Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth has an intriguing premise. He sets out to find and interview the men who walked on the Moon and see how it affected their lives. Unfortunately, it ultimately yields the conclusion that many people now seem to have of the Apollo program&#8212a lengthy journey that is ultimately more symbolic than substantial.

Smith’s idea stemmed from happening to meet with Charlie Duke, who walked on the Moon as part of the next to last Apollo mission, the day after the death of Pete Conrad, the commander of Apollo 12 and the third man to walk on the Moon. Smith began to wonder about the nine Moonwalkers still alive and the fact it is likely that in our lifetime there will be no one alive who accomplished that feat. Smith, born and initially raised in the U.S. during the Apollo program but now a resident of Great Britain, sets out to interview the surviving Moonwalkers to assess how the experience impacted their lives and what, if anything, it means for our own.

Smith could more accurately subtitle the book something like “my personal search to recapture my youth during the Apollo program by talking to Moonwalkers.” The book is as much about Smith’s own thoughts and feelings as it is Apollo or any of the individual astronauts, their family members or others he interviews. While that is not a bad thing in and of itself, he aggravates the situation by approaching his topic much like a Moon landing itself.

Just as a lunar mission required orbiting the Moon before a landing, Smith seems to write in a similar fashion. For example, Smith tells us in one chapter that he is setting out to visit Dotty Duke, Charlie’s wife, to obtain a spouse’s view of the Apollo program and the impact of the Moon landing on the Moonwalker and his family. Before we get to Dotty, though, we sit through a conversation with Andrew Aldrin, a son of the second man on the Moon, Buzz Aldrin. Once that is completed, we move to a description of the town in which the Dukes live and the hotel in which Smith is staying.

This, somehow, then leads into a discussion of the problems associated with urinating and defecating in zero gravity and Smith tracking down the astronaut who reportedly took enough Imodium that he wouldn’t have to defecate during his eight-day trip to and from the Moon. Somehow then using women’s menstrual cycles as a segue, we shift to the recollections of the first wife of Scott Carpenter, who flew the second manned orbital flight but never was an Apollo astronaut. We then hear comments from a few other wives of astronauts before ending up in the Dukes’ living room, with sufficient description of its contents and what the Dukes are wearing. We finally end up hearing from Dotty (and Charlie) more than halfway through the chapter.

Like lunar orbit, this journey has some bearing on the ultimate goal and provides some interesting scenery. Unlike lunar orbit, though, it often is not essential to the mission. Moreover, like lunar landings, when Smith finally reaches the ultimate target, he tends to follow a set agenda. His interviews often read like edited, summarized transcripts of his recordings of the interviews, interspersed with occasional comments about or descriptions of what Smith was thinking at the time.

Smith ultimately ends up talking to most of the surviving Moonwalkers and we do learn of the different paths they have taken. The extent to which we learn whether and how those paths stem from walking on the Moon, though, is open to question. Nor does Smith seem to have a specific flight plan, other than to follow the general order in which he interviewed people. Smith approaches all this in a travelogue-like style, never failing to describe his journeys to and through the interviews and dropping a vareity of names along the way, often musicians like Neil Young, Robert Plant, Brian Eno or David Bowie. We also hear at various times from and about various modern day space activists and those who believe the Moon landings were just a huge government hoax.

The meandering nature of the narrative reinforces the feeling that the book, initially published earlier this year in Great Britain, is far more a personal exploration than anything else. In fact, at one point late in the book, Smith admits to “finding that the thoughts and questions the Moonwalkers provoke when we look at them are more valuable than any answers they might attempt to provide; that our fascination is not about them, it’s about us.”

That is ultimately the problem here. We hear too much about Smith’s thoughts and questions and his fascination with how the Apollo program and the Moonwalkers affected him, taking us too far from the initial promise of the book. Smith does provide an interesting but too short evaluation of how all this affects his evaluation of the worth of the Apollo program.

By then, however, we have spent far too much time in orbit around rather than really exploring those few men who have actually stood on the surface of another celestial body.
Edited: PC

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About Tim Gebhart

After 30 years of practicing law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs. Tim Gebhart is now perfecting the art of doing little more than reading, writing and sleeping.
  • This book review has been selected for Advance.net. You’ll be able to find this and other Blog Critics reviews at such places as Cleveland.com’s Book Reviews column.

  • Paul Cooper

    I think having read the book that it brings into sharp relief for me the question: was it worth it? To me the answer that Andrew implies and I now see more clearly is that it depends on whether the outcome rather than the act itself prevails and makes a difference longer-term. E.g was Vietnam worth it? No (in my opinion) because the outcome did not prevail finally. The jury is currently out on Iraq. For Apollo I give the same answer as for Concorde. No because in the end they were technological dead ends. Both in effect were accomplished two decades too early. And because the outcomes did not then become sustained (e.g. the moon was not used as a stepping stone to planet exploration – recalling as per Arthur C. Clark that energy-wise the moon is halfway to the planets) Apollo must be viewed, alas, as ultimately a one-time stunt that may have actually stopped more longer approaches prevailing.

    I’m also so sad about the failure of Deke to send someone other than straight techos to the moon for the first journey. What a shame that Pete and Al Bean weren’t first. Instead we got a crew of machines (okay – I acknowledge that they had a hard job to accomplish) and the population switched off.

    I note also that Andrew didn’t really refer to Gagarin – I wonder if anyone recalls his own description of his return to earth from orbit? Wow I remember it to this day – “I was in a ball of fire plunging earthward!” Poetic.

    And all this son-father stuff in the book rings true. My dad for example seems to want me to believe it was all hoax – it’s like all dads want to burst the bubble on our precious innocent memories of those days. Why? Perhaps because they didn’t really feel the emotional wonder of it – it’s like only boys and some girls younger around 10 – 13 really felt it – take a look at the boy in the film “The Dish” and you see how I felt at the time. Amazing. Never to be forgotten. Not just a blip in our parents busy lives. For me it was a major life epoch. And then nothing was followed up. What a waste. That’s the tragedy.

    And Neil just doesn’t seem to get it if he only wants to talk about future space in the abstract – Andrew is right, people want to connect again to the feeling of the time and help make some sense of the effort and the achievement. And what about the fact that Buzz apparently took not one photo of Neil on the moon (I have heard because he was angry that Neil was first to step down) – and then the irony that their actual faces are never seen because of the mirrored gold visors – so in fact these days every photo of Buzz is assumed to be that of Neil! Talk about poetic justice. Wow no wonder Buzz melted down.

    Overall a good and thought provoking book that left me feeling sad I must confess. Paul