In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth
By Andrew Smith
Fourth Estate; 372pp; $24.95
The Good A spellbinding tale of what has befallen the Apollo astronauts since they walked the moon.
The Bad Smith may exaggerate the difficulties that the men had in readjusting to life on Earth.
The Bottom Line Fascinating for its historical detail, engaging writing, and wistful meditation on space travel.
In September of 2002, former Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin arrived at a Los Angeles hotel expecting to meet with a crew from Japanese educational television. Instead he was ambushed by a Bible-wielding independent filmmaker who insisted that Aldrin place his right hand on the Good Book and swear that he truly went to the moon. Aldrin turned to go, and the man began shouting, "You are a liar and a coward." The 72-year-old responded with a left hook to the guy's jaw, laying the matter, and the filmmaker, temporarily to rest.
Such is life for the nine surviving moonwalkers from NASA's $24 billion, 1963-'72 Apollo program. Men who once ruled the heavens -- and who, upon their return, were granted rock-star-like status -- now inhabit a perplexing galaxy. One day they're ignored, the next heckled by conspiracy theorists or pursued by nostalgia-addicted fans. In the spellbinding Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth, Andrew Smith investigates just what has befallen the astronauts since their glory days. Along the way, the author -- who was born in California of English expat parents and who now writes for several British publications -- details some of the dramatic Apollo landings. As he tracks down each astronaut, he offers a provocative meditation on lunar travel and humanity's relation to space, pondering such themes as space art, quantum mechanics, New Age religion, UFOs, Star Trek, and his own childhood memories.
Apollo 16's Charlie Duke, who in 1972 became the 10th of only 12 humans to stride the lunar surface, illustrates the spacemen's predicament. One minute, says Smith, Duke was up there looking down at Earth, which seemed "like a jewel, so colorful and bright that you felt you could reach up and grab it." Then he was back here, sensing "that his life could only be one long, slow anticlimax." Numerous business offers came his way, allowing him to set up a San Antonio beer distributorship, which in time produced wealth. But that didn't make him happy, and he abused both his family and the bottle before turning to Jesus.
Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, became a professor and corporate board member but also a near-recluse. Gene Cernan, captain of Apollo 17 and the last to visit the moon, became a "professional Moontalker," making a living from speeches and by promoting Omega watches. Edgar Mitchell, who experienced a religious epiphany during his Apollo 14 flight, founded a "consciousness studies" organization, the Institute of Noetic Sciences.
Life crises were common, many featuring alcohol and divorce. (One wonders if the author doesn't overemphasize them. Were the astronauts more troubled than any other group of middle-aged men?) Aldrin, for example, "came back and blew like a supernova." After undertaking a disconcerting public-relations tour of the globe, he abandoned his wife and family for another woman, then suffered an alcohol-fueled breakdown before entering psychiatric treatment. Aldrin comes across as one of the more engaging of the men. Like Apollo 16 Commander John Young, Aldrin's life now is devoted to proselytizing for further space travel. Among the projects he favors is a "cycler" that would travel perpetually between the Earth and Mars, exploiting gravity for fuel.
There are many ghosts in Moondust -- the spirits of what might have been. Over a million people attended the 1969 launch of Apollo 11, and up to a billion claimed to have followed it on TV. As its rocket roared through the earth's atmosphere, author Arthur C. Clarke spoke for many when he announced: "This is the last day of the old world." But by the early '70s, Americans had lost almost all interest in space shots. Neither the original Cold War rationale -- the Russians had by that point given up competing -- nor NASA's substitute mission of "exploration" seemed to move the public, which was increasingly wary of costly Washington-backed adventures. As a result, Smith observes, the Space Age has "come to seem an historical anomaly." Someday soon, the author notes, "there won't be anyone left who has stood on the moon."
So what was it all for? There were no military gains, Smith explains, and the much-ballyhooed economic and scientific benefits could have been won without putting humans at such risk. Clearly the project provided life-altering inspiration for a generation of scientists. But for Smith, the primary payoff was an unexpected one, something like the effect of a great work of art: Apollo gave us a new perspective on Earth, "a unique opportunity to look at ourselves." Apollo 12 veteran Alan Bean says he was a different person when he returned, having realized that "we have never seen anything as beautiful as what we see when we walk out the front door." Would anyone suggest that such a realization wasn't worth $24 billion?
By Hardy Green