by Andrew Smith
Bloomsbury, 2005, £17.99, 384pp
|See also my review of In The Shadow Of The Moon||This review first appeared on The SF Site|
Have you read A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts
by Andrew Chaikin? Shame on you, science fiction reader, if you
haven’t, because it’s one of the most moving and remarkable pieces of
science non-fiction I’ve ever come across, telling the full
story of the Apollo moon missions in sometimes excruciating detail, but
inspiring a sense of wonder at that achievement that should never be
allowed to be forgotten.|
Andrew Smith’s Moondust is an excellent companion piece to that book.
It all started when Smith, a journalist, had a kind of minor epiphany, realising that the number of people still living who have walked on another world is now down to single figures following the death of Pete Conrad, and that within his own lifetime there might well be no one alive who has done so. He therefore decides to try and track down the remaining nine Apollo moonwalkers, to ask them how such a singular experience has changed their lives and perspectives. And what he finds is by turns deeply moving, funny, surprising and remarkable, full of bathos and doubt and confusion, but also, more than once, a struggle to come to terms with this experience.
Not all of the Apollo astronauts are amenable to interview; more than one of them just wants to be left alone, but the ones who are available and willing are, almost without exception, fascinating people. Even the ones that generally prefer to maintain their silence (often understandably so) are at least intriguing, both in what they do and don’t say.
And so we have Ed Mitchell, born-again ‘New Ager’, a wonderful, smart and caring man, eager to seek out what he sees as the meaning behind the experience of his trip to the moon. Even if you don’t fully, or even partly, subscribe to his point of view it’s impossible not to like and admire him, the same with Charlie Duke and Al Bean, both of whom have followed their own separate paths since the landings.
And there’s Buzz Aldrin (now his legal name) – fiercely intelligent, although perhaps less socially adept than the gregarious Mitchell, Smith’s description of him is again – and perhaps somewhat against the odds – warm and humane. John Young similarly seems excessively quiet and reserved but Smith manages to turn these poor interviewee qualities around and take something fascinating away from the encounter.
What I also liked about this book, which some may not, is that there’s a lot of the author in it. It’s about Andrew Smith meeting the moon astronauts, how Andrew Smith saw the landings, what Andrew Smith thought at the time and what Andrew Smith, with hindsight, thinks about meeting the astronauts. You could see this as self-indulgent nostalgia or, like me, you could see it as grounding these interviews with a background personality, revivifying the awe and wonder of those days, and tempering it with a dose of 21st-century reality, because this book is about what the moon landings felt and feel like, meant and mean: not just for the astronauts, but for us earthbound mortals, too. And when you think about it – really think about it, as both this and Chaikin’s book force you to – the feelings are almost beyond words, almost beyond the human capacity to grasp. So it’s to Smith’s credit that he reveals the human frailties and vulnerabilities behind the majesty and glamour without reducing such an awe-inspiring achievement at all.
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