Moondust: In search of the men who fell to Earth, by Andrew Smith

Unhappy landings

Pat Kane
Friday 15 April 2005 00:00 BST

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There are only nine men left alive, in their sixties and seventies now, who have walked on the Moon's surface. This stark and moving fact is a golden literary opportunity to gather testimony from these grizzled, ramrod-straight survivors. Yet would you put a style journalist on the case?

Andrew Smith doesn't quite blow his chance, but his method keeps getting in the way of the right stuff. He pins each astronaut down to an interview slot, sucks in every detail of that brief encounter - from quizzical eyebrow to front-room chintz - and filters it all through a Nick Hornby-like persona. So all these encounters are eventually grist to the mill of Smith's own psychobiography. We are regularly reminded that he was a baby-boomer kid in California, aware that the 1960s and 1970s are happening, culturally and politically, but also straightforwardly thrilled to sit round the TV hearth, watching these chariots of fire and their heroic, bubble-helmeted gods.

The problem is that sometimes you want to take a hold of the writer's cortex, squeeze tight to stop all unnecessary introspection, and just hear these monuments speak. Yet consider the speech he has included, and it becomes obvious why Smith has to use his own childhood, career highlights and journalistic itineraries as filler. For with the glorious exceptions of Edgar Mitchell (who founded a space religion, Noetics, after his experience) and Neil Armstrong (so gnomic and reclusive, you have to sign an "Armstrong Clause" to ensure you don't report his words), the astronauts are a decidedly tedious bunch. They veer from signature-vending, conference-circuit cliché machines like Buzz Aldrin and Gene Cernan to corporate bureaucrats like Jack Schmitt and John Young (rendered almost autistic by his Nasa-era scientism) and to mildly eccentric family men and moon-landscape painters like Alan Bean and Charlie Duke.

So sententious are they about their other-worldly experience that, for the sake of excitement, Smith is occasionally reduced to prodding them into some mild character assassination of fellow-astronauts.

Yet Moondust also explains why gazing back at Mother Earth from afar did not create philosophers, or madmen, out of these crew-cut scientists and fighter pilots. Smith is very good on the sheer contingency and ricketyness of the Moon missions: the fuel lines blocking, the primitive computers going on the fritz, the many near- aborts and disasters. One lunar landing missed a calamitous crater by inches.

As yet another "wiry and trim" rocketeer assaults Smith with yet another hailstorm of astronautical data, you realise that for most of them, this was another fly-boy operation: the most spectacular, yet differing only in degree from previous piloting or scientific endeavors. Buzz Aldrin, looking in wonder at tapes of celebrations around the first landing, said to his colleague: "Neil, we missed the whole thing." Working through their research duties on the grey satellite, they had no sense of the civilisational shift they had incited. Perhaps necessarily: too much non-technical, Age-of-Aquarius dreaming on a moonwalk, and the awesomely fragile schedule designed to get them back would have unravelled.

Though written by a paid-up space cadet (Smith is authentically gobsmacked, I can confirm, by his first sight of the Saturn rocket in a Florida space museum), Moonwalk is reassuringly aware of the tougher arguments around the Apollo missions. Though almost all of the moonmen are advocates for reviving lunar exploration, Smith knows his realpolitik. Lyndon Johnson's classic quote - "If we could send a man to the Moon, we knew we should be able to send a poor boy to school and provide decent medical care for the aged" - is answered: "so how many teachers would $100 billion pay for?"

Yet Smith's last, slightly desperate, bid to justify this "most immaculate folly" fails on its own terms. He sees the missions as a piece of performance art, a "unique opportunity to look at ourselves, as primitive as song" (and, in any case, much cheaper than the Vietnam war). If this was John Kennedy's attempt to "capture the global imagination", Bush's revival of interplanetary ambition - returning to the moon by 2015, going to Mars in 2020 - will be yet another capture, perhaps first and foremost of the patriotic energies of Red-state Americans.

In the short term, there is more than enough critical thinking to be done about space, beyond whether we need to plant flags on barren planets. Should Europe's more peaceful and research-based traditions keep their distance from the neo-cons and their dream of total global surveillance? Should our emphasis be entirely on advances in robotics and artificial intelligence, so removing humans, the "Spam from the can", from space exploration for good?

Edgar Mitchell, most profound of the Apollo walkers, puts it best when asked if the dream of living on other planets is dead. "We've got to solve the problems on this planet, then we're more ready to go. We can take something good with us instead of our brand of insanity." Despite his intrusiveness, Smith lets enough of the right stuff come through.

Pat Kane's 'The Play Ethic' is published by Macmillan

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