Astronauts' tale grounded

August 21, 2005|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff



By Andrew Smith. 4th Estate. 372 pages.

So Discovery finally clawed its way into space, only to find its lethal problem with falling debris still unresolved. Astronauts had to pluck loose stuffing from the shuttle's belly before they could come home. And, on landing, their dwindling fleet of 20-year-old spaceships was grounded. Again.

Americans old enough to remember the heady, heroic days of Armstrong and Aldrin, Apollo and the Sea of Tranquillity, must wonder where the nation's glorious manned space program jumped the tracks.

In Andrew Smith's bittersweet book in search of the nine living Apollo spacemen who walked on the moon, someone observes that the race to the moon seems now like "a decade from the twenty-first century transported to the twentieth."

Incredibly, from today's more risk-averse perspective, NASA between 1969 and 1972 landed 12 men on the moon -- on the moon! And they did it with landing radar that quit, balky 36K computers, with no life insurance and what crews calculated was a 50-50 chance of returning. And, despite terrifying close calls, everybody made it home safely.

Those space-faring heroes are old men now, in their 70s mostly. Nobody has followed in their bootprints, and George W. Bush's boldly stated lunar ambitions come with a payment plan deferred beyond his watch.

With time closing in, Smith, a British newspaper feature writer, set out to ask the surviving lunar astronauts what it all meant. What did they think about as they looked up at the Earth? How did it change them? Are they disappointed, or angry that their trail has gone cold, that NASA since Apollo has been stuck in low Earth orbit? Was it worth the risks, and the toll celebrity took on their lives?

This is a very personal account of Smith's quest, a road-trip book that he narrates as he buttonholes the former astronauts at business meetings and autograph tables at Star Trek conventions, or visits with them in their comfortable living rooms and plush offices. He stirs in the geopolitical context of the 1960s that produced the moon race, and the popular culture of the day that made them and their families unwilling celebrities.

Most divorced, their marriages victimized by long separations during training, missions and publicity tours; by alcohol, groupies and egos.

Neil Armstrong divorced, became an engineering professor and a near-recluse. Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin "came back and blew like a supernova," Smith says, divorcing, sinking into depression and alcohol before righting himself.

Others bloomed in unexpected ways. Edgar Mitchell, sixth on the moon, experienced an "epiphany" on the ride back, divorced and founded an organization devoted to the mystical and paranormal. Apollo 12's Alan Bean divorced, turned to art and has been happily painting -- and selling -- lunar scenes ever since. Some, such as Gene Cernan, still live off their lunar celebrity.

Like the moon missions, Smith's book is flawed -- too much Smith, too little astronaut. Too many of the old test pilots in his brief interviews are unwilling or incapable of confessing their personal feelings about their lunar experiences or their lives since. Some, like Arm-strong, never really consent to talk.

His narrative can be a wild mouse ride -- lurching at one point from Greek mythology, to his drive to meet Apollo 16 moonwalker Charlie Duke, to an interview with Ald-rin's son, to Duke's house, to NASA's injustices to women, to Apollo toilet procedures, to the difficulties of astronauts' wives and kids, and finally back to Duke's place.

Sometimes his prose just crashes and burns: "[I] am drawn back to a question I left lying like a discarded fag end in the Mohave desert sand ..."

There are better moments. Cernan acknowledges the difficulty of finding a terrestrial career path after a trip to the moon. "Let me tell you," he says, "when you've seen the Earth from the moon, staying home isn't good enough." David Scott recalls waking up in Apollo 15's lunar lander and suddenly realizing, "Oh, my God, we're on the Moon!"

But ultimately, Moondust promises more insight and candor from the moon men than Smith can deliver, leaving space fans as unfulfilled as the astronauts, who thought their risks, triumphs and sacrifices had blazed a trail that others would soon follow.

Readers may be better off with the astronauts' own accounts, told in books such as Gene Cernan's The Last Man on the Moon, or Andrew Chaikin's A Man on the Moon, based on hundreds of hours of interviews with Apollo crews.

Frank D. Roylance Covers Science and Nasa for the Sun.

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