For people who grew up during the Apollo program and manned missions to the Moon, Andrew Smith’s Moondust 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 — a 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.
Although subtitled In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth, the book could more accurately be described as “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. He circles around and looks at all sorts of different aspects of the subject of a particular chapter before getting to the heart of what he promises at the beginning of a 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 variety 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.
[President John] Kennedy had turned to his advisers and wailed, “What can we beat the Russians at?” and if someone had cried, “Backgammon!” at that point, Apollo would never have happened.
Andrew Smith, Moondust